“But you are nice!” she replied.
I didn’t know quite how to explain what I meant.
As far back as I can remember, I never wanted to be a “nice” girl. Because the nice girls I knew never got anywhere. The phrase “nice girl” in India of course had quite a different connotation than it has in the West.
In America, “nice” refers mostly to sexual mores. But in India, “nice girl” signified something much more torturous. Nice girls slaved in the kitchen at wedding feasts. Nice girls never spoke unless spoken to. Nice girls walked to school with their heads bent, and in the recess sat in a circle on the playground discussing their mothers’ recipes instead of picking fights with boys. Nice girls abandoned their skirts upon the onset of puberty and started to wear saris, relinquishing all sports or athletic activities in the process.
But most importantly, nice girls agreed to an arranged marriage with a suitable boy soon after their college graduations and fell into the cycle of baby showers, and mangalagauris, and naming ceremonies ad nauseum.
I inhabited two parallel worlds when it came to nice girls. In our locality of Shankar Nagar on the outskirts of Nagpur, where my father had recently built a concrete bungalow complete with a yard on all sides and five water taps, my friends were girls whose parents, like mine, had better aspirations for their daughters. So the emphasis was not on household chores but school marks. And in this realm, I was the reigning queen.
In my extended family, on the other hand, my cousins followed the traditional model, getting by in school and helping their mothers raise a brood of siblings.
Somewhere along the way, I made a conscious decision to be “not nice.”
When my uncles came over, I sat in the front room with my father and argued politics. I raised my hand in class and asked inconvenient questions. Once, when my teacher criticized Mahatma Gandhi (I attended a school which was unofficially run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha or RSS, the organization which would eventually start the Hidutva movement), I objected, impressing the teacher. (My parents were in fact against the RSS but had enrolled me there simply because it happened to be the best school in the area.)
Because I was the best pupil in my class, I got away with a lot.
I practiced my sharp tongue against my male classmates because my haughty manner held them in awe.
Alas, at the age of 12, when my mother had a “nervous breakdown,” the not-nice-girl façade that I had carefully cultivated became not an option, but a necessity. When the neighborhood women made derogatory remarks about my mother, I vehemently defended her. When the maidservant gave my mother lip, I was the one who established authority over her. When it came time to pay the electric bill, it was I who trekked to the MSEB office.
These untimely burdens made their mark; I became rather a defensive, smart-alecky, fearless young woman who exuded nothing but strength.
After all, what choice did I have?
It never occurred to me that in the process I was losing something very precious, namely the freedom to express my heart as well as my head.
Later, when I came to America and was faced with a mostly white male professional world, I learned that the kind of assertiveness with which women (at least white women) are making steady progress, can be mistaken for aggressiveness.
Circumstances played a role in shaping me. I supported my first husband financially. Then I found myself financially supporting not only my second husband but also his two daughters from a previous marriage while suffering from infertility and miscarriages. Later, without any family support I ended up raising two sons alone.
All these experiences have made me tough as boots. Or as my husband used to say, a Bengal tiger.
The trouble is, I am not exactly unhappy the way I am. It is just that I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be a softer, gentler person.
But would the world permit me to be that way?
And what would be the result?
Would my life be happier and better?
Or would it be worse?
My children tell me that I have “an attitude.”
When I was growing up in India, only men were allowed to have a temper. Yet, I ended up cultivating one.
Walking to school as a little girl, I would watch a clique of fashionable girls picking on a timid, mentally challenged girl. I myself was shy, nerdy, and not so chic, but the other girl’s helplessness stirred me until one day, I simply exploded at the clique, telling them that they were only exhibiting callousness and stupidity by picking on a weaker opponent. I can still see the look of surprise on the girls’ faces.
Would I rather not be that righteously angry person? I ask myself now.
Perhaps for an Indian woman of my generation, being “not nice” was the only way to have the kind of adventurous, free-spirited, independent, and fearless life that I’ve had.
But I wish sometimes that I had had the luxury of being “nice.”
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com