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It was only after I grew older did I realize that it was not Simran that my father connected with, but Chowdhury Baldev Singh, Simran’s traditional and controlling father.
I am pleased with the reflection I see in the mirror; I will cut a happy picture at the party.
You must be wondering, what a narcissistic person I must be. Relax, I am just happy with the way I am, it’s what the world calls self-love; very essential for your confidence and who knows that better than me.
Sorry folks forgot to introduce myself, I am Simran.
I can see those smiles on your faces, stop at that, don’t ask me that annoying question, I don’t find it one bit funny. I don’t know where Raj is, neither am I interested in finding him. But I can’t say the same for the rest of my family.
The saga of Simran and Raj hit the silver screen when I was five, and like most Indian families living in New Jersey, we headed to watch the movie at a movie hall in our neighbourhood on a weekend afternoon in November. While all that I found interesting were the songs and the clothes that my namesake wore on screen.
I could see my parents immersed in the movie, particularly my father. I remember him shedding tears through most of the movie. For many years after this movie outing, I thought my father had become so emotional, because the protagonist shared my name, and that made him connect with her more.
It was only after I grew older did I realize that it was not Simran that my father connected with, but Chowdhury Baldev Singh, Simran’s overbearing and controlling father.
Every time I have re-watched that movie over the years, my belief has only strengthened each time that Baldev Singh and my father were long-lost brothers, probably even twins. The love and reverence, no I should correct myself the obsession that my father had towards his ‘khandaan’ and its honour, is every bit identical to the love Baldev Singh displayed for his ‘pind’.
While my father was every bit, Chowdhury Baldev Singh, my mother was no Lajjo, in fact for her being the perfect mother and bahu in the khandaan was extremely essential to her; it gave that one-upmanship over the other women, I guess. But over the years I have realized, it’s the only way she can ensure her husband stays happy, and that I can vouch is very important for her.
So, to cut a long story short the khandaan’s approval and honour were always the yardsticks I was expected to measure up to all my life. This meant that even though my formative years were spent in New Jersey, I have very little experience to share which my peers there would relate to.
I had a strictly monitored schedule, with a major portion of my time accorded to academics. The evenings and weekends would be consumed with Hindustani classical music classes, embroidery classes, and shloka classes conducted at the local temple. I do not resent all those classes, in fact, I enjoyed some of them, but I felt left out among my classmates.
I was hardly permitted to go on playdates, and night outs were out of the question. There were strict guidelines where my clothes were concerned. The fear was lest all this fashion got into my head, and then what would the khandaan say? It was this fear, which led to my father deciding to move back to India soon after I turned 12. The other girls around spoke up, questioned, and made their decisions, not the traits a supposed ‘good khandani’ girl ought to have. But the biggest fear that resulted in the decision was “what if I found a boyfriend?”
I did not have many issues adjusting to life in India, I had led a monitored life there and it was the same here. There were a lot of girls around me in India who led similar lives, so at least I did not feel entirely out of place. But the scrutiny and judgment by my extended family only increased. I had strict curfew times, could not be seen loafing around in public places or restaurants, and wearing anything other than salwar kameez was out of the way. If I wanted to try anything new all I would hear was, “What are the relatives going to say?”
To speak the uncensored truth, I was living the khandaan’s vision of the life I ought to live, my approval or opinions were of no concern. I immersed myself in academics because it helped me take my mind off my nosy relatives and the relentless control they had over my life. My academic laurels made my parents proud and they encouraged me, surprisingly even going against the nosy extended family when I decided to pursue an MBA. The journey after that was not easy though. I was placed in the marketing team of a fashion retail brand after completing my MBA.
Life as a working professional ought to have been exciting; wasn’t it a new chapter in life I had worked hard for? But it did not work out that way.
