Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the assistant culture editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.
As a lifelong bookworm who turns to the written word for knowledge and guidance, I had picked up “What to expect when you’re expecting,” during my pregnancy. Considerate colleagues gave me the sequel, “What to expect the first year,” at my baby shower. I referred to the book constantly. Like a child reading a mystery novel, I occasionally jumped ahead to read up on the next developmental milestone.
At my daughter’s first birthday celebration in India, seeing the book in my purse, a good friend joked – “You NRI’s bring up children by reading books.”
I found her comment condescending but she had made an astute observation. Being far from home and lacking guidance from parents, I felt bereft. She, on the other hand, was raising her children in India in close proximity to her extended family.
To me, books had come to my aid when humans had failed.
More than two decades after that conversation, I look fondly at my two daughters. In a few months, the older one will leave home in pursuit of higher education and the younger one will hurtle towards the end of her teens.
Motherhood has been the most transformative experience of my life and the opportunity to raise two daughters has been a gift and a privilege.
Adichie’s book is a long, thoughtful response response to a friend’s question about how to raise her newborn daughter feminist. I wondered if I had raised my daughters to be feminists? Would I find myself too outdated to understand this manifesto? I desperately hoped it wasn’t too late to make amends.
“The solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only.” Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.”
Adichie’s first feminist tool seemed familiar. Not vaguely, but intimately.
By this measure, I have always been a feminist. Perhaps I was born feminist. Although the word ‘feminist’ came into my vocabulary only after spoken and written language became my primary mode of communication, the inner knowing that “I matter’ must have been poured into my veins and set into my bones at the time of my creation.
Born between two boys, I was the only girl child, brought up with great affection by egalitarian parents. Despite having a level playing field within the home, I was not immune to the rampant sexism that existed outside. I retaliated by waving the flag of gender equality, fighting for fairness, and arguing for justice at every opportunity.
During the school years, my brothers and I were expected to wash our respective uniforms, polish our shoes, and keep our designated cupboards clean. But everytime my mother asked me for help around the house, I would protest.
“You are asking me to do this because I am a girl,” I would pout.
“I am asking you because you are better at it,” she would patiently reply.
“In life, you will find that the person who does a better job will be assigned more work, even in an office.”
A part of me agreed with her. But I would have none of her rational explanations. Despite her college education, my mother was a housewife by choice. What did she know about work and career?
I was academically oriented, bold, and outspoken. Unlike my mother who was content to stay home, I planned to study, get a job, and make my own money. I did not consider my mother a feminist, because feminism to me meant independence, financial security and power. Little did I know then that the seeds to my conviction about equality of the sexes were actually planted and nurtured by my mother’s parenting style.
So much about the world has changed since my childhood. With women becoming astronauts and scientists, doctors and bus drivers, I wondered if Adichie’s suggestions were even necessary. But reading this simply-written, heartfelt manifesto brought forth many self-limiting biases and belief-systems that are coded into our DNA through social conditioning and serve as barriers to women’s’ achievements even to this day.
In time for International Women’s Day, I thought of using Adichie’s list as an appraisal tool to evaluate myself. I was undoubtedly a feminist, but had I done enough to raise my girls to be feminists?
Of the fifteen suggestions, I scored well in 9. I am particularly proud of encouraging my girls to read. Regarding marriage – they know that marriage may be a part of their life but it is not to be counted as their greatest achievement. Through my own career choices, independence, and pursuit of interests outside prescribed gender roles, they have seen a working model of some of Adichie’s suggestions.
But I have to admit that I have failed in a few areas. Even though we talk about boys and romance, open conversations about sex have been difficult; attributed more to my own cultural conditioning than to the oft-repeated excuse that such information is easily available these days.
And there are suggestions about appearance, identity, likeability – important points that I am unable to assess at this point. Much of how my daughters find their way through the maze of conflicting messages and peer pressure depends on their ability to think for themselves, something only time will tell.
I think back to my mother’s unerring sense of fairness and transparent style of parenting. Unaware that the dictionary defines ‘feminist’ as a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, she had instilled in me the core belief that my life is valuable and my choices are valid, even if they veered away from socially accepted constructs.
Parenting is a uniquely personal journey. We undertake it with optimism and a combination of tools – some that we come equipped with, some we borrow from our own parents, and others we learn – from books, from society, from our own experiences.
The thing that makes this journey incredibly interesting, if not always rewarding, is what Adichie says in the initial pages of her book, “You might do all the things I suggest, and she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing. What matters is that you try. And always trust your instincts above all else, because you will be guided by your love for your child.”
The best we can do is try. I know my mother did. So do I. My hope is that my daughters do the same when they have children. It doesn’t matter if they are raising girls or boys, I know without doubt that their journey will be interesting, and they will be richer for the experience.
Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Connect with her on Medium | Twitter| Facebook | Blog
In a world full of women leaders, celebrities and entrepreneurs, there are many women to look upto. But sometimes inspiration lies hidden not in the far fetched and larger that life lives of celebrities but in places we have never looked. The lives of ordinary women around us, in the midst of banality of everyday life provide surprising rays of insights and lessons.
