Independence Day has always represented a time of emotional conflict for me, but this year the conflicts run much deeper than my own struggle. It is about the conflict my 10-year old daughter is facing about the basic fundamental right – the right to equality.
Make no mistake. She loves the country of her birth. But her affection doesn’t stop her from using her rationale to derive her own judgments. So, I wasn’t surprised when she went to her Principal’s office to tell that she doesn’t feel that she is the best person to deliver the speech on Independence Day. And, when her Principal asked her why she said something I’ve never had the courage to say in 35 years of my life.
She said – She doesn’t feel Free in Free India.
The next day, when her principal called us to tell us about what happened, the woman in me exactly knew what my daughter was going through. She was undergoing the same level of anger, sadness, and resentment that every daughter in India goes through. So, when the principal asked us to convince her to deliver a speech on the event, we mentioned that we can talk to her but it would be her decision whether she would or won’t.
Knowing how I feel about this topic, my husband took charge of having the discussion with our 10-year old and understand why doesn’t she feel free in our country. And it happened in our living room where I was the only spectator and two key leads were played by my husband and my daughter.
Trying to initiate the conversation casually, my husband asked:
Anand: “How is school going? And, how is the preparation for Independence Day coming along?“
Meghna (getting a drift of where the discussion was heading): “ Fine”
Anand (realizing that it is not going to be an easy conversation):
“So, which event are you participating in?”
Meghna looking at her dad: “Some events”
Knowing how enthusiastic she is generally about our evening snack time, Anand couldn’t take the lack of enthusiasm anymore. And, he mentioned the principal’s call and looked at Meghna.
He looked into her eyes and asked her gently – “Why don’t you feel Free in Free India?” He knew he was asking a big question to a 10-year old. But, he wasn’t left with any other option.
And realizing that her dad was struggling with driving this conversation, Meghna rested her hand on his and said: “Dad, given all the incidents that have happened in recent times, it makes me wonder if I am actually free. Or, if any of my friends are?”
Meghna went quiet after this and it got Anand and me thinking. We knew what she was talking about. Though quite a few of these events had raised a lot hue and cry on national news, a few of them had even made it to our dining table discussion.
So let me share the events that she was referring to:
Event#1: When all of us witnessed the worst brutality humans are capable of – 8-year-old-girl kidnapped and gang-raped for 8 days.
Like any other mother, I was scared, angry, sad and paranoid thinking about how safe my daughter was.
Post this incident, my husband and I made sure that one of us drop her and pick her up from school. Recently, we even told her that she can’t go with any guard bhaiya anywhere. Even if she has seen guard bhaiya coming to our apartment regularly.
Event#2: When our shelter homes became rape centers.
Event#3: Early June, on a lazy Sunday morning, our maid came with a blue eye.
As she entered into the house I exactly knew what must have happened. I got our first aid box and started applying for medicine on her wound, thinking I can only heal her outside wounds what about the wounds that have been inflicted on her soul.
And, then suddenly my daughter came into the kitchen and was surprised by the blue eye. Meghna, the innocent girl she is, started asking her multiple questions. My maid couldn’t hold her tears and told the entire truth about how her husband beats her frequently.
For my daughter, it was a shock. She never thought a husband can beat his own wife. That night she came to me and slept with me, tugging me so hard that I knew she was scared. She was scared that her mother would be beaten by her father.
Event#4: When our driver got his daughter for a day to our home so that she can help my maid with some household chores. When my daughter got a little friendly with her, she got to know that my driver’s daughter doesn’t go to school.
Then, it was my driver turn to face my daughter’s barrage of tough questions. After a heated interrogation, she came to a conclusion that our driver refuses to send her daughter to school because he believes she only needs to learn how to cook and make chapattis. My daughter told our driver, he might go to jail as he is denying her daughter one of the fundamental rights – the right to education. And, that he can’t do it in free India.
Sadly, after a few days, she realized how much free our driver’s daughter is.
Event#5: This one might have impacted her the most as this was a very personal experience. And, probably I need to blame myself for this.
My sister was in the hospital giving birth to her second child and we were eagerly waiting at the reception. My daughter was super excited as she would no longer be the youngest in the family. She wanted a baby whom she can protect and boss around.
When the doctor came and delivered the news that Meghna had got a baby sister, she was on cloud 9. But suddenly she realized that everyone – my sister’s mother-in-law, my mother, my father, and her father-in-law, went quiet. They suddenly were so sad that they couldn’t hide their tears of sadness. And one of them said that my sister is very unlucky to have a second daughter.
Looking at all the sad faces around, my daughter told me that she is feeling uncomfortable and would like to go home after meeting her new-born sister. She was extremely excited when she met the new-born and suggested over 10 names to my sister.
My sister couldn’t hide her tears after finding my daughter so enthusiastic about her baby girl. When my daughter saw tears in her eyes, she became sad and asked me to take her home.
While her ride back home, she did not say a single word.
As soon as we entered home, she hugged me tightly and asked– Did you also want a boy in place of me?
And, that’s when I realized the agony she had gone through that day. I kissed her on the forehead and hugged her. That night I made her sleep with me and couldn’t leave her for a minute.
These were the five events she specifically mentioned to us. We were dumbfounded and confused as to how do we explain to my little child that she should be grateful to the fact that our country is free and prospering.
Now, on this 15th of August, as my countrymen celebrate the joy of independence, my daughter and we are left to wonder if the increasing incidents of violence against women represent a bump in India’s road. Or maybe this is who we actually are. Maybe the freedom we so proudly tout is unattainable for women. Or maybe, just maybe, there is hope in the midst of all this darkness.
To the people who will label my daughter as feminist:
Let us remember what our very own Swami Vivekananda said, ‘There is no chance of welfare unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on one wing.’
P.S. My daughter agreed to give the speech because like her favorite character – Sehmat in Raazi played by Alia Bhat, she is in love with her country. Her dad did help in calming her down and motivating her. He taught her that she will always have two options in life – be like the people who are weak and keep complaining OR be the real hero who fights to make her country a better place for everyone.
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