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.
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.
IF BEING INDEPENDENT ALLOWS US TO GIVE VOICE TO WHAT WE NEED, SURELY THAT CAN’T BE A BAD THING.