My great aunt Sheila was married to my great uncle Nanik, who is my grandmother’s brother. If you know of a person who genuinely loves and cares for every person in his family that would be uncle Nanik. He is the one who remembers birthdays of everyone in the extended family through all the generations. In all my very intimate contact with my uncle, even in honest disagreements I have been left with a tender warmth, cradled in the safe arms of a no better well wisher in the world.
Last month, Sheila Aunty passed away in her sleep at age eighty four in Bombay. Having thought a lot of the impending possibility of losing my uncle one day and how that would affect the continuity of the binding thread that he provides to the family, I must admit I never thought of aunty’s going away. She had been such a constant in uncle’s life and thus in our lives that her death was a shock. Being here in America, I could not say goodbye in person, I could not give her a last kiss, nor attend any funeral rights. All I can do is think of her with utmost fondness, lay flowers at my altar and peel at the layers of her impact on my own life.
When I think of her the one word that comes to mind is dutiful. If there were another word that would be cheerful. And mind you, those two words are not mutually exclusive. At any given moment that I saw her, she was cheerfully dutiful, as a wife, a mother, friend, relative and grandmother.
She was a young and beautiful air hostess when she met her future husband who was a pilot for Indian Airlines in the 1950s. She gave up her career to be a wife and a mother. She did not do that because it was the order of the day but because she saw it as a sense of duty. She raised three children, helped take care of her father- in- law until his death and maintained social relations as a wife of an esteemed Captain for 63 years of her marriage.
What I saw most closely was her role as a wife. For decades uncle Nanik’s favorite thing has been to host dinner and cocktail parties for family and friends. My close observation of her was during these times. She was always part of these get-togethers, day after day. I wondered as a child about the times when she was just not in the mood. Like all of us, I was sure she was not immune to that. But with complete equipoise, she was always present. Over the last many years her health was not great, she appeared more detached but still a servile hostess. She did not have to participate, just her presence was soothing and inspiring. Even during their bickerings like any older couple, they were a whole together, a team. It was his constant reliance on her that ran the show and her choice to support that sustained their life together.
Thinking of her today, I realize how the modern world associates values like independence, courage, feminism to women. We believe these are traits of progress but we have completely lost the world duty from our lexicon. We now think if a woman does not fight for her rights, she is weak. We think of giving in is a negative and tolerance as mediocre. But will the women of today be remembered in this light? Have we also forgotten the intricate complexities of life as a woman? To love, to be faithful, to fulfill one’s duties even when one does not feel like them, to put family before one’s self, to be kind through that very selflessness, to take life’s inevitable challenges in one’s stride and come out a winner. These are virtues of a woman far superior than any revolution. This is an inner revolution to transform our spirits to recognize what is worth fighting for and what in the long run will create character by wisely looking at the larger good outside of ourselves.
What we forget is that there is much thought and inner work involved in the lives of such women. Life of a woman is not black and white, her embrace of the grey is what defines her. What might appear a passive supportive role is actually a conscious effort at all times involving intelligent thinking.
They don’t make them like her today. She has left no eye dry with her death, because she is fondly remembered like a flower by everything she ever touched. Whether it was her commitment to her faith every day in the form of morning meditation or the goodwill of everyone or just the reaping of her kindness, she was thus blessed with the most peaceful death one can imagine. I cry for my uncle’s loss, his shattered heart, another colossal pain to crush him in the length of a long life but I also rejoice that he had her. For she surely was the spark behind the man he was, is and always will be; deeply loved.
You might think it’s strange, but I chose having an arranged marriage in the midst of an era with dating apps like Tinder.
And I love my husband.
Generally people find it hard to reconcile these two things.
When I turned 24, my parents decided that it was time they made ‘arranging a daughter’s marriage’ as their top goal in life. As with any arranged marriage, entire families were enlisted to convince me that it should be my top priority as well. Although I was young, I knew that marriage would be a giant leap for me. It has always been thus for women – from moving into a new house and adjusting to a different environment, to changing her last name and finding her place in a new family; the institution of marriage was something not to be entered into lightly. I was not ready.
I managed to dodge and escape for a year and a half before I caved in. But I made it clear that I would not meet gazillion boys in the dance of acceptance/rejection that plays out in the arranged marriage system. No problem, my parents said, and created a profile for me on a matrimonial portal. I had complete freedom to screen and choose proposals based on my personal preferences. After scrolling through multiple profiles, Gaurav was the first boy whose digital proposal I accepted, and after two-three months of ‘courtship’ in the virtual world, we decided to tie the knot.
Although still sceptical of marriage, with both of us being based in India at the time of our engagement, we looked forward to the wedding, unaware of the change in dynamics that would occur in a few weeks. G was offered a job in Singapore, an offer that was too good to refuse. This added to my dilemma. I had not considered the possibility of leaving my full and fulfilling life behind to travel abroad to join my husband.
