A few years ago, as a result of an unbelievable mix-up, I found myself at a party of middle-class youngsters in Delhi, mostly between 13 and 17 years old. Instead of making a quiet exit, I decided to stay, and make the most of it. The first thing I noticed at this teenage party is that the boys and girls were in separate corners. The boys were bragging and talking about adventurous things. The girls were giggling, speaking about clothes, gossiping about boys, and nervously sucking on Pepsi straws.
By and large, it did not seem too different from the background noise when I was growing up. In our days my mother used to be concerned about the right career for her son. When it came to her daughter, she only thought about her clothes and the type of man she would marry one day. Like every Indian middle-class mother, she hoped that her daughter would make the right sort of friends—the “right sort” being defined not by their character, but by their social position. She unconsciously used the Indian yardstick, 'log kya kahenge' (â€¦”What will people say?”) It was important to measure up to that yardstick.
As I looked at the girls at the party I suspect that they too had been brought up believing “what other's think of you” is what matters. One of the girls, seeing me out of my depth, came up to talk to me. Her name was Rekha. We chatted about this and that until I thoughtlessly asked her, “What do you plan to do?” I realised my mistake because she became nervous and defensive. She mumbled something, and I felt that I may have lost a chance to make a friend. However, I quickly made amends by turning the conversation to pleasanter things. As we talked, I became convinced that one must never ask this question of a young person. What I really wanted to ask her was “Who are you? What do you want to make of your life?” But this question was never asked. Yet, I think it is so important for a youngster, especially a girl, to face this question. Boys, in any case, grow up having to think about these things, but girls do not. They never quite face reality in our sheltered Indian middle-class homes.
I read somewhere of an American study of junior high school students (13 to 15 years old) that suggested that boys and girls change more than their hormonal levels. It showed that adolescent boys become submissive and less confident—less likely to speak in the classroom. This seemed to be consistent with what I observed about Rekha and her friends.
There were no unforced errors the following day. I found myself at the right party, lunching with the parents of these same boys and girls. Between helpings of masur dal and boondi raita I met Rekha's mother. She said that Rekha had spoken about me. “What did she say?” I asked. “Oh, that you are a nice man,” she said. “Is that all?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. Before I could get anything more out of her or get to know her (something that I would have liked), our hostess swept me to another room, in order to “catch up on old times”.
“How do you know her?” asked my hostess, pointing to Rekha's mother.
“I don't. I met her daughter, Rekha, last night,” I said.
“It's really awful that her husband gets drunk every night and beats her up,” she said.
“What about Rekha?” I asked. “He beats her too,” she said.
“I mean, why doesn't she do something about it?”
“What can she do?”
I looked across the room at Rekha's mother and I felt a great sadness. Listening to my hostess talk about the other women at the party the sadness deepened. Many of the women in the room, I could guess, had callous, boring marriages to men who had a pot-belly and a wandering eye. One of them was divorced and she lived close to a daily fear of slipping into poverty. Hope had begun to elude of them. Why did I feel that yesterday's giggling, starry-eyed daughters were doomed to become today's cynical and brittle mothers?
I wanted to tell Rekha that we live in a new millennium and how are you going to lead your life in the 21st century? You don't want to grow up into a helpless victim like your mother. I hope you will marry a fine young man, but you mustn't have the illusion that the nice young man in Rajendra Nagar with a white Maruti will take care of you and determine your happiness. You have to be ultimately answerable for you own life. No one else can do that. In order to be answerable you have to take charge of your life or “paddle your own canoe” as the Americans say. You must believe that you can act upon your life, and not have life act upon you. Thus, you will become an autonomous woman who is spontaneous, self-reliant and responsible. Thus, you will be “inner-directed”, rather than “outer-directed”, in David Riesman's words”.
If there is one thing that holds a woman back in middle-class Indian society, it is her reluctance to face the reality of money. Very simply, money must be made. You have to earn a salary or run a business. That requires hard work, making decisions, and single-mindedly pursuing those decisions. It is the only way you will be free in the long run. Then, if you are caught in a bad marriage or are divorced (which I hope you won't be), at least you won't be trapped or be a prey to pressures, or be enslaved by society like your mother. You will think less of “log kya kahenge” and mo