I haven’t shared this story with too many people, yet it is one that has always remained on the back burner of my mind.
I was almost thirteen and as boy-mad as an almost-thirteen-year-old could be. I remember me and my then best friend coming of age in Zambia, our experiences manifested in squeals of “Oh my god, I think he’s looking at us” or in the life-and-death decision of “Ooh, should we really walk past them?” for the ultimate target of a not-really-necessary packet of crisps, the “them” referring to equally silly, starry-eyed boys.
I thought these were universal expressions of puberty; shyly glancing over to catch someone’s eye, wanting to look your best while Jello-ed legs and a temporary loss of voice inhibited your ability to say a simple “hi” to the object of your very existence, the raison d’etre of your life, well, at that particular moment anyway. Or deciding to spend the afternoon at the movies, never mind what was running, so long as cute guys would be hanging out for pretty much the same reason as you were. Of course, all of this was accompanied by the attention span of a freshly pubescent brain with expressions wrapped in innocence, with harmless and fleeting murmurings of the heart.
Very quickly, however, I learned – the hard way – of the power of cultural expectations and norms. At a family wedding soon after I had freshly arrived in India “for good,” a 19-year-old cousin of a cousin took a certain liking to me. We chatted, laughed, and at one point, even held hands. And then after the celebrations, I went back to my life, and he to his. Or so I thought. A few months later, he declared his love for me. I was at a loss – I hadn’t thought of him even once since then, although ashamed of my “shallowness,” I lied that I had.
Of course, by then, I had also been amply introduced to the ways of my new surroundings. A woman’s character was like glass, you see. No amount of adhesive, soldering, covering, coaxing could hide a crack. I still remember the effect this declaration by an aunt had on my adolescent brain; what did that “crack” represent? What constituted a crack? Had I inadvertently caused a crack when I had gotten friendly with that young man? Did a crack necessarily mean my entire life would be worthless? I was suddenly very scared… I now realized that talking to boys was a sign of overt sexuality, perhaps sexuality gone out of control. I had learned a lot in the short months I had already come “back home” to India, notably about that famed chastity belt worn by women, and how it had to be kept under lock and key at all times until, of course, the wedding night when the key would miraculously resurface, whether you wanted to take off that belt or not.
By now, my fickle adolescent brain had layers of “Indian womanhood” to it, rather layers of what good Indian womanhood ought to be. Of course, there would always be bad women; women who drove men to do unsavory things, and whose own wicked ways caused that most sought after chastity to crumble, never mind crack a little. No way on earth did I want to be that woman.
I was a quick learner. I learned to suppress my blossoming sexuality; to feel that even having a silent crush on someone was wrong, that admiring a man’s good looks was unbecoming, that speaking to someone of the opposite sex would mean I was secretly having an affair with him, and hence tarnish my compromised image, which I was desperately trying to save after that disastrous encounter with the cousin-in-law. That didn’t stop me from having crushes though. Nevertheless, it was always a dichotomous experience – a crush would relieve some of the internal pressure, but I always ended up feeling it was wrong, and ended up hating myself for secretly being “in love” with someone, that something was wrong with me for being “boy mad.”
These injunctions slowly began to pervade other areas of my life. I began to feel the need to always be a “good girl,” to always say the right things, sit the proper way, wear the right clothes… I began to feel like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. While I never really did explode, the long journey towards implosion had begun.
I had forgotten my one week “fling,” but he hadn’t. Ten years later, I learned of his intention to marry me. A few years after that, he said I had promised to marry him. Not only was my reputation at stake now, my integrity was too – I had reneged on a promise. It didn’t matter that I had said nothing of the sort, and that the whole one week “affair” had climaxed into all of a holding hands session. People began to gossip. Someone even asked my mother: “Was it true?” To her credit, she dismissed the whole thing, a courageous act considering her own standing within the community was on the line as a mother of a young, out-of-control woman, a mother with a now potentially unmarriageable daughter on her hands. After all, what did that say about her child-rearing capabilities? I’m sure even today there are stories circulating of me and my “wildness.”
As I have grown older, I realize that this could be categorized as obsession and abuse of power given the fact that I was a minor. But as Bollywood movies often depict, the refusal to let go, and a dismissal of the other’s wishes, is supposedly an indicator of true love (on the part of a man). Decades later, I’m still trying to process the whole thing. Was I indeed an “over-sexed” teenager? After all, my cousins knew better than to chat with an unfamiliar male, never mind “flirt” with him. Did I ruin his life? I hear that he has pretty much turned into an alcoholic. Was it because of me? Was it my “Western” upbringing that had led to this confusion and mess? Maybe I was a bad person at the core. Or maybe I was someone who just enjoyed playing with people’s hearts.
As my (American) husband keeps reminding me, the fault was not mine but of extreme patriarchal expectations. On a rational and intellectual level, I know that. And I have definitely come a long way since then. But on the emotional, every now and then, I still find myself struggling, years later, with feelings of guilt and shame.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.