A cousin once came to stay with us for an year to complete her studies. She was doing a unit on politics in the Pacific, took Japanese language classes in the evenings and wrote poetry. To the 13-year old me, she was the coolest person I knew. Her poetry had rubbed off on me and I would spend hours at night reading my dabbling out loud to her. An year later, she moved back home and the last I heard of her was that she got married to a fellow in the interiors of Tavua, couple of months after moving back.
Some 17 years later, I found myself sitting next to her at my grandmother’s funeral this January. We both didn’t say much but the silence between us spoke volumes. Her marriage was arranged into a rural extended family household and in between playing a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, her politics education and Japanese lessons have never been used. That morning, I would occasionally glance at her sun-bleached hair probably from doing outdoor farm chores and she would stare at my unchapped ringless fingers. Our eyes brimming with questions. I wanted to know why she didn’t fight back and she probably wanted to know how and why was I still fighting?
We both come from a family where girls are raised to be good. To be good Indian girls. The quintessential Bollywood heroine has changed with time evolving the standard desi girl portfolio. Many bold and women filmmakers are now backing female eccentric scripts and women’s liberation stories like Queen in mainstream media that it’s easy to perceive that ‘good Indian girls’ is a thing of the past. Something that died down when they made dowry illegal and completely out when Kalpana Chawla floated in space. But it’s alive. Very much so.
I often jibe about the ‘good Indian girl’ on this blog, on my other social sites and many might mistake this as witticism. After all, young Indian women are now running elections, flying airbuses and managing corporates therefore good Indian girls must be a joke of the past, right? Wrong.
The good Indian girl is someone who learns, follows and accepts the following conditions as her inheritance from her parents.
THE GOOD INDIAN GIRL
- HOME. From the moment you are born, you are a guest. No matter how tight a relationship you may form with every member of your family or how deep you anchor your roots, you are expected to leave one day. To your rightful home. Your husband’s home.
- YOUR HUSBAND’S HOME. aka your sasural. Your bearings will be set soon enough and eventually everything you do will be oriented towards your sasural. You will never be taught to bake a red velvet cake for yourself; to be enjoyed with brewed coffee over a leisurely Sunday however your entire teenage life will revolve around gola rotis. Watch the fantastic video above about sasurals, gola rotis and no drinking!
- THE SONS. Sons are not guests. They are the rightful heir to your parent’s home and therefore the rules applicable to you, don’t to them. Since they are born with penises between their legs, they have the freedom to go and come as they wish and are allowed to do things because ‘ladka log ke baat alag rahe‘.
- IN THE MAKING. Your behavior, your opinions, dressing style, the way you fart will have a direct effect on your husband’s family. God forbid you have a loud laugh. What will people in your sasural say?
- STEPPING OUT. It’s 2014. Of course Indian girls can pursue whatever career they want, lobby and speak out for whatever initiatives they pledge for and drink up as many margaritas as they can serve up. But the moment you leave your parents home, you are to leave all that at the doorstep and embrace a new dwelling, full of people you don’t know as your home and family. Your bearings were set long ago for this ultimate destination and everything you were taught as a guest will now finally be put to practice. For the rest of your life.
And this is how every girl in my family has been raised. This is how I was raised. This is how most desi girls are raised. During an interview PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi spoke about her family’s reaction to her moving up the ranks.
And she said to me, “let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don’t bring it into the house…”
This may be the year 2014 but whether it’s back in the motherland or anywhere else the Indian diaspora has settled, desi girls are still raised to be second. In 2014, we are still raising and nurturing the good girls. To whom we are teaching that one day they will have to move out of our homes and have their entire existence revolve around their husband and his household. And eventually make and train more good girls just like themselves. As archaic as this sounds, this still is one of the grey truths about desi communities today.
A Hindi folklore song “Charkha Chalati Maa” sung from a daughter’s perspective asking her mother why she has palaces and jewels kept aside for her son and banishment from home for her.
I often think about the morning of my grandmother’s funeral and the questions that went unanswered. And if I were to answer my cousin that morning, this is what I would have told her…
That I have stood on wedding days and seen girl after girl in our family getting married and sent away. I might have stood in judgement then but today I understand. I understand that why you didn’t fight. Didn’t fight for your Japanese career, for your poetry publication, for your identity. Because the fight was just too big. Our society is so intricately weaved with this thought of girls as property to be deposed of, you probably didn’t know where to begin. I now also understand the irony of it all. That it is our very mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers who keep churning this thought alive, century after century. Men and patriarchy just simply slot themselves in-between the gaps we’ve been creating ourselves.
My mother and I have put behind us some very difficult years. She was raised a good girl and she knew no different. My twenties wasn’t spent around parties and friends and good times. It was spent around working long hours, stumbling, griping in a man’s world and fighting. Fighting against things mum taught me to be. But I think at the end of it, it was Suruj who evolved out of that more. Somewhere along the way, she realized that I could be so much more that just good. I could be bold, my work could make a difference, that I could be happily unmarried at 30 and still make perfect round rotis!
I would have also told my cousin that morning of how lonely it has become. Most friends, colleagues, cousins are now married. Over the years, I have steadily slipped down everyone’s priority lists and actually on purpose avoid them to escape their badgers. For me the problem is not with the institution of marriage but against redefining ourselves for a spouse. Not being able to be me is more scarier than not being married. It’s lonely trying to be who you really want to be, forget being loved for it. The only advice I’ve gotten for that, is to be a good girl and get married!
You know what else I would’ve told my cousin? That there’s nothing wrong with being a good Indian girl. I know many friends who are content in their sasurals with their husbands and their extended families. But I want her to teach her daughter to be more than just good. To tell her, that home is where her heart is and till such a time she finds her heart, your house will always be her home. And that I want her to look into her daughter’s eyes everyday and tell her that she is just as important as her brother.