Punjabi writer Ajeet Cour’s striking autobiography reveals the prolific author’s tempestuous life

First published in Punjabi in two parts, the autobiography of the Sahitya Akademi-winning author is now available in a new translation.

I have often pondered about what we regard as women’s liberation, the idea of her freedom, where does it start, and where does it end? What are its boundaries and limitations? Could a woman actually achieve complete liberation in the true sense of the word? What way should she adopt to gain this so-called liberation? All the old meanings of liberation were becoming meaningless in front of me.

If a woman works and earns her own living, if she’s not dependent on anyone for her needs, then she’s capable of throwing off the age-old chains of slavery that she’s bound with. This is a generally accepted concept.

But is economic independence, self-dependency, the first criteria for liberation? Nonsense! I had been earning my own bread for years, and yet all the time I was consumed by an unknown terror.

A husband’s beatings, hatred and disgust, again and again being thrown out of the house...I had borne everything, despite earning and sustaining myself and my daughters.

For so many years...for thirteen long years, I kept torturing myself, because I was totally petrified, intimidated by the thought of creating an independent life for myself.

Everyone would scare me with stories of what would become of me if I did. Daarji, Beeji, Raj, my own friends who numbered barely two or three, all would say, what option did I have but to continue to suffer?

And now that I had emerged from my prison after breaking innumerable doors, had left both my father’s and my husband’s houses, staying independently in a hostel, earning my own living, still where was this liberation? Economic independence alone doesn’t allow a woman to experience liberation. Nor is it gained by breaking free of the proverbial seven constraints, leaving a father’s and husband’s house to create your own world. Neither from fighting life’s battles on your own, nor from garnering the courage to live alone by shattering the shackles of age-old social norms.

Breaking the outer handcuffs and fetters does boost your self-confidence a little. A feeling of self-satisfaction does arise at having protected your own dignity. There is an awareness that I am not just a heap of garbage, I am worth more than that.

Confronting and shaking off the ties of both, the parents’ and the in-laws’ houses, knocking down the well-defined, moss-covered, snake- and scorpion-infested dungeon walls, struggling with the storms outside, standing in the cold, heat and rain under the naked sky, challenging the whole earth and sky with one’s puny strength, is no easy task!

Yet in my mind there was no feeling of either freedom or liberation. I was still living in fear – of so many things, still enduring so many hardships. Seeing the unrelenting, inquisitive eyes of passing strangers, I still felt as scared as ever.

In school, and now at the British Council, and in the TV station, wherever I saw a few people whispering together, I used to feel that they were talking about me.

All the time, I felt that Raj was meeting my colleagues, the warden of my hostel, all the teachers at Irwin School, the Punjabi writers, and saying things to them against me, like he used to tell his patients in Patel Nagar, the neighbours and even the shopkeepers and servants. The more he spread tales about me, the more I kept retreating within myself. If anyone tried to dig out details from me, I just wanted to vanish from their sight. I knew that in comparison to Raj, my worth was less than even a straw, totally insignificant. He was a doctor. If any doctor speaks kindly to his patient then that patient starts regarding him as a god, and Raj could wrap his patients around his little finger superbly. He was also blessed with a healing touch. How could his patients then not believe his words?

And could I help anybody? What could I achieve by narrating my story to anyone? I detested sympathy. I always used to feel that those trying to probe and question me were not my sympathisers, just spectators expecting to be entertained!

Due to Raj’s cunning machinations, the image that had been created in the minds of the residents of Patel Nagar about me was that of a disreputable, rakish woman, who indulged in all kinds of revelry, and was using her job as an excuse to stay out of the house the whole day, not at all concerned about either her husband or her children.

In the face of this image, I continued retreating into my shell.

And poor Raj, the saviour of the sick and suffering, was tolerating a vixen as a wife, for the sake of his family’s prestige, for after all, she was the mother of his innocent daughters...For the sake of his daughters...simple, innocent children...without whom he couldn’t survive – this is what he told everyone. “Poor me! My poor daughters!” And taking out a handkerchief, would wipe his eyes. And everyone would say, “Oh poor soul! What a god-like doctor! So much money! So much respect! A sinful woman has wrecked the poor man’s life. Dear Lord, what sort of divine justice is this? You have written a shrew into a deity’s life! All the result of past karmas. He mustn’t have hurt even an ant in this life, he speaks so kindly, how benevolent he is! Oh, this is indeed what is called Kalyug!”

The way I used to avoid the residents of Patel Nagar, I was still avoiding them, and everyone else around me, certain of what they must be thinking of me. Was this liberation?

The only difference was, there were no beatings now. No insults morning and evening. There was no suffocation. I could sleep when I wanted to, and get up whenever I wanted.

What sort of clothes I wanted to buy for my daughters, I could decide that now. I was not dependent on anyone for permission. If there was any limit, any fetters, it was just how much I could work, and how much I could earn to fulfil our needs.

Liberation is not a name for the knocking down of outer walls. It’s actually a name for the collapse of a dungeon-like, dark hole in your mind. The foundation of that dungeon has been filled with redundant customs and traditions of a bygone era. Advice passed down from a mother’s mother’s mother...A conviction that woman has no identity or worth except as a daughter, wife or mother.

Age-old lichen clings to the walls of that dungeon in the mind. With water oozing out of the stones beneath the lichen. Age-old stones, hewn into the foundation. Bats have hung from the roof of that dungeon. For ages! At the slightest movement in the dungeon, they attack, uttering and beating their wings, and attaching themselves to the object causing the disturbance, suck her blood, pluck out her flesh, and snap her bones before going back to hang onto the roof, upside down.

Excerpted with permission from Weaving Water, Ajeet Cour, translated by Masooma Ali and Meenu Minocha, Speaking Tiger.

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