Years have passed since I migrated from the freedom and comfortable anonymity of the cosmopolitan city I grew up in, to the uncomfortable conservatism and conditioning that characterizes life in the small town that is my current home. I have adapted to this alien environment by preserving my detachment where necessary. And yet, there are days and experiences from which I cannot alienate myself. They sometimes shock me into a state of mute helplessness.
Perhaps it is after moving into this part of the world that I realized the limitations of being a woman. Until then, it had never occurred to me that gender could limit one’s freedom of expression. I had never really experienced the sort of fear that comes with such realization. It is strange that the passage of time has made the environment more hostile to women. The truth is that the freedom we see in terms of liberalism in the external facets of the lives of urban women is far removed from the actual scenario that surrounds the average Indian woman. If anything, these women are now more vulnerable to social assaults than they were in the past. As women venture into the domains of education and profession, there are infinite stories of oppression, assault and abuse. The fact remains that it is very easy to mutilate an Indian woman’s mind. We are all social beings. It is impossible for us to abolish our dependence on society. And in a society that sets very high expectations from its women in terms of character and morality- expectations that are too perfectionist to be human, it is natural for the woman to be the victim.
The woman is either fighting society, or she is fighting herself.
In the small town that is my current home, it is not acceptable for a woman to display visible excitement, enthusiasm or an emotional interest in fellow-human beings of the opposite sex. Such a woman qualifies for a characterless woman. Imagine the plight of a 17-year old girl who wakes up to the news that posters have been put up all over town, portraying her in the most inglorious manner, defaming her in the most inhuman way! I will never forget the devastation I read on her face at that moment….her inability to even comprehend the ruthlessness of this act. My words of consolation fell on deaf ears. Her eyes were a blur….almost as if someone had suddenly turned off the lights in her mind, thrusting her soul into absolute darkness. I hugged her tight and she burst into tears, her hands holding me tight, almost like a child who was too scared to let go of that grasp even for a minute. I realized that her mind needed the non-verbal language of affection, support and trust now. It was not the time for words or reasoning. Her mind was a sinking ship that needed something to cling on to.
As she sobbed, I thought of the lady who had shown me pictures of some of the posters. I remember the energy and excitement with which she had gone about displaying it to people. Coincidentally, she is the mother of two girls. Perhaps she was so certain this could never happen to her or her children.
It is in adversity that one gets to see the true faces of people. Ironically, most of the women faculty stepped back. They avoided her. Some condemned her. Perhaps the act of moving away from a defamed girl, successfully earned them a morality medal…a bonus point on their own character certificate. The more diplomatic ones pretended that they were too busy with the more significant things in life.
In summary, everybody played safe. It is true that a woman is a woman’s worst enemy.
To be honest, I was scared like hell to stand by her side. I was already being attacked from all sides. Being single seemed to work against me. I suddenly found myself answerable to millions of people. But the only drive for the courage I discovered within me was her face. I could see the bewilderment, fear, helplessness, loneliness and sadness. It could have been me. I didn’t need any more reasons.
I realized that she needed people. At least until she was more settled in her mind. I had to talk to her batch mates and explain. I was in for a surprise. I didn’t have to explain. They had already made up their mind to stand by her side. The boys took initiative and the girls followed. That gave me a lot of courage. I will never forget those moments we sat in my cabin, trying to comfort her, and the smile that finally lit up her face. Of course, it was temporary. But those moments bonded us in a strange way.
A tough road lies ahead for her. But my gut-feeling says that these are moments of her formation. The kind of formation that stems from breaking. At all those places where she sews the broken parts of her soul together, she will discover her strength and spirit.
Millions of people live in a free world. But alas! There is no freedom in their minds. And then there are the ones who live in oppression, yet preserve the light of freedom in their minds and the music in their souls. They are the essence of human life- of its capacity for resilience.