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A letter to a younger sister, that speaks about the need to understand what one wants to do in life, and not go by the script charted out by a patriarchal society.
It’s 3 A.M. now and you are in my thoughts. The downside of a fast paced, materialistic, adult urban life is, you have to manage with a punctured sleep. Sometimes, I wake up in the night well after 2 A.M. brooding and thinking. I check my mobile, I check remains of thoughts which clog my mind, which I could not look after in the humdrum of the day.
I hold a special place for you in my life for the sheer reason, that I saw you coming into this world since you occupied a place in your mother’s womb. You were almost like the first child I owned from a distance. I was well past my teens when you were born, so there was this grown-up feeling I had when I saw you.
Holding you in my arms, I felt sisterhood for the first time. I also felt motherhood as I tended to the little chores surrounding you, taking care of you, playing with you, going to walks with you, singing lullabies and feeding meals.
Today I feel very close to you. I feel we are far apart but are conjoined by my past and your future. When I rummage through my past, I find a lot to learn from my mistakes. I sometimes see it as a legacy that I should share with young girls, for we are growing in the same society, even if separated by the years, almost a generation apart – not much has changed drastically, though.
When I was young, medicine and engineering were the only two professions that were looked up to. It is still part of the mindset in middle class households. Our aunt has always been held up as an example, as she made it through the competition and secured a medical seat. As a child, I did not have many options in career choices, or what I would like to become. Bokaro, anyway, was a small city and I had limited horizons.
Progressive education, was and is always optional for most girls, even today. In the years I grew up, I saw girls confined to homes, tutored to become homemakers, learn cooking & etiquettes to keep the family united. Mine was a different home and I’m thankful to my father for turning me into the feisty lady I’m today.
Homemaking is not wrong till it is not gender defined. While we have throngs of women as homemakers, I’m yet to meet a boy who has voluntarily taken up this profession. Yes, I consider homemaking as a profession, as it takes hours like any other white/ blue collar job. Still it is unpaid and without any leaves, which means that the return is not in cash but in kind.
You and I are fortunate to grow up in a family where such traditional gender roles are not foisted on us. My father always held high expectations from me in the sphere of education. I never remembered him complaining that I’m an amateurish cook, or that I did not know sewing or tailoring. What he prided upon was whether I’m able to score in the school or not.
Yet, there is a big lacuna which I did not notice then in my growing up years and which I want to share with you. Like I mentioned before, the definitions of success are well defined in the middle class households. You become a doctor, an engineer, or a government servant. I wonder why we never gave an emphasis to our kids to become an artist, a playwright, an author, an activist, or a social advocate. Primarily because these roles do not insure a regular income, at least not in our circle.
Middle class households thrive on monthly salaries, to pay the bills, EMI’s, school fees, ration, and retirement fund. The budget is well decided, how much to spend and how much to save. The professions I mentioned are independent pursuits which may come with a lot of money or may not. It is precarious, and this is what middle class does not subscribe to.
As a child, I was unclear as to what were my interests, so I subscribed to my father’s view point. I studied hard to my best capacity, came to Delhi for coaching, spent 2 years to prepare for the entrance, cursed myself when I could not. Eventually I did not clear the medical entrance exams, and I’m still thankful for that stroke of bad luck turned good luck.
I got admission into Miranda House, Delhi University. I remember your father telling me to apply for Library Science since that was a profession I could make some income from. I enrolled into the college and saw a melee of the happiest girls on this earth. Hell! How can they be so happy? After all, they were not going to be doctors or engineers! Among the family, I was written off as a failure. My father did not talk to me for a complete month out of anger and disappointment, once he realized that I’m no longer interested in the medical preparations.
At Miranda House, I was exposed to a wide arena of cultures in the educational realm. There was philosophy, political science, arts, architecture, literature, and theater, which fanned my mind. However, the hard work of 18 years still enslaved my mind and I clung to securing an M.B.A to prove my mettle in the middle class society I lived in. “O.K. you are a failure but here is your second chance to claim that monthly salary and reputation which relies on profession and not mindful awareness.” I said this to myself often in silence, in introspection.
I was able to qualify for management, secure a degree, and earn my bread and butter. My father was happier this time and I felt happy for him. It’s been 10 years since then and I’ve made a daunting impact in my profession. I’m content with the work, fame, money, and other perks. But the creative being in me demanded more.
I remember an interest in childhood which had a serendipitous beginning. Reading. One of my father’s friends was a Hindi professor and he has this library in his home. As a kid, I used to visit his home and look with plain amazement towards the piles of books arranged meticulously on teak wood racks, nailed on the drawing room walls.
One day, out of curiosity, I took out a book, it was about Stalin. I was all of 13, so tender in age, like a mud clay. Those years, when you are supremely mouldable and can be shaped into any form at the mercy of your ceramist. Stalin was a Russian revolutionary and reading him, I imbibed a sense of power from him. There are these spiritual energies which remain even when the person is dead. You derive those values or evils when you connect to that person through any medium. Like, if you read Nehru or Gandhi or Bose or Vivekanand, you derive from their virtues. I derived from Stalin.
I feasted on that book, got exposed to how Stalin helped Russia come out of economic depression and made it a formidable power in world politics. I was enthralled by the power a man can have on an entire country. A universal power! I furthered my literary adventure and started bringing more and more books. The next was a compilation of stories from different countries and translated into Hindi ‘Vagarth’. There were 25+ authors whose short stories were compiled into a book. It was again marvellous. I then read Vivekanand, Bose, Dharamvir Bharati (Gunahon ka Devta) and Mujhe Chand Chahiye. I was all of 14 then.
Reading books cultivated my mind like a barren field is irrigated by monsoon rains. The sculpture was ready but, yet to be unveiled. It finally got to be, after 15 years. I have gone back to reading and writing. I have also become more aware of the people who have not pursued traditional roles of success but have defined new success from the creativity that stokes their soul.
Priya Tendulkar, Vijay Tendulkar, Nandita Das, Khalil Gibran, Khalid Hosseini, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Mira Nair, Smriti Irani are the names I can immediately recount. Most recently, Alankrita Shrivastava, director of ‘Lipstick under my Burkha’.
There is one more incident in my childhood, which gave me a subtle sign as to what I wanted to become in life, but I did not take that cue. There was a competition in public speaking on a social issue, and I came first in it, almost like a wild card entry, unsuspected yet affirmed. I went on stage, spoke with shivering nervousness but I liked the mike.
So I want to end this tale on this note – Do not subscribe to a particular meaning of success, simply because of its prominence, reference, and conformance. Success has multiple meanings, one that does not confine to a certain standard, a certain role. Figure out your hobbies, what it is that interests you other than studies. Think – if you can make a hobby as a career. If you do not have any hobbies, it’s time now to build some.
Lastly, be sensitive and aware of your social surroundings. Society is still patriarchal in the way it operates. What we women have got as rights was after a long history of struggle and sacrifices. So, do your bit towards social upliftment of women in whatever capacity you can. Just do not limit yourself to a definition of a doctor. You are much more than that. The world is your stage.
Published here earlier.
Image source: Flickr, for representational purposes only.
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Pallavi Barnwal is a proud single mother and a product of a small town upbringing
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