Love never really held much meaning for me. I wished and yearned for freedom instead. And maybe I just was more bereft of one than the other, but growing up in a big house in India with first and second cousins, taking the toys no one else wanted and the blames no else would, I had embodied love only as freedom. Freedom from judgments delivered partially and from trepidation of causing offense in the house that was not ours. Our mother had been married off and the house now belonged to her brothers and their wives. The law didn't allow for equal rights for daughters in parental property at that time. It was generosity rather than entitlement that allowed us to be there while our mother went to work. And why did she have to work when our father did too? That premise itself, unjustified and illogical, vetoed the need for us to subsist in our grandparents' home.
I could empathize well with the martyrs in the black and white patriotic films that were so often played on the national channel those days in a nation still young in her freedom. I understood well the anguish of having to follow unreasonable rules and whimsies that seemed iniquitous. Freedom was worth dying for. I was proud to be born in a free country; oh the horrors of otherwise! I sang the national anthem the loudest in the school prayer line, making sure I maintained a posture so straight that my back ended up slightly arched.
The meaning of freedom changed with the passing years. Freedom, or rather the lack of it, altered faces. There was the girl who got acid thrown on her in the nearby slum, so we couldn't talk back if someone hooted, especially not to the boys from the nearby slum who knew where we stayed. Travelling alone in a cab had its risks. If we had to, a crowded sweaty bus ride where there would be occasional groping was the thing to do instead of seeking the comfort of a cab. And then there was the girl who ended up dead. She had taken her life, the only thing to do if one got pregnant before marriage. So our elders were cautious, very cautious, with freedom.
I longed to walk as I wanted, unaccompanied and unsolicited, by the banks of the Ganges. But I couldn't, even in broad daylight. I wished to wear what I wanted, but had to leave home in the 'suitable' and change later, at a friend's house or in the small dark college washrooms. In the free country of one million, like thousands of others, I was not free.
Was I loved? Yes. I had parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. But as I said, I had embodied love in a strict form -- and what I didn't have bothered me too much to be justified by what I had.
So I left my motherland behind. With luck and diligence, I secured grades good enough to get accepted to an U.S. University. The name wasn't necessarily familiar, but the explanation following -- "an Ivy League" -- was. With persuasion and the timely unraveling of my mother's close-knit family, I convinced them to let me go. I boarded a flight to Syracuse, New York--going through Delhi, Amsterdam, and New York City.
I was in a relationship before I left, but ended it soon after arriving. After all, the parameters there had been chosen with no freedom to choose. He came from a traditional family and had made it quite clear that although there was "freedom" in our friendship, there would be none after marriage. He was quick and verbal in expressing what is appropriate to wear and how to behave. Not too good of a sign for someone who had lived her years yearning not to be what to do and how to do it. So I chose freedom as soon as I could. I chose someone from a smaller family, having had enough of extended large ones. And I chose someone who didn't care what I wore or if I'd already had a boyfriend. Love was redefined once again as freedom.
Then I worked hard to get a job. Publications, conferences, networking -- I did them all. The economy was crashing, it was September of 2008. And although my fiancé would still have one year on his graduate research assistant scholarship, I couldn't imagine being a dependent. For me, that word came with chains. Chains that provoked a suffocating dread. So I clamored and clawed and secured a job and then permanent status to be in United States. The country where walking alone by the gorgeous gorges in upstate N.Y. in shorts and tanks, where I ate pork vermicelli and drank vodka and most importantly -- speak and write my mind out loud, I had tasted freedom for the first time.
In my corporate eight-to-six job, with a husband working in the same company and with a child less than a year old, I continued to feel liberated. I had to endure only minimal criticism from family and in-laws, much can't be imposed over phone and Skype calls. And I read about horrible gang rape incidents from the comfort of my spacious living room with the added assurance of safety from my gated community and security system. Yes, bad things could happen to me here, I could be raped or shot or killed, but I believed that perpetrators would be prosecuted appropriately. And that preserved my sense of freedom.
