Children must triumph over their parents
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I had never heard of the young woman in our neighbourhood till we heard the news of her death one winter morning. She had died of burn injuries in her home. Our neighbour had come over and was talking to my parents about it. Was it suicide or murder?
It was the 1980s. I was 12 years old. Almost every day there was a news story of what were termed “dowry deaths”. The newspapers would carry a photograph of a young woman from her wedding album. Her distraught parents would accuse the in-laws of burning their daughter to death. The in-laws would claim that it had been an accident. Families that were supposed to be the secure support system for women were becoming the site of their brutal, premature deaths.
It played out similarly in our apartment complex too. As the adults around us discussed the details, we overheard that the family’s immediate neighbours had been witnesses to the torture and abuse of the woman. She had been seen shivering outside her home on many nights when her in-laws would shut her out—ill-dressed and without any means to go anywhere.
Two days after her death, as my school bus slowed down to drop us back home, we saw a crowd of people outside the woman’s house. Her mother was part of a group that was protesting and demanding justice.
I remember the dissonance and extreme sadness I felt. Why were her parents not alarmed enough to rescue her when she was alive? If they were crying and screaming on the street now, why did they not save their child when she was being abused? How lonely and excruciatingly painful her life and death must have been.
I was still an adolescent but the world had stopped making rational sense to me. Today I am the mother of adolescent children and it is shocking that these questions still remain relevant.
“Mamma, what is suicide?” asked our nine-year-old daughter at the lunch table last week.
“Sometimes when someone kills oneself, it is called suicide,” I said to her.
“Why do people kill themselves, Mamma?” asked her elder sister.
“Sweetheart, sometimes people feel trapped. They feel that their life will never get better. They are very sad. Or they feel that they are responsible for others in their family and they are unable to do what is expected of them.”
All three children were listening to me now. They had read the news about the suicide of Manjula Devak, a PhD scholar who hung herself in her flat at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. They had seen happy photographs of her as a research scholar and wanted to know what could have been so bad that she chose death over life.
In another decade, they will themselves be young women like Devak.
“The idea that a woman represents the honour of her family is deeply flawed,” I say to my children. “Anything that makes one feel so helpless that dying seems easier than living is wrong. It is untrue. You must reject it.
“We are wired to choose life. We don’t owe anyone else their happiness.”
I’m not sure how deep to take this conversation, but I know that children hear everything that is said in the house. They are clued in to the world of adults around them in ways we don’t even want to think about. Devak’s parents have spoken to journalists about the demand for dowry and harassment by her in-laws.
Perhaps the greatest delusion of my life has been the belief that the world in which I was a child may have been the dark ages, but the world in which I have grown up to be an adult has to be far more enlightened and equitable than before.
Social norms and attitudes that perpetuate injustice have remained tenacious. The news remains the same. Questions that had remained unanswered when I was a child still demand answers. If I do not want my daughters to internalize that violence is the inevitable fate of women in our society, I have to find a new language to speak to them.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” Audre Lorde wrote in her book of essays, A Burst Of Light. The first time I had read this sentence, it cut through my cultural conditioning like a sheath of light. It demolished the notion that putting everyone else’s needs before one’s own is a virtue to be extolled.
A family and a culture that do not enable their youth to seek their own fulfilment by giving the permission to choose who they want to be, where they want to be and with whom they want to be, is essentially asking them not to exist. Against this pressure to conform, survival is a radical action. Suicide is a rejection of the shell of a life that is unjustly being imposed on the person. It is the final act of agency of one who has had helplessness imposed upon him/her.
I turned to my children at the lunch table and spoke to them. “One of the biggest lies of parenting is that the parents are always right. The second lie is that it is the children’s responsibility to make their parents happy when they grow up.”
They listen to me in silence. A commonly repeated lament I hear from grown-ups is that ultimately all parents are defeated by their children. I want to turn this on its head. Children must triumph over their parents. It is the only way forward.
“All children must reject the narrow ideas and aspirations of their parents,” I say to my daughters. “Be ready to be a warrior. This is how you will survive. This is how you will win.”
If I want to see change, I have to be the change myself. This is the only commitment life seeks from all of us.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. The writer tweets at @natashabadhwar