I am not quite estranged from India. We keep in touch, but it's cautious. Although I was adopted out to the Diaspora before I was even born, India is my Mother Country. We finally met when I was 10 years old. I was not what She hoped for.
I moved out from under India's roof when I was 14 years old, after I tried to kill myself.
But that was a long time ago. I've tried to make my peace. It's an ongoing process. Tonight, I balance a dia (a small vessel brimming with oil) as I make my way out the door. I shuffle and slip on the icy deck. I place the dia on moonlit snow and light the wick. Minnesota snow is crusted around my pajama bottoms and slippers; I forgot to put on shoes.
Why am I out here in the cold?
Today, another one of India's daughters, a cultural sister-sibling I've never met, a young woman famously raped on a Delhi bus, died. Our Daughter, everyone and anyone Indian seems to be calling her now. Our brave daughter.
It makes me sick.
I understand that my anger at people calling her Our Daughter is probably misplaced. But, I wonder: When a woman speaks up about abuse, do You tell her she is your brave daughter? When a woman goes out after dark, is she then? The women and girls who are harassed, abused, assaulted, raped, aborted, murdered everyday, are they Your brave daughters? The women and girls who speak up, who fight back, who write and weep and scream out to you, Mother, are they Your brave daughters, too? Or are we only brave once we are lying in a hospital bed with our guts literally ripped out? Once we are dead?
When will Your daughters (and, yes, Your sons) be seen as themselves: full beings, rather than extensions of or challenges to, Your own desires and expectations?
The oil lamp is for her, for me, for us all. For You, India. I don't know what else to do. The cold has seeped into me, but honestly it was there before I stepped outside. It seems to radiate from my bones, stealing my air.
I feel a little crazy.
I remember going to see a movie with my actual mom (who, like me, was not born in India and was often just as bewildered by Her vagaries as the rest of us). I was about 11 years old. The place was packed. We were the only women in the theater. I don't remember the film, but I remember the rape scene: a man chasing a screaming woman around a bedroom. When he finally grabbed her and threw her on the bed, the audience roared: a deep, masculine sound.
I grew up hating my womanhood. Womanhood made me invisible. It made me forever vulnerable. I fought back against this crippling condition by being tough. I rode horses, recklessly. I listened to heavy metal music that my American friends sent to me. I beat the stuffing out of any man who put a hand on me.
I remember once, I had punched a man for groping me. As I walked away, head high and heart pounding, an older woman said: "What a crazy girl. Her family should give her a beating and lock her up."
I remember, time and again, the reaction of my community. The reaction of my Mother India:
Why is she out by herself/with a friend/on a horse/wearing that/not wearing this/at that time of day/in that place? Why does she make such a fuss? Why does she humiliate herself/act so crazy/bring shame on her family?
I wanted to take to the streets, howling.
People said: That girl was born angry.
My anger was a peculiarity. Sexual harassment and assault were part of my daily life, and the lives of girls and women around me. It was constant and invisible. It was not spoken of. Even my (few) friends who thought that women should be free to walk around unharassed, often found my lashing out embarrassing and inexplicable.
India almost destroyed me. I fled, like a coward. It wasn't the harassment and abuse; it was the denial of that reality. No one believed that anything odd was going on. The only thing wrong was my behavior. What I saw and experienced wasn't real. I was being subsumed. I was vanishing.
My Mother Country: a vast and loving presence: troubled, temperamental, brilliant, beautiful; cradling me in Her arms, then shoving me to the ground. A Mother that does not see me.
A Mother Country with abuse issues in Her own life.
A Mother Country that passes on the best and the worst of Herself to Her children.
It took me growing up and getting lots of therapy to understand that I was not crazy. I was not born angry. As an adult, we learn to look at our parents (real or metaphorical) less as all-knowing Gods who let us down, and more as flawed guardians who did their best. We have to forgive. I love India, and ache for Her. But these conclusions were reached inside myself. The realizations were just as alienating as the original cause. When I suffered, it was in isolation from the society and people who were hurting me, and when I healed, it was just as lonely.
When I write about the problems I have, and have had, with India, people are often outraged: Don't talk about Our Mother like that. Show respect. Don't hurt our sentiments.
Mother India, Your daughters are dying. Your structures of power and abuse -- and denial of that abuse -- make our suffering not only possible, but probable. Stop using Your "sentiments" as an excuse to silence evidence of human suffering. See us. Hear us.
Someone posted a photo on Facebook last week, taken at a Delhi protest against police corruption and inaction after the young woman was raped on the bus. She was still alive then. In the picture, a woman is balanced on a lamppost, holding a homemade yellow sign. It says: WE WANT JUSTICE.
Is this woman your brave daughter?
When we cry out to Our Mother, how are we treated? When we come to You with our fears and open wounds, do You embrace us? Or do You tell us that we brought this on ourselves? Do You tell us we are insolent, disrespectful sluts? Do You tell us we are crazy, making up stories? Do You tell us to keep quiet, to go home and live in silence? Do You tear gas us and beat us bloody?
When your daughters and sons took to your streets, what did you do, Mother India? What did you do?
We, your children, love you. We have struggled to live up to the broken expectations of a broken system. It's your turn to listen. Your daughters and sons are saying: Enough.
When I came inside after lighting my dia, I could not get warm. I soaked in the tub. It didn't help. I poked around on Facebook and Twitter, which seemed to be full of Indian men shouting at each other about politics. I brood and think about that girl, brutalized, raped and now dead. I think about myself, how her suffering and death have everything and nothing to do with me. Part of me wonders: Why are you so upset about this? Another part replies: Are you kidding?
So, I write. It's all I really know how to do. Even when I'm not doing it well (like now), it warms me.
I want to end with an uplifting homily about my dia: the tiny lamp driving out the forces of darkness. I don't have it in me. I can't lie to you right now. Our lamps and prayers give us comfort (and the power of shared comfort is not to be underestimated), but I don't think they are going to change the world. I don't think candles are going to make being a woman (anywhere) less painful or dangerous. I fear that nothing will.
I keep thinking of the bright yellow sign and of the woman, braver than me, holding it. She has made herself visible. Her message is short, clear and urgent. I hope that Mother India will see her -- and listen.
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