I was born in Jaipur, raised in Mumbai and college educated in the U.S. I am 22 years old, and in the last few years, I have traveled in 44 countries across all seven continents, founded startups, written books, given TEDx talks, received national awards, featured on magazine covers and been named a Power Woman alongside Oprah Winfrey and Sonia Gandhi. I feel invincible climbing tall mountains on a whim, swimming in subzero temperatures in Antarctica, dancing with strangers on the streets of Argentina and winning chugging contests in Australia. This free-spiritedness fades every time I come back to India.
I start my day in Mumbai with "Woman gang-raped by 10, including husband, paraded around the village and forced to drink urine, in MP" in the newspaper. I visit my two older cousins who have been my role models all along, and I learn that they are frustrated being taken-for-granted, stay-at-home moms; they are desperate for financial independence so that they can create their own identity and assert their voice with dignity in their household and society.
I remember being 9 years old and being attacked by goons in a train robbery; my brother and I fought with them and drove them away, and received the National Bravery Award on Republic Day from the then Prime Minister. I remember being 12 and angrily asking my father why a certain shopkeeper had to always stare at my chest; Papa didn't have a response. I remember being 19 and calling my cousin as she was expecting her second child:
I was on my way to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and it was time to board my flight to Kenya. I quickly called my aunt in India because her daughter was expecting her second baby and I was eager for news. My aunt was happy to hear from me; my cousin had just given birth. The next words I heard were, "Beti hui hai (It's a girl)." But it wasn't said with pride or joy. My aunt spoke as if she were consoling me, because now my cousin had two girls and no son. There was a pause, and I didn't know what to say. Despite being a woman herself, how could my aunt not take pride in her daughter having given birth to a baby girl? As if being a woman were a sin!
I had to board my flight. So I passed along my love to my cousin, and then switched off my cell phone as the flight crew scanned my boarding pass and welcomed me into the airbus. I deeply respected my aunt, and it wasn't the appropriate occasion to let my thoughts out anyway. I seated myself, fastened the seat-belt and tears rolled down my face as my aunt's voice repeatedly played in my head.
Here I was, exploring the world, climbing mountains, living my dreams, but it stung my heart to be reminded of the dismal lives most women live in India. India is developing rapidly, and women are beginning to walk shoulder to shoulder with men across several fields in life, but one successful Indra Nooyi or one independent Sushmita Sen does not represent the millions of Indian women who are being deprived of their right to education, the opportunity to choose or even have a career, freedom to choose a life partner and alas, in some cases, even to be alive!
India is a beautiful, festive country with a rich, indeed ancient, history, full of traditions and immense scientific and economic prowess. In fact, Indians can take pride in having given the world many inventions and being the birthplace of many breakthroughs. Just some examples are as mundane as the button and shampoo, as complex as advanced mathematics (including the decimal system and the concept of Zero), as influential as the cultivation of cotton (and therefore the subsequent creation of cotton clothing), as useful as flush toilets and as groundbreaking as launching the space mission that seems to have discovered water on the moon. I am proud to be an Indian.
But ours is a hypocritical society, and after tasting immense freedom abroad, I wonder if I will be able to marry a Brahmin man and settle in India to live a relatively submissive, traditional life that perhaps my family may have already pictured for me (though my father is an extremely liberal man, and supports me in all my decisions and aspirations).
In some ways, my free-spiritedness and ambitions were fueled by my need to break free from the model of my mother. I love and respect her enormously, but I also saw her own dreams thwarted before they were ever really consciously articulated, due to the simple fact that she was born a girl in a particular society. This had a negative impact not just on her, but also on those around her. She can be domineering as an outlet for her frustrated opportunities; she needs us all to be dependent on her, because in this way she, like so many Indian women of her generation, can be validated. It is not the legacy I want to pass onto my own children, when -- and if -- I have them.
It's encouraging to see more opportunities being created for women in politics, business, science and the arts in India. But changes merely affecting the surface of the society won't suffice, and it's vital that we step up our game. We need to target the core of this issue by educating the citizens -- all of the citizens, not just women. Not by brainwashing them to believe that certain mentalities are right or wrong, but rather to condition them to question what they're told, to expose them to their choices and to help them realize their limitless potential.
I hope that as millennials, our generation will not only set examples for our elders with our actions and optimism but also carve out a world for our successors where my niece can be proud to be born a girl, where she can have every bit of freedom, respect and celebration that a boy would enjoy and where her mother can utilize her skills and intellectual prowess to earn economic independence and let her fulfilling and progressive life inspire her two daughters.
In our complex and nuanced Indian society, where truth is difficult to pinpoint and stereotypes seem ubiquitous, some friends and I sincerely want to put together narratives of Indian women to launch online on 15th of August on Independence Day for free access to all. Please join us in our storytelling initiative facebook.com/beingamodernindianwoman, and engage as writers, audience and evangelists.
Either be a statistic or change the statistic!