Jagriti, 24, works with a NGO in Delhi/NCR.
A home ‘full of love’
I grew up with two brothers, who had a much freer life that I did. My father would not let me away from his eyes, even for a few days. During the summer vacations, my brothers visited our relatives or their friends. But I stayed at the house, learning new things from my mother. It was good for me, they would always say.
I also did not have many friends. My parents did not encourage going over to friends for too long or allowing friends to stay over. What’s the point, they would always ask? I wondered too. If my brother could do it all, why couldn’t I? It was only years later that I understood that on my little shoulders rested the family honour. What if someone laid their eyes on me and stained the family’s prized name.
But at that time, all I cared about making my father proud. I thought this was the only way to get his attention, which seemed to be always focused on my good-for-nothing brothers. Every year, my father was elated when I topped school as against my brothers who would barely pass. He would discuss his business matters with me and sought my advice. I felt very proud and dreamt of building a career of my own.
No real choice
I finished school, with very good marks, and started considering colleges in Delhi. A graduate degree at Delhi University would help me crack the civil services exam, I told my father and was excited to hear his ideas about my future. My father who was reading a newspaper turned to me and said, ‘The women in our family do not study beyond school. You know enough now to run a household efficiently. Now focus on your home-making skills’.
I cried, argued and fought. But to no avail. My father had decided and nothing would budge him. I sought help from my mother and brothers but none of them had the audacity to utter a single word in front of my father. Meanwhile, I missed the last date of admission to Delhi colleges. I could not think, eat or sleep.
After seeing me cry for days, my father mellowed a bit. He presented me with two choices. I could either sit at home and or go to an all-girls college my father chose for me in a remote village in Rajasthan. With this rock and hard choice, I chose the latter.
Living in that college was nothing less than a nightmare. The rules in the college were probably stricter than home. The girls were not allowed to go out anywhere or meet anyone. In the scorching heat, we had to wear khadi dresses. There was only one toilet for the whole class and I still remember the days I had to wake up at 4 am to stand in queue for the toilet. I wondered if my father knew what he had put me through.
Ready for the show
I had to spend three years in this college and every day was terribly long. I did not like anything at the college at all and started hating studies too. My grades fell. I became withdrawn and silent. But I persevered on. Afterall what other choices I really had?
My thoughts kept running back to my mother, who had literally spent all her life in the kitchen, being told by my father every day that that’s where she belonged and should she forget that, it would not take him a minute to throw her out. Did I want to live like that or get abused - verbally and physically - at home like Chachi for giving birth to my cousin Neha? Neha, who is just 5, is made to realise every day by Chachaji that she is unwanted. Wasn’t life better for me, who has, at least, been allowed to study?
I somehow managed to complete my graduation and returned home. It was good to be back after three long years. But I soon realised that my father was not even going to let me think about further studies. I was asked to help my mother in the kitchen and learn all the other house chores and told I will also be married. I felt shattered. All those three excruciating years at colleges came up to nothing!
The worst blow and one that stings in my ear till date came one late summer last year. My eldest brother, who had never even cleared a single grade without failing a few subjects, was proudly announcing that Papa was sending him to Delhi for further studies. My good-for-nothing, loiterer, insolent brother was going to Delhi for an education that I despite being more capable was being outrightly denied! I cried for days and repeatedly asked God, ‘Why was I born a girl in a society that gave freedom only to it's men?'
The cycle of rejection
And then one day, my mother asked me to put on a saree and handed me a tray of namkeen and chai for some guests at home. This cycle repeated itself many times. My father knew that I could retaliate at any time, so he did not inform me about the ordeals beforehand. I was told about these visits only an hour before. I felt like an object – dressed to perfection to please the boys and their families.
I felt suffocated in my own house. The dream of becoming a strong, independent woman started fading away. I could not sleep at night and had nightmares about spending the rest of my life like my mother, like my Chachi - in hot sweaty kitchens, being abused by the men in their lives.
The silver line
Soon, I had an idea. I started applying for jobs at various organisations and one day got an interview call from Hyderabad. I told my father that I was ready for marriage but till the time it happens, he must allow me to work. As my family was not succeeding in fixing any rishta, my father somehow agreed to allow me to go. That night was very difficult for me. I could barely sleep as I knew this was my last night in my own house. I knew that I will never come home again. I kissed goodbye to my mother and hugged her with tears in my eyes. And finally, on the pretext of this job, I left that house forever.
Through the grind
Since leaving my home, I have seen some really tough times that lack of money can bring to you. But I was determined not to go back. I found a job in an organisation that worked on human rights and helped young girls become independent. The job couldn’t have been closer to my heart. It paid me well to live on my own, finally allowing me to be not dependent on my friends.
My family was repeatedly asking me to return home. My father gave me all kinds of threats and came along with my mother, to take me back home. But I was not alone this time. I had the support of my organisation. They arranged for a meeting with my own parents in the presence of their personnel as I feared that my father will forcefully take me back.
My father had no sadness in his voice and instead threatened to kill my mother or me, if I did not return. For a split second, I wanted to hug my mother and go back for fear of what might she have to go through because of me. But then the reality struck. I knew if I went back, I would be married off and my fate will be sealed forever. I said no. My parents had no choice but to go back.
Free, but just
Today, as an independent woman, I do not regret the decision of leaving home. I am free to live my life the way I want. I also do not live under the fear of getting married and or being forced to live a life that I did not choose.
However, somewhere between my own fight for existence (or survival) and for my independence, I had to forgo my dream of becoming an IAS officer. But I have no regrets. I am very content working in this sector where I can help other women fulfil their dreams for a better tomorrow.
Today, as I look outside the balcony of my small rented flat, everyone is preparing for Independence Day. But it makes me think. Are women in India really free? Not really, India may have got freedom from the British 70 years ago, but women still live by the rules set by men and follow decisions taken by men. And to attain whatever little freedom I have managed, I had to risk everything I had. I am all alone today. But I am free. And I will do everything in my power to protect this hard earned freedom.
*To protect the identity, names have been changed and the person/s in the picture is/are models.