We, the free people?

Durga, 14, smiles beautifully, biting the edge of her floral dupatta, as she runs down the stairs to join her gang of girls. It’s a freedom she has won only recently — to dance, and to have a friend.

That long-due privilege came when she was freed from her oppressive employer. An orphan, Durga was trafficked from Kolkata and brought to Bangalore when she was 11, to serve at the home of a highpaid software engineer. Held captive, tortured, her long hair tonsured and finally, hot oil poured on her back for not ‘working well’, Durga was not allowed to play even inside the house with her employer’s four-year-old daughter.

Rescued by the police and AFSA (Association for promoting social action) Childline, Durga today is a teenager whose life has been handed over to her yet again, this time with friends of her own. The scars and bruises on her back and face almost healed, her lustrous hair growing back, Durga tells me in Bengali-accented Hindi: Ab mujhe kucch nahi chahiye didi (I don’t want anything now).

Freedom, apart from the concept of a hoisted-tricolour on special days, is also about what you can do on a day-to-day basis, and do without anyone watching over your back. Like Shaila Krishnappa, who finds it a huge relief to just be able to wear a pair of jeans to college, something that was a no-no back in her village in Tumkur.  

But there are those who have no freedom to wear their own identity. Akai Padmashali, a transgender, was actually born Jagdish, into the home of an Air Force staffer. Eight-year-old Jaggi had his first clash with societal norms when he was asked why he always played with girls. As he grew older, the questions got more direct: You are born a boy, then why walk like a girl? It took Jaggi another eight years of pain and struggle before he gathered courage to confide in his brother: It’s not that I just walk like a girl; I actually feel like one. I’m not a boy; I’m in-between.

A confession that brought more pain, beatings by his father, a three-month house arrest and hot water poured on his legs. None of which ‘corrected’ Jaggi. It was only a chance encounter with a hijra at Bangalore’s Cubbon Park that brought him peace. “The hijra accepted me as I was, and welcomed me.”

Renamed Akai and adopted by the transgender community, he found more solace. He did sex work for four years, but his own struggle led him to be the spokesperson for the rights of sexual minorities. Today, 12 years on, Akai is a sought-after speaker and activist; his father has accepted him, but the freedom to be himself still eludes him.

For Vani Murthy, the way to break free from her own “baggage of fear and restrictions from childhood” came about through a workshop that transformed her life completely. No one who knows the busy civic activist would imagine that she was afraid of speaking out until a few years ago. “As a child, I was the shadow of my twin sister who was an extrovert. And when I got married and came away, my husband and his family gave me all the support and freedom, but I had no self-esteem. I felt inferior. On hindsight, I realise I would make excuses and manipulate people to protect me, to do things for me! And then, one day I heard about the Landmark course, and that helped me open up, shed my fears.” Today, the ‘introvert’ is one of the most popular campaigners, mobilising children and young people to make her locality Malleswaram garbage-free. 

“As women, we are always judged. You have to be the right person. People don’t want you to be too forward, too outgoing, too independent, too career-oriented. These curbs just make it worse for women. For instance, my son says, ‘Women are nagging, most women are like that’. These are sweeping statements even in families where there is no obvious bias,” says Vani.

If this is post-liberalised India, how was it before? Chaya Srivatsa should know. A free spirit who was at ease being a journalist as much as she was as a Navy wife and later head of a public sector, Chaya feels today’s young deserve a better deal, a judgment-free world. “I was born a couple of months before the tricolour was hoisted in 1947, but I grew up in a free-spirited environment. My unlettered granny made me learn Hindi that stood me in good stead through the years. She prepared me for today, 50 years ago. I think we women from our generation had more freedom of choice as we had less choices!”

Chaya says her wish for the current generation would be the freedom to be what they want to be. “When we were growing up, we were free from any kind of pressure from our parents. I wanted to do English Literature and I did it. My mother had no clue what I was doing. It was the same with our brothers. But today, as a life coach, I find young people weighed under expectations. In their career, in their love. Some tell me, ‘Ma’m, Iam in love with my colleague, but my parents don’t want us married as he is from a different caste’. Is this regression or progress?”

That curbing of freedom seems ironic when it happens in so-called emancipated families. Young software engineer Suhrid Devnath from Chennai speaks of how two girls from his batch were angry on having to get married and relocate to the US when they had dreams and plans of their own. “For them, not getting married was not a choice.”

Clearly, Arathi Narayan from Bangalore isn’t in that category. Says the senior IT professional, “I had told my parents that I would get married only after owning a house and buying a car, all out of my own money. I am 32 now and I got married just two months ago. I don’t know of too many parents who can give this kind of time and freedom to an unmarried daughter!”

While more women today are pursuing careers of their own choice, many are also giving up careers out of their own choice — exchanging deadlines for diapers. Like Abha Atitkar Jain who gave up her job at a radio station for raising Kabir and Alvira. “I can wear what I like, eat what I choose, go where I want to, and basically live life on my terms. Of course, one could easily do without ridiculous moral police who are out to save our “culture”, but other than that, I like where I am today.”

But yet again, this doesn’t hold good for millions of other women who are the sole earning members of their families or supplementing meagre incomes. Women, particularly those who work as domestic helps and daily wage labourers, plough on through their lives without perks or guaranteed bonuses. Freedom from jobs is simply out of the question for them.

“What about us?” asks Jassi Singh, a journalist based in Chandigarh, who says people like him should be added to the list of “men in chains”. “I cannot tell you how long I have wanted to be a house-husband. I’m serious. I have told my wife I’m all for her career growth, but she just doesn’t let me resign.” This Independence Day, maybe we should pray that Jassi gets the freedom he wants?

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