Feminism, Freedom, and We
“Punarapi jananam punarapi maranam, Punarapi janani jatare sayanam, Iha samsaare khalu dusthare, Krupayaa pare pahi murare.”
These words transmogrified my life. But why did it take so long? From the detritus of life, can one resurrect a castle?
The words spoken twenty years before hung like spider webs, the orb weaver’s, shiny and decorative from outside; however, can one forget it was a trap…after all.
The oxygen cylinder shows 20 minutes of supply left. It is futile hustling for another breath; I don't want one. Twenty minutes is enough time to write one apology to her in the hope that she forgives and my soul can depart sans the virus that afflicted me years back.
For as long as I remember, I have been dissatisfied with wherever I was, whatever I was doing, and whomever I was with, and that is pretty much the obituary of my life. Too bad? It is what it is. I changed lipsticks and accessories, armchairs and recliners, careers, and houses with ease and elan with full credit to my nagging discontentment. With relationships, I stumbled, fell hard, face first.
A nurse comes to check my pulse; bleary-eyed in a PPE suit, she looks at me wistfully. My country’s healthcare system teeters on the verge of collapse; as I look around patients and relatives crowding every millimeter of available space, there is someone near the storage area surrounded by bins of medical waste.
He passed away a week back; at 74, my father was both alone and lonely. With travel restrictions in place, my older sister in Oklahoma could not travel to be with him when he needed her the most.
"He is sick. You are heartless. You may never see him again. You know he is all that he has right now." Her words numbed me. Would he accept me after years of absence from his life? My teenage pregnancy turned him away from me. The abortion left a deep wound in my heart, and my mother passed away two years later as if announcing she was done with the vagaries of life. Then a series of more arguments and acrimony until he announced that I should leave. He got me married.
I had often heard that the foundation of a strong marriage is acceptance and trust. Kabir had enough to provide both, only that I wasn't ready to receive it simply. How can you constantly drive within speed limits? It may be applicable on the road; however, in life, the rules bend, twist, turn, and break. I felt suffocated in the acceptance, in the certainty, and the comfort marriage brought. Finally, Kabir got weary of my erratic demands, changing cities and careers, and just being so unsatiated all the time. It was his tipping point, I guess when he asked- "I am not sure what you expect from me, Naina? I am not sure if you are sure what you want from life? To me, you look like a compulsive gambler who is sold to the thrill of gambling so much that she cannot see how bankrupt she is going to be at the end."
“Fcuk it, Kabir, keep your bankruptcy to yourself. I am meant for more; gone are the days of servitude. I belong to today's time, the feminist who is not ready to settle for anything less; I have choices, I have freedom, and I shall exercise. You cannot shackle me, " I growled.
"If Fcuk is your definition of freedom, then I am definitely not going to hold you back." You should leave, is all he replied.
The speed limit bored me, and I pressed the gas pedal hard. Neither he nor my five-year-old daughter could stop me from the foolhardiness of my chase. The foolhardy part, I was blind to it then.
I was 31 and believed they-don't-get-it. Her tiny hands like handcuffs held me from my flight of fantasy, and I walked out. The workplace challenged me, and it was fertile ground for me to take off. Personal misadventures continued, professional risks paid off, and my bank account swelled, but something within started to dry. Only I did not accept; the hubris blindfolded me well. A few years later, as part of a corporate wellness program, I flew with my team from Australia to Ernakulam, Adi Sankara Nilayam, the maternal birth home of Sri Adi Shankaracharya. That's where I met her- against the soulful chanting in the Nilayam's prayer hall alight by peacock panchavati diya on the altar of the guru Adi Shankaracharya and idols of Shiva and Parvati, Ram and Sita, Vasudev and Radha.
“Punarapi jananam punarapi maranam, Punarapi janani jatare sayanam, Iha samsaare khalu dusthare, Krupayaa pare pahi murare.” She emerged from nowhere, her honey-colored skin clad in saffron, head shaved, and a U-shaped sandalwood paste tilak on her forehead. Her body was immersed in a trance as the beige-colored Tulsi mala around her neck dangled. It was difficult to keep my gaze on her, for she would appear and then disappear in the crowd. Sifting through bodies singing and clapping, my eyes fluttered looking for her when I spotted her again, sliding through the mahogany door, out in the courtyard resplendent with wooden pillars, ivy leaves, mango, and guava tree, and innumerable hydrangea and yellow marigold. The evening dusk was melting into the night sky, giving it a shade of orangish purple, and just then, I felt a tap.
"You have been looking for me?"
Her voice sounded brittle, and so did her eyes, and her face looked familiar as if I had known her all my life, yet there was something that struck me so hard I choked for a response.
“Umm… yes, no ...I mean... Hi, I am Naina.
“You look flustered. Are you okay?”
My eyes transfixed on her face, deceived my words. I continue to stare.
That’s when she jolted me out. It felt like I had been awoken from deep slumber; years of heartache seemed to have disappeared. The peace that surrounded her aura made me lurch, and I croaked, “Yes, I am. Do you reside here?”
“Yes, I reside anywhere where Vasudev is.”
“Wow, that sounds heavy... Vasudev…as in Lord Krishna?”
“Yes, Lord Krishna.” Every word she vocalized with piercing eyes.
“How long have you been here?”
