When a shy girl grows up only around women, all her ideas about men come from novels and movies. My favorite book of that time had read ‘If a boy teases you, he likes you.’ Although this felt deeply unsettling, I took it as a fact. And I added ‘If a boy likes you, he makes you uncomfortable’, based on what the media had taught me. Thus, in my growing years, I made strong efforts, to hide, and prayed that no boy ever like me.
I never tried to befriend the few boys I knew from my neighborhood. I did not want to see my mother smirk. I was a good girl, I did not do such things. I even avoided conversations with male cousins my age, because as I had heard, all men thought the same things. Sex was an ugly, dirty word, a compulsion, a duty and so I condemned every woman who talked about it, because, for me, it had meant that they wanted to suffer, to be accepted by a man.
I remember him, the first guy who told me he liked me, and just as he finished, I felt fire rising to my throat, my stomach screaming, I had to puke. How had I let this happen? My clothes always fell below my knee, I only talked to girls, my swim dress had sleeves. That was the day when I decided to give up swimming because that is where I knew him from.
It will be difficult to deny that this moment was the first of the many turning points in my journey to unlearn my assumptions. Despite the things I believed, I had felt safe around him, at least I used too. But he had liked me. ‘Good girls’ were not supposed to be people’s crushes.
Somehow, talking to younger or older men was not scary. It was men of my age that bothered me. And so I chose to be lonely, to be a ‘good girl’ like I was expected to be.
After middle school ended, I begged my parents to put me in a co-educational school. It was not that my beliefs had suddenly shifted or my fears had diluted. I just wanted to be able to talk to boys, without that sting in my chest. I told them that I only wanted to talk to men, because I would have to, in grocery stores and workplaces. These are the only two places a ‘good girl’ goes to. Somehow they understood, for they too had had trouble in talking to people of the opposite sex, and they agreed. Within the next three months, I was at a classroom with sixteen girls and nine boys, tightly covered under my knee-length obedience.
I sat with the quietest girl and I slowly became her. Although I had always been a dancer, I chose not to perform, because I believed that it would keep me safe. And I wore my uniform, two sizes big. I was the ‘good girl’, I had to be. So when I noticed a friend talking to a guy, with her palm covering her smile, I assumed, he was manipulating her. I decided to question her, and as I walked, my chest puffed to fake confidence I whispered to her, asking why was she doing this. She was startled and felt deeply judged, as she explained, that he was like a brother to her. I did not understand, but I started to notice the purity in their relationship and so I began to accept it. Some men and women can be friends, but the relationship must be like that of a brother and sister. Innocent, protective, and hopefully a little distant. I also accepted the couples in long term relationships, because I believed in marriage. And I made a ‘guy friend’ – the friend of my friend, whom I had never really talked to but had twice lent a pen.
I was opening up to the possibility that maybe people of the opposite sexes can be friends. But there was still a worry buried, what if one of them intended something else? I decided that I would be careful. After school ended, I decided to go to an outstation college, so that I could explore this possibility and also develop myself as a person. Thus landed upon a completely different side of the country.
My first day at law school had felt like a dream. I remember all the wall hangings and stationaries I had bought and the books I had taken with me. And I remember my roommate, and how we fought over tube lights, mosquito repellent, and loud music. I had made acquittance with a girl who only talked to a boy, but she was nice to me and so I chose not to dislike her. But I had trouble believing that they both were not dating, as they seemed close. I had seen my fair share of romcoms and read plenty of chick-lit books.
I started by sitting with a boy in my class and kept our conversations minimal, only limited to how much was needed. I was a ‘good girl’. And so when the opportunity struck, I changed my seat, and sat with a girl, choosing to focus on her sex than whether I liked her company.
After a semester, during my first internship, I made my first male friend. And after office hours, he, a female co-intern, and I traveled to most landmarks in the city, eating ice cream and making memories. I was nervous and awkward, but they both accepted me. I took them out for pizza on my birthday and we talked in silly jokes. By the time the internship ended, I had learned a lot of things. Maybe, men and women can be friends. For the first time in my life, the thought befriending a guy did not make me feel dirty. And so after the internship ended, we kept in touch. I had had bad experiences with men, but this somehow felt natural, and safe.
By the end of that year, I started questioning my outdated beliefs. I had befriended a boy and it was felt just like when I made friends with a girl. So I decided to unlearn, and I taught myself new things. I told myself, it was not my fault if someone brushed his arm on my thigh; I did not have to hide if someone looked at my chest for too long. It does not mean anything if he asks to borrow a pen; It does not mean he loves you if he calls you late. If he calls you a friend, maybe he means it.
I started talking to more men and realized that some of their fears were just like mine. When a male cried to me about his sister’s death, I cried too, because I felt empathy and love for him, platonic and real. I realized, when I was worried about others’ intentions, I was judging them, rather than waiting to find who they were. I learned, to let people be. We are all homes of ideas and dreams, locked by our unnecessary fears. To be free, sometimes we have to let go.
Thus, in the next two years, I forced myself to participate as many extra-curricular activities as I could. I organized an event and talking to many people in the process. People told me, I appeared much more confident now. I had slowly, started to lose my fear of men. I spent time with my friends from my internship and I felt happy. I danced on all three nights of my college fest.
Gradually, I also allowed my definition of love to change. I started to think of it as beautiful, pure, and selfless. I decided to let people show me who they were and in doing this I found that the world radiated positivity and abundance.
So I am choosing to become a good person and not a ‘good girl’. I have started now, to learn things from experience and not movies and books. I have stopped assuming what someone else might be thinking. I talk to people I find interesting and sometimes have long conversations that reach nowhere. I invite my male friends to my home, just like I invite my female friends. And although I still find romantic relationships difficult, I accept that growth is a process; I have to do it by myself, one step at a time. So last night, after a virtual game of Ludo, with two of my closest friends, both boys, I realized, men and women can be friends, even best friends, without it meaning something different.
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's June 2020 Issue. Read the full issue here: https://issuu.com/beetlemag/docs/june2020
Illustration by Dhanashree Pimputkar