Free Will

Be­ing an in­de­pen­dent ca­reer woman may have cost her a mar­riage pro­posal. Au­thor Kavita Daswani turned it into in­spi­ra­tion in­stead. Seven­teen years later, she tells us how as­pi­ra­tions in mod­ern In­dia have changed.

India Today - - READING ROOM - Daswani is the au­thor of Bom­bay Girl, in book­stores now

Right around the time of my 30th birthday, I found my­self spend­ing an ex­tended pe­riod of time in Mum­bai, my par­ents hav­ing carted me there from our home in Hong Kong with the in­ten­tion of find­ing me a hus­band. I would end up stay­ing there for three months. It wasn’t, I must con­fess, like they had to drag me kick­ing and scream­ing. I had a suc­cess­ful ca­reer, my friends and cousins were long mar­ried, and it was time.

A few weeks into this so­journ, a call came from a fam­ily mem­ber. There was a boy. From Ac­cra in West Africa. Rea­son­ably good- look­ing, a well- known busi­ness fam­ily. He was in Mum­bai for the same rea­son I was. It would be a good match. Al­ready, in my head, I saw ev­ery­thing un­fold. We would meet for tea at the Taj, his fam­ily and mine, be­fore go­ing off for a shy walk around the block. He would be wowed by my wit and in­tel­li­gence, my ca­reer ac­com­plish­ments, the fact that I had nice hair. There would be a rea­son­ably elab­o­rate wed­ding, and I would go off with him to Ghana, where I would be mis­tress of his man­sion and tell his ser­vants what to do. In a year, I would bear him a son. I would be the most de­voted daugh­ter- in- law. I could do this, I told my­self.

A cou­ple of hours be­fore the meet­ing, just as I was de­cid­ing be­tween the pink dress and the mauve, the phone rang. It was him call­ing to speak to the fam­ily mem­ber who had set it all up. There was a last- minute trip to Ban­ga­lore. He was sorry. He had to can­cel. He would resched­ule.

“He won’t call,” my rel­a­tive said to me, try­ing to hide his pity, “he has heard things.” I searched my mind to think of what this man from the other side of the world might have heard that seemed to have clearly sul­lied my rep­u­ta­tion. Had I eloped and for­got­ten about it? Ter­mi­nated a preg­nancy? Joined AA? Were there demons in my past and skele­tons in my closet that I was un­aware of?

Ap­par­ently not. Later that day, a friend who knew this man called. He had asked her about me. My friend had de­scribed me as “in­de­pen­dent”. The man then said, “is she at least fair?” My friend, want­ing to be hon­est, said no. And that, it seems, was all it took. With that one cur­sory con­ver­sa­tion, a po­ten­tial suitor who had been quite keen on me in the morn­ing had re­jected me by af­ter­noon, be­cause I didn’t have the com­plex­ion of Snow White and also knew how to form my own opin­ions. I sus­pect that even if my skin was the colour of driven snow, he would’ve bailed.

I hated it, but this par­tic­u­lar turn of events re­ally did hurt me. As much as I wanted to be that blithe, care­free, so­phis­ti­cated ca­reer girl, who could take such an ir­ra­tional re­jec­tion in her stride and laugh at it, I went into my room and cried. I was sad for days.

It has been 17 years since that hap­pened, and I am now hap­pily mar­ried, with two sons ( the first of whom was in­deed born af­ter a year). But I also be­lieve that what tran­spired back then, the quaintly chau­vin­is­tic at­ti­tude of this man, no doubt shared by many oth­ers, would be less likely to hap­pen to­day. The rea­son is sim­ple: this in­de­pen­dence that was once con­sid­ered some­thing of a crim­i­nal streak if dis­played in a woman is now al­most main­stream. Back then, there were few sin­gle Sindhi girls of my gen­er­a­tion who worked out­side of their fa­ther’s busi­nesses, fewer still who went over­seas to col­lege, which I, iron­i­cally, did not do.

But I did have a ca­reer, a pretty high- pro­file one. I was the fash­ion ed­i­tor for the top news­pa­per in Hong Kong, which meant I was on a plane ev­ery cou­ple of weeks, Mi­lan one day, Tokyo the next. I wrote a very suc­cess­ful col­umn in a mag­a­zine that had a pic­ture by­line, me con­fi­dent in Os­car de la Renta. I was the Asian cor­re­spon­dent for Women’s Wear Daily in New York, a pres­ti­gious gig that opened all sorts of doors, in­clud­ing one in front of the cam­era at CNN In­ter­na­tional and CNBC Asia, in­ter­view­ing the likes of Jerry Hall and Nikki Tay­lor.

Still, it didn’t mat­ter that I meant well, tried to have din­ner with my par­ents ev­ery night, knew the aarti and ob­served all the reli­gious fes­ti­vals. What mat­tered is that I seemed, to those who didn’t bother to dig any deeper, to be one- di­men­sional— harsh, ca­reer­mad, driven. In­de­pen­dent.

The man from Ac­cra didn’t trust— and there was no rea­son he should have— that there does seem to be some­thing that runs through In­dian wom­an­hood: that de­spite ac­com­plish­ments and achieve­ments, it seems in­bred in us to want to care for our fam­i­lies first. In some way, we all be­come our moth­ers. I look now at the girls of the age I was when I made that trip. They work in fash­ion PR, own restau­rants, run med­i­cal and law prac­tices. There is so much more so­cial ac­cep­tance of suc­cess for women now.

Be­ing “in­de­pen­dent” runs along­side mar­riage and moth­er­hood, a part of our­selves we let sur­face when the need presents it­self, or al­low to drift to one side when ba­bies need to be fed or an ir­ri­tated hus­band soothed. And when we do need some time to our­selves, a help­ing hand with the kids, more com­mu­ni­ca­tion within the mar­riage, I’d like to think that men are learn­ing how to re­spond in kind.

So if be­ing in­de­pen­dent al­lows us to give voice to what we need, to find a way to an­chor our­selves peace­ably in our own world, surely that can’t be a bad thing. Even in Ac­cra.


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