“Ever heard of India?” Yeah, it’s that country that serves extremely spicy food, has movies that look like musicals, and hosts the most festivals worldwide. But that's what everyone knows, here is what you need to know. India is a country that still believes in superstitions, has countrymen that work for social approval, and breeds a population of those that still have faith in rudimentary ideas and beliefs. How do I know this? Well for starters when I was 12, I learned that women aren’t allowed to enter temples during their menstrual cycle. My mom said, “It’s unclean blood and temples are a form of purity.” Now maybe this made sense to you but I was a peculiar kid, “but mom, if God is the form of purity, then why would God give us impure blood?” My mom like every Indian parent didn’t expect a follow-up question. And if one asked, the answer was always ready, “Again with the questions! That’s what our ancestors did and we follow in their footsteps because it’s the right thing to do.” Right? In what world was it right? The actual answer was that in older times women didn't have pain killers or sanitary napkins so they couldn't stand for long hours at the temples due to extreme discomfort. A simple Google search would have enlightened my mom but she chose to blindly believe what her mom had told her.
The art of not questioning anything like many other unsaid rules was popular in India. My parents choose what I should study, who I should meet, and what I should wear. My father put a roof over my family's head and food on our plates, so his decision was always considered the final decision. Now I know you’re thinking that this sounds like a dictatorship but honestly, I didn’t think so, at least not until I met him. The day my parents let me go to Mumbai from Agra for college was the day my life turned around for the better.
A small-town girl falling in love with a city boy is a romantic tale that’s overtold but here I was a small-town girl with a city boy that was completely changing her world. His name was Mohit, he was born and brought up in Bombay, his family dealt in real estate and he was the most challenging human being I had ever met. The girls in my class loved him, the boys wanted to be him and the teachers adored him. For someone with average looks and a middle-class background this guy was completely out of the league until he wasn’t.
It was the first day of class after winter break and who is destined to sit beside me? Mohit. I had noticed he was always a middle bencher but with an empty class why did he choose the spot right next to me? I was already flustered with the fact that the most wanted boy was within an arm's distance but I was more anxious with the words that I chose to speak next. After all, it could be a make or break kind of situation. He could sense my weak attitude, see my mundane nature, and choose someone smarter to sit beside from tomorrow. It wasn’t like I was crushing on him; it was just that I didn't want to make a fool of myself. So, I opened my mouth thinking an introduction would be the perfect way to break the ice but his suave nature got in the way. “Hi, I’m Mohit and you must be Priya. I was about to go and sit a bit behind, with it being the first day of class and all but I could not go by without greeting such a pretty face”.
“What a complete jackass” was the first thought I had. He probably knew that I am from Agra where species like him rarely exist and so he has the upper hand, but he was not going to get that satisfaction today. “I didn’t know one had to be pretty to receive a greeting from anyone. Is that how Mumbai functions?” I expected his eyes to pop and him to go sit behind me but his answer startled me. “Judging someone by their looks is beneath me but complimenting them for something they have is not. If I have offended you in any way I apologize.” Just the talk of looks took me back to a few months ago when my mother and I had disagreed about the looks of Ranbir Kapoor vs Aditya Roy Kapoor. My mom liked Ranbir's innocence but I preferred Aditya’s chiseled face. That conversation had somehow reached to my marriage, which is how every conversation of a 23-year-old single Indian girl ends up with only to reach the conclusion that it was fine if I picked a face I liked as long as my mom-approved. So, essentially, I would be marrying a face that my mom liked. Anyways, back to Mohit.
“You know a pretty face isn’t even that important in life, Om Puri didn't have a pretty face and you see what he did for himself. It’s the brain that I find attractive.” Brains before looks? Was he serious? As the class started filling in my need to know more about him heightened. “What about society? Having brains can only get you so far, you need to take other opinions in mind too.” This was met by a rather immediate, “What for?” to which I replied, “Well, societies base their opinions on past experiences, and Indian societies are mostly insane. Haven't you ever blindly followed your mom's instructions because it was socially acceptable?” I knew I had created a tense moment here for a first meeting but I was impressed at his wit. “Indian society built a superstition in my mom's head that said not to cut nails after sunset. She had never questioned it until I told her people in ancient times didn’t cut their nails at night because they didn't have bloody electricity.” My mom smirked and left the room but I knew I had just challenged her to the truth, but more importantly, I had chosen to use my brains to prove her wrong. As Mohit narrated the story I remembered how my mom had the same superstition but I wouldn’t ever have the guts to challenge her.
Soon enough Mr. Patel came in and started with boring introductions giving us more time to talk and this time I wasn’t going to ask a serious question, “So, how was your winter break?” My vague question had weirdly now caught his attention and he looked me right in the eye and spoke with pure passion, “It was amazing, I enrolled in cooking classes and learned way beyond what I had expected. I could make you 5 different fillings of vegetarian tacos right now.” Cooking? Where did that come from? How does this boy keep piquing my interest? “Is cooking something you’re passionate about and want as a hobby or a career?” I already knew the answer to this, there was no way he was going to say career. Mohit Chadha had a real estate empire and was well settled in the upper-middle-class bracket, why would he ever rock that boat? And Indian mentality pushes men to carry on family businesses not because they are smarter but because the girls are destined to marry and follow their husbands around. Or at least that’s how I knew Agra operated. “I actually want to be a Chef” said Mohit interrupting my thoughts. “But obviously you can’t, you’ll be expected to join your father, right?” and he answered strongly “No, my elder sister will”.
