The girl sits on the terrace of her house, waiting. Tonight would be the night, and she was confident of it. The dragon will come and take her to another world where she will be the ‘Chosen One‘. She squints her eyes at the clouds. Maybe one of them is the dragon in disguise.
The dragon does not come.
This dream comes in different forms. Sometimes it is a dragon landing on my terrace; other times, it is a mail by owl post. Once in a while, it is a girl who materialises in front of me, saying, “My world needs you,” as she grabs my hand, and we jump through a portal. My whole life, I have dreamt of being the ‘Chosen One‘. The problem is that I always knew that when I become the Chosen One, I would have to change my whole personality because Chosen Ones were not like me. I was not the sort to go riding off to battle, and I have never been. Still, my whole life, I have dreamt of the moment when a dragon or an owl post would call me.
I’m not sure when I came across the term “strong female character,” but I took to it quickly. This term was used for Mulan, who saved China. It was the term for Annabeth with her brains. It was not the term for me. Do you like Bella? No. Why not? She cries. Strong female characters don’t cry. Do you like Tris? Yes. Why? She fights. Strong female characters fight.
I cry. I rarely fight. I care about my notebooks being pretty. I write in an uncertain way. I am so shy that I cannot even dance in private. The Chosen One, indeed.
On my better days, I believe I’d be able to put aside all those parts of myself and would make myself someone new. On my worst days, I look at the sky and curse the dragon for not thinking me worthy of its world, even as I knew I would never be enough. In stories, when we talk of the strong female character, we speak of someone who wields a sword, can ride a horse, and charms people with the flutter of their eyelashes.
I am scared of dropping the kitchen knife, I do not get on bikes, and I cannot for the life of me, understand the beauty in blinking fast. Stories tell me there is one way of being strong. That feminism comes in one form. At least, that’s what I thought for the longest time.
Feminism, to me, was the fight. Not my preferred method of waiting for the monster to eat me. Then I look around me and see strong women of different forms. I see feminism in various forms, and I feel that maybe there is hope for me after all because these women inspire me and show me that I can be myself, I’m going to write about them.
About a month ago, I was sick, vomiting into the loo. Nobody was in the room apart from my ten-year-old cousin, who heard me and hesitantly knocked on the door. “Are you okay?” she asked. “I’m fine,” I said, tears in my eyes as I hurled once more. Slowly, the door opened. “Oh no,” came a young voice. “I’m so sorry,” I wiped the vomit off my face. “You can go.” “Please don’t say sorry,” my ten-year-old cousin said gently. She quickly brought a rubber band and tied my hair as I continued to puke.
It has been a month since then, and I have been telling this story to anyone who will listen. My cousin is ten years old and, as far as I know, has not been fighting monsters daily. Still, she is my hero because I do not know many ten-year-olds who see someone sick, put aside their disgust and hold their hair back. My ten-year-old cousin is a strong, empathetic woman, irrespective of whether or not she has fought wars. In her kindness, I see feminism, and I see the strength of female solidarity that I did not dream of.
V’s strength is of a different kind. She is a leader with the sort of fire that Katniss Everdeen would envy. When she stands in front of a class and talks, I feel my heartbeat go faster as I agree with everything she says. She takes words and makes them her own. I can imagine her standing in front of a Dementor with nothing but a pen and the words, “As the French say”, and still coming out of it the victor. In V’s strength, I see feminism. It is closer to the kind I have always dreamed of, but it is cooler than I would have ever imagined.
Mama’s feminism is my favourite. Mama is like me. She says she is not brave, but I do not know anyone more courageous. Mama started the Palliative Care unit in CMC Vellore. I know what this takes out of someone who does not believe in their bravery. To listen to others, to make space for people you do not know, to see the magic in the world, this is Mama’s feminism. If you wrote a book on “the strong female character,” you may not write about my mother. But I do not know anyone stronger. In Mama’s bravery, I see feminism. It is the kind I aspire to have and get to be.
It has taken me a while to accept that I am a woman. And I say this because my whole life I have been a girl. Now, at the age of 25, I’m finally taking to the term and trying to own it. Yet, there are days when I stand outside, waiting for the dragon that never came. “Please,” I beg. “Let me be enough.”
I finally believe I am enough. I do not need your labels to prove it. I do not need to wield a sword or wand or lead armies to call myself strong. I doubt my abilities more than I should. I teach in college and am nervous before every class. I do not know my left from my right. If I were a fictional character, you would not be impressed by me. I once started a story with these words, “It has been 322 days since I started to wonder whether I am a fictional character. Not the protagonist. Just a side character who screams, “It’s Spiderman!” and is never seen again.”
They tell you to be strong, that all you need is confidence. I don’t have that. But that does not make me any less strong. I may not be the protagonist of any story, but I am finding my way, which is all I need. I will fall, I will falter, I will cry, and this will all be okay.
Here’s the deal. The dragon never came for me. I always imagined the dragon would be blue and wise, but I think dragons, like feminism, like women, come in different forms. Sometimes they are blue, sometimes green. Sometimes they roar at the top of their voices, and sometimes they are painfully stupid. But dragons are strong, just like women, and they don’t need anyone to tell them that, though sometimes it is nice to hear.
I do not think I would give up everything to save the world, and I may be a coward, but I love fiercely, and there’s my feminism. I love my brother, who I go to whenever I need advice. I love my dad, who tells me stories. I love my brave Mama, who taught me words, and I love my dog with his bald spots. Feminism is love, bravery, strength, and anything else you want it to be. It is true and essential, and I am proud to be a woman, which makes me strong. So yes, no dragon came. It is alright. Darling, I am the dragon, and I will roar.
Shefali teaches English at St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bangalore.
Featured illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India