“Really? You love this place a lot.”
“Don’t you? It’s magical. Isn’t it?”
“I have a magical world outside this Nilayam and that world,”
“How is that world, Naina?” She interjected.
“That world is magical; it has pleasure, challenges, risks, excitement, and happiness.”
“Aah. So, you are happy?”
“Happy?" I repeated.
"Happy?" I cleared my throat.
"Yes, Naina...am I inaudible, or are you unsure?"
Silence spread between us as I groped for an answer. Seconds waited in anxiety until they sublimed into minutes. What lodged in my larynx, I am yet to decrypt; I stood in a stupor, minutes trickling into hours until the crowd dissipated and the mahogany entrance door with intricate designs of Krishna closed. The sandal and mogra fragrance hung in the air, and the hush of people finally eased into a quietude. I stood in the company of the guava tree towards the rightmost corner of the courtyard, trying hard to answer her, but to no avail. The stars came out, and the nightjar began to call. In the forest below, the crickets and cicadas began tuning up; and suddenly, the trees were full of the sound of insects. In the soft mooing of the Gir and Sahiwal tending to their newborn, we stood in absolute silence waiting for a response as my life replayed before my eyes: a desperate itinerant, exploring life in expansive and intimate ways. The risky lure of the open road kept me wild and aloof. And when you do that, a heartbreak or two is inevitable, a kind where you have to teach yourself to do the basic things again: to think for yourself, to walk properly, to hold yourself upright, to sleep, and to breathe. The craven dereliction of duty as a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother pummeled me constantly; nonetheless, the seemingly inexorable thirst for bigger, better, flashier numbed me. I put my needs ahead of everyone else’s and indulged in my independence. I made people responsible for providing for me and left them when they didn’t meet my expectations. I found luxuries in life, but happiness was elusive. I must have been looking for it in the wrong places. I placed myself on a pedestal so high that when I fell, I was unrecognizable. All this while, I kept blaming everyone for not giving me what I wanted, only to realize later that the keys to my well-being were always in my hand. My quality of living reached the zenith, and my quality of life touched the nadir.
With the first light of dawn, she held my hand and whispered- You should leave.
That was two years ago. Returning to Canberra, I resigned, sold the penthouse, and returned to Nilayam as a sevika. I was done with seeking happiness in the wrong places, asking people to gratify me rather than owning up to my life and my actions. That one question that night changed my life.
A year back, Covid struck, and the sevaks and sevikas traveled to places to provide relief work. Months later, I contracted it, too, my lungs burdened with the mutant. However, I carried a bigger weight- an apology that I owed to my daughter and my husband, whom I had not gathered enough courage to contact until now.
In the Ernakulum Holy Cross hospital, I see death staring close. Oxygen supply is a big concern as doctors scurry to save lives. The cylinders are expected any moment, and many of us would get a chance to breathe. A nurse in a PPE suit collects the letter from my hand addressed to Kabir Damodaran, Shillong. With five minutes of supply left, that night floats before my eyes, the night that changed everything, that night when I met myself at the Nilayam. To me, these two years have been like a personal funeral I engage in each day. It took me time to comprehend my loss. When my mother passed away, I lost a link that held me close to myself. There is a lot of love that went unexpressed. Somedays, I would lay on the cool tile of the bathroom, my hand to my mouth so that no one hears me cry. On other days, I would feel a rock in my artery and deep remorse sucking the air out of me. On other days, my heart would leap around so wildly I would faint. Now I feel I am getting closer to him, my father. I am processing grief, my disappointment with myself, and my secret shame, all of it together. Sadness, you see, is not linear; grief comes in waves, sometimes years later, but it does because we all need closure.
You should leave; I hear it again and close my eyes.
Author's two cents-
Feminism and Freedom- At first, all of this seems like an easy sell, but later it gets complicated. My understanding, quite possible, is limited. However, I feel a good working definition that has truly worked for me is: feminism is what feminism does. It differs for everyone: the one with the bindi, bichiyaa, and kumkum and the one without; the one draped in nine yards and the one with crop tops; the one with Botox and the one without; the one holding flying an airplane and the one with a rolling pin, the one within the walls of the house and the one beyond, the ones with a million followers on social media and the one without. Unfortunately, we continue to trap ourselves and others in tight jackets about what feminism is and what feminism does. Freedom means having the freedom to choose, choose without the fear of judgment. It is not a license to manufacture clutter and turbulence in society or our lives just to prove a point. I am not blind to the discrimination and what happens behind the facade of the glorious dictums of society and patriarchy; I am aware of the claustral domesticity and physical assaults. I see it all. However, there is a difference between a crusader and a vigilante.
We all seek absolute freedom, free from the boundaries of society. We desire to exist without rules. But freedom is essentially built on intelligent self-restraint and discipline. For example, you can freely move on the road when you and others obey the traffic rules; only then can you enjoy a long drive to Khandala. If this discipline is not followed, there will be no control over the movement of people and vehicles, and this will lead to confusion and chaos. Freedom, thus, loses its meaning and degenerates in the absence of adequate regulations and directions. We need rules to guide our behavior and not turn into impulsive pleasure-seeking maniacs working without control. That is a license, freedom unleashed, reckless freedom which does not do anyone any good.
To read the story on Momspresso, please click on Feminism, Freedom, and We.