Bol ke labh aazaad hai tere
Bol, zabaan ab tak teri hai.
(Speak, for your lips are free;
Speak, your tongue is still yours)
Having heard and reheard spoken renditions of this poem for years I didn’t even realise when it became as close as an anthem to my heart. I wanted to keep singing it until its words were etched in the growing unsettlement I felt, pushing me to gnaw at its centre and pull myself out. I wanted a rendition of my own. Coincidentally on 15th August last year, I got one.
As the nation celebrated 71 years of independence from the British Raj last year, I too became independent from the patriarchal strain that my immediate surroundings were causing, by moving out to a new city to pursue my higher education. My parents, who somewhere in their heart always knew that this would happen, were caught in a fix when I declared I was moving out.
As the nation celebrated its independence, I too became independent from the patriarchal strain that my immediate surroundings were causing.
It wasn’t until they received more than the assurance they needed that my “jaa Simran jaa” moment came. As I complete one whole year of staying outside the city I spent my whole life in, I seek to make sense of some reflections I had during the year about my unlearings and relearnings in this absolutely new city, away from my family.
I got to know myself better
The distance from the authority figure that my father was, made me find previously unexplored parts of myself. His constant presence, physical or felt, that didn’t let me come out of the cocoon of protection, I realised, was limiting my experiences of the world. The person I imagined to become seemed to have been on a halt waiting for me to pick myself up from the projected images of myself to build my own. So as I left the predictability of my previous life back in some corner of my house, I found myself craving for and indulging in fresh experiences.
The world and its workings were a trial and error to understand and it seemed like I was left to play without surveillance. I did a lot of things alone to understand what my likes/dislikes/responses to them were. There were days I surprised myself with the courage I could gather for a person who was brought up in the culture of fear. But there were also days where I spent hours alone in a hostel corner thinking what went wrong. I fell, sometimes too hard, but I realised that I could get up again too.
I began having informed and reflective conversations with my family
A year ago I was almost close to losing my patience during conversations with my some of my family members because one, they infantilised my opinions, and two, they didn’t realise what they were doing wrong and once pointed out, they weren’t patient enough to reflect. Surprisingly in the past one year that has gotten better. My grandmother who is now a bit alert of the words she uses while talking to me, listens to me more without outright dismissal.
My father who was happy for me when I came here for the hopes of the many places my passion for the field would lead me to, now jokes how the course I am pursuing and my moving out has changed things dramatically because I do not let him get away with his stereotypical thinking and behaviour. My mother who was the most accepting and encouraging of all likes to know my thoughts on things, is more receptive when I point out the problematic things she sometimes say, who mostly likes to see me grow and is forever curious about my survival sans food cooked in ghee. We are not where I imagine us to be yet, but I see hope.
Challenging both external and internal forces of the patriarchy became a part of life
Don’t get me wrong. Challenging patriarchal manifestations was a part of my life earlier too, but moving out made it more apparent. I wasn’t only reading, critiquing, unlearning patriarchy in the classroom but was also constantly challenging my internalised notions of it. One of the most blatant form of it was not leaving the house at night and if already out, to come back by 8pm.
Having trained extensively through the media portrayals of the aftermath of women going out in the night and my mother’s repeated advice of the dark not being a woman’s friend, I was hesitant to go out alone. If I went out with someone, I came back by 9pm. It took me months to use my (extended) hostel curfew of 12am to its full advantage. I also began sharing my fears and ideas about the patriarchal structure with people here who, through it, also questioned their own conditioning.
The feeling of agency, responsibility, and a sense of identity
It wasn’t until I stopped following internalised/sometimes carefully prompted by family schedules on how to do things and how to be, that I realised the agency I had in breaking and making my own. Without having someone to question my choices, I became more ready for the consequences. Many things were a trial and error and I navigated my way with the most correct prediction I could gather. While I spent the first semester acquainting myself with the how-to-do’s of things, the second was letting myself unlearn and relearn my place and choices in life.
As I took charge of the decision-making process, I did all the math to arrive at the right one. If not that, I tried preparing myself for the blow that would come. The constant fear of what would happen became occasional. It was there though, thanks to years of conditioning. While I exercised my agency with responsibility, my sense of who I was also shaped itself. By not having someone to immediately fall back on, I started realising my limits and strengths as an individual.
From so much! I moved out not only because my academic choices demanded but parallely also because I could not see the freedom I needed in the place (and state) I was in.
Although the level of autonomy I have, as you might have guessed, more than what I had in my hometown, it is still restrictive to the hostel curfews and the overall feeling of safety I have when I access spaces. Like our Indian nation whose autonomy since its independence has never been complete, and is now even threatened by the violent hindutvawadi forces, my sense of freedom too remains dispersed.
I wasn’t only reading, critiquing, unlearning patriarchy in the classroom but was also constantly challenging my internalised notions of it.
The relative autonomy that allows me to be more independent in this new city, which is definitely more than what I had as the daughter back home, finds itself questioned by security guards at the hostel, some ‘woke’ friends who do not understand why I have to stay out until midnight for apparently no reason, and by my sense of safety when I see many men, who themselves are loitering, stare as I walk back in the night. My trial and error approach has me trying to access more spaces which I wouldn’t have for the fear of letting anything untoward happen to me. To be honest, the fear doesn’t entirely go away but I do not stop exploring the previously set boundaries of what all I can do, be, access. It mostly works.
Though I have mentioned just five things that changed when I moved out, we both know the constantly evolving process that being on your own is. As I complete one year of of making krantikaari (revolutionary) choices (as my sister calls it) and learning and unlearning many things, I am beginning to realise that sometimes coming out of a system that keeps pulling you down requires working within it before you take the next step.
Does that apply to the current socio-political atmosphere when even the freedom of being, if that being questions the present government’s actions, is threatened? I have no answer. What I have is hope. Hope that none of us let our anger for the frequent threats to our democracy, our independence, die. It is like I tell myself sometimes, “The fight should not stop. It cannot”.
Featured Image Source: Aks Writes