Of Silk Sarees,Silver Anklets and Bindi.......
Pink ribbons, long hair (oiled and tightly plaited ),a black bindi right in the middle of the forehead,a row of little dolls, a kitchen set, complete with a miniature pressure cooker containing little utensils and a little stove with a model cylinder, frilled frocks, playing “Steppu” ( a North Indian word for hopscotch) on the roads, humming to oneself while picking flowers—all these images fly into my head when I hear anybody announce the birth of a girl, or even when I think about my own childhood. I remember wearing colorful silk skirts (pavadais) with golden zari, white flowers in our hair,going to the temple and singing. I remember sitting on a chair in the kitchen, listening to the sounds of vegetables being chopped and my mother patiently answering my impudent questions while she boiled the rice and did the dishes. I remember reading Cinderella as a bedtime story and wondering how my own Prince Charming would be. With dreams and summer songs came school-playing tag, talking to friends, singing songs in the bus, trying to talk without catching the eye of the teachers and laughing over the silliest things. Riding the cycle to pick up milk and groceries from the market, gabbing away non stop at home, preparing notes at home with different colored pens ,on colorful sheets of paper, sketching on the last pages of notebooks in a boring class, being dad’s little princess, going for ice cream parties with friends and always, always, picking a butterscotch one, skipping off to the library just for Nancy Drew, sowing dreams into an embroidery on a pillowcase, imagining life with all ambitions and dreams fulfilled—almost all of these and many more memories comprised my childhood,and most of my friends’s as well. Innocent and carefree, TV was only for cartoons and the newspaper for information and increasing our vocabulary. Words like “rape”, ”sexual abuse” and “murder” hadn’t even began to form in our heads. We couldn’t even fathom the rate at which these words would be used by the time we became adults.
Life began to change for us. Slowly we packed our dolls and put them on the attic, folded our childish embroideries away, replaced our “Steppu” chalks with badminton racquets ,our frilled frocks with jeans and added a pinch of pragmatism to our dreams. Our world was a swirl of peer pressure, exams and grades, interspersed with cultural functions at schools and extra curricular activities. Our topics of discussions shifted from the what game to play to books ,movies and fashion. The highlight of adolescence was the development of our built-in antennae , which helped us sense emotions like danger, love and discomfort, amongst many others. These antennae are more accurate than the most accurate instruments in the world. College was the time when we began to realize the potential of these antennae. It was also a time of experimentation for a lot of us-we tried out many different styles, fashion, habits, and picked out the ones which suited us best. For the first time, we were out of our cocoons and ready to stretch our wings. Even a butterfly trembles and falls before it begins to fly smoothly. We were after all human beings-falling was inevitable for us as well. If we formed friendships that would last a lifetime, we also met a few fair weather friends. If we bunked classes, we burned the midnight oil the day before the exam. If we copied from somebody’s assignments, we gave ours for somebody to copy. Friendship, fun, hard work, fashion faux pas, love and heartbreak-all encompassed 3-4 years of college (depending on the course).But there was a major difference from school-now our mothers would call us everyday twice at the very least, once, to find out if we reached college and the other to find out if we had left college, with frantic calls in between to find out where we were..Our fathers would insist on dropping us off to the bus stop and escorting us everywhere, refusing to send us alone even to buy milk. At the time we wanted independence, we were forced to remain confined. At times we would see red, and blame our parents in anger, but deep down even we knew that it wasn’t safe out there. We ourselves were subjected to vulgar taunts amongst many forms of ribaldry, to men trying to find some way to touch us, either in suburban trains, buses or bus stations. Our antennae were on high alert whenever we stepped out of the house, and inevitably saw men staring at us as though we were creatures from a different planet altogether. Some of us were even stalked, so much so that if we had to go to our house on the 6th floor on the building, we would hurry into the lift and get off at the 3rd or 4th floor and started to walk up. Or we would simply run 6 floors, wary of every stranger and every shadow. We learnt the art of ignoring, because retaliation led to more abuse,and that never got us justice, only more (surprisingly) shame and censure. Yes, somebody made our life hell,but certain people in the society blamed us. Amidst news of increasing crimes against women, both educated and uneducated, by people ,both educated and uneducated, we left college, collecting a degree along with many bittersweet lessons of life. I love the word bittersweet. I think it best describes a woman’s journey. Moving on, we exchanged our favourite jeans for formal work wear, our sling bags for a laptop bag and our carefree life for a salary cheque every month. In addition to handling stress at office, we balanced our personal lives, handling client calls and feeding times with panache. It gives me a great sense of pride to declare that it is only a woman who can multitask. We have thousands of women today, working for their own independence, bringing up children, supporting their husbands in their endeavors and being the very glue that binds the family together. But, we are a country of oxymorons. Where I was fortunate enough to study,work fall in love with a person of my choice,and not be discriminated by my gender anywhere,there were others who were still being forced to sacrifice their education,bury their dreams and live life according to obsolete rules set by hypocritical people who would celebrate nine days in glory of the Goddess,but refused to acknowledge the glory of the women in their own family.
At this point I remember this dialogue from Sridevi’s movie, where she says “I don’t need love. All I need is a little respect”. Yes, all a woman wants in life is respect. She does not want to be subject to comments by emasculated men or restrictions for following her heart. There is, frankly, nothing a woman cant do which a man can-she can ever wear pants without being subjected to ridicule, like a man would be if he decided to wear a saree! Why, then, do we have to compromise every single time, mostly for absolutely no fault of ours?
There can be no particular time or moment to celebrate being a woman. It is a lifelong celebration which starts from the instant a baby girl is born and wrapped in her little pink blanket, to the time her tiny, anklet clad feet ring throughout the house as she runs, to when she lights the evening lamp, to when she smiles as she poses for her graduation picture,to the way her eyes slightly widen in concentration while she puts her bindi, to when she coyly gives her henna painted hands to her husband, to when she holds her baby for the first time with the baby’s tiny hand curled around her finger, to when she runs around her kids trying to feed them, to when she hands over the responsibility of her house to her daughters in law, to when she combs her graying hair for her 60th birthday and pampers her grandchildren, telling them bedtime stories, to her last breath. It’s a lifelong celebration. So, to all the men reading this, respect not only the women in your lives,but also women everywhere. To all the women, you are special, no matter how fat or thin, or tall or short, or modern or traditional. You deserve your share of love, respect and freedom.