I am a Hindu by Birth...
This means I was born a Kshatriya, a member of the caste of kings and warriors, though destined to be neither because I am a woman. My destiny is to marry another Kshatriya boy-man and bear children, hopefully sons, so they can continue the chain of ancestor worship that is a son's duty to preceding generations. Being Hindu is a religion, a culture and a way of life; it is non-negotiable. I cannot change my caste or religion, and no matter where I live in the world, whether I am an astronaut, a skinhead, a topless dancer, or a housewife, simply uttering my surname to another Hindu immediately identifies the village of my caste and the level and measure of respectability I deserve.
I am British by Education… Mostly…
Because I did attend nursery and elementary class in a Christian convent school in Bangalore, where I was reproached daily by the nuns for neglecting to persuade my grandfather to buy me proper shoes rather than the one pair of sandals I had, which were against school regulations.
In England, the first time I ‘legitimately’ left home was at nineteen, to go to university. I anticipated with relish the freedom of being out of the clutches of my mother's stern rules and discipline, to finally be a grown up and do whatever the hell I wanted, whenever I wanted to. As well as studying for my degree, I stayed out late partying, smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, and had a boyfriend; all the pleasures of youth I'd not been allowed at home. I imagined that rebelling against my upbringing was what freedom was really about. And for a while, it felt true. But such a freedom couldn't be sustained, least because indulging in these forbidden pleasures was killing my body.
I am Indian by Nature…
As a woman, I am nature's ultimate manipulator. As a girl, I was my father's possession, until I was deemed ready for an arranged marriage, when I would get upgraded to the position of being my husband's possession. However, even though my father died when I was six, my mother raised her daughters within the strictures of a culture as though he was still alive; to be seen and not heard, to unquestioningly accept a woman's place in the hierarchy of a society in which my primary role was to be a domestic and culinary goddess. Within the sea of familial duty and expectation, contrary to the assumed patriarchy, I learned that it is women who rule the family; women who gossip and keep abreast of the community's happenings, women who forge mutually useful relationships, and women who decide their daughters’ fate.
When a woman becomes Queen of her domain, she will put the fear of God into the younger generation. She will cling to her power by wreaking vengeance on her future daughter-in-law, because why should the younger woman not suffer the pain and oppression she has suffered her whole life? Why should she care about not propagating the circle of violence and abuse? Who was there to care for her?
I am Female by Gender…
Yet in this most competitive of identities, oppression begins early, when I have my first period and am deemed unclean and unworthy to pray before the gods. Amongst other women, it is necessary for me to be a chameleon in order to survive, because indulging too much in the company of women, I am drawn into the trance of the woman's myth. I become a cackling gossip monger, debating food and family for hours, all the while feeling the vibes of superiority and arrogance from those who boast the most descendents and fattest bellies. Copious fat and grandchildren are the symbols of wealth and status.
I am a Woman by Marriage…
Regardless of my age, maturity or understanding, I ‘become’ a woman on my wedding night, when the husband I'm barely supposed to know, and with whom I have walked four times around the sacrificial fire, takes my virginity as his prize for being a man. In modern India, women can be virgins and lose their virginity as many times as they choose, although sex education and sexual deviance comes at a price. With money, the emergency ‘morning after’ pill is used in place of contraception and with money, a doctor can be convinced to re-stitch the hymen, thus ensuring that the foundations of social beliefs are not shaken and the expectation to still be a virgin on the wedding night intact.
I am NOT a Mother
Though I came close once, when I ‘accidentally’ became pregnant. Friends of mine with children often talk about ‘surprise’ pregnancies, or ‘we didn't plan it, but what wonderful news,’ as though becoming pregnant was an ethereal mystery, a spiritual communion with God that they had no control over, let alone the responsibility for growing and bringing forth yet another human on an over-populated planet.
I am not a mother because I am the one who made a choice not to have children. I will not make a pretense of being a shy, Hindu woman, who only deserves respect for my contribution, knowledge and wisdom when I present grandchildren to my mother. My purpose does not include holding the next generation to an eternal debt they can never repay, for receiving the beautiful gift of a life. To give life is not about forcing or measuring a daughter's accountability by the amount of money she gives to her parents, nor to suffocate her love by neediness.
By choosing not to be a mother, I am refusing to perpetuate the embarrassment of being a woman, when after decades my shoulders and back will have rounded into my chest and the line of my mouth set in frozen anger. I will not take a defensive stance against the world, as I wander lost in my thoughts, listening to nothing other than the repetitive cycle of my enforced beliefs. There is more to living than whimpering flirtatiously beneath the one response (‘Lovely!’) for all situations, because I have heard the harsh and critical voice that lies beneath the crocodile smile.
Then, Where Am I?
I am in Munnar, a hill station in Kerala, driving in a jeep down a steep incline. We have to get out and scramble down the last hundred metres, along the edge of a huge building site, to the small hut secluded in the trees. There is no ladies toilet, just one for the men! My mother and I are taken to the same room, where we will have our Ayurvedic massage. To say this room is basic is being kind. It is cold and there are mosquitoes everywhere, biting us in random places all over our bodies, in spite of the mosquito coils. The two therapists banter animatedly throughout the hour and a half session.
These are far from ideal conditions for a healing, therapeutic massage, yet I have never felt so proud of my mother. With just a curtain drawn down the centre of the room, she confronted her deepest inhibitions and let herself be naked and touched by a complete stranger for the first time in her life. She did not freak out and, in fact, quite enjoyed her massage. Sharing this intimate and vulnerable experience with her, I felt I was neither her daughter, nor she my mother. We were simply human.