Updated: Nov 3, 2019
My mother was a twenty-four year old girl with a bright red bindi between her soft brown eyes, dark hair flowing down to her waist, and a tray full of cookies with tea for the guests in front of her. She stood before her future in-laws. She was arranged to be married to their son—the tall, dark haired and strong jawed 30-something-year old in front of her.
A proper Indian girl gets married early
With their family’s approval, my parents got engaged on the twenty-fifth of December. My mother’s henna covered hand was given to my father in marriage on the fourteenth of January. She sat under the starry Delhi sky in a crimson lehenga,which was drooping down from her waist. She was still twenty-four years old.
A proper Indian girl accepts her husband’s family as her own
Her new home was in a small town in Indiana, where her new husband had moved for a new job. She was confined by the brick walls around her: no parties to attend, no family to visit, no friends to keep her company. She was all by herself in a modest, barely furnished apartment in an insignificant town in Indiana. Her new husband was an enigma. They had only had a few mundane lunches before their marriage,and the more she got to know him, the more she realized how different they were.
A proper Indian girl puts family before career
She had left her commendable job as an information technology professional in one of the biggest companies in the country. But she left that job for a new one- to prove herself as a proper,Indian wife.This would be an especially hard task because she was pregnant with her first child, less than two months into her marriage. For the next nine months, she would clean the house through pain shooting up and down her swollen leg, she would cook over a steaming pot of spicy Indian food despite her morning sickness, and she would run to doctors’ appointments after hustling through the grocery shopping in order to replenish the kitchen. My mother was a prisoner to unrealistic expectations and rigid tradition. She couldn’t ask for help because it would show a shortcoming in her new role as the ideal wife. Despite all of this, my mother was seen as weak because she was a woman. All a woman can be is fragile,but still the burden is left for her to carry. That was her biggest flaw, being born into her body, because it came with the cage built of the bones formed of archaic traditions and outdated family values, and the only thing that was allowed in this cage was loneliness.
A proper Indian girl dreams of having her husband’s children
My birth allowed my mother to get a taste of escape from this loneliness. She now had a little baby whom she loved more than she despised her dreary life. She found a companion in me: her days would start by clothing me in cute giraffe onesies, strolling me through dainty bakeries, or watching me play with my bright, colorful baby toys. She had me and I had her. We were content in our own little bubble of love until she found out she was pregnant, again. I was only five months old, and the cage that she had briefly escaped had now cast its looming shadow over her. She knew she would not be able to handle it the second time around: with one newborn and another child to take care of all by herself. Her body would have to go through all the changes again—morning sickness, doctors’ appointments, long lonely walks—but this time, with a baby to take care of. She decided she couldn’t handle the responsibility of a baby and go through a tough pregnancy again, so she decided to get an abortion.
A proper Indian girl puts all her faith in God
Getting an abortion would be difficult in Indiana, so my mother made an appointment in Michigan instead, ready to make the seven hour drive up there. Her big brown eyes turned red as she told my father. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she got the words out: she couldn’t take it again, the memory was too fresh, and this time would be infinitely harder. My father told her it was her decision to make. He thought it was in their best interest to keep the baby. They were planning to have another child anyway, not this soon, but sometime in the near future. If she wanted to get an abortion,though, he would be there holding her hand the entire way through despite what he believed. It was God’s will. My mother did what a proper Indian girl would do--believe in God. She put her faith in the fiery dark haired, saffron and crimson saree clad goddesses she had worshipped since she was a young girl in Delhi. She let go of her destiny and let the Divine take it over. Like a proper Indian girl. The Divine forced her right back into her cage.
A proper Indian girl obeys her elders
I was nine years old when I lay in my dark room as the setting sun cast its last rays into my bedroom window. My mom was sitting on the bed, telling me that my dad’s side of the family from the United States would be visiting us where we lived now, in Delhi, India. She told me not to talk about her side of the family in front of them. I asked why and watched as her soft, brown eyes turned to stone and her face turned grim. She responded with a simple, “They don’t like my family”. My childish brain was curious, so I muttered another “Why?”. She sighed. She described to me her three years of living in a joint family in Northern Virginia.
She was evaluated relentlessly at all hours of the day. She was not allowed to sleep past 9 am, because how dare she let her sister-in-law cook breakfast. She could not let her husband iron his own shirt, because how dare the man do his own chores. She could not leave the confines of her house without asking for permission because how dare a woman be self-reliant. If my mother dared to do anything out of bounds, both she and my dad would be forced to listen to snide comments from the four critics of their life—her sister-in-law, her two brothers-in-law and her mother-in-law. I realized that,even though society had built my mother’s cage, it was her in-laws that made sure she never broke out of it. Torturing my mother was a sport for them, something that gave them a sense of control. They had partaken in disputes with my mother’s family, and there was a sense of animosity between them. Time and time again, she had been constrained to her cage by the policing of her “family”, and now she was forced to splay the truth out in front of her daughter, in order to save her from the same vicious attacks. That day, as a nine-year-old, I decided that I did not want my mother’s life. That day, in that dark room, I decided I would do something women were not supposed to do—make a life for myself.
My mother was the model of what a proper Indian woman should be, and I grew up wanting to be that woman. I wanted to be someone my parents could brag about at dinner parties, someone who obediently listened to her elders. This was my dream until I was nine years old, but the more my mother confided in me, the less I wanted to be the “proper” Indian girl. My mother was discontent with her life, so from then on, the way my mother did gender defined the way I did not want to do gender. What I had different than my mother was the adamant desire to break free, to finally squash the cages made for me.
A proper Indian girl will get married early, Maya will get married when she feels she is ready.
A proper Indian girl accepts her husband’s family as her own, Maya will accept her husband’s family but will not give up her own.
A proper Indian girl puts her family before her career, Maya will decide how she wants to prioritize her life.
A proper Indian girl dreams of having her husband’s children, Maya dreams of adopting older children to give them a loving home.
A proper Indian girl puts all of her faith in God, Maya puts her faith in her hard work.
A proper Indian girl obeys to her elders, Maya obeys nobody but treats everybody with respect.
Maya will find her own path.
Maya will tread the road not taken.