Coming to Consciousness

I have always been fascinated by turning points—those moments of infinite possibility where some mysterious combination of chance and choice changes someone forever. It is easy enough to find them in literature—but, in reality, they are often mixed in with the humdrum of our lives.

One of my first lessons in feminist theory was that the personal is political and though, at the time, I thought I understood perfectly what that meant, I wonder now whether I will ever completely grasp the enormity of that simple statement. Against the alternating terrible and beautiful backdrop of India’s 16th Lok Sabha general elections, amidst much heady hope and heartbreak, we have come of age, come to consciousness, and fallen off the cusp of youth into adulthood.

I think it all began when, in the middle of a fierce intellectual debate with some friends, I said in a moment of exasperation that I loved my summer dresses and wouldn’t vote for anyone who would try to keep me from wearing them. It was half a joke and the men laughed but the women nodded. I realized in that moment that politics could never be simply a matter of the head; it is also undeniably a matter of the heart. Something deep inside me tells me whom to vote for.

But the stakes went up significantly when a friend shared with me some carefully unbranded material being distributed at a political rally at the end of last year. Black and white fliers that urged Hindus to unite and be proud of their religion, to help other Hindus in trouble and only shop in stores owned by Hindus, to maintain a ‘majority’ and beware of western culture that is ‘breaking families’. It was my first taste of fundamentalism—that dangerously ephemeral flier.

Something that kept coming back to me, over the next few months, as I watched my friends crash into the walls of prejudice and hate that had been invisible to us when we were younger. What does it mean to be a minority in India? It means you will struggle to rent an apartment. It means your boyfriend’s parents may never agree to meet you. It means your granduncle, who chose with his whole heart to be Indian at Partition, might confess to you that he sometimes wonders why.

It is a lesson in hegemony. An illustration of how pervasive and insidious the dominant ideology really is. How many people tell their children in hushed voices who is worthy of their respect, who they are allowed to love, and who they should choose to marry. How many people police those they love, tell their daughters how to dress, snub their sons who marry out of the community, clip their children’s wings even before they have learned how to fly.

But ideology too has an Achilles’ heel—and two weeks ago I glimpsed it in the early hours of the morning. After burning the midnight oil at work, my friend hit a big bump on the road and fell off his motorbike on his way home. It was after 2am and the streets were deserted but a young couple on another motorbike found him lying unconscious on the road a few minutes later. He was bleeding, his helmet had fallen off, and he didn’t respond at first to their attempts to revive him.

Luckily, the young man who found him was a medical representative at Ranbaxy, so he didn’t panic or give up. He took off my friend’s shoes, loosened his shirt, and kept trying until he responded. Certain now that he was alive, they tried to stop the few stray cars that passed by, some slowed down to look but no one stopped. Finally, two other men on a motorbike agreed to help. They sandwiched him, unconscious, between themselves on a motorbike and took him to hospital.

Somehow, the young couple had the presence of mind and the kindness to collect all my friend’s belongings that were strewn on the road, his helmet, his backpack with his laptop, his motorbike, and to bring them along too. As he was rushed into the Emergency Room, the young man discovered my friend’s cell phone battery was dead, replaced it with his own, and called my friend’s mother. He said, “Hello aunty, I’m your son’s friend on the line. Where in Bangalore do you live?”

Only when my friend’s mother told him she lived in Bombay did the young man tell her gently what had happened as he promised to wait at the hospital until his roommate arrived. We arrived a few minutes after the young couple had left and all I got see of them was the young man’s business card—with his undeniably Muslim name. I couldn’t help but think—for all the power you think you have over your children—you can’t know who will save their lives in the middle of the night.

We are the world’s largest democracy and our strength lies in our pluralism. We are the most diverse nation on earth with countless languages, religions, and cultures. We have one of the most beautiful constitutions. As freshly inked thumbs show up around the city, my heart beats faster as I hope we remember the promise we made to each other long years ago, at the stroke of the midnight hour, when India awoke to life and freedom—justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for us all.

I have always been passionate about development but these days, in moments of exasperation, I sometimes say I don’t care about development at all—what I mean is that development is nothing if it leaves the marginalized behind. Development is nothing if it breeds discontent. Regardless of our hemlines, our gender, our religious identities, our modernity, or our traditions, we all belong to India—and India belongs to us all. If we forget this, we forget the promise of India itself.

As I walk the streets of my city in a summer dress beside a young man who gladly relinquished garam rotis with ghee and other privileges of patriarchy when he married me, I am grateful that my parents only whispered to me about happiness. But then I open the newspaper and watch whole women being reduced to relationships—daughters, sisters, wives, mothers—men’s possessions to be protected. And, once again, I am deeply aware that the personal is political.

“Coming to Consciousness” appeared in The Citizen

Indus Chadha believes we cannot exist or be understood without stories and spends much of her time reading and writing them. She earned a BA in Women’s Studies and English Literature from Smith College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

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