(This article was published in Fried Eye magazine on August, 2012.)
Freedom. Our ancestors fought for it. It is difficult to define in the humdrum of everyday life. It means different things to different people. It rescues some. It transforms others. We don’t value it enough. Sometimes we don’t perceive its absence. Or take for granted its presence. At times, we misuse it.
In my life, relatively short and thus lacking in experience, I had felt the sparks of freedom that has touched the lives of people I have known. These aren’t epiphanies or sudden bursts of life-altering moments. These are everyday stories of how people recognized the constraints that bound them, struggled for a way out and gradually let in a glorious trickle of freedom into their lives.
She was the one who started it on their first day together. She let him decide the evening movie, the dinner menu and even the songs they heard on the ride back home. He was glad to ease the burden of decision making off the woman in his life. They had a whirlwind romance, an elaborate wedding (he decided the venue, the guest list and the honeymoon destination; she decided the table centerpieces, the Mehendi artist and the honeymoon lingerie), and the dizzy highs of playing grown-ups and setting their own home and family. His family was very ‘liberal’, they let their new daughter-in-law keep her job and weren’t finicky about the hemlines of her dresses. She liked the role of a home-maker, smiling to herself every night as she laid out his dinner. He was so caring, always surprising her with gifts and vacations (that comfortably fit into his work schedule, not hers). She moved around the country with him, setting up new homes every time he got transferred. When she got a better job offer in another city, he calmly asked her why she bothered working so hard when he was earning enough for both of them. She shut up because the baby was due. His business trips increased. One parent should stay at home, and she did. The children grew up and no longer needed a mother, they needed ‘some space’. She took to writing. At the dinner table, her husband and children teased her about the Booker Prize winning novel that she was penning. She chuckled. Then she did the dishes. The caretaker can never afford to be tired. The children left the nest. The husband retired from his job. It was just him and her again, like old times. He suggested a tour of Europe. She declined; she was working on her book. He was surprised at her refusal, and then miffed. One night he read her manuscript while she slept. Her words-vibrant, agitated and alive-told him stories that populated her mind, thoughts he never knew existed in the woman he had been married to all these years. In the morning he told her she should write more. After lunch he helped her with the dishes; and later they went to watch a play instead of a movie. He learned that she preferred coffee but had quietly shared a cup of tea every morning with him all these years. He made sure she had a steaming cup of coffee on her desk as she wrote late into the night. They had conversations and not just about groceries and children and politics. She wonders how to describe her sudden lightness of being; rekindled love or freedom?
Five young sons, two precocious daughters, a home with mud floors and thatched roof, a rice field with erratic produce, two cows with drying udders and a school headmaster’s pension of fifty-six rupees; these were his life’s gatherings. In the evenings he stared at the clear and starry skies as he pondered about feeding his family of ten. Then the skies opened; floods washed away his home and his rice field. He avoided the expectant looks of his children. The provider had given up, defeated. Poverty was rife and so was hunger. It was a village where a single student passed the matriculation examination in a good year, the sons of farmers became farmers, and the sons of blacksmiths became blacksmiths. A vicious loop of poverty engulfed the whole village, and they resigned to their fates. The older two of the five sons saw the silver lining in the dark cloud that hovered over their lives. They studied; in the evenings when they returned home after working in the fields, before taking the cows out to graze at dawn, and at the school they walked eight kilometers to reach every day. They kept going even on those nights when they had to sleep without food and the day their mother pawned her only pair of earrings to pay for their college admission fees. Their younger siblings followed their footsteps; education became as necessary as breathing to them. Years of struggle followed while trying to break into a society cushioned from the effects of poverty. A job came and with it the assurance of never having to go hungry again. A good house followed; then a car. The family dispersed, taking their roots in unknown soil, flourishing in their own territories. They escaped the destinies they were born with. Their next generation has a doctor, engineers, fashion designer, biotechnologists, MBAs. Education freed them.
Her life had chauffeurs and chaperones. Vacations had carefully planned itineraries. She never travelled alone; her protective parents couldn’t pamper enough the miracle child born after seven long years of desperate wait. She remembers the thrill she got when she got into a city bus with her friends, counting coins eagerly to pay the bus conductor, and holding on to the railings as the bus swerved through the city traffic. Her excitement amused her friends. They had always helped her cross busy roads. She panicked in a crowd, and cancelled movie plans if her friends were busy. In her mid-twenties now, she craved the freedom of movement, of getting around places, something that her peers took for granted. Last winter she had an exam in Delhi. Her father was worried; he would be tied up with work then. Who would accompany her now? She took a chance, of convincing her parents to let her go alone. She’s quite grown up now, in case they hadn’t noticed. They agreed after a while, and tearfully saw her off at the airport for the one week that she would be away! She fastened her seatbelt, and took a deep breath when the flight took off. She hailed a cab and reached the friend’s home where she would be staying. After the exam was over, she went exploring the city she had visited umpteen times earlier but never on her own. How different a place seems, baring a sea of possibilities when you have the time and freedom to explore it on your own! She ate street food, browsed for hours at book stores, shopped at flea markets, walked in a park, ate in quaint cafes in Khan Market, figured out the various metro routes; a week of doing little things without any restrictions. Each morning heralded new possibilities and independent decisions. At night, she went to bed, happy about a day well spent. She boarded the flight back home after a week. It was a noon flight, and the skies were clear. She noticed the sparkles of sunshine bouncing off her watch and dancing on the pages of the book on her lap. It delighted her, this glittering dance of sunshine. That’s how her heart had felt the past week. She still has restrictions at home, but they have loosened. She can eat in restaurants and go for movies alone, without feeling awkward. She gets around now, alone and free.