I haven’t made it to Bharat so far. I am stuck in India. Bharat is suspicious of people like me. The biggest strike being that I am a woman. “Too much attitude … doesn’t she know her place?” Oh, yes, I do. It is right here where I am. And, sorry, I am not moving! Kya bolein? Women are not having it easy in Bharat. What’s worse, it’s going to get tougher.

When Superstar India was published in 2008, I had written about India’s Mayawati moment. Today, we are experiencing the Mahua Moitra moment. I had also mentioned the Rakhi Sawant phenomenon back then. Today, we have a young reality show contestant named Uorfi Javed replacing Rakhi in the publicity stakes, while Sunny Leone no longer shocks India and has gone disappointingly “establishment’’, plus, created her own, unique niche.

All these women are trailblazers. But a decade and a half after this book appeared on bookshelves, can we honestly claim there is better acceptance of those individuals who break rules in our maddeningly diverse country – men or women?

I am a misfit in Bharat. I simply don’t belong. Millions of women like me are squirming and fidgeting uncomfortably, as all sorts of labels are being stuck on us by those who want to hold women captive in another era; suppress and subjugate whatever individuality we possess. The same cage of conformity we had fought so hard to break out of decades ago is threatening to imprison us once more. Imagine!

We were naïve enough to imagine we’d won! I am not angry. I am not tired. I am not disillusioned. I am calm as I smile and say to myself, “Let them rewrite history books, pull down heritage structures, demean national icons, imprison dissidents, persecute critics, ban this, ban that, shut down centres of learning and culture, fabricate narratives, suppress minorities.” First, the mosques and Muslims, then the churches and Christians. What will that change? Certainly not our hearts and minds, not the songs we sing, nor the prayers we chant. We will dance, oh yes, we won’t let the music stop. Because we are the music and the dance.

Has the fight within disappeared? Absolutely not. When that goes, all goes.

India’s story reads like a Bollywood script – unbelievable and insane to those who fail to decode its astonishing success. Is it a bubble? A mirage? A fantasy churned out by say, YRF studios? Has India been converted into the most-watched OTT platform on earth? Is India an “Animal” that will also enjoy the movie’s unmatched box office run? We have the world’s eyeballs. We also have the world’s disbelief and scepticism. Surely, this cannot be true! What? India? The fifth-largest economy? No chance! Guess what, folks…statistics can be fudged. But numbers don’t lie this blatantly. And hey, we are right up there with the biggies, okay? Oh…even if we weren’t invited to sit at the high table, we’ve calmly set up our own and invited the rest to the lavish banquet. The “royal” India of old is back, but with new maharajahs – India’s neo-netas, a special breed that walks the talk, struts around the corridors of power with uncommon braggadocio. This breed is predominantly male. The number of women in the Lok Sabha is a miserable 78 out of a total of 542. The Rajya Sabha has just 24 out of 224. The list of women Chef Ministers is not worth tabling. Machismo rules. Widespread misogyny is thinly disguised. Alpha males dominate public life and discourse. The obstinately feudal attitude is here to stay.

Of course, not everything is smelling of roses or mogras. But why focus on the stench from Manipur when the no longer Mughal gardens of Delhi are bursting with blooms and fragrances?

Jasmeen Kaur, an unknown boutique owner, promoting inexpensive Chinese knockoffs, colourful sarees from her modest shop in Tilak Nagar (a locality of Delhi where Punjabi/Sindhi refugees settled down after Partition) shot to overnight fame after she posted a catchy reel on Instagram. It showed her draped in a saree and gushing, “So beautiful…so elegant…just looking like a wow! Just looking like a WOWWWW!” Nothing terribly original or persuasive about the message, right? But it took off, and how! So many top celebrities created memes and reels of their own. Soon, millions of Instagra, addicts were posting their “Wowwww” versions. Shameful admission: I followed the herd, and shot a playful reel with two lady friends at our Diwali party and was overwhelmed by the response. What explains the success of something this trivial and innocuous? Simple: It made all of us smile and feel good. Guess what? India is looking “Just like a wow!” right now. What a story! Jasmeen is now a minor celebrity, who featured in multiple media interviews, including a clip on BBC. From obscurity to overnight fame – a story like this represents a socio-cultural phenomenon that cannot be manufactured. The complete domination of social media is scary – everyone is in bed with the monster. Social media is the freaky octopus with multiple tentacles that have us in a vice-like grip, and India is its most attractive target; think numbers!

“You snooty Bombaywallas look down on the rest of India…like we are total ganwaars…unpadhs.” The man who said this to me was smirking superciliously, nursing an artisanal Japanese gin in his hand. He’d introduced himself as a London-based finance guy with one of the world’s largest private equity funds. He was dressed for the part – a sharp, well-cut navy blue suit, snowy white shirt, tan loafers, great hair. But he still carried a huge chip on his shoulder. Why? “I grew up in Bihar…” he said later, almost apologetically. “You probably have more money than most of these people in this room.” I smiled. “I do,” he confirmed without a trace of self-consciousness. Then? He asked his wife to join us. She was young, beautiful and spoke confidently. He turned to me smugly and said, “She works, you know. I allow her to work.” She beamed and stared at him worshipfully. Her eyes were filled with gratitude. “We are very modern in our thinking. But we also follow tradition,” he continued. “My wife has been fasting for the past three days – no water, nothing. For the welfare of the entire family…’’ She beamed some more. He sipped his gin. I wondered who was looking down on whom.

Upwardly mobile young professionals are struggling with similar contradictions. They want to appear “cool”. They don’t actually get cool. It isn’t about striking a pose. Cool is being yourself. Relaxed and at ease. If India is in transition, so are we. We aren’t our parents. We aren’t our children. We are us! Chill, and accept change as it happens, when it happens. The man from Bihar was touchy about his past, his antecedents, his ancestors, his beliefs. Unnecessary. No explanations were asked or needed. His wife wasn’t complaining (she could have rolled her eyes) but I wasn’t judging. It was he who was judging me; slotting my “Bombay Life” without knowing a thing about it. This exchange was taking place in Mumbai, at an upscale venue. Our man was there to hustle for new contacts and pump up business but being stupidly defensive! I smiled and left the couple to network; he was busy grilling a stock broker about the outcome of the next general elections. “Will the big man be back as PM?” he asked. The stock broker raised his eyes and hands skyward and shrugged. Good answer.

The very next day, a major scandal broke in the media – an estranged wife of a billionaire went public about her troubled 32-year-old marriage and accused her husband of battery and assault. Within hours, stock prices of the blue-chip company started to crash, and tumbled more than 12 per cent, erasing Rs. 1,500 crores. The wife’s widely circulated videos, podcasts and print interviews painted a grim picture of a marriage defined by emotional and physical battery. Despite all the trauma, she had chosen to keep silent till the dam finally broke. The wronged lady also mentioned the advice given to her by her mother-in-law (herself a victim of domestic abuse). It was to keep mum, no matter what, and think about the family’s reputation.

“Keep mum”. Instructions handed down to Indian women over centuries. Keep mum.

What has changed? Don’t be stupid! Nothing has changed. These two words that women grow up hearing, absorbing, believing. Why is it that more women than men “voluntarily’’ donate a kidney to family members in need? Four out of five living donors are women, a majority of them wives responding to coercion from families. Research establishes that most have no choice. It is a part of our parampara. Keeping mum is equally a part of the same parampara. If the wife of the financial whiz kid is okay being reminded in public that her husband is a benevolent man for “allowing” her to work, how different is her way of thinking from the socialite -wife who accepted her mother-in-law’s advice and endured abuse for years “for the sake of the family”?

Popular commercial films and successful OTT series reinforce these attitudes, while simultaneously, there is a sexual revolution raging across the country with women leading the charge. Divorce remains a bad word, but sexual adventurism is accepted more easily, what with countless apps that offer sexual gratification and services in many and varied guises. Access to pornography has never been this simple. Alarmingly young Indians have become blasé and shockproof, as hitherto taboo subjects are openly discussed on bold podcasts that celebrate inclusivity and diversity, even as India waits impatiently for same-sex marriages to be legalised. “What attracts you to a partner?” a dour-faced man asks an animated woman dressed in red. “Boobs,” she answers brightly and clutches her own. As a lesbian activist working in Pune, she goes on to describe her multiple erotic encounters at local bars, clubs, and restaurants. The interviewer looks bored. The podcast ends with the lady in red urging everyone to “connect” with their sexual selves minus fear. The Queer Literature Festival and Gay Pride parades in Delhi attract thousands of participants and supporters. Despite the shift in attitude, life is still not easy for those struggling with sexual identity issues at the workplace and within closed family circles. Priyanshu Yadav, a 16-year-old beauty influencer, committed suicide recently, unable to handle cruel trolling.

Despite the multiple challenges, our queer communities continue to bravely push through and seek courage through role models like my friend, scholar/activist Parmesh Shahani, who employs his considerable clout to sensitise corporate India, conducting workshops and presentations nationally and internationally, leveraging the celebrity status he garnered after the success of his well-researched book, Queeristan. When will gay marriages be legalised, ask those who endure endless hardships, denied rights available to straight couples. There is hope, assure those lobbying for change.

When people refer to “many” Indias, they are not wrong. We have extraordinary women like Meeran and Zoya leading the way, along with millions of other women, whose ambitions may not be as lofty, but who aim to ensure their own daughters never lack confidence and never lag behind. Having interacted with Meeran and Zoya, I was left with feelings of tremendous hope and anticipation. These are exciting times! Women must grab them! Take advantage of every worthwhile opportunity, make the most of all the options – and there are many. Our women are the backbone of our complex society. It is only now that government agencies have woken up to the untapped wealth women represent. There are 662.90 million of us, 48.04 per cent of the total population, impatiently waiting to break down traditional barriers that have held us back for centuries. We are finally telling our stories and the narrative is changing. Our songs and poems, music and dance, drawings and words are being celebrated across the world. To be heard, simply that – heard – is, in itself a huge breakthrough. We are not invisible! Look at us! As the rousing slogan for a cricket team, Kolkata Knight Riders goes: Korbo, larbo, jeetbo re! – we will perform, fight and win!

Excerpted with permission from Superstar India: From Incredible To Unstoppable, Shobha Dé, Penguin India.