Had I just heard what I heard? I knew how western societies functioned but gender equality in Indian family businesses was never equal. After graduating from highschool I had friends who married immediately. In a small town like Agra, marrying at a young age gets you more suitors, you can jump societal status through marriages and husbands provide your financial security. Yes, everyone, I knew in Agra had a son because obviously they wanted their name to pass along, not ever thinking that a girl could do the same. I was glad that Mr. Patel had sneered at us after Mohit’s last statement because I honestly needed a few moments to myself. Women empowerment was a concept I had read in books or seen in movies but never witnessed in reality. Even if I was well educated, I knew the norm would be to marry first and join whatever my husband does, and when the kids come along leave everything and be happy. Again, I was content with that before but now? I was questioning it all. “What if I don’t actually have to do that?”.
My attention should have been in the class but, it was fixated on trying to find a few honest words to answer Mohit’s question, “What do you want to do after college?” I knew my parents would expect me to marry a man of their choice. Arranged marriages are as big in India as spicy food, 90% of marriages in 2016 were arranged, so maybe there is some merit to it, but was it really where I saw myself after college? Mohit pinched my arm as I hadn’t responded yet. “I don’t know, Agra doesn't really give a girl much choice after college.” This was when he shifted closer and whispered sternly, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those who’s been saving for marriage? I mean you have a head on your shoulders, brains that make you top each financial class and you’ve networked with every professor we know. You’re practically a pretty nerd, why would you marry and not get a job? Wait...unless you are dating someone.” His voice was so pure as if he was actually looking out for me that I couldn't say anything. Instead, I felt a tear roll down my eye, “Well nobody asked what I wanted to do, I was always told to listen to my parents...I don’t even know if I can date anyone because the thought of having parental approval would probably matter to me more than being in love. That is how my upbringing has wired me to be”.
A tear was definitely not what I had expected in my first meeting with Mohit but he asked questions that nobody had before and the aura around him was so comfortable that I couldn’t help but open up. Mohit listened obediently and then held my hands, “You deserve someone amazing, and you don’t know what the world holds for you yet. Take time out and think for yourself, not your parents, not society but you...I’ll be here if you need me too.” Emotions had surged through my body. He was so close I could smell his aftershave; his touch was soft and his words opened up a world I had never thought of. However, it was still a world that I would very much like to be a part of.
Throughout the day I had thought about Mohit, what he said and what I wanted. We had exchanged numbers and hadn't stopped talking for a moment. And at each moment we discussed something life-changing like how women in India are groomed to be wives before they are groomed to be career women, he kept narrating points that astounded me every second. Where was this boy all my life and could he give a quick pep talk in Agra? From a single conversation in class to months of talking, meeting his friends, and most importantly witnessing the woman in life was somewhere changing my life for the better. It was a month before graduating when my mom called not to ask about my finals but with a potential boy offer, like always I could have delayed this conversation again but I don’t know what ticked in me that moment and I declared “Mom, I don’t think I’lI come back to Agra after college”.
Pin-drop silence followed, “What is this nonsense? Why don’t you want to come back to your family?” Now I was thinking about this decision on an individual career level but leave it to my mom to drag emotional drama into it. “It’s not about family, it's just that I have studied so much and I want to get a good job after it”. I heard a loud gasp, “Studied? I knew we shouldn't have let you leave Agra. Amit’s family called for you and everyone told us to call you back but we agreed on letting you complete your studies but maybe we were wrong, maybe we should have called you back”. And there it was again, marriage, only because I voiced my opinion. “Mom, I’ve met Amit twice. I am not marrying him and why does it matter if everyone said yes to him, isn’t it me who has to marry him?” My mom agreed to this but she followed with an unneeded emotional story of how everyone wants the best for me, marrying early is better, how you should listen to your parents because they are your final well-wishers and blah blah blah. She tried every tactic she could to get me to come home but there was something Mohit said which stuck, “What do I want to do?” So, I asked Mom.
“Mom, didn't you want to work before marriage? And she answered like a lawyer, with another question, “What is this question? Besides I didn't have the choice, your grandfather found someone suitable for me and we fell in love and decided to build a family.” At this point, I wasn’t even in love with Mohit but I somehow blurted out, “Well, what if I was already in love?” My mom’s anger peaked, “So this is what it's all about, is the guy of the same caste? Have you considered how the families will get along? Or considered the idea of a failed marriage because you didn’t ask us before?” Now we were both angry. In the last 10 minutes, she had made clear I was to fulfill my parent’s wishes and not mine, choose to be a housewife over a career, marry someone they choose rather than one I love, and after marriage let my husband make the decisions that my parents were currently making. So, where was the freedom?
Tears rolled down my eyes as I thought of what to say, escaping Agra would mean letting go of family a bit but it would also be a path to discovering myself, learning from my failures, and most importantly being an independent woman. And who knows somewhere down the road, I would find a guy like Mohit and we would educate our girls with the same values that we had and not the society. Maybe escaping the Agra family would lead to a stronger future family, maybe I could destroy patriarchy for my family, destroy societal approvals and teach them how to be human...maybe this could teach me how to put myself first too? So, the question was do I submit to wearing the good girl mask that keeps me in the limelight of Indian society, or do I remove it and be myself? And her next question led me to my answer, “You’re coming home right away, you don’t need a college degree for your life”. “No mom, you’re done making my decisions. I am choosing what I want to do with my life and more importantly who... I... want... to... marry. Goodbye!”