The Cracked Glass by Vibha Shetiya


13327613_10208448645447348_6913754683590458893_nI 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.

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Categories: General, Women's Voices

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23 replies

  1. Woww superbly written dear

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  2. Great piece, Vibha. You describe my growing up experience to a “T,” albeit my props were different. I grew up in Argentina with several siblings and conservative, fundamentalist missionary parents. When I came to the U.S., there was no lack of “right-wing” churches to attend and I did. Your write that after a few years of your being in India, “my fickle adolescent brain had layers of “Indian womanhood” to it, rather layers of what good Indian womanhood ought to be.” I get it! Have found that it takes a long, long time to dissolve those layers to eventually become unified on the inside and whole. Thanks for writing.

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    • Thank you, Esther, for sharing your experience too. There are many layers I am still dealing with, but it is heartening to hear that they can be dissolved, even though it may take a while.

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  3. 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.

    This is exactly right. Maybe you should find a ritual to get those ideas out of your mind. I recommend the self-blessing ritual of Z Budapest to be found in Womanspirit Rising.

    It is not you, but you/we are influenced by our culture. Take care of you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. All relationships in my experience are challenging and if there is a romantic attraction it can be very challenging, though for sure definitely worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Vibha —
    Patriarchal training is hard to shake when it’s totally pervasive within the culture. The questions you ask yourself are really the questions of your internalized patriarch. I know my internalized patriarch quite well. I spent hours in ritual trying to dig him up and throw him out of my psyche, only to discover that he was my six-year-old self trying to be a big girl. When I figured this out I was able to embrace this part of myself and incorporate it back into my being. Good luck with your process. It’s worth the effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Nancy. That patriarch is definitely a stubborn one, but I am slowly beginning to acknowledge him and realize he is not always good for me.

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  6. This cultural expectation of being “good” leads to destruction of self. I agree with Carol, it might be helpful to create a ritual to help yourself release that emotional hook – be prepared to repeat the ritual as many times as it is necessary to do so.

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  7. Much truth in what you write Vibha. As a “westernized” Indian girl, I went through similar issues. My friendliness was misinterpreted, and often misrepresented as being ‘forward’. And when I rejected an eligible proposal to which I had first said yes – wow. That last action became a Diwali Anka story (without my knowledge) that cast me as a career minded girl who broke social norms with little or no concern for propriety. But look where we are now…and be proud of the decisions we made about our own lives!

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    • Padmini, every time I rejected a proposal, I was told I thought no end of myself. It’s been a long journey, and I still struggle with a lot of issues, but I’m definitely beginning to come into my own. Thank you for sharing your story!

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  8. Even people who think they are not patriarchal frequently are. I am reminded of some men I know who think they are very liberal, that is until they are confronted with something they do not like in a woman, a woman being free “like a man”. Are their places where this does not exist?

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  9. Apparently not, Juliana. It’s every where, the degrees are different. I often tell my students how horrified I was when I first learned of the rate of domestic violence here. Surely, I thought, American society/ culture is a progressive one, and that no American woman would take any BS. I was wrong on both counts.

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  10. Well written Vibha. As an Indian woman, I can identify with this – every crush was frowned upon by elders – and many boys assumed that if you smiled at them, you wanted to marry them. There is a saying in my language – “whether the thorn touches the leaf or the leaf touches the thorn, it is the leaf that gets hurt.” This was constantly used by adults to remind young girls and women that their “reputation” is everything, even more important than their life. Therefore a girl/woman must learn to shame herself for her sexuality and her natural human thoughts and feelings.

    I was wondering if it would be okay to share your post on this blog that discusses feminism and other issues pertaining to Indian women?
    https://indianhomemaker.wordpress.com/

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    • Please do, Priya. Thank you for asking. “This was constantly used by adults to remind young girls and women that their ‘reputation’ is everything, even more important than their life” – sad but true. I thought things were changing since the time I was growing up, but maybe not.

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  11. Well penned Vibha. Your story is an epitome of what is prevailing in our society. Every second girl is having a similar experience in some or the other way. On your feeling of guilt and shame I would like to suggest you not to overthink the matter as it should be the guy feeling shameful for misreading you and your feelings (rather reading them according to his wish) and getting public about it even before having a word with you. You feeling shameful about it will make the society look at you with the burden of the faults in the matter. Basically you are not answerable to the society for your personal life and liking’s. So be a happy soul dear!

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  12. Well written Vibha! Oh how your story brought back memories for me!! I am a western girl who frequented India as a teenager. I was always, and still am, playful with everyone regardless of sex or age. Because of my dancing and singing tendencies I caught the eyes of many unwanted suitors in India. Despite my refusal to him and to my family I was engaged to him, apparently through my happy go lucky attitude I had asked for this arrangement. I went through the motions and as soon as my feet hit western soil I broke things off with the poor Indian fellow. I felt guilty and ashamed for the family but I couldn’t hold up the charade. My father STILL went on to arrange my marriage to a person of HIS choice and it isn’t working out. Why can’t we just be more trusting of our daughters as a community??? Our society doesn’t allow girls to be just girls without attaching them to sexuality and “asking for it”, whatever “it” is. What an unfair practice! Keep writing! – Venya

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    • I’m sorry to hear of your experiences, Venya. I comment you on your courage to break it off with the Indian man. It mustn’t have been easy, with not just the pressure from family and society, but also the sense of shame and guilt that often acts as a “self-corrective” method. You mention not being able to hold up the charade – I hope you find the strength and courage to resolve your current situation too. Take care of yourself!

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      • Hi Vibha! Just to clarify, I’m still living with him phycially but emotionally I’m no longer there. My family hasn’t been supportive me leaving him even though no one can fault in me. It’s all about, “what will people say??” I’m working on my way out of the house so I can stand on my own 2 feet while caring for my 2 kids without having to ask anyone for anything. The charade is over for our family, and friends, still charading for the general public.
        Venya

        Liked by 1 person

      • Venya, please check your mail. I just sent you a note.

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