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In a town where young women get married off easily, I fought for a chance- a chance to an education, a chance to rise above my circumstances, a chance to fly.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Lalitha Ramanathan is one of the winners for the October 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Himanjali Sankar commented, “A story that tells us how we must decide how we want to define ourselves as feminists and the trajectory doesn’t have to be the same for everyone – a simple message but perhaps an important one. The strength of this story is in how, despite experiences that confuse her, the narrator never loses her conviction in her own way of looking at life and arrives at conclusions that are important for all of us.”
Mithila took a deep breath as she stood in front of her new hostel. Her dreams were finally coming true. She, a girl from a small town, had managed to make it this far to a reputed college, in a big city, away from home. She felt a lump forming in her throat.
It hadn’t been easy. There had been hurdles at each step. But her Amma had stood firmly behind her, stating that her daughter would do what she couldn’t. Her vision had been simple. Get a degree, graduate, and get a good job.
Mithila recalled the moment she had known that she had gotten admission after clearing her entrance exams. She had rushed to her mother to tell her the good news, and they had shared a moment. A moment of validation. Of redemption. Of trepidation for the long road ahead.
She had made it this far. She would be fine. At least that’s what she told herself.
Classes would start in a few days. Mithila had arrived early to unpack and settle into the hostel. The room allotted to her was number 203. She would be sharing it with another roommate. She trudged along, carrying her bags.
The door of 203 was opened by a girl with chic short hair streaked in multiple hues. She appeared effortlessly fashionable. Mithila felt conscious. She had worn a loose-fitting salwar kameez, with long hair tied up in pigtails.
“Hi, I’m Ria! Welcome!”
Mithila looked around the room. Ria had already put up posters in their room.
‘Girls rule the world!’ ‘Feminist in the house!’
She gazed at the posters with wide eyes. Ria followed her gaze. “I am a true-blue no-nonsense feminist. I believe in empowering women. We should have the freedom to live our lives without judgment!”
“That’s inspiring!” Mithila exclaimed.
“You can hang out with me! But you need a makeover first! Now that you are here, you don’t have to dress like a Behenji!”
Mithila was a little taken aback but nodded reluctantly. She didn’t particularly like the idea of a makeover, but she was eager to make new friends. She was excited to explore this whole new world.
Mithila got busy with her studies. She realized that she had so much to catch up on. Ria had formed her clique of friends. By virtue of association, she got included in this exclusive gang. They seemed to have adopted her into their fold with panache.
“Stop dressing like an Aunty! Try something modern like shorts or ripped jeans.”
“Avoid those nerds! People will assume you aren’t cool if you hang out with them.”
“Break the rules!”
Mithila fumbled along. Some of these things truly made her uncomfortable. She just wished they would let her be.
The following week, Ria cornered her.
“We are attending a party tonight. Come along!”
Mithila sighed. She wanted to spend a quiet evening going through her books and writing letters to her family. Even though she had a mobile phone, nothing beat the joy of an old-fashioned letter.
Did Amma visit the doctor to monitor her blood pressure? Was her younger brother going to school every day? Did they repair the TV cable after the storm damaged it?
She agreed to attend the party. The letter would have to wait.
Ria cornered her. “What are you going to wear? Please don’t say, Kurta! Here- you can borrow my T-shirt and skirt.”
Mithila felt uncomfortable wearing the skirt. She kept pulling at it as it was quite short.
“It’s liberating to wear the clothes you want!” Ria nodded wisely.
But these aren’t the clothes I want.
“People should not judge women for the clothes they wear.”
But you judged me for wearing a kurta.
“There will be boys at the party!” Ria smirked.
I have other priorities.
“Let’s return late to the hostel and break a few rules,” Ria cried rebelliously.
They were at the party and an hour had passed. It was on the rooftop of one of the buildings on campus. There were many boys and girls gathered there, sipping from paper cups.
“Here! “Ria handed Mithila a paper cup. Mithila sniffed at it.
“What is this?”
“Don’t you drink? There is no shame…” droned on Ria.
Mithila wouldn’t touch a drop of it.
She knew that excess alcohol made people violent. She had seen it happen in her family. It was enough to turn her off for life. Others could drink it if they wanted. It was too painful for her.
When Ria wasn’t looking, she poured the contents of the cup into one of the potted plants dotting the terrace and hoped it wouldn’t die.
It was close to midnight, and there were no signs of the party getting over any time soon. Mithila felt suffocated. The cigarette fumes made her cough. It reminded her of the stove that emitted smoke at their home. She looked around for Ria, who seemed to have disappeared.
“She must be with her boyfriend!” someone sniggered.
Paper cups, cigarette butts, vomit. There were even a couple of broken flowerpots, the mud spilling out, oddly angled flowers with broken stems. And then because it was all so depressing, the overturned plastic chairs and food half-eaten on Styrofoam plates, she knew at that moment that she would have to make up her mind about it all. Did she want to be here?
“You left the party early!” Ria accused Mithila.
“Yes, I wanted to catch up on sleep. Lots to revise over the weekend.”
“I’m disappointed in you. Don’t you want to be cool and empowered? Why are you so scared? Such a goody-two-shoes!” Ria taunted Mithila.
Mithila kept silent.
“I’m wasting my time with you. You have a small-town mentality- a hundred years behind in thought. What would you know of feminism?”
That irked Mithila. A spark ignited in her. She burst out.
“I am not going to judge you for your preferences. You are free to live the life you want. But I request you to extend the same courtesy to me!
If feminism means wearing short clothes, drinking, smoking, hating men, and breaking rules, then perhaps I am no feminist. If you are comfortable with some of those things, that is fine. But not wanting to do any of those? That’s OK too!
Do you know who is a feminist? My mother. I come from a family where the birth of a girl is not an event that is celebrated. Amma fought to bring me into this world.
In a town where young women get married off easily, I fought for a chance- a chance to an education, a chance to rise above my circumstances, a chance to fly. Thanks to the few people who believed in me, I am here today. I really can’t let them down.
Breaking rules is exciting. But is that the only definition of empowerment? I am empowered in knowing that I am comfortable in my skin, working hard towards my dreams, building a career of my choice, living life on my terms, and not judging anyone for the life they choose. I can do any of the things you ask me to, but I choose not to. And that doesn’t make me any less of a feminist or a person!”
Ria was rendered speechless. This was the longest Mithila had spoken so far.
“Now if you will excuse me, I have a letter to write.”
As Mithila sat on the writing table, her eyes fell on Ria’s posters. Girls Rule the World. Indeed!
Image source: a still from the series Amhi Doghi
Lalitha is a blogger and a dreamer. Her career is in finance, but writing is her way to unwind! Her little one is the center of her Universe. read more...
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