Love never really held much meaning for me. I wished and yearned for freedom instead. And maybe I just was more bereft of one that the other, but growing up in the big house with first and second cousins, taking the toys no one else wanted and the blames no else would; I had embodied love only as freedom. Freedom from judgments delivered partially and from trepidations of causing offense - in the house that was not ours. After all, our mother had been married off and the house now belonged to her brothers and their wives. The law didn’t quite allow for equal rights for daughters in parental property so it was generosity, not entitlement that allowed us to be there while our mother went to work. And why did she have to work when our father did too? That premise itself - unjustified and illogical, vetoed the need for us to subsist in our grandparent’s home.
I could empathize well with the martyrs in the black and white patriotic films that were so often played on the national channel those days. In the nation still young in her freedom. I understood well the anguish of having to follow rules that can’t be reasoned for and whimsies that seemed iniquitous. Freedom was worth dying for. I was proud to be born in a free country – oh the horrors of the otherwise! And I sang the national anthem the loudest in the school prayer line, making sure I maintained a posture so straight that my back ended up slightly arched.
The meaning of freedom changed with the passing years. Freedom, or rather the lack of it, altered faces. There was the girl who got acid thrown on her in the nearby slum, so we couldn’t talk back if someone hooted. Especially to the boys from the nearby slum who knew where we stayed. The other girl got raped while travelling alone in a cab. So going out alone was not permitted. If at all we had to - a crowded sweaty bus ride where there would be occasional groping was the thing to do instead of seeking the comfort of a cab. And then there was the girl who ended up dead. She had taken her life, the only thing to do if one got pregnant before marriage. So our elders were cautious, very cautious, with freedom.
I longed to walk as I wanted, unaccompanied and unsolicited, by the banks of Ganges. But I couldn’t, even in broad daylight. I wished to wear what I wanted, but had to leave home in the ‘suitable’ and change later. In a friend’s house, or in the small dark college washrooms. I wanted to eat what I wanted, but was afraid of what would be said – I didn’t want to appear greedy, after all, I would hear them talk later while pretending to be asleep. So I politely said no to the extra helpings. In the free country of one million, like thousand others, I was not free.
Was I loved? Maybe. I had parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. But as I said, I had embodied love in a strict form – and what I didn’t have bothered me too much to be justified by what I had.
So I left my motherland behind. With some luck and rest diligence, I secured grades good enough to do so. And with persuasion and timely unravelling of my mother’s close knit family, I convinced them to let me go. I boarded a flight to Syracuse, New York – going through Delhi, Amsterdam and New York City. Inciting envy and admiration. I was going to Cornell after all. The name wasn’t necessarily familiar, but the explanation following – ‘an Ivy League’ – was.
I was in a relationship before I left, but ended it soon on arriving. After all, the parameters there had been chosen with no freedom to choose. He came from a traditional family, and had made it quite clear that although there was ‘freedom’ in our friendship, there would be none after marriage. He was quick and verbal in expressing what is appropriate to wear and how to behave. Not too good of a sign for someone who had lived her years yearning to be not told how and what. So I chose freedom. As soon as I could. I chose someone from a smaller family. I had had enough of extended large ones. And I chose someone who didn’t care what I wore or if I had had a boyfriend. Love was redefined once again as freedom.
Then I worked hard to get a job. Publications, conferences, networking - I did them all. The economy was crashing down, it was September of 2008. And although my fiancé would still have one year on his graduate research assistant scholarship, I couldn’t imagine being a dependent. For me, that word came with chains. Chains that provoked a suffocating dread. So I clamored and clawed and secured a job and then permanent status to be in United States. The country where walking alone by the gorgeous gorges in Cornell in shorts and tanks, along with pork vermicelli and vodka - I had tasted freedom for the first time.
In my corporate 8 – 6 job, with a husband working in the same company and with a child less than a year old, I continued to feel liberated. I had to endure only minimal criticism from family and in-laws, after all, much can’t be imposed over phone and Skype calls. And I read the horrible gang rape incidents from the comfort of my spacious living room with added assurance of safety of my gated community and security system. Yes, bad things could happen to me here, I can be raped or shot or killed, but I believed that the perpetrators will be prosecuted appropriately. And that preserved my sense of freedom.
