The other day, I got a text from a stranger. He claimed to be a high school classmate who was organizing our first ever reunion. I shrugged the idea off at first. The writer in me was loath to stir up memories, to replace old recollections with new ones.
But as I started to receive phone calls and messages, what struck me was what a feisty bunch of girls I came of age with. A close childhood friend became a gynecologist, another a lecturer in physics, a third a political activist. When I tell Americans that the female friends of my youth include an actuary, an Intel engineer, and a scientist at an American national lab, they are incredulous. “Was that normal in your day?” they ask. For, in the United States, even today, there remains a scarcity of women in science and engineering.
The answer, I think, lies in the fact that we were Midnight’s Daughters. Midnight as immortalized in our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s, speech, delivered on the occasion of India’s freedom from British rule. “At the stroke of the midnight hour,” he said on August 15, 1947, “when the world sleeps, India will awake to light and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
Salman Rushdie memorialized midnight’s children or rather, sons, born at the dawn of our country’s birth, but alas, no one has paid any attention to the daughters of that era.
Born shortly after Independence, what characterized us? It was the singular fact that our mothers had been denied higher education; many had not even completed high school. These women lived precariously, only dreaming of the emancipation that the Mahatma had promised them. A friend’s mother was a widow; another suffered from her husband’s domination.
But in the locality of Shankar Nagar where I grew up, a kind of change was in the air; the answer was blowing in the wind. My best friend Viju-the one who is a doctor-hopped over creeks, frolicking with me in the jungle beyond our homes and eating toddy palm fruit. A daredevil, she jumped from the roofs of houses and challenged me to follow. Chhaya, another friend, could not help teasing the boys, and once, demonstrating an optics experiment, lined up the pins on the teacher’s desk, and bending over, winked. The boys roared with delight. The two of us won a debating trophy and paraded it around the school yard, even as boys teased us relentlessly. Contrary to American feminists’ claims, we did not need to be in a girls’ school to shine, we could do so in coed classrooms. When an Australian woman named Cathy visited our school, our principal nominated Chhaya and me to show her around in spite of the fact that there was no dearth of sons of politicians, writers, and affluent businessmen in our class.
We, who came from humble backgrounds, held our own.
For we were midnight’s daughters. Our teachers, parents, indeed the entire community, were rooting for us to break the mold. Our mothers had sworn that we would get the education they did not have.
We did not have to burn our bras; nor did we march in the women’s liberation movement. Rather, working behind the scenes, we paved the way for the likes of Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy. Our personal histories did not adhere to linear narratives of Hindu womanhood, nor did they, apart from a few exceptions, follow stories of rebellion. Rather, we lived complex lives, each one worthy of an epic a-la Rushdie.
I was thinking of all this, when, one fine morning, a woman broke off her “friendship” with me. And what was my crime? After much probing, I found out that it was that I no longer met her demands; that I did not “understand” her.
Translation, I did not agree with everything she said, but tried to point out alternative perspectives.
No wonder women are not doing so well in this country today. If they fail to stand by one another, if, instead of forming coalitions, they deride one another, what hope can they have of getting ahead?
But it was this very painful experience with my friend that made me realize how much my childhood friends meant to me. After so many decades, they were reaching out to me. Instead of asking what I could do for them, they were offering me love and affection and unfailing loyalty.
So I am going to the reunion. Planning the trip, I have been calling old friends and laughing over fond anecdotes. And what has struck me most about these women is that, whether living in India or abroad, they have so much wisdom to impart to me even today.
Perhaps I owe my success to them. Perhaps without them, I would not have believed that the sky was the limit.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.