Are you free to be 'you'?

Are you free to be 'you'?
Spirited. Free-willed. Opinionated. Religious. And not afraid to embrace each of these openly. That’s Abir Ahmed. “My parents have always given me the space to fly as high as I want, unless it’s ethically wrong,” says the young, Delhi-based, hijab-clad journalist in her 20s.

Does she epitomise young India? Is she independent in the true sense of the word?
“Being independent to me is neither about having a job nor about being physically independent. It’s more about being able to do what I want to do,” she says. Her job does pose a-challenge-a-day, requiring her to travel across cities, often to forbidden places within cities and deal with unfathomable situations. “I roam across the city reporting, dealing with all sorts of people and situations. This is a career, after all, where women are warned before they step in.” Her hijab is the biggest convention breaker. “When people see me in a hijab, they think I am bound by society and Muslim traditions. But this is out of personal choice, too. It gives me the power to walk with modesty,” she affirms.

Over 1.25 billion people. Religions, castes, languages, political parties, film stars, cricketers, food – we have enough fuel for differences of opinion. Add to that the fact that we love homogenising everything around us. Girl wants to go bald? No way! Dad wants to stay at home to take care of the child while mom goes to work? Taboo! Woman wants to hire a cook to cater to the family needs? Why, that’s unheard of! Boy declares he is gay? Get him married off NOW! And that’s how we celebrate independence.

Choices & consequences
When Vishal Nanka left his high-flying corporate job five years ago, little did he know that he’ll have to pay a huge price for his unconventional choice. All he wanted was to spend some time with his wife as she was about to deliver their baby. “I didn’t really think I was doing justice to her with my ungodly hours at office. We’ve never hired any house help because there is a genuine dearth of trustworthy people and I had had enough of Shital handling everything by herself. Moreover, I wanted to be by my baby’s side, but paternal leave is a myth in this country. So, I did what I felt was right,” he says.

He had planned to get back into the corporate world after a year’s break, but HR managers were not on the same page as him. “HR always thought something was fishy. I had to hear some of the craziest questions, ranging from was there a problem in the delivery to why would a father want to be with the child, isn’t the mother there!” It has taken five years and an unrelenting spirit for Vishal to get back into the spectrum.

Undeniably, we tend to dictate what other people do. Difficult to believe? Don’t you rebuke your sibling for something s/he might want to do, but what you think is not right? And how many times have you checked your tongue or let it loose on your dad or mum about their dressing choices? And children, of course, are our personal property. We manage to dominate almost every space in their lives.

“Independence really means space. No pressure from anyone – parents, kids, spouse, culture, society. There are so many parameters wherein we need to place logic before independence. But pure independence is of thought, unhampered by
anything. I would rate financial independence and that of good health, high on the ladder, too,” avers Vishal.

For women, especially the married ones, independence is a long-forgotten thing, believes Nimrat Kaur. A flight attendant with an airlines company, she is a talented, multitasking woman who also handles a huge household with a joint family with elan. But ask her about being independent and she confesses, “I think getting married is another way of saying, ‘Welcome, to Lost Independence Island!’ You don’t find yourself any more. First, you live by the word of your parents, then your husband/in-laws and next you know you are doing what your kids say.”

Her college friend Priyanka Kalbag, currently residing in Dallas and a Hindustani classical teacher there, echoes the sentiment. “I understood independence only after moving out of India. Here, it’s important that a man spends time with the wife and kids. Not every outing means going to the in-laws. The ‘I-am-superior’ culture is absent and there is no saas-bahu politics either,” she says.

Long way to go
While independence seems to be like this refreshing drink that everyone wants to guzzle down, it’s good to remember that too much of it can get heady. “We don’t want people doing anything under the sun in the name of independence and liberation, right?” reasons Akhilesh Sharma, who believes that true independence needs to be valued. “Independence to me is everything: physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, not being insecure about oneself or others, knowing one’s strengths and areas of improvement. It is also a way of life that helps others to grow,” he adds.

Jerusha Siqueira, an educator, couldn’t agree more. “With freedom and independence comes responsibility. As an educator, I feel we are taking that away from our children by overprotecting them. Let’s allow our children to make mistakes so that they develop the capacity to learn from them. They need to be given the freedom to experiment. That’s what true independence is to me: Freedom to learn on my own, knowing that I have been brought up with good judgement skills.”

That calls for a lot of unlearning on our part. As a country, we don’t think twice before asking a rank stranger we meet for the first time in the train about his marital status, or a new mum bottle-feeding her infant whether she isn’t producing enough milk. Or newly weds about how things are shaping up in the bedroom. Ours is a country where politicians decide whether you will eat beef or not, where the police decide whether consulting adults are allowed to enjoy some moments of privacy.

As we celebrate another glorious year of independence, how does the average Indian feel? “Not independent at all, to put it in a nutshell!” says Rumina Pereira. “Though we call ourselves a democratic country and boast about our freedom of speech, there is enough reason to believe otherwise. Today, if I air my opinion about the poor working of the politicians in power through social media, I will either have the cops knocking on my doors or the junta sending me hate mail! I expect that my opinion should be valued and respected in my personal space – family, relatives and friends – as well as at the larger social level – my neighbourhood, my country. That should be my right.” After 68 years of freedom, Tagore’s prayer is still seeking…Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. And we live in hope.

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