The month of September is when I was born. As a birthday month it is invariably a time for introspection, and also celebration. As I climb another notch on the graph after the curve at fifty, I wonder what it is that I wish to celebrate. It set me thinking.
I grew up in Mumbai (then called Bombay) and in New Delhi. Urban conglomerates, the cities imbibe and reflect change much faster than any other places in the country. They are cities that have periods and eras hidden in their folds. The pre-historic, the old, the changing and the changed all co-exist in their limits. It is a matter of luck in which part of the city you grow up.
For me, I think I was in the changing zone. Born to middle class parents, with a home maker mother and an elder sister, I studied in an English medium school. We lived in the railway colony, so I had access to the railway club, played badminton with the boys, learnt swimming, tried smoking and actually stole a few kisses in the stealth of the squash court of the club with someone I had a crush on. If my parents had known of my escapades then, they would have been aghast. However, like children in all days and ages, we were good at keeping secrets.
However, my parents too belonged to the changing generation. They stopped at two daughters. They did not mourn the absence of a son. They gave their daughters quality education, and my home maker mother instilled in us the idea that we had to work and earn our own living. They were willing to give us the chance to find our feet before they got us married. I was blessed to have them as parents.
Change also occurred in the five years between my sister and me. She went to an all girls’ college, while I walked into the portals of a co-educational college in Delhi University. Girls were in a minority in college, back then there were no hostel facilities for girls. College was a good training ground for lifelong learning on how to be in the world out there.
Along the way, I dabbled in the media, acted and hosted shows on television, and developed a passion for writing. However when we were out in the job market, the only coveted streams were public sector, medicine or engineering. The private sector was slowly catching on, while going abroad for higher education was out of reach for middle class kids like me. I still remember my father telling me very sternly, ‘you have to work very hard to enter the civil service’. Maybe it was his warning that worked or the sheer expectation in my mother’s eyes, somehow I ended up in the public sector.
I have enjoyed my career. Learnt that as a woman you have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously, seen that male colleagues can be excellent or horrors, and understood that a job should only be a part of our lives.
The importance of financial independence in a woman’s life is unparalleled. It gives the courage to make tough but essential choices, the freedom to at least try to live life on one’s own terms and immense self-esteem. Of course, as I always say women have the luxury of opting out and letting someone take care of them. It is a choice that should be a considered one, not imposed by anyone.
More than anything else, it was my personal life that taught me that the prism through which people around see you first is based on your gender. Issues, problems and matters are decided through a gender prism, especially when you are a woman. You are a person first and anything else later somehow does not form part of the discourse.
I went through marriage, divorce and custody issues. There was much learning along the way. About the importance of family support in such times, about the fact that people you depend upon often desert you, but there are others one never thought about who help. One can approach a personal crisis like this in two ways – either one goes out to gain sympathy or battles it on one’s own terms. I found while the former approach gets lots of immediate support, the latter garners a grudging respect that comes in much later!
Being a single mother in our system is challenging, but in urban conglomerates, it is not an insurmountable battle. That does not take away the loneliness and social alienation one faces in our much ‘married’ society. But the upside is that you learn to live with yourself in a way people spend lifetimes and lots of money searching for.
Every dark cloud has a silver lining. Nothing in my life completed me the way the birth and upbringing of my daughter has. This is not to be taken as an endorsement of the thought that women are incomplete until they become mothers. To each their own. For me, it has been an incomparable journey.
As humans we need to perpetuate, there is some deep evolutionary need that having a child fulfils. No other achievement in life can quite give the same feeling. Sometimes I wonder if that is why men have to struggle so much to be achievers all their lives. That is why they fight wars, and hanker for power, authority and privilege. They never achieve the sense of accomplishment that giving birth brings.
It has taken a long and sometimes arduous journey to realize that our gender is only a part of us. That applies equally to men. I have known men bogged down in their lives, because they limit themselves to the expectations from them as sons, husbands or brothers. It may still be a man’s world, but that does not mean it does not chain men in ways they do not comprehend.
I am blessed that I had a daughter. First, I got her custody easily, as she was a girl. Second, she has grown up to be my best friend. Third, when I look at her I feel proud; see parts of me immortalized in her spirit. Last, I know she will always be there for me.
During the journey, I also made an effort to improve my educational qualifications. I completed a masters, got a degree in law and finished a PhD. Now I eagerly expand my knowledge through MOOC courses. This has kept my curiosity and thirst for learning alive.
In the last five decades, I have looked after my parents in their twilight years, risen up on the learning curve, held interesting jobs, established a strong bond with my sister, brought up a child, made friends for this lifetime, loved and lost and loved again. I own my hits and misses entirely. They are all a reason to celebrate. I wish to celebrate my life as it has been. It has given me much more than it has taken from me.
I also wish to celebrate the coming years. I stand at a wonderful crossroad of my life. My daughter is grown up and struggling to find her place in the sun. I have a job, and writing keeps me engaged. I have the time, space and opportunity to do what I have always dreamt of doing.
In today’s world, unlearning is as important as learning. In our souls dwells the individual each one of is, whose dreams, aspirations and hopes are unique. We need to shed baggage, unlearn established roles and learn to respect the individual that resides within each of us.