The Labels I Grew Up With

by Mallika Nawal - Oct 6, 2017 05:04 PM +05:30 IST
The Labels I Grew Up WithA young Indian couple take a ‘selfie’ on Marine Drive promenade in Mumbai. (INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)
  • This was the clever classification — if you did not have a boyfriend, you were dubbed “ugly”; and having one rendered you “characterless”.

Words are incredibly powerful weapons. Who amongst us has not felt both their warming glow and cold icy sting… or companionship and abandonment… or how majestically they make us soar to the greatest heights of paradise or how mindlessly they fling us into the deepest, darkest, recesses of hell? Words are incredibly powerful weapons. And in the hands of the master abuser, words become the precise instruments of psychological abuse. And without so much as lifting a finger, the words you use have the power to bring about the complete destruction of another human being. Words can be weapons of mass destruction.

However, before I begin this month’s piece (an extremely personal one at that), let me first announce what I haven’t announced to the rest of the world as yet: “I’m getting engaged!”

Well… I am not young… at least not by “Indian Societal Standards”, which is probably why my family got the biggest shock of their lives when they first got the news… a feat, nonetheless! — considering they are seldom shocked by anything I do. But… let’s reserve that for another time and another piece, for I am not here to regale you with their tales of insurmountable disbelief. In fact, some have still not recovered their power of speech (then again, good riddance, I say — for disarmament always is). Of course, that brings me back to the present: the curious case of words as weapons.

My family had a way with both words and weapons, and they knew how to use them well — or not so well (depending on your position vis a vis their respective words and/or weapons). Of course, although I never had to stare down the barrels of their guns, their words often found me an easy target. This is probably why, even though my decision to get married is one of the happiest decisions I have ever made, I can’t help but reminisce…

Name-calling and hurtful labelling, unfortunately, are a common phenomenon across families, and mine wasn’t any different. While we — my cousins and I — did not have to battle common labels like “idiot” or “duffer” (for we were intellectually gifted even though education wasn’t always our aphrodisiac), there were two peculiar but particular labels reserved for us girls that were both mandatory and mutually exclusive, post the attainment of puberty.

While to the little girls, these labels were not apparent immediately, a closer inspection of my family’s labelling of my two elder cousins (since I was only third in line in my race towards puberty from amongst us four sisters) soon opened my eyes to a weird tag that was inevitably going to wait for me on the other side of menstruation.

As if the pains of growing up wasn’t enough to put up with, my family had somehow devised a clever classification for chicks. While on the one hand, if you did not have a boyfriend or lover or beau, you were dubbed “ugly”; having one, on the other hand, inevitably rendered you “characterless”! (Note to the reader: I sometimes do wonder as to how my genius family came up with this ingenious classification.)

Of course, what my genius family did not realise in the process was that such labelling, even though inaccurate and imprecise, could actually result in a strange concoction of self-fulfilling prophecies, a phenomenon that has already been studied and substantially proved. Of course, it was one that I noticed much too late. In fact, in order to understand my dilemma, you would actually have to take a walk down my memory lane.

As you would have guessed already…predictably enough, my two post-pubescent cousin sisters had received their respective tags. The first was a hag; the second was a whore!.

Of course, witnessing the derogatory remarks that were invariably hurled at my scarlet sister (who ironically also had scarlet hair), I decided to go for an “un-whoresome” existence. Which is why I decided to shun boys completely and instead choose a life of celibacy. However, celibacy as a tag was not acceptable to my family, which is why, I too — just as my first sister got stuck with the “ugly” tag, one that I have been living and battling with ever since.

Of course, it is time that I let you in on a little secret. In a zeal — and possibly an attempt — to prove to myself that I wasn’t actually ugly, I did string along a string of men. (But, since my family remained blissfully ignorant, my old tag of an old hag remained intact.)

What I did not realise, however, in the process (thanks to my family’s penchant for name tags) was that unless one loved oneself, one was incapable of loving another. For, after all, if I was battling my own insecurities, how could I ever be expected to feel secure with another? And thus, what I did not realise in the process was that I had invariably allowed my family’s name tag to simply tag along.

And so my life has been thus far oscillating between these two tags, wondering which amongst the two actually applies to me. Then again, if only it were that simple. What’s worse is that in an attempt to discover the tag that would apply to me, I have also managed to fulfil the self-fulfilling prophecy. While on the one hand, I have spent years without sparing a single thought about a single man, I have also been deliriously debauched in the days of yore. Needless to say, those were not my shining moments (and nor do they represent my family’s shining moments).

Which is why, as I finally stand in the present, purged of my past insecurities — finally in love with my own self, I cannot wait to give life and love a second chance. A chance, where there will be no tags, no classifications, and no measurements. A chance that was denied to the child who deserved to live in a world of no labels. A chance that I hope is given to every man, woman and child across the world — the right to live a label-less life without being dubbed a “duffer”, a “fatso”, a “lazy bum”, a “brat”, and so on and so forth.

However, before I bid you adieu, can you now see the correlation? Can you imagine my quandary? Can you answer my simple question?

What was a young girl — growing up amongst a horde of insecurities — supposed to do, especially when she knew that she only had two labels to choose from? Was she supposed to date a string of men simply to prove that she was indeed pretty and desirable, while running the risk of being tagged a “whore” by her very own family? Or was she supposed to wait for Prince Charming who she knew would never come, given her hideousness? (Note: Of course, it’s simply a rhetorical question, now.) But I would like to say in the end, that even though I wasn’t Sophie, those were actually my only two choices!

Mallika Nawal is a professor-cum-author, about to complete her doctorate in marketing from IIT Kharagpur. She is the author of three management books which serve as prescribed textbooks in several universities across India. She has taught at premier institutes like IIT Kharagpur, and S. P. Jain Centre of Management, Dubai.
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