My Freedom Rests In My Mind, Safe And Sound
We asked our columnist Mallika Nawal, a “young empowered” Indian woman of the 21st century, to tell her story. Here it is. Read it. And be angry. Very angry.
Episode One: 2015 A fine Sunday morning. I pranced into my father’s bedroom where he sat, completely absorbed in the morning newspaper. My spirited entrance, however, was enough to break the spell and he looked at me, expectantly. Tilting my head like a small child, I asked, rather curiously, “Dad, which temple did you visit for your mannat (wish)?”
My dad, who’s spiritual but not exactly religious, stared at me blankly, “Temple, what temple…mannat…What are you talking about?”
“Oh, come on Dad. A daughter like me isn’t born minus a mannat,” I responded, as I turned around and left before he had a chance to respond.
Even from a distance, the ensuing laughter sounded genuine.
Episode Two: 2015
Another fine morning. Dad was reclining on the bed (in sleeping lion posture) and enjoying his fifth cup of morning tea. I was playing with my dog at the foot of his bed when I sat up abruptly.
He looked at me, wondering what had caused this break from the customary human-canine playtime.
I looked at him and squealed in delight, “My god Dad, you’re so lucky!”
With one raised eyebrow, he eyed me with trepidation and asked, “Why am I lucky?”
“Because you have been blessed with such an obedient daughter. I have done everything you have ever asked me to.”
My father looked at me rather indulgently, a broad smile playing on his lips, “Yes…In your dreams.”
(Those three words were enough to get me grinning like a Cheshire cat.)
Episode Three: 2015
A fine Tuesday afternoon. My dad’s best friend was visiting. Being a veteran journalist (he had just retired as Bureau Chief of a major national newspaper), he firmly believed that he was well-versed with each of our personalities, especially since he had known me and my brother since we went around in diapers.
Sitting in his usual spot, having his cup of tea, he congratulated my father, “Your daughter is such an angel.” My father, without batting an eyelid, responded, “Yes, and hell is just a sauna.”
(I almost died laughing.)
Let me spare a second to pay homage to the man who inspired this article’s opening—the Father of Indian Soap Operas and the sharp satirist—Manohar Shyam Joshi, whose book Netaji Kahin is currently tickling my funny bone.
If you haven’t guessed it by now, let me spell it out. My life’s no Broadway musical; It’s a soap opera, with classic cliffhangers and cliched melodrama. Of course, not that I am complaining—after all, I am the lovely leading lady.
And while similar to all leading ladies who have faced catastrophes and cataclysms, I am different, however, in one regard—I have neither played the damsel in distress nor have I waited for the knight in shining armour.
The Genesis of Cinderella
Was it nature or nurture? After all, I was born in a family with many strong female archetypes. My grandmother, though of small stature, was ruthless and fearsome. In a day and age when women hid behind veils, she was sporting skirts and firing guns. My aunts, who were married to strong men (erstwhile princes and present-day politicians), were stronger than their better halves. And while most girls were busy bathing their Barbies, I was busy helping my dad clean his double-barrels.
Of course, before you step forward to crown me “the emancipated girl child”, let me add that I was not just busy helping my father, but everyone else in my family too. This is because playing, in general and playing with Barbies, in particular, wasn’t allowed (Don’t ask me why though; the freedom to ask questions was conspicuously absent in our big house). I, however, was allowed to play Cinderella. Hence, I would spend my free time after school, mopping floors and cleaning dishes (sans the advantage of blaming it on a step-family). Why? Because I had dared to be a woman in a man’s world. And I was reminded of this every time I was given lessons in cooking, cleaning, knitting, singing, dancing, and lovemaking—I would make a good wife to a good man.
However, with my grandfather’s demise, the joint family network collapsed. And that was the beginning of the end of servitude.
My parents were liberals. They believed in neither the superiority of the XY chromosome nor the inferiority of the XX chromosome. Hence, for the first time…in a long time, I wasn’t cooped up in my gilded cage. The world was beckoning and I was home-free.
The Bachelorette from Bihar
Every boy/ girl from small towns dream of a taste of freedom. And here was I, all alone in an Alien City. A dream come true—or so I thought!
The dream transformed into a nightmare as soon I started house-hunting. I was naive. After all, the last time I had checked, I was still living in a democracy that came with a constitutionally protected right to equality—or so, I thought!
