By Swati Sharma
Artwork by Sarah Ahmed
In a scene from the Bollywood movie ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’, Priyanka Chopra’s magnificently feminist and straightforward character asks a group of gossiping elderly woman a simple question: ‘Aap logon ke paas our koi kaam nahi hai?’ ‘Don’t you all have any other work? Get a job!’ In that instant, she represents the frustration of every single kid who’s grown up in a South Asian household: the gnawing, painful realisation that their lives are simply not their own. Instead, they are in the hands of a multi-member gang of ‘well-wishing’ adults who try everything in their might to tear them, each other and everyone else involved in the equation down.
Simply put, a typical South Asian household survives on two things: 1) the unwavering emotional and physical labour done by its women, and 2) the families extraordinary abilities to gossip about the neighbors. This is common knowledge and even acceptable behavior in some of our homes. It’s simply what we grow into. What results is an unspoken culture of constant toxicity that is never discussed let alone cleared out of the air. What is worse are the rules these hushed voices make up for the young members of its community. By the time you are 2 years old and barely made sense of the world, you are well aware of the difference between what is categorized as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. For young women especially, this distinction is harsher and the inability to conform to it is unacceptable and even punishable.
Fast forward to your teenage years, and you see your sisters, your best friends denounced of their character, their entire intrinsic personalities simply on the basis of how they dress, how they speak, what they talk about and how many men they know. Without realizing why you start to resent these women who were once you. You’re just told you’re on the good side. Our culture does not accept default pieces in the exact prototypes they are trying to create. Someone pursuing art doesn’t make sense to a community that only speaks the language of success and what it means in materialistic terms. Someone who doesn’t believe in god would be met with a questioning long drawn pause. Similarly, having an opinion is a felony. Acting on that opinion is a betrayal.
“Similarly, having an opinion is a felony. Acting on that opinion is a betrayal.”
Imagine Mean Girls but imagine them dressed in yellow-pink kurta’s and lehengas huddled together on their living room of choice, waiting for some kid to walk in. Imagine them going through some sort of mental map of your short life looking through ways to berate you. Failure becomes less of an option when you know there’s a group of people counting all your steps. Talk about too much pressure. The worst way this toxicity seeps into the lives of the younger members of the community is that as we grow up we tend to subconsciously mirror these behaviours in our daily interactions and start thinking less or more of people depending on how they stand on our personal radar of success or morality. It is not uncommon for us to have some random cousin who we’re supposed to hate even though we have little to no knowledge about them. We learn to nit-pick every single thing about this individual to feed our own self-esteem. This individual represents everything we should or should not be like. In such a community, it is very hard for young people to form genuine bonds and relationships that aren’t constantly shadowed by the high expectations of our families. And yet, when we eventually grow older and learn to confide in each other, we find that there is nothing stronger than this coming together of young brown energy.
Before the brethren of aunties and uncles come for me, let me clarify that I understand where they’re coming from. For them, this is love and concern. For them, this is giving the children in their community wisdom and advice. What they should understand is on the receiving end it sounds less like advice and more like pedestals we have to work relentlessly to uphold. Pedestals that are burying the foundations of love and unity that our communities were built upon. In her poem, ‘Directives‘, Olivia Gatwood writes: “It is easier to hate someone who looks like you, especially when you hate yourself.” When the auntie talks about how you probably shouldn’t wear as much makeup as so and so’s daughter does and proceeds to foresee her life based on what she puts on her face, it is her insecurities of not having done so herself speaking. When the auntie asks you to get better grades than so and so’s son, she is afraid of looking at you and seeing ‘failure’ the way she has been taught to identify it. When they sit down and talk about the neighbors, they’re wondering how the rest of the world sees them. More than just plain old negative, they are insecure and fearful.
“More than just plain old negative, they are insecure and fearful.”
As children who’ve grown up around fear, in order for us to have happy, fulfilling lives, we need to do better. The first step towards that is recognizing that we have a choice. The next time you see a young brown kid being slandered or talked about, you have to resist the urge to join in or be a silent spectator. Everyone knows getting into arguments with elders leads nowhere, but taking the conversation somewhere else, or maybe meeting up with that kid later and letting them know that you support them goes a long way. I am not saying stand across every brown kid’s doorstep and play a One Direction song or something. I am saying, have each other’s backs. Don’t believe everything you hear. Know that whenever someone else gets called out for something that’s bizarre to our elders, you’re going to be in that position too. Someday there will be something about you that nobody will be willing to understand or sympathize with. We are finally learning how to break out of the norms that have been passed down to us, and of course, it’s going to be hard. So do something extraordinary. We have a culture of feeling uncomfortable while expressing emotion, let’s work towards dismantling that. When you get the sudden urge to back-talk about somebody just because their choices in life are different than yours, learn to look at yourself. Learn to be better. It takes entire lifetimes to destroy generational cycles of negativity, but let’s start with this lifetime. Because whether or not we know it, we’re all banking on each other to make up space, to create for each other the freedom to be.
MEET THE WRITER:
Swati Sharma is an 18 year old aspiring ‘jaded New Yorker’. Originally from India, she is currently pursuing a B.F.A. in Film (Screenwriting) at the School of Visual Arts, New York. She is also an aspiring poet and her work will soon be published in the upcoming, ‘Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (…and Other Lies) published by the Penguin Random House UK. She can be found being really enthusiastic about the concept of pigeons or ranting about how amazing women are.
Want more of Swati? Follow her on instagram @swati16sharma and check out more of her writing here!