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Awareness Is The First Step Towards Empathy

As Maya Angelou would say, 'there is nothing more terrible than being a young cynic. You go from knowing nothing to believing nothing'. And I take pride in acknowledging that I have taken this joinery.

My Mother: The Life of a Castaway

While at home and spending time with my mother and other members of my family, I have come to realize how women - aging women are seen to be purposeless and encouraged to embrace a more sedentary lifestyle. Men, on the other hand, are seen to be getting better with age. With regard to health, when you see/meet my mother, she looks older than her age. She is 48 but she would look like a woman in her late 50s. On the contrary, my father, who is 6 years older than my mother, looks very young and is healthier.

There are social and economic factors that have an overwhelming impact on women's health. In the case of my mother, she has always faced hardships because of what she is - her skin color (Indian's obsession with fair complexion), my father's decision to go against the family and marry her, the normalized societal discrimination, and domestic abuse. When my mother married my father and moved with him, she was imposed with the role of feeding the family, washing everyone's clothes, serving food to all at different times (there was no set time for family's lunch or dinner), doing every household chores, and taking care of almost all the needs of all 10 members of the family. She was regularly harassed and beaten up for small mistakes (such as - salty food, for not covering her head, etc.), abused for my father's indifference to the family's decision of not marrying her, and was always reminded of her place in the family. She would often have to eat what was left and sometimes, there was no food at all left for her.

Since grade 2, I stayed in the boarding school and were it not for the forced homestay due to the lockdown, I would not have known her story ever. Her story is a story of pain and immense suffering - I'm terrified of the idea that I would not have known my mother all my life and yet claim to be her son - of her blood!

My father too suffered discrimination, insults, betrayal, and boycott from his family but the male privilege did him much favors, discounted him from a lot of suffering that my mother had to endure. He ate well, had a happening social life unlike my mother, earned money, was financially independent, and could make life decisions. So, comfort, good health, benefits of socialization came naturally to him which brought him success, benefits of social unity, comradery, opportunities to chase his dreams, escape from brutal social oppression, and healthy life. All of these were denied to my mother until my sister and I decided to part from our family, take our mother away from them and bring her to Ranchi to live with us a decade ago (while we were still very young and had just graduated from high school).

My younger sister had a very similar life to that of my mother. She is the only girl child in our family with 7 brothers (including my cousins) but after all, she was a girl, a woman, and hence, the cruelty of social norms did not spare her. My sister and I had always been very close to each other, perhaps she is the only person in the family I am closest with. Since I was sent to the boarding school, and the telephone was not very easily accessible (we had only one phone for 120 boys in 2001-11), we used to write letters to each other. She always concealed her sufferings from me and how she was beaten up, molested, her hair cut as punishment - to teach her 'lessons', and discipline her.

My grandmother, who died very young, was often celebrated as a woman of discipline and faith - for the fact that she never stepped out of the house. But what I know of my grandmother is that she was a provider - full of humility and forgiveness. The women in my house - my grandmother, my mother, and my sister are the epitome of forgiveness, determination, and strength. They are survivors who had promising lives ahead of them, but they were cut short - because they were women. The fact that this gender-based violence ended profound possibilities in their lives is profoundly painful.

The Construct of Woman's Modesty, Compassion and Kindness

My grandmother taught us humility, kindness, care, and patience. I do not have a clear memory of how were her days, what we did together but I know for sure that she braved all unkind difficulties to provide for us and take care of each one of us - regardless of how she was behaved with.

My mother and sister have her imprints. They fight back now. They do not negotiate their freedom anymore, they have earned their freedom - their freedom to make choices about their lives. They are independent women - steering their own lives.

However, when I speak of my grandmother's humility and modesty, I, in no way, favor the typical sense of modesty that women are expected to display. For too long, women have been forced to live with this identity. So, if you're not compassionate, you're not a woman. This has become normalized.

While women have always been providers but this very role of provider, at least in the case of my grandmother, has stereotyped and reinforced her/their position as a service provider for free - basically an enslaved human being. And this is why, I believe, a family is the most potent tool and source of the patriarchy.

Kindness and compassion are the science that women have developed for themselves. It's not natural to them. These virtues are life skills and are at the center of who we are as the human race. It's just that societies have chosen to ignore them as virtue/life-skill for all and genderized them.

The Discovery of Life: Sexuality and Desire

I often think of my great grandmother and grandmother and my mother - whether they ever had the opportunity to explore and experiment with their sexuality and desire. How they never had the chance to even think about it, how all the social conditioning and ruthless patriarchal arrangements at home and outside must had choked them, and how they all could never be a party to these aspects of their own lives - how societies controlled them and they were never ever actually free. This is a chilling thought.

Awareness Is The First Step Towards Empathy

My 9-months long stay at home with my mother, listening to her, sharing a part of her life, partnering with her in her chores, dwelling on my grandmother's stories and the future she didn't have, imagining the grand life she could have lived and what possibilities she was denied and what my mother could have achieved; I have gone through an experience of hostility, hope, courage, and awareness. I can not feel the pain the women of my home went through, I can not be them - sharing their journey with them, and neither can I be a crusader; all that I desire is to become more aware of their lives, my behavior towards them, be reflective of the norms I unknowingly or knowingly practice, scrutinize my treatments of them and be a human to them.

Empathy does not require one to be a messiah but simply be a fellow human who is aware, conscious and is kind. My pathway to empathy is this road to awareness.


My gratitude to Himanshi - a generous and kind friend and to Charlotte who gave their consent to use their wonderful artworks.


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