But then, quite unexpectedly, I wasn't so sure anymore. Rising up the ranks in my mostly male Fortune 500 company, I started feeling less and less free. Being a woman was favorable for my job role, but being "womanly" wasn't. Being a woman allowed me to be in the protected category of 'technical females' which my company wants to promote and proliferate. But the ranks are run by men, so being womanly provokes discomfort. The lack of numbers is disadvantageous, as it felt like swimming against the tide. Every day. We -- the few of us -- discussed in despair how we made "womanly decisions" or "showed emotions at work" --- mistakes which relegated us inevitably. And strangely once again, I couldn't choose what to wear and how to eat. When I wear what I wear, civil and appropriate but maybe a little "too" put together, I often raise eyebrows. It's a possible indication of less grey matter, or even worse, of having too much time on one's hands. Looking disheveled yet acting in composure is favored well. With a baby and a managerial job, I am expected to look exhausted. If my husband, on the other hand, showed up looking unkempt, comments would fly before too long on how his needs are obviously going un-cared for. Telltale signs of not having a "good wife." Those chains, the dreadful suffocating ones, had a different shade this time, but had started to take form again.
I felt the chains closing on me again when I got pressured to call family after an exhausting day only to hear their tacit expectations of who should still be cooking after equal hours at work. Their comments were not too different from my colleagues, who remarked frivolously on how my husband seemed to be losing weight having to eat the inadequate cafeteria food, while their wives packed them home cooked bliss in multi-size containers worthy of a buffet spread. I was expected to find these insinuations amusing, but I couldn't.
I also heard my friends' stories. Attending prestigious Chai chats and ladies lunches. They worked equal hours yet assumed the master share of housework. They were the ideal mothers, while the fathers were busy following dreams of achieving greater good or attending the needed extended-hour meetings. They came home early, feeling ashamed, knowing that they will be judged by peers. They throw parties, bejeweled and exhausted, and post photos without delay. And yes, being condemned on lacking in housekeeping skills can't be compared to getting dowsed with acid, but I couldn't help but feel that somewhere, the stories were related. Prejudice and bigotry, marginalization and role-setting, protected in century-old cloak of tolerance, can reach unimaginable outbursts when consequences are non-existent. Hence I couldn't feel free anymore. Even in the United States of America.
So I made a desperate attempt to talk. To my husband, whom I had chosen to love in pursuit of freedom. From whom I had been drifting away as life got more and more eventful. Communications were needed less and less -- we had either adapted or learnt to let go. Of habits that we couldn't change. One exhausted evening though, I made an attempt to converse. After all, freedom was one habit I couldn't let go.
I told him of the judgments implied and perceived. At home and at work. I told him I couldn't cook. I told him I don't want to spend all my time with my baby. I told him things relevant and irrelevant in this messy, disarrayed attempt of conversation of mine. He was listening, but not interrupting, and I was ready to leave when I ended. I assumed he wouldn't have much to say. As with numerous times before, this would be an expression, not exchange. But this time he spoke. Slowly and sadly, he spoke of freedom -- his lack of it! How he felt judged for needing to be the better provider at home, or in the workplace, nervous that his mistakes would not be forgiven. While I struggled with a lack of numbers, he struggled with the opposite; having too many of his kind in the company made success harder. How he had been judged on being an introvert, or on needing to cry. He had been judged on not being "manly" enough, by me too, when I had expected him to be the one with all the answers. Yes he had less chance of being raped in his motherland, or anywhere really, but he, too, felt helpless. He felt ashamed for his own kind. And I realized suddenly, sitting in the sunken, now softened couch we had bought with our first paycheck, that freedom has been equally important to him all along. He chose me, someone he saw as independent and passionate, to be free from having to carry the sole burden of courtship followed by support, as is often expected in our culture. And strangely and abruptly, I felt free again. The world still had its atrocities, and the circumstances haven't changed, but I felt understood and loved. It's not me crusading against the world anymore in search of rights and liberties; it was us in this together. And now when I drag myself back into the 2400 square foot house at the end of day every day feeling judged, angry and exhausted, I can find solace by looking at the man already in the living room changing diapers, knowing that my pursuit of freedom is acknowledged and respected as he is on a quest of his own.
Love was never important to me, but it now is; it gives me strength and company to persist in my struggle to be free. In any land.