I was introduced to a new form of bigotry—one was reserved for the bachelorette from Bihar. You see, they hate renting to Biharis. And they hate renting to bachelorettes. This was a double strike! And while I could have lied about being a Bihari (after all, I didn’t look or sound like one), but dressing up like a drag queen or getting married for the sole purpose of renting an apartment somehow didn’t appeal to me. I did, in the end, manage to find an apartment—after agreeing to pay the gender tax (I have no complaints though; after all, fair rent is not applicable to the fair sex). That’s right, if you’re a single woman in India looking to rent an apartment, you must always be ready to pay the price for possessing a uterus. A lesson learnt well!
Kinder, Küche, Kirche
Once I had fulfilled the two basic needs from Maslow’s hierarchy, it was time to focus on being the breadwinner for my family. However, what I had not anticipated was that it wasn’t a daughter’s duty to become the provider. And the Third Reich might as well have been alive and kicking, as its 3 Ks of “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (Children, Kitchen, Church), still hounding single women (including me) across the world.
As dreaded Father Time pottered along, people were in panic. This is the list (I wonder how many of them sound familiar to you):
• What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you getting married?
• When will you “settle down”? All your friends are now married with kids! • Your body clock is ticking (Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock…)
• What??!! You don’t want children! What kind of women don’t want children?
• You must be loose—are you sleeping with Tom, Dick and Harry?
• Are you not marrying because of that boy you had a crush on in school?
• You must have a mental problem. You must see a psychiatrist.
• You must get married. Else you’ll get breast cancer, uterine cancer, vaginal cancer, blah, blah, blah…
• Who will take care of you when you’re old and unwell?
• Your parents deserve to see their “grandchildren” How can you be so selfish?
As a single woman living amongst a procreatively-preoccupied patriarchal population, it was often difficult to maintain my sanity (then again, it probably helped that I was already considered to be out of my mind—after all, “no action leads to a mental inaction”).
Is Filly Looking for a Willy?
It is a truth universally acknowledged (deep bows to Jane Austen) that a single woman in the absence of a mate must be in want of a “Billy with a willy”. This stereotyping of bachelorettes as sexy sirens who are ever-ready to turn into promiscuous predators is one that I have faced on a daily basis. Hence, being asked out and saying “no” to unwanted advances became daily routine. However, that seemed to become my undoing. Since I kept saying “no” to male colleagues, it was assumed that I was interested only in the fairer sex. So unfair!
I blamed it on the modern corporate culture that wasn’t employing cultured colleagues. And I decided to exercise my right to complain—and with a simple click of a button.
Opening the Pandora’s Box
There is only one thing worse than harassment, and that is complaining about the “alleged” harassment. That was my first mistake. After all, the R.K. Pachauris of the world always manage to go scot-free, while the damsel lands in further distress. And this was the case, as I battled one of the biggest and the most respected names in corporate India.
So strong was their penchant to teach the inconsequential little girl a lesson, that I was lulled into a false sense of security and was meticulously manoeuvred into retracting my resignation. That would be my last mistake. And thus followed a nine month-long nightmare of disciplinary proceedings and showcause notices (at the hand of the very man I had previously complained against…yeah, it happens only in India), where every morning began with blues and abuse.
You know the funniest part? I never ever thought that being associated with IIT Kharagpur could actually attract disciplinary action.
As Sure as Hell
My naivety attracted a warm smile from my mentor, the former Dean of IIT Kharagpur as we discussed my ordeal (after it was over). “You know,” he said, “I already knew it would happen…which is why I wanted you to go through with it.”
I was aghast, but instead of speaking, I watched him intently as he took a sip of his Earl Grey tea. He remained unperturbed, as he eyed me over the cup, “You remember what Amir Khusro said of Kashmir.”
Almost verbatim, I recited the couplet, “Agar firdaus baroye zameen ast, hami asto, hami asto, hami ast (If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here).”
“Replace Kashmir with Corporate and paradise with hell…what do you have?”
“If there’s hell on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here,” I said silently, as I vowed never to venture back into corporate India.
The Witch Hunt Continues
A year had gone past. I was hell bent on letting bygones be bygones. After all, I wasn’t one to dwell on the past, when the future was calling. I was now set to join academia, the one place where I would stay safe. The one place where I would be treated with respect. The one place where I wouldn’t have to hear that girls like me were standing on the streets (That’s right. That comment came from Corporate). I was joining a leading business school as a teacher.
I was happy, excited, ecstatic…I was fired. (Oh wait, I would have to actually join first in order to get fired.) Confused? Let me explain. You see, on the very first day of joining, the management politely informed me that I wasn’t welcome (despite having traveled with bag and baggage). Why? Simple! Because the Corporate Giant was a placement partner; it hired from the school and was a coveted recruiter. The business school couldn’t risk irking one of its biggest placement clients. (In all fairness, the guys who ran the b-school were probably thinking of their students. Can’t blame them for not having a backbone now, can I?)
