Defining freedom

One of my friends is a high school teacher. She is innovative, has a deep insight into child psychology, and is dedicated to her profession. Her students love her. She maintains a library that caught the attention of an educational survey team and she received the ‘Innovative teacher award’ that year. Her students are her success stories.
She is married, but has no children. The commonest remark she gets to hear from her neighbours and peers is this:
She has no children. No responsibilities therefore. So she can easily live life on her terms.

Recently, I put up a post on FB that read thus:

It is interesting how work is synonymous with job in India. In my months of being away from a regular job, I am amused when people ask me what I have been up to in terms of work. When I tell them all the things I have been up to, they appear perplexed and ask me, “But what about work?” And then I realize that writing a book or working for a social cause or anything that one derives meaning from, does not amount to work in the Indian context. And the irony is that it is at these times that I have done more significant work, than when I am into my regular job, slaving for an institution.

I was surprised to see how this statement created a huge impact on my students. Some of them messaged me to say that this was the most inspiring statement they had read in the recent past.

But one of the comments on my post read:
‘One of the factors that accounts for this perspective is responsibility. One must be free from all or most responsibilities in order to live life on your terms completely.’
This comment from one of my friends, who is a successful ophthalmologist and the mother of two children.
For one brief moment, those words cut through me and made me uncomfortably aware of the label that society often confers on a single woman in India. My friend had said it without saying:
‘You are single. And therefore free to live life on your terms, for you have no responsibilities.’

Labels, and what they stand for, often hurt more than the circumstances that one endures for real.

My friend, and many like her, speak from within the confines of a system that has successfully conditioned its followers to look at the world and form opinions based on the yardstick that is devised by that system. A yardstick that reduces the infinite possibilities of the human mind to the confines of a label. In that system, there is no regard for emotions. There is no place for dreams, imagination, curiosity and creativity. There is no significance attributed to the larger purpose of life, which is key to every human being’s internal happiness. There is not even value for the very planet that the system feeds off.
‘Safety’ and ‘security’ are the key words in that system. As long as you allow yourself to be enchained by it, your safety and security is guaranteed. It doesn’t matter if your life is reduced to existence…if you become a victim of mental illness…if you are half-dead. Your safety and security is ensured. In exchange for your freedom and happiness.

Now, I am not belittling those giants- safety and security. All I am saying is it takes immense courage to burn those boats to safety and security, and choose freedom and happiness. And somehow, my friend fails to see this courage that is involved.

I suppose many people think freedom comes easy. That is not so. Especially in a conservative society where adherence to the system is of primary importance.

To quote one of my students:
In India, one studies to get a job. One gets into a job to earn money. One marries to have kids. And then one raises kids in order to repeat this cycle of existence.
In India, one doesn’t make choices, for the paths are all clearly laid out. And if you make a choice and step out of the path, you are a social outcaste.

I grew up in a world where I had always been treated as a human being. Gender was secondary. Somehow, it never slipped into my interactions with people or into my perception of myself. Even when I fell in love, my relationship was constructed on the foundation of my love for another human being. Labelling myself or the people around me, was always alien to me.

Being single was a choice I made when I realized at one point that I felt a greater sense of responsibility to the world than to one person. I was aware that such a decision involved taking responsibility for my life. ‘Single’, to me, was just a state I was exploring on my own terms. Just as people explore marriage on their own terms. It came with its own set of challenges, and with its own equation of freedom and happiness. Somehow, marriage never came in as the answer to any of those challenges. The challenges never hurt as much as society’s attitude to single women.

When my father was ill and we went through the complicated state of affairs that characterize chronic illness, I had no help for the simple reason that I was single, and therefore ‘free of responsibilities’. It is with a shudder that I recollect that phase of my life when I walked unfamiliar paths all alone. When I was subsequently doing my PG, I would struggle to attend to my responsibilities at home and at college, for I had nobody who could take up my responsibility even for a day. When I was unwell for a long period, waking up with bouts of angioedema in the middle of the night, I could never call my neighbours for help because I was aware that they never approved of this life I had chosen. I eventually developed a deep fear of illness for I realized that illness and loneliness were the worst combination.

I suppose those paths led me to where I am today. After all, man’s journey of self discovery primarily involves his rising out of pain and suffering. And in the course of my life, I have realized that this drive is the strongest.

I have spent the last several years redefining my equation of life…removing all residues of the system from within me…unconditioning myself and rediscovering things for myself. A student recently asked me:
So what do you see as the purpose of your life?
To which my answer was:

I have always dreamt of a world free of pain, suffering and violence. And I have always been fascinated by the human mind. So I believe that the purpose of my life is to help people overcome their pain and suffering and realize their potential to the fullest. To help them discover themselves. Teaching is one of the means by which I implement this. But that is only one of the means.

I wonder if my friend would acknowledge this as a responsibility. I wonder if she would ever realize that the world that meets the needs of women like her, and their families, is the outcome of the passion and persistence of those few dreamers who were regarded as social outcastes? In all the moments that she has thought of the future of her children, I have thought of the future of the world. In all the moments that she has thought of the education her children should receive, I have thought of the education the children of this world should receive. In all the moments that she has aspired for awards and achievements, I have aspired for the smiles of the people around me. I wonder if given a chance, would she ever find the courage to trade the safety and security of her protected world with the freedom and happiness that I choose?


2 thoughts on “Defining freedom

  1. Your words have silenced me, Vidya. I’ve always felt that we are genetically programmed to be insensitive and judgemental; there’s also this sense of ‘holier than thou’ in our DNA. I’d grown up with that, and I know what a constant struggle it is to not be a product of one’s upbringing. You have managed to keep your head up, and I’m happy to see that you’re also accepting of those who haven’t. Sharing something I’d written a while ago, though it doesn’t really in context with what you’ve brought up.

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