A few years ago I decided to change course in life. After many years of running my own business, I felt I was better off doing what I had always wanted to do, and what I was good at doing, namely, writing. I knew I required some skills and reorientation and so became a student once again. I was older than most of my teachers by that time, but it didn’t faze either me or them. They were teaching, I was studying, and that was that.
It didn’t faze my husband either, that I was going to leave him for an extended period of time, and that he was going to be in sole charge of our children and parents. It was only much later that I realized how unusual my decision had been. But at the time, I had derived inspiration from my father, who chose to pursue academics when his children were in their teens, disrupting the existing order and yet retaining harmony, and from a woman friend who was single and had given up a career to study further and plunged back into a life of struggle. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?
I didn’t realize how deluded I was to believe that what I was doing was normal. I took a long time to join the program, delaying it by a year as I took stock of my business and other commitments. In that time many women implored me not to change my mind. I was becoming a bit of a role model for them. If I could do what I was doing, so could they. I found myself in the position of a torchbearer somewhat unexpectedly.
I was delighted and dismayed at the same time, delighted that I had the opportunity to do something different with my life, dismayed that so many others like me hadn’t. Even women professors in my department in the US asked me how I could manage to leave my family behind for such a long stretch of time. It was always on the tip of my tongue to retort that just as they managed, or their male colleagues managed. But that would have been a naïve answer. They only went on sabbaticals if they were single, or if they didn’t have children and their partners were also going to be away for some time. And equating my situation with any man’s was simply juvenile.
And that’s the fundamental difference between the sexes. A man knows he can do, while a woman believes she cannot. She needs support, reassurance, help and a large dose of self-belief to venture into unmapped territory. And doing things for oneself falls in the category of unmapped territory. Women, when they indulge their desires, do so on the sly, unless these desires are accepted by society. So shopping and lunching with women friends are indulgences that are whole-heartedly endorsed by the environment. But going on a professional trek in the Himalayas needs a whole bucketful of affirmation and acceptance, except if you are single and sometimes, not even then.
Is this ever going to change? Does one always have to rebel to do what one likes? There is no answer. Women still need to pussyfoot around their desires, in the bedroom or out in the world. The good news is that humankind is progressing on all fronts including gender equality. A hundred and fifty years ago, Savitribai Phule was known as a social reformer for starting schools for girls. Today, schools for girls are no news at all. Change happens, but its infinitesimal pace can be infuriating. So until we can leave everything to ‘go find ourselves’, we will have to take baby steps towards our own liberation.
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