'Don't do this!' 'Don't do that!'

This is a constant litany one gets to hear in childhood. I did. There were always restrictions placed on us - about wearing this, hearing that, reading this, going there, etc. For me it started as early as age eight when I was forbidden to go to a neighbor's house for a birthday party. On asking why, I was told because they were Hindus. Now my mother isn't exactly a first generation learner, her matriculation notwithstanding but today after three decades of reflection over my upbringing majorly under her wing, I still marvel that I turned humanist after all. But I put it all down to my being the 'black sheep', the 'rotten apple' of my family, or at least that's what my various uncles and aunts have time and again told me. I was the tomboy who questioned, talked back, played cricket with cousins, solved arguments on the play field with my fists well into my twenties, and many a times with family members too. 

I can literally imagine the eyebrows getting raised at this, specially by women my aunts' age (the men must have already shaken their heads after the first paragraph and lost interest). But that's how I was. The second "restriction" I became aware of was at age nine when I hazily discovered I was ambidextrous and repressed memories of being left handed burst forth. I must have felt disoriented at my talent because I questioned my mother and was triumphantly told that my "flaw" had been corrected with slaps and tying up the hand for hours; a remedy she felt needed to be repeated if the "flaw" was manifesting itself again. I put this all on the Islamic environment she grew up in and very dutifully followed to the letter while bringing up her daughters. But it wasn't fun listening to her account of my abuse which she didn't even recognize as one. It’s easy to see the illiteracy and superstition prevalent in my family today and all the reasons for it. I was a child of the garden, still am. All I wanted to do was play, play, play. But I was molded, slapped, berated, silenced, verbally abused and even reprimanded into submission with the notion of being protected from the vipers in the garden. Little did the moral policing have any effect to prevent actual abuse when it did happen.

You see, Kashmiri parents fit the description of 'helicopter parents' perfectly. What's more amusing is that despite the constant vigilance, the never-leaving-the-child-alone, no respect for privacy, etc actually backfires. They miss out on abuse in every form when it takes place. A lifetime of listening to scores of people - males, females, kids, teens, young adults, transgenders, queer, differently-abled, etc showed me the truth behind this 'helicopter parenting'. In their desire to overprotect their children (mostly girls) they ended up alienating them in the first place. In Muslim culture there are a whole lot of subjects which are taboo - incest, marital rape, assault, molestation, harassment, eve-teasing, mental illness ,just to mention a few and the children never develop the confidence and trust to share their bad experiences with their parents. 

The next time "restrictions" were placed on me was when I took up basketball as a sport in school and was pretty serious about pursuing it as a career. My pious and god-fearing aunts tried their best to discourage me and it was interesting to see how I was used as a weapon to demean my poor mother all the time. She was constantly chided for not bringing up her daughter with values, for letting me "loose" in the streets, for not being strict enough. Now patriarchal values and attitudes are so deeply entrenched in a South Asian woman's psyche that she will try all sorts of tricks to uphold them with shrewdness and manipulation. Ekta Kapoor's saas-bahu serials had nothing on the kind of machinations that went on in our household for years in the 80s. The 'rotten apple' was used to demoralize and outrightly abuse my mother so much that she ended up alienating her own daughter in order to cope with the stresses of catering to a large, patriarchal, joint household with lethargic men. I was too young to understand this and there would be screaming matches between her and me with long bouts of the 'silent treatment' and refuge in my aunts' rooms. Today I can empathize with her nightmarish ordeal to be constantly reminded and called out on her daughter's perceived 'misdeeds'. But the damage was done. There is an irreparable chasm between us thanks to her prophecies of my future worthlessness and misdemeanors which were sure to bring dishonor to the family.

In many ways her words have come true though how much my rebelliousness is dishonorable needs to be weighed. The sting of those words is still fresh, though the hurt is long gone. That I wouldn't amount to much in life was branded so strongly into my mind with repetition that every time I started a new endeavor whether it was learning computers, mastering sign-language from a deaf-friend, speaking in front of an audience, having a baby, resuming studies at age 40, writing a book, riding a metro alone, etc, I never failed to hear those words in my mind. It also got me started on a self -destructive cycle of behavior for many years before I realized my self-esteem had been damaged. I was yet to discover like-minded souls though I had this strong, gut instinct that they were out there. What I am trying to explore through my writings is that women are the ones who mostly uphold patriarchal traditions, who don't want to 'rock the boat', or change the status quo. The mother who stands by watching her cop husband beat up their daughter on the street for having a boyfriend, the sister who laughs if her brother gingerly shares his homosexuality and wants help in coming out openly, the wife who is witnessing the quiet desperation her husband undergoes every day at work yet pitches him against her mother-in-law, the woman who dismisses the bravely whispered account of her daughter about a lecherous uncle or her uncomfortable feelings when an older cousin is around just to uphold the family honor, all these women need to become empowered. In staying silent and not resisting, one may ease up their already drudgery filled lives but what they explicitly forget is that in not siding with their flesh and blood they are actually allowing a culture of misogyny and chauvinism to prosper and end up in fact alienating their loved ones. 

I often catch myself wishing for the technology that is available to the youth these days. The Internet, the information explosion, the knowledge at one's fingertips, the lightning connectivity, all this is thrilling. After having practically lived a life of solitary confinement of the mind for more than two decades, it is empowering to know about like-minded people not just in my neighborhood but across continents. The human experience is amazing. The barriers in my mind that my aunts and mother had erected against other women are chipping away. As I come to learn about other women and their lives, their lost battles against their personal demons, or their hard fought victories over patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes, I don't feel so alone. The best part is discovering men who are equally committed to an egalitarian society based on a scientific temperament rather than a religious one. As I see these current and future parents (or not, they have that choice too today!) I am contented that my children's generation will find themselves in a better society with a life without restrictions, a life allowed to blossom to its full potential, a mind allowed to chart its own course, not reined in by dogmas and doctrines, norms and regulations. 

Every child born into this world considers it his or her garden, be it a slum or a palace. Nothing is too high to climb on or too steep to explore. Every crevice, every nook is a doorway to Wonderland or a bridge to Terabithia (both wonderful books on children's adventures). If unhindered, the mind will go down the rabbit hole. It ought to. It’s their birthright. I know I am brazenly sounding like suggesting that the world's problems are because the adults have forgotten how to play. The child inside them has died. Corporates and barons who decide our economies and political futures never weigh their decisions against a child's life. Educational institutions, religious institutions, or for that matter any institution develops in a such a way that the mediocre always get supported, promoted and appreciated. Of course, any institution that has rules and regulations, norms or traditions will definitely not recognize the diversity of opinion or encourage individualism. Institutions thrive on conformity, conveyor belt productions, obedience, clone behavior, cogs wheel mentality and so on with maybe a freakish or eccentric strain encouraged now and then for credibility.

But history gives us individuals who strove to walk the untrodden path and changed the world. It is these individuals who mark humanity, who distinguish the human species for what they ought to be - inventors and discoverers - not the warring species we are known for. Of course, history is more of his story rather than the story of all. But the effort to make it everybody's story has to undergo a sea change at home. And the first thing to do away with is the - 'Don't do this!' and the 'Don't do that!'

I am already hearing the voices of my aunts screaming, "But we can't let a child play with matches, stupid!" Today my answer is , "Let them, then they'll know." A little burn, cut, or scrape never killed anyone. Life is meant for mistakes, for we are the sum of our failures, vivid lessons taught by mistakes, deeply poignant wisdom gained through the experience of failure. Only then can we know our true potential. Like I said earlier, a child is a garden child. Let him or her explore.