A Letter from India is a monthly letter from Awanthi Vardaraj, a feminist writer living in India. Each month she’ll be exploring different topics, while focusing on her experiences as a feminist and a feminist writer.
“Where did you go?” demanded my grandmother sternly. I looked up from the act of untying my shoelaces, surprised at the tone of her voice. I shrugged nonchalantly, which is code the world over for ‘who cares’ in teenage speak, and then, glancing at the expression on her face, I responded with mild surprise that I’d gone out for a run. Her response was a classic, and one I’d hear many times from the adults in my family as I grew up and blossomed into a young woman. “Alone? At this time? What will everyone say?”
What will everyone say? My initial flippant response, that everyone would say I’d been out running, was ignored. In turn, I began to ignore this rather ridiculous (in my opinion) fear that my mother and my grandparents seemed to harbour, and went out running at dusk, without permission. I kept getting chided for it until I was rather severely punished. I sulked about the punishment because it was over the top, in my opinion, and indeed it was. But it was supposed to be. Because if I couldn’t–or wouldn’t–pay attention to the opinions of people around me in the small stifling South Indian town I grew up in–how on earth would I ever be accepted by society? How would I ensure that I had a reputation of being a good girl? How would I ever find a man who would be brave enough to marry me?
Welcome to the world of the Indian woman. We are born into families that worry about us from day one, just like many other families around the world. But our families worry about us differently. Will we be good girls? Will we be accepted by the societies that we’re born into? Will we–someday–be good enough girls?
From the time I was very young–perhaps because I was raised by a mother who was rebellious herself (she divorced her abusive husband, becoming an incredible rarity in the eyes of the narrow-minded people that populated our small town)–and perhaps because I was a voracious reader from the time I was very little, consuming words like food–I was never going to fit into the little slot that was carved out for me by my community. My family worried about that on the one hand, whilst encouraging me to be myself on the other. It was a weird and confusing juxtaposition; I lived an incredibly contrary existence. I began speaking my mind from the time I was very little, informing an uncle that I could be anything (when he told me I would one day be a mother), and inciting rebellion amongst the girls at the all girl Catholic school I studied in. I imagined I was like Maria in The Sound of Music; I imagined that the nuns whose burden it was to educate me frequently burst into song about me. ‘Oh how do we solve a problem like Awanthi?’
It turns out that problems like Awanthi never get solved at all. Because problems like Awanthi grow up different. We think, act, and speak differently. We don’t want to be good girls. We don’t want to fit into little boxes. We don’t want to live in the same towns that we grew up in. We don’t care what other people think. We don’t want to be good enough girls.
I have done it all wrong, if you like, but the way I’ve lived my life has been incredibly right for me. I’ve travelled alone around the world, having adventures that have made my mum worry on an almost daily basis. I had sex for the first time when I was twenty, with a man I loved and who loved me, but we–gasp–weren’t married. I’ve since gone on to have relationships with other men and they have been difficult, and painful, and rewarding, but they have all been physical. I’m still not married, although I would like to be. I’ve spoken my mind about everything under the sun, and I’ve begun writing about my life and my beliefs as I embark on my journey as a freelance writer. And perhaps my worst crime of all is questioning all of this in my words in a country that would rather I sit down and shut up, but I persevere.
I persevere because this is my focus with my feminist writing, and in my column here on ROAR, I want to focus on Indian women. The good, the not-so-good, and the good enough. The girls who are slotted into little boxes, and the women who grow up shrinking into themselves so they will continue to fit in. The women who do it all, despite a culture that tells them they shouldn’t. Indian women. Mighty, strong, beautiful, and silenced. The women who are raped and discarded by their societies because somehow it was their fault. The women who were attacked with acid because they dared to say no. The women who are ignored by their families and their governments. The women who are beaten into submission because they dared to speak up. The women who are burned by their husbands and in-laws when they’re still brides because their fathers couldn’t afford to give them more dowry, to bribe those worthless men to marry them. And the girls who never got to live to be women because their lives were snuffed out as babies, simply because they were born girls.
I’ve been a writer all my life, for as long as I can remember. It suddenly occurred to me that writing is my weapon, my pen is my sword. I have a voice, and I have a lot to say; I will not go quietly into the night; I will be writing my truth for the rest of my life.
Awanthi Vardaraj lives and writes in the port city of Chennai, in the south of India, where she runs her own small artisanal bakery, and keeps a garden full of jasmine plants and herbs she still cannot nam