Though colleagues at work were welcoming towards me and helped me settle down, I could never connect with them. I wasn’t too close with the people at work for these very reasons. They would all make plans to go out somewhere after work. To decompress, they called it. To have fun. I had to come back home so that my parents didn’t worry about anything untoward happening to me. But it was more to satisfy the wagging tongues of the many aunties in the family who were appalled that my parents were ‘letting me work’ instead of getting me married.
So, my parents who had supported my dreams and ambitions this far had developed cold feet and decided to please those aunties, and started looking for marriage alliances for me. I wasn’t happy about their decision and neither was I prepared to get married, but when had my opinion ever mattered?
I met Sunil through one of those over concerned aunties in the family. To be honest, I must say our families met, because I don’t have any memories of meeting Sunil alone without an entourage. The day before the meet was to happen, I was warned by the aunty co-ordinating it that I was not to appear too smart, not to act like a snob, and must appear demure and sanskaari. In short, I was to keep my mouth shut and gaze down.
“You are overqualified, no boy wants a girl who is too smart for him. Sunil and his family have been so accommodating, don’t spoil it now by questioning foolishly,” the aunty had admonished me when I had wanted to know about Sunil’s academic background and work. I was taken aback; this was supposed to be about a lifelong alliance and my wanting to know about the man I was expected to marry was being termed foolishness. What started on a negative note only spiralled further downward.
Sunil worked in his family business and by his own admission had managed to complete graduation with a lot of effort. Nobody was interested in knowing about my work, academic qualifications, or interests. I was asked routine questions about my culinary skills, housekeeping, and hosting skills. Yes, it was a family which loved socializing, and that was the reason they had chosen me, a qualified bahu would “look good in the social circles”, those words appalled me, but strangely nobody else from my family took offence.
“But you must learn to dress better, I will not stand you coming out with me in all these boring clothes and pull some weight down, appearance matters.” Those were some of the first words Sunil spoke to me. I was hurt, and sceptical of going ahead with the wedding, but nobody bothered to ask me. He was the potential groom and a boy from a wealthy family so everything he or his family said was acceptable to my family.
The days that followed the meeting with Sunil, were ones of extreme mental turmoil. I could increasingly figure out each day that it was not me that Sunil wanted to marry, it was a trophy wife that Sunil wanted, and I was being forced to become that trophy.
One Friday evening when my colleagues invited me for a night out, I agreed almost instantly, I needed that break. But all hell broke loose the next day.
Sunil’s cousin had seen me at the club with my colleagues. I was berated for acting so restlessly. My parents were fuming and the extended family only added fuel to the fire telling them this was all a result of their excessive freedom.
“But didn’t Sunil want a wife who enjoyed partying and socializing, so what is the trouble? I am only being the modern woman he wanted me to be!” I told Sunil’s parents when they dared to question me, and then they character assassinated me. The result was obvious, that was the end of the wedding plans.
Unlike my family I wanted to celebrate. The double standards and hypocrisy had been nauseating and I was happy to have been saved. But this experience also made me a changed person, one who decided not to give a damn to the world.
Today, it has been three years since I started my own, inclusive fashion label. My aim is at ensuring no girl has to hear, “cut down on that weight” as her first dictate to appear fashionable. Today I was honoured by the Women Entrepreneurs Guild for the healthy revolution in the fashion industry my brand has been creating. The party is being hosted by my mother in my honour.
As I climb down the staircase, I can see a good number of my relatives assembled. “Simran beta, award, and all good work keep it up. But you know, you should be getting married and enjoying yourself. Go on exotic vacations, have a designer life, let your husband take care of you. Why put in all these troubles of running the business, travelling, and arranging funds for the business. Why endure all this stress?” Sonal aunty spoke with a sickly-sweet smile.
“I am enjoying myself, aunty, don’t worry. This Simran lives her life without seeking anyone’s permission.” I responded with a smile as I proceeded to cut the celebratory cake.
This story had been shortlisted for our March 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest.
Image source: a still from the short film Methi ke Laddoo
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