Every time I return from India, there is a sense of loss – imprecise, suspended, like a hole without a ring. Yet there is also a feeling of release, as if one had just escaped death by drowning.”
– Sasthi Brata, ‘India: Labyrinths in the Lotus Land’
It’s been five years since I actually lived in India, the country that I was born and raised in. This quote expresses so much of what I’d like to convey. There are countless things that I miss about life in India – I miss the chaos, the colour, the noise and the furore. I miss the food, the chai and the camaraderie. The way strangers poke their noses into everybody’s business, the anything goes attitude, the unpretentiousness. I miss my childhood. Hill stations. I miss the countless absurdities of everyday life in a country where over a billion people are packed together like sardines. There is a part of me that always wonders – no matter which exciting part of the world I may be in – what I am missing out on back home. If only dual existences were possible.
And yet, I can’t imagine actually living in India.
Everything about this country seems to be accompanied by a complex dichotomy of emotions. There is no way to miss it wholeheartedly, no way to remember its sweetness without recalling the bitterness. For living in India, particularly as an unmarried 28-year-old woman, is never just… easy, simple.
Living in India would mean giving up a lot of my hard-earned freedom. It would mean hearing those familiar statements again, the ones designed to make a woman feel like a liability: “Don’t go out alone”, “Don’t stay out too late”, “Go to the back of the share auto, reserved for women”, “Cover up”, “Don’t be so brash and disobedient”. It would mean looking over my shoulder every time I’m in a crowd, swinging my satchel to cover my behind while gripping my books closer to hide my chest. In a country where street sexual harassment is rampant, this is the stance that a grown woman is reduced to taking.
And then there is the bane of Indian society: the concept of “what will people say?” that dictates every decision that one makes. Log kya kahenge? A woman your age still unmarried and roaming around the world alone? There are the aunties, the relatives, the neighbours, the milkman, all of whom want to know but one thing, when are you getting married? How my personal life affects them, I will never know. But this is India, a society where your morality is judged and defined by whether you’re married or single beyond a certain age.
Years ago, as India was at the brink of freedom, women played a major role in the struggle for independence. The rise of anti-colonial nationalism across the world in the 20th century saw women actively participating in changing the discourse of their nations. And yet, post-independence, women retreated to their kitchens and bedrooms, resuming their household duties. Today, Modi’s India is one where right-wing Hindu nationalists are emboldened enough to butt into the sex lives of couples, enforce “ghar wapasi” rituals or lynch people for consuming beef.
Traditional gender roles, attaching the concepts of “shame”, “honour” and “dignity” to a woman’s ‘purity’ and virginity, and glorifying motherhood to the extent where it is touted to be the primary purpose of a woman’s life: all of these, disguised as cultural values, are nothing but an attempt to control. Control sexuality, control power, control thoughts and minds. How free are you when you don’t own your own body?
And so it’s easier to stay away, to distance myself from the archaic norms of Indian society. I’m aware that being able to do so is in itself a sign of privilege.
But things are changing, young women are fighting back. I swell with pride every time a woman is brave/angry enough to do this. Or this. I’ve fought the patriarchy all my life and will continue to do so. And I will return to India, eventually. I just hope that by then this country starts to live up to its claim of being a “democracy”.