A Brand New Promise
Dejected and desperate, I decided to play the “missionary” card. And before you overactive imagination starts conjuring up missionary positions, let me set the record straight. I am a product of a pretty famous convent school (it was time to drop names)—and the b-school where I was (un)employed was a Church-affiliated institution. So I dropped a mail to the priest and spoke of my affiliations to the nuns. And it worked like a charm!
The priest—short and sturdy—promised me the world. Guileless gal that I was, I readily believed him, not knowing that darkness was just a whisper away.
The birds of prey
Employment, in India, is a singularly grotesque transaction. In a single instant, the relationship between two people changes to one of employer and employee, owner and chattel. And that was the case everywhere, corporate or academia.
My cabin was located on the second floor, directly atop the director (banish those images, please), although, truth be told, it had been deliberately assigned to me, as I was informed later. Why? Well, he wanted me to reduce weight, you see. (Oh, don’t ask, who died and made him my personal trainer?)
Although, I was disquieted by his demeanour, I chose to blame it on my overactive imagination. After all, even my dad was younger than the priest. But soon he put all those concerns to rest. During the midst of a conversation, the old priest asked me (out of the blue), “How do you handle your sexual energies?”
As I struggled with words and grappled with coherence, he abruptly changed the topic and proceeded to discuss the faulty faculty.
Failing to find a rational rationale for his surprising stupidity, I voted in favour of ignorance. Although to be honest, I knew what ailed him and what could cure him: three tablespoons a day of Holy Gangajal for his moral deficiency. But I chose to stay mum. After all, why rock the boat when there were alligators in the water?
However, that reproof was soon going to cost me my job! As if on cue and to keep alive the meaning of the idiom—“birds of a feather flock together”—the priest (from College) and the perpetrator (from Corporate) got together and decided to exorcize the witch again. Deja vu!
The Law of the Land
Backed into a corner, I had had just about enough! With law on my side, I hired the best lawyers—a Bar Council Chairman and a Bar Association President—to fight the good fight. Sadly, when it comes to the law, it is not just a toothless old hag, it is a courtesan of only the rich and powerful. Unfortunately, I was neither rich nor powerful. Just an ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation. What no one believes is how for three years straight, the court denied me a single date. That’s right, not even a date…and then suddenly out of nowhere, at the behest of the defendants, the court dismisses the case ex-parte for non-prosecution, that too on a day, when all lawyers were on a strike.
This ridiculous travesty of justice! I decided to knock on the door of the apex court.
A senior Supreme Court lawyer stopped dead in his tracks as he perused the relevant documents.
“Has no court heard this matter?” he enquired, his eyes wide.
“No, they are still debating jurisdiction,” I responded.
“But they broke their own rules. Moreover, you have three documents to support your assertion. They have none,” he argued.
“I know,” I said, as I slowly counted to 100.
He shook his head as he asked me to sign another affidavit. His words, however, had given me a ray of hope. What if the apex court decided to set things right again. However, hope is a dangerous illness that one should keep away from those hallowed halls. For as with all things legal, the case was kicked—yet again—to the subordinate court…where it still lies in waiting…for a date.
I am the literal embodiment of the hit song, “I get knocked down but I get up again…You’re never going to keep me down.” Failures do not break me for I am the metaphorical battering ram—the door will just have to finally give in.
You must have heard, when life gives you lemon, make lemonade. Well, I not only believe that heartily, I take it several steps further. “When life gives you lemon, don’t just make lemonade…make lemon meringue pie…make lemon tart…make lemon chiffon cake…make lemon liqueur…make lemon vinaigrette…make lemon pickle…Then set up shop and make your millions.”
Hence, while the true story inspired me to turn novelist with my debut novel, I’m a Woman & I’m on SALE (after all, writing is catharsis), it further inspired me to turn to the profession of law so that I could literally grab the bull by its horns. And in time, become the protector of hapless, helpless and hopeless women. After all, in the words of Dante, the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. And I, for one, cannot go to hell—my grandmother will only make me clean the oil-pots and the chains and whips…
So, what does it mean to be a liberated woman in 21st century India? To be perfectly honest, it does not imply sexual promiscuity or wearing skimpy clothes or pub hopping or wild orgies; being a liberated woman simply means…being yourself—unapologetically. And maybe it was genetics after all—maybe I was born to be the hero, and not the heroine!
So, am I the liberated woman?!
You bet I am. For my freedom nests in my mind—safe and sound!
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