What do you do when you find yourself trapped in a system, one which wraps its tentacles around you despite your ability to question it? Such is the disheartening realisation I came to terms with during the lockdown.
At the start of the lockdown, like most savarna upper-middle-class privileged youth, I was complaining of being unable to go out while choosing my next binge-watch on my laptop. My life more or less revolved around posting stories about my “mundane” lifestyle, and giving in to trends such as making Dalgona coffee and home-made momos.
That lasted until the day my grandmother died, and I had to move to my father’s ancestral home to be a part of the 13-day ritual. During the few visits I had made in the past to this three-acre property on the grimy streets of old Lucknow, my parents had done their best to shield me from the subversive culture that persists there.
Within just a few hours of being there, the toxicity built up so much that it took on physical manifestations and left me with an upset stomach and a fever. It was not grief that I would blame, it was the suffocation of it all. The days felt longer and longer as I kept taking in everything that had been right in front of me that I had been unable to truly see because of years of naivety.
I was being subject to a purely orthodox and conservative atmosphere, where there were clear power dynamics between the men and women, and with people blindly giving in to customs that made no sense at all. There was body-shaming, bullying and all sorts of problematic things said – things I stand up against – only here I was not supposed to say a word.
Given all that had been going on in the world, the past few months had already taken a toll on my mental health. Hitting a breaking point was on the horizon, and this visit threatened to tip the scales.
My parents didn’t have much say in all this. Nevertheless, they had chosen to “adjust” and asked me to do the same.
But when one is faced with difficult circumstances, the question of whether they stand for what they believe in or whether they give into societal norms matters. Sometimes we skirt the issue to not make it about ourselves. Sometimes, we know it would be best to keep our personal biases aside. But what is the threshold? Do we wait for the moment where staying mum time and again pushes you to the brink of destroying all that you believed in, let alone revolutionising others?
I wanted to scream, and ask for answers, and hoped that the “well-wishers” around me would help me understand if and why I was wrong. But there I was, trapped in my own thoughts, knowing my words would hardly bring the change I so wished to. I knew my rant would be met with a declaration of my being “insensitive”, instead of anyone actually trying to get to the root cause of generations of turmoil and suffering and the hypocrisy that accompanies being unable to do so.
People give in, is what I realised – it is, after all, easier to not use your brains and follow “tradition”, toxic as it may be.
Still, it is impossible to agree with sexist and Islamophobic relatives. We may try and understand it as a learnt behaviour, passed down generation to generation, but that does not mean the cycle cannot be broken. It is of utmost importance for us to assert our viewpoints, especially when people try to corner us with conservatism.
One uncle expressed disgust at the Muslim name of one of the societies at my college while I was applying for a post for coordinator.
“Why do they have to bring Islam into everything?” he asked. When I called him out for being Islamophobic, his reply was, “If being tied to my roots and being faithful to Hindutva implies being Islamophobic, then yes, I proudly am one.”
During those 13 days, I did try to be one among the crowd and be part of the conversation, but it was difficult – all everyone wanted to talk about, as I saw it, were unnecessary matters; and not about COVID-19, the stifling of democracy in India, the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, and the fight against patriarchy, caste atrocities and what not.
Instead, conversation centred around body-shaming, objectification and gossip. They spoke about everyone’s kids except their own and I remember talk about “that one” who “strayed” from traditional academics and ended up “ruining his life”. Then there was talk of another who was “brilliant” because he studied engineering and settled in the US.
Even if I tried participating in such conversations, I couldn’t find anything to say. Then I would have to listen to statements about my being shy, and how that would be “good for my future-in-laws”.
Also read: On Being the Daughter of a Delhi Policeman
All this while, since the house was in mourning, there were other distant relatives visiting us. I, being an only child, would get asked, “Where is the boy?” and then, everyone would jump in at once to explain my mother’s illness and inability to beget a second child. While there was concern about my acne and food requirements, not once did any conversation arise about mental health, a concept I realised that was too foreign to even begin to break down.
In an attempt to understand the same, I spoke to various members of my family to get an idea of why this status quo seemed so unbreakable. There have always bee very inherent misogynistic rules in our family – for example, the women are always expected to eat after men, and some female members sit on the ground even as male members at a higher level.
I had a conversation with my aunt (a victim of the same), and she told me that when she first came into the house after getting married, my late grandmother “taught” her to always sit on the floor as a way of showing respect. Even though no one explicitly tells her to continue with this practice anymore, it has become a habit. I urged her to break out of it, and told her that if she wouldn’t, she would just pass it down to the next generation.
My father and I started helping in the kitchen and doing our own dishes. When another aunt saw this, she applauded us, but I asked her to not indulge in this false “glorification”.
In these little ways of mine – I wouldn’t say I managed to rid my relatives of the misogynistic beliefs – but I left the place better than I found it. It is also clear to me that how ever much we may protest or educate people about feminism or political correctness, Indian households still have a long way to go.
And the only way ahead is to keep having uncomfortable conversations.
Annanya Chaturvedi, an English Lit major from Lady Shri Ram is a shrewd overthinker and sardonic scribbler, trying to make sense of the world through penning down her soul. You’ll find her satiate her artistic self by indulging in photography or poetry in her spare time.