Title

× Close
BOOK EXCERPT

Why I can’t be shamed, won’t fit in, and couldn’t care less

Even in 2016, the urban Indian woman who doesn’t check all the boxes is a creature few understand, and even fewer accept.

I’m an Indian woman in her mid-forties, single, childless, jobless, who dresses like an uncool teenager, wraps presents in newspaper, drinks, smokes, occasionally pops into a bar or a movie theatre alone, drives around in the middle of the night, has no ambition, dances tango, has taken to the guitar, is a commitment-phobe and an atheist, and says no a lot. For many people, if there’s a box that this fits into, it’s got a big “Handle with care” sign painted on it. People do.

At a nearby petrol station, there’s a mechanic who’s been topping up my car and checking my tyre pressure since I was twenty-six years old. The first time I ever took my car in for servicing, I jumped down into the filthy pit after him to look up the skirt of my car. To this day, when I pull in to the station, this mechanic asks, “You’re here on holiday?” It’s no use telling him, for the ten thousandth time, that I live in Delhi, right around the corner: he decided, eighteen years ago, that I either am not Indian or live abroad. He believes this with unshakable resolve.

India is a famously complicated place. For women, it’s doubly complicated – we live with staggering mainstream sexism and both casual and egregious violence at every level of the power pyramid. You can choose not to conform, but only if you’re willing to negotiate the crass misogyny and judgement that will come your way, and to risk your physical safety. Driving at night, you might be followed by a car filled with men who try to run you off the road. Walking down the street, you might find people staring and breaking into song, or groping you. People will try to make you aware of your shameful oddness in thousands of little ways.

Shame is key.

India’s goddesses are fearsome, beautiful, bare-breasted power-houses who make and break universes. They hold weapons in their many hands, and represent power. India’s flesh-and-blood women have vaginas, which make them the very fountainhead of shame. This country worships phalluses, but women are raised to believe in their own shamefulness, and taught that female modesty protects the whole world’s honour. There are degrees, of course – perhaps you’re a rural woman who allowed an unrelated man to see her face uncovered, or you’re a city slicker showing too much cleavage – but shame is the monkey on your back, and when it shows up, it imperils your whole family’s reputation. It’s been a long historical fall from the erotic celebration of Khajuraho to the prudery of today.

I appear not to have come preloaded with shame. My parents had more of it; they were raised in boarding schools by Irish nuns and Jesuit priests, but they were also great readers, well educated and forward thinking. They didn’t make a big deal of shame while we lived outside of India. I did ten formative years of growing up in Switzerland and Indonesia, blissfully unaware of the shit-storm that a bare leg or a public kiss could elicit. When we were home on vacation I had spectacular fights with my parents over things like wearing shorts or going out for a late coffee with a man I had only just met, but they argued for my safety, not against shame. I wore shorts anyway, and I went out for coffee anyway.

There was just one time in my teenage years that I confronted their socialisation – my father walked in on my boyfriend and me necking, and exploded: “This is not a flophouse!”

I remember being not ashamed of myself but shocked that he was calling me a hooker by implication. I yelled at him about it later and got a remorseful apology. I never heard anything like that from him again, whatever his opinions may have been.

I moved back to Delhi after college, living alone in my parents’ house while they were abroad. I chose to not choose shame, or the crappy words that come with it – loose, bold, fast, immodest, forward, slut, whore. A neighbour once leaned out of his window, wearing a singlet, and called across to the balcony where I was having a late-night smoke with a male friend: “You shouldn’t do all these wrong things.”

You could point to many things about my life that aren’t terribly orthodox, but the bottomline is I’m not squeamish about bodies. They sweat, bleed, excrete and get horny. This is, first and foremost, what it means to be human, as much as appreciating opera and writing philosophical treatises. Bodily truth is the frontline of existence in the world. I’m given to potty talk, menstruation talk and sex talk. I use my vagina the way I want to, and I am not ashamed of being a sexual being.

How do you go about being like this in a society that bleeps the word “arse” out of TV shows?

I discovered very early that eight times out of ten, doing the unexpected (or not doing the expected) deliberately, calmly and normally can calm and normalise the situation. Twenty years ago, the first time I walked into the local hole-in-the-wall liquor store, which is also stuffed groin-to-butt exclusively with men, you could hear a pin drop. I made my way in, making eye contact, smiling and saying excuse me, and they shifted scrupulously aside. They stared, but they were courteous.

When you don’t fit in, people are much more likely to assume that you don’t belong and don’t know any better than that you need to be taken down a peg or two. When they know that you do belong, they are very much more uncertain about how to treat you. Uncertainty has two positive points: it is not objectionable; and it makes people hesitate, a breach which you can nimbly fill with deliberate calm and normalcy. When you choose calmness and normalcy, you are often choosing it for the other person too, who didn’t know which way to go.

The columns I write for a national newspaper range in subject matter from the conceptual and political to the wildly personal, and they reflect my life as much as my thoughts. I’ve talked about a chequered love life, about not being built for marriage, about not wanting children. As much as I’ve received appreciation, I’ve also received reader mail like, “I think you are insane... For god’s sake, stop your corrupting writings in a responsible newspaper.”

Unhinged Hindu fundamentalist keyboard warriors cry “Prostitute!” at the drop of a hat, but usually only when a column criticises the government. Men sometimes write to say that they’re fans; those emails are filled with a kind of benign, intense curiosity – “How does your life work?” “What sort of creature are you?” “Do you think we could get a drink sometime?” – forgetting, I guess, that people you like in print are usually disappointing in the flesh.

But most of the people who bother to write say something that boils down to “Exactly!” and “Me too!” (I think there’s a square peg, round hole cohort out there.) Inexplicably, one notable slice of mail comes from readers asking me for a job, or some vaguely worded “guidance”. I’m constantly writing about how financially and professionally clueless I am, so that always cracks me up.

I left my brief marriage, to an absolutely lovely man, for no good reason other than I’m not built for marriage, which, if you ask me, is a very good reason. I knew that before we got married, and told him so. He said that it would just be easier on everyone than if we lived together. I said that if I got restless or unhappy I would leave. He said we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.

When the time came, he said, “Well, you always said that this might happen, and I will support whatever decision you take.” That makes him a jewel among men, particularly Indian men.

Leaving a jewel of a man is not the sort of thing you do lightly. In a society that is pathologically devoted to marriage, and hates free-range vaginas, you can expect shock and horror. Oddly, other than a few close friends who urged me to think about it, nobody said a single word to me, though I know people talked about it a lot. That’s the upside of living in a liberal elite cocoon in which people are too polite to bring up your separation, but love to speculate behind your back about whether maybe you’re a lesbo. After we split, my ex-husband used to take special pleasure in making sure we arrived simultaneously at a party, just to confuse the crap out of everyone.

Excerpted with permission from Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, Edited by Catriona Mitchell, HarperCollins India.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BULLETIN BY 

India, UK and the US agree that this one factor is the biggest contributor to a fulfilled life

Attitude can play a big role in helping us build a path to personal fulfilment.

“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.”

— Walt Disney

Throughout our lives we’re told time and time again about the importance of having a good attitude, whether it be in school, on the cricket pitch or in the boardroom. A recent global study of nearly two million people further echoed this messaging. When asked to think of someone who is living fully and to cite the number one reason for that fulfilment, “attitude” stood out as a top driver across India, the US, the UK, and a dozen other countries.

The resounding support for the importance of attitude in life is clear. But, what exactly is a “good attitude”, how exactly does it impact us, and what can we do to cultivate it?

Source: Abbot Global Study
Source: Abbot Global Study

Perhaps, for all of us in India the example closest to heart is the evolution of the Indian cricket team and its performance in crucial tournaments. The recent team led by M S Dhoni has had the type of success that we never witnessed since India started playing international cricket in the 1930s. Most observers of cricket, both the audience and experts, agree that other than the larger pool of talent and intense competition, a crucial new element of the team’s success has been its attitude—the self-belief that they can win from impossible situations. The statistics too seem to back this impression, for example, M S Dhoni has been part of successful run chases, remaining not out till the end on 38 occasions, more than any other cricketer in the world.

As in cricket so in life, good attitude is crucial but not easy to define. It is certainly not simply the ability to look at the bright side. That neglects the fact that many situations bring with them inconvenient realities that need to be acknowledged and faced. A positive attitude, then, is all about a constructive outlook that takes into consideration the good and the bad but focuses on making the best of a situation.

Positive thinking can shield people from stress, allowing them to experience lower rates of depression. A positive attitude also improves the ability to cope with different situations and even contributes to longer lifespans.

While having a positive attitude may not come naturally to all of us, we can cultivate that spirit. There are systematic ways in which we can improve the way we react to situations. And simple exercises seem to have a measurable impact. For example:

· Express gratitude. Start your day by acknowledging and appreciating the good in your life. This morning exercise can help reorient your mind towards a constructive outlook for the entire day.

· Adjust body language. The body and mind are closely linked, and simple adjustments to body language can signal and invite positivity. Simple steps such as keeping your posture upright, making eye contact and leaning in during conversations to signal positive interest have a positive impact on you as well as those you interact with.

· Find meaning in what we do. It is important to give purpose to our actions, and it is equally important to believe that our actions are not futile. Finding the purpose in what we do, no matter how small the task, often energizes us towards doing the best we can.

· Surround yourself with positive people. Your friends do matter, and this is a truth as old as the hills. The ever popular ancient Indian treatise Panchatantra, a collection of stories dating back perhaps to the 1st century BC, offers advice on how to make and keep suitable friends. And that remains relevant even today.

Play

In addition to these steps, there are numerous resources available to help people around the world adopt a positive attitude and lead a more fulfilled life. Abbott, a global healthcare company, is committed to helping people live the best life possible. Their website and newsletter feature life hacks for work or personal time like those listed below. These are great tools for those ready to lead a more fulfilled and meaningful life, starting today.

Source: Abbot Global Study
Source: Abbot Global Study

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.

× Close