After the wedding, I chose to stay behind in Delhi, ostensibly to take care of pending matters. I had been working as a TV presenter at Doordarshan for the past three years and was on the cusp of a promotion. My second book ‘Saturated Agitation’ had recently been launched, and I was busy with book readings. I had just completed my Master’s degree in journalism, and was waiting to collect my original mark sheet. I was teaching journalism as a part-time lecturer and was reluctant to abandon my students in the middle of the semester. One of my dogs had given birth to seven pups. The other one was sick.
Nine months after my wedding, I kept adding more excuses to the already long list of valid reasons for me to linger in Delhi. Despite the distance, G was very considerate in not insisting that I move to Singapore. Was it because he was as tentative as me about our union? Things seemed fine on our occasional short meetings. We often connected over various digital devices and channels. But we did not share a home; we had no history together.
It is the month of August, the month of my husband’s birthday. This is his first birthday as my husband, and I do not want us speaking over flat screens. For some reason, I feel compelled to be with him; I want to make this day special. Is this love? I make plans and buy gifts. I am flying to Singapore tomorrow morning to see him. This is not a surprise visit because I cannot afford the risk of him being elsewhere if I arrive unannounced. I know that G has also made plans. We are both excited to see each other. It has been three months since our last rendezvous.
I pack my bags and lay out my favourite white cotton Anarkali suit for the flight in the morning. I wash my face, kiss my pups and dogs good night, apply night cream and sleep.
I wake up with a mild sense of excitement when my alarm goes off at 4 in the morning. I have to leave home at 5:30 to reach the airport on time. A I am getting ready, I sense a commotion outside our home, and the TV news confirms my misgivings.
A sleep-deprived, tired reporter screams out news about fire, mobs and roadblocks. People have turned violent to protest the rape conviction of Baba Ram Rahim who had subsequently been jailed. Oblivious to the implications of this news, I get ready to leave for the airport only to realise that I cannot step outside. People are walking the streets with swords and fire torches. It is a communal riot-like situation. There are half burnt vehicles on the roads with mobs screaming “Baba bekasoor hai, Baba ko riha karo” (Baba is innocent, release him from prison.)
I have a long phone call with G; I don’t want to disappoint him. I argue with my father about the unfairness of his demand that I stay home. Before long, I have to accept defeat. There is no way I can safely make it to the airport in time for my flight, thanks to the harsh reality of things beyond my control.
“The important thing is that you are safe at home. It is alright; we can always plan for next month or the month after.” G is incredibly sweet and understanding. He is the one consoling me even though I am the one throwing tantrums for not making it to his birthday.
As I sit with my head in my hands, my sick dog walks towards me, lifts his leg and pisses on my bag. And something finally snaps.
“Am I taking advantage of my husband’s understanding and supportive nature? Is this a punishment for being a terrible wife? ”
I see my father leaving for his clinic despite the unruly situation outside, knowing that there may be additional patients who need his help. I have grown up seeing him devote his entire life to the welfare of the people. His passion for his work and dedication towards helping others has been an inspiration for me. Being the youngest one in the family, I was naturally close to my father. What I hadn’t realised was how interdependent we have become in the past few years… I am so much like him. His preoccupation with work had always kept him away from his family. Am I doing the same thing?
A woman’s life changes entirely after marriage, and so does her opinion of it. Before marriage, my focus was more on the “wedding”- clothes, jewellery, make-up, events, music and whatnot. However, the next morning, when the band baja baraat was over, I found myself transformed from the kid of my family to the eldest bahoo of my husband’s family, a promotion of sorts that required significant adjustments to my outlook about my life ahead. With the completion of the rituals of marriage, I had wondered what other literal and figurative changes lay in store but had not ventured to find out.
Today, thanks to Baba Ram Rahim and his followers, I can finally see that it is not my career nor my dogs, not my students nor my mark sheet holding me here. I got married and was ‘given away’. From kanyadaan to bidai- every ritual confirmed my departure from my maiden home and guided me towards the road to becoming a wife. The only thing that is holding me is me. I haven’t mustered the strength to leave my father, my home, and begin a life with my husband, to become a wife in its real sense. Only I could correct this unfair situation. I had to let my marriage take shape, even though I had no idea how to create it. It was time to fly.
In the next ten days, I resigned from work, completed my assignments as best as I could and started looking for work in Singapore. When G came to Delhi to escort me to Singapore, my father waved a tearful goodbye. I knew then that my father was happy for me – he would not have asked his daughter to go away because he wanted me to take that step by myself. He would be fine, and so would I.
As the aircraft gained momentum and trembled with new-found energies to take off, I felt a gush of overwhelming emotions soaring within me that gave me the courage to start my married life.
Sometimes it takes more than mere rituals for a daughter to accept the position of someone’s wife, but it is never too late to start, and there is nothing wrong in allowing yourself some extra time to graduate to the idea of being a Mrs After all, marriage is one small step for man and a giant leap for womankind.
Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Surabhi’s work has appeared in various publications in India, Singapore and Australia. Website | Blog | Instagram
A version of this essay was published in Desi Modern Love- An Anthology published by Story Artisan Press, Singapore.