But then quite unexpectedly - I wasn’t so sure anymore. Rising up the ranks, in my mostly male fortune 500 company, I started feeling less and less free. Being a woman was favorable for my job role, but being ‘womanly’ wasn’t. Being a woman allowed me to be in the protected category of ‘technical females’ which my company wants to promote and proliferate. But the ranks are run by men, so being womanly provokes discomfort. The lack of numbers is disadvantageous, as it felt like swimming against the tide. Every day. We - the few of us - discussed in despair how we made ‘womanly decisions’ or ‘showed emotions at work’ –mistakes which relegated us inevitably. And strangely once again, I couldn’t choose what to wear and how to eat. When I wear what I wear; civil and appropriate but maybe a little ‘too’ put together, I often raise eyebrows. It’s a possible indication of less grey matter, or even worse – of having too much time on hand. Looking disheveled, yet acting in composure is favored well. With a baby and a managerial job, I am expected to look exhausted. If my husband on the other hand, showed up looking unkempt, comments would fly before too long on how his needs are obviously going uncared for. Telltale signs of not having a ‘good wife’. Those chains – the dreadful suffocating one, had a different shade this time, but the chains started to take form again.
I felt the chains closing on me, now fully formed, when I got pressured to call extended family after an exhausting day at work. Or in their tacit expectations on who should still be cooking after equal hours at work. Their comments not too different from my colleagues, who remarked frivolously on how my husband seemed to be losing weight having to eat the inadequate cafeteria food, while their wives packed them home cooked bliss in multi size containers worthy of a buffet spread. I was expected to find these insinuations amusing, but I couldn’t.
I also heard the stories of my friends. Attending prestigious Chai chats and ladies lunches. They worked equal hours yet assumed the master share of housework. They were the ideal mothers, while the fathers were busy following dreams of achieving greater good or attending the needed extended hour meetings. They came home early, feeling ashamed, knowing that they will be judged by peers. They throw parties, bejeweled and exhausted, and post photos without delay. And yes, being condemned on lacking in house chores can’t be compared to getting dowsed with acid, but I couldn’t help but feel that somewhere, the stories were related. My gut tells me that prejudice and bigotry, marginalization and role-setting, protected in century old cloak of tolerance can reach unimaginable outbursts when consequences are non-existent. Hence I couldn’t feel free anymore. Even in the United States of America.
So I made a desperate attempt to talk. To my husband, whom I had chosen to love in pursuit of freedom. From whom I had been drifting away as life got more and more eventful. Communications were needed less and less – we had either adapted or learnt to let go. Of habits that we couldn’t change. One exhausted evening though, I made an attempt to converse. After all, freedom was one habit I couldn’t let go of.
I told him of the judgments - implied and perceived. At home and at work. I told him I couldn’t cook. I told him I don’t want to spend all my time with my baby. I told him things relevant and irrelevant in this messy, dis-arrayed, attempt of conversation of mine. He was listening, but not interrupting, and I was ready to leave when I ended. I assumed he wouldn’t have much to say. Like the numerous times before, this would be an expression, not exchange. But this time he spoke. Slowly and sadly, he spoke of freedom! Or his lack of it! How he felt judged on needing to be the better provider at home, or at workplace, nervous that his mistakes will be less forgiven. While I struggled with lack of numbers, he struggled with the opposite – having too many of his kind in the company made success harder. How he had been judged on being an introvert, or on needing to cry. He had been judged on not being ‘manly’ enough, by me too - when I expected him to be the one with all the answers. Yes he had less chance of being raped in his motherland, or anywhere really, but he felt equally helpless. He felt ashamed for his own kind. And I realized suddenly, sitting in the sunken, now softened couch we had bought with our first pay check, that freedom has been equally important to him. All along. He chose me, someone he saw to be independent and passionate, to be free from having to carry the sole burden of courtship and then support as often expected in our culture. And strangely and abruptly, I felt free again. The world still had its atrocities, and the circumstances hadn’t changed a bit - but I felt understood and I felt loved. It’s not me crusading against the world anymore in search of rights and liberties; it was us in this together. And now when I drag myself back into the 2400 sq ft house end of day every day - judged, angry and exhausted – I can find solace by looking at the man set-up already in the living room changing diapers, knowing that my pursuit of freedom is acknowledged and respected as he is in a quest of his own. So love was never important to me, but it now is – as it gives me strength and company to persist in my struggle to be free. In any land.