Sheela Bhatt's fictionalised account of the real emotions of many urban Indian women.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
My Dear Sister,
I am sorry. I have hardly spoken to you this year. Mother also keeps complaining that I am tinkering with my mobile phone all the time and remain absorbed in my world via my laptop. Every day she calls around 8 pm. Every day I snub her: "Mummy, not now. I have a deadline!"
I don't know how to express what happens inside me when mummy calls. To me, she is like someone standing under the divine light with a long questionnaire I don't want to answer. I know the answers, but don't want to put them in words. I fear it will unsettle me; maybe her, too.
She has many times asked me small questions that explode like hydrogen bombs inside my head: "What is so meaningful about your career, a career that doesn't give you the freedom to rest? What is the use of earning money if you can't have peace?"
Every evening, her selfless attitude and caring voice highlight the tension and frustration of the day that has passed by. Out of the sheer pain of the stress inside me, I tell mummy, day after day, "I am busy." That is a lie.
What I really mean to say -- but never can -- is: "Mummy, I know things are not okay. I know you care for me so you want to speak to your working daughter. I need to re-examine my idea of freedom, independence and how life should be in the India of 2011. My life is a work in progress. What is the use of talking to you when I don't know the final answers?"
Maybe I am not busy, but just suffering from an attention deficit syndrome. Is it? Tell me. You know how our urban Indian life makes us run. Mummy's call is a moment to pause and face the truth -- that something is amiss.
I know something is not working out. And I know things are unlikely to work out even as the calendar pages turn and mark another year gone by.
When I disconnect mummy's call, I actually disconnect my link with my true self.
When I am not harsh with myself, I like to believe that I have freedom. I would like to believe that I don't take any nonsense. I find most men around me stuck in a time warp -- as if they refuse to grow up, as if they are not as emancipated as many of us.
One of my liberal friends tells me many Indian women of the 21st century nurture a beautiful dream inside their minds. Some such women, who were lucky to pursue careers of their dreams, do have an inner compass: That tells us what is good for the self, and what is encroaching upon our gender freedom. Inside our minds, our gender sensibilities were marinated in the 20th century. And they taste lovely in the 21st.
As I have been telling you for a decade, for the first time in centuries now there are thousands -- if not millions -- of Indian women who don't have many stories to tell about how men have exploited them. We are women with the capacity and the determination to fight back.
Dear sister, you have been a housewife all along. I have always wondered how you can be just a housewife in the new, exciting India.
You know that many of my friends are housewives like you -- in New Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Bangalore, etc. I find it shocking that they are free to fly and still refuse to venture out. Even when they have free time, they whittle it away watching the trashy serials on television or keep ogling at mall windows. Or, they spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, months attending marriages and rituals around birth and death.
I wonder why many women fear freedom in a world that allows us to spread our wings.
But let me not blabber on. Let me come to the main point. What I am trying to say is that the modern Indian woman -- whether she is one who charts her own destiny or whether she is a housewife merely dreaming of how her son can fly off to America -- is facing a crisis.
I think there are many who are not grabbing the opportunities now available to them -- due to their minds' conditioning. But even those of us who think we have spread our wings don't know where our flight is taking us -- because in a world where money is all that matters, we don't even have the time to enjoy our freedom.
These days, when I go to shopping malls, or attend weddings or get-togethers, I sometimes think my 'freedom' is over-hyped. We have broken through the walls of a conservative family, but we have only reached a place that is full of risks. Where not only perceived or real freedom, but even our identity will be lost.
We, the Indian families, never shopped for so many unwanted things -- as we do now. The other day, I was at a mall in south Delhi. Its decorated atrium and the overwhelming variety of items on display could not hide the futility of it all. I sat near the piano player, staring at the hundreds of women, their faces, their eyes. And you know what, they all looked the same.
It's all just a dream, babe/A vacuum, a scheme, babe/That sucks you into feeling like this, as a man called Bob Dylan once sang.
When the economy reduces a human being to a mere consumer, you can almost smell, touch that social change in the malls. And you know what? I think we find that process of numbing very comforting. Of forgetting the real questions that nag us -- in the speed and sex appeal of the modern life aka mall-ratting. Of losing the important in the frivolous.
I hate to accept that mummy is not a consumer like what these malls have reduced us to.
She knows what she needs. She is content. She doesn't need to run away from the questions inside her head.
I also think that although many Indian women now have freedom and control over her their lives, their relationships are not as beautiful as what mummy and papa had between them.
Mummy was not independent in today's sense. All she was worried about was serving us hot rotis. Whereas my freedom, my privacy and my financial independence is marred by the fact that all of it is dependent largely on money and on maneuvering for myself. And that has given the stress and tension inside all the food they need to grow stronger.
Yes, the stress on money and its central role in society has taken away my joy of achieving gender autonomy.
In the tug of war between modernity and tradition, we also often don't know which side we are on. As a friend in Ahmedabad told me the other day, "As parents we are contradicting ourselves every day. We ask our daughters to look for jobs and at the same time we say get married soon. We keep asking them, 'Why are you writing on so many private things on Facebook?' But we don't have enough time for them. We want to micro-manage our children's lives, but we want to portray ourselves as liberals who give our children lots of freedom. We take education loans for them, but we keep reminding them: 'See, I am under debt because of you.' Our heads and hearts are out of sync."
The unstable scales of economies have completely changed our social dynamics. Mummy's pleasures were not prohibitively costly. And I -- with all my freedom and money -- don't have the time to spend time at my favorite places.
But I also know I don't want to bargain my life and my space with any traditions of a bygone era where a woman's identity was linked only to the welfare of the family she was wedded to. That is sickening.
I think I like the conflict that has come inevitably in the package I have bought in this life. I know there are too many issues, hypocrisies and illusions. But this internal battle of tradition versus modernity is like the war between man and machine.
In India, this struggle is more difficult and complex. In the shiny malls of urban India with pretty people, I find traditional Indian accessories on sale for women who have won their hard-fought freedom. Do you see the contradictions too?
Sorry if this letter confuses you. My mind is overcrowded with emotions that I want to share with you before I take mummy's call again today.
I don't need to tell you I love you. But I wish you would pamper yourself as much as you do for others in your family. Look at the calendar -- it's going to be 2012, not 1912!