Small Town Girls, an Intimate Portrait: ‘We Are Not Like Them’

This is the final article of a five-part series. Read the first here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

In an erasure of rootedness, Amrita Pritam begins her poem, ‘My Address’ with

“Today I have erased the number of my house
And removed the stain of identity from my street’s forehead.”

When us girls from small towns move away from our homes, we move to new addresses, new pin codes and new streets. In doing so, we rub off the “stain of identity” from our foreheads, and parade onwards to acquire new ones. From 221005, Ritwika moved to 400056. She moved from Banaras to Bombay. The religious heart of the most populous state of the country, Banaras is not as such a small town in size. At the same time, it is also not the seat of the cosmopolitan etiquette.

It is a small town because its residents live here impatiently, waiting to branch out and blossom, and eventually fall off the tree. Ritwika’s childhood was rooted in her parents. She grew up imitating them, learning and relearning their perception of the world. After seven years in Bombay and other worlds, she turned and changed. Often, there were arguments with her parents. When she returned home during the lockdown, she pondered what it meant to sit next to her mother and father, and come to terms with her own rootlessness?

An adolescent version of Ritwika remembers Banaras as the city where “everything was a taboo”. It was the realm where everything was forbidden, where everything carried the burden of shame. When girls grew up in this city, their school uniforms were spread further from skirts to salwaars to cover the shame of those who would look at their legs. Girls who fell in love were thrashed with shame. As she went on ageing, Ritwika realised, “I had a very rocky relationship with my parents because I always felt the need to put up a fight and assert myself, instead of lying to them and doing things my way anyway.”

Her need to declare herself was driven by an obligation she felt to not erase herself in front of her parents. “I didn’t want to be two different people in two different cities, it was about the identity I was forming for myself. I wish I could lie too,” she says. Her scuffles with her parents were not grandiose battles. Ritwika was crossing very fine lines of order – standing too close to male friends in photos, staying out late at night, sometimes crashing with friends who were not females. “My mother’s response to most such situations would always be ‘I understand everything you’re saying, but..’ There was an unspoken hesitancy she would not completely articulate. I know she was trying to accept who I was but it didn’t always come as an embrace,” Ritwika notes.

Growing apart from parents is a ritual of growing up. Just like a thread sways a kite, our relationship with our parents is also a tug of push and pull. This push and pull manifests itself most prominently in the years we are compelled to come face to face with the world. While Ritwika was herself undergoing a cultural shock in the chaos of the city, her parents were reeling with the shock of seeing their daughter shapeshift. This, in no way, was a phenomenon limited to girls from small towns. In many ways, Ritwika had more freedom than the people still living with their parents. Many who live with their parents are also in a constant tussle. However, for Ritwika’s parents, it always mattered where they came from. “My mother always said we have sent you outside. I know people there lead a certain lifestyle, but that’s not us. We are not like them”, she says.

While most parents in the city were aware of its ways, Ritwika’s parents had to be acclimatised to the city’s functioning. Back at home, she would be teased as the “Bombay girl”. In Bombay, her friends would call her “ghati”, for mostly innocuous things. Displaced between here and there, she often looked at her friends who shared bonds of warmth with their parents – where they could wear, eat, drink and talk to whoever they wanted to in front of their parents. Ritwika laughed and recalled, “I remember I once wanted to call a male friend over to help me study accounts. My mother asked me to call him only when she was home. I don’t know what she was concerned about.”

Also read: My Father Has Always Been My Greatest Adversary

Over the years, as Ritwika experienced feminism as a form of identity crisis. She noticed a pattern between the patriarchal order and her mother’s ways. Interestingly, many times there were also situations when her father would be uncomfortable with Ritwika’s actions. She says, “My father would never directly tell me if he wanted me to change a certain behaviour. He would slyly tell my mother to communicate it, perhaps because he was not comfortable in engaging in certain topics.”

She finds it funny now but she recalls a time when she would lose her temper over it. “I wouldn’t react in the most ideal way. I would yell and scream but now I have become more cognizant of the fact that they also come with their own history and context. I try to talk to them more patiently now. And I realise how privileged I am that I have parents who are willing to listen.”

Conversations with her parents were not always easy. More often than not, they were smeared with hurt. But as her parents heard her more closely, funnily, Ritwika thought, “My parents are probably stronger feminists because they decided to change at an age where they knew they couldn’t change much. I think it also helped me better negotiate my relationship with my own politics.”

Ritwika’s feeling of not belonging stemmed from the gap between how her parents saw her, and how she imagined herself. With her friends in Bombay, she could never talk about her parents the way they did. Within herself, she struggled with understanding if she was being respectful about what she demanded out of her parents.

“I was already living so far away from them, and they were growing older in my absence. Did I really want to trouble them so much?” she wondered. Not only did she want her freedom, but she also wanted her parents to know that it was something she deserved. She wanted to feel whole in front of them.

“I always thought about if Pinjra Tod could happen in Banaras. I know my parents always chided me for becoming too much of a Bombay girl, but I often think of how much they struggled to make me who I am. Sometimes I feel like asking them – but isn’t this what you wanted me to become? Perhaps all of us know the answer.”

With a full stop, Pritam frees her poem with

“…if you absolutely want to find me
then knock on
every door on the street of
every city of every country.
This is a curse, and blessing too
and wherever there is a
glimpse of a
free spirit
–know that as my home.”

Ritwika is yet to reach home. She is in waiting. But she has taken her first step towards her own understanding of becoming a free spirit. Speaking to me now, Ritwika tells me with a mischievous joy, “Through the lockdown, I was living with two boys since my flatmates left. And my mother knew. I thought she would react but this time she just asked a few questions and didn’t say much.”

Muskan Nagpal is an English Literature graduate and a Young India Fellow.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty