Ring Ring..Ring Ring..Ring Ring.. The landline kept ringing and agitating her annoyance. She didn’t pick up the phone. She cursed the caller in her head for disturbing her sleep. Will anyone let her live her own life? Did she have the life of her own or not? Or was she a slave of the technology, which she had started hating now?Shelja Raheja- a name that everyone knew now. She was 35 years old and had 15 years of work experience in journalism. A well known journalist-cum-columnist with the woman-centric magazine called “Women and Life.” This was the life that she chose but to be honest, she blamed everyone for her life; surpassing the notion that “your life is utterly a result of the choices that you made at some point of time.” Was she happy with her job? Of course! After completing her Masters in Mass Communication, her solo aim in life was to be a successful (read popular!) journalist or a columnist. She had a job that she loved and the forte that she always wanted to cover- the women in India and the hurdles that they face in life. She was a staunch believer of the fact that each and every woman of India has a story to tell; which she wanted to cover in her column. And when she came up with the idea of her column entitled- “Women and Hurdles,” her editor, after a brief discussion, gave a green signal to go ahead. And what a success her column was today! Shelja Raheja, after merely 2 stories, became her editor’s apple of the eye and everyone’s reason for corporate jealousy. The biggest reason was her devotion to the work, her dedication towards her clients and the level of professionalism she had.
Shelja always checked her mails, SMSs, Watsapp messages, Facebook messages, LinkedIn messages and she had the tendency to make sure that she replied to each and every message that she received. It was hardly possible that she didn’t reply to someone. In fact, she was surprised how people lacked the sense of being updated with their social networks and how was it possible for someone to not see the mails or messages every day. Well, she always had a checkbox in her mind to make sure that she remained updated in her social networks because this was very much a part of her profession.
But, what twitched her every now and then was the fact that she was one of those women who were always preoccupied and had zero time for themselves. Most of the days, she woke up feeling like a piece of shit at the wee hours. After completing her household chores, almost every day, she sat immediately to stitch the loose strings of her ongoing story. And when the woven story was ready; what a sense of accomplishment she felt!
No one knew what she had gone through to reach at this level. Although she didn’t care much about the back-bitters, but sometimes when she woke up and sat for like 5 minutes in the morning with her ownself, she always thought why people were jealous of others? Everyone in life has his/her own aim and wouldn’t it be good if people just worked upon on their own goals of life rather than being concerned about other’s success? Phew! Futile thoughts! She knew, people were like that and no one had walked a mile in her boots to know how much she had struggled to reach a position that she enjoyed today.
Anyways, today was the fresh day of the third week of month. It always surprised her as to why people tweeted and updated statuses for Monday? Was it really that popular (or hated!). Sometimes, she had empathy with Monday because she too was like that- unavoidable, popular and yet hated by millions! She had to search for a lead to start weaving her story for the column. And so, she was busy looking around the newspapers, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and Blogs- to search for that one lead! But why the hell was her landline ringing so much from past so many hours. She decided to pick up the phone this time because maybe it was some sort of lead!
Ring Ring..Ring Ring..Ring Ring.. The phone rang again after a few hours. This time, she jumped out of her bed; pushing aside all the work!
“Hello,” a bleak sound came from the other end of the receiver
“Yes?” Shelja’s commanding voice answered from this side.
“Shelja Raheja? Am I talking to Shelja Raheja of ‘Women and Life’magazine?”
“Yes, what do you want?”
“Maám, I have something to tell you. I want to meet you. I have been trying to reach you since so many days and I have been calling you continuously from past few hours. But I understand that you might have been busy. I feel fortunate that you picked up today.” A very sad voice kept saying all this to Shelja.
Oh! So, she was the one calling? Shelja observed that there was a certain kind of pain in her voice. Shelja was used to hearing the sad voices of women, but this one was a bit different- it was sadder than what she had always heard, it was as if the voice was dejected and succumbed to something very serious!
“What is your name?” Shelja asked (this time with a compassionate expression in her voice)
“Where do you want me to meet you?”
“The place of your comfort Maám.”
Shelja checked her watch. It was 8 a.m. And all she had to do today was search for the lead of her story. Probably, this girl Aarushi was the lead. Probably, this girl wanted Shelja to cover her story in the column.
“10 a.m. at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Saket”
“I will be there Maám. Can you please give me your mobile number? I will call you as soon as I reach there.”
Shelja gave her the number which she always used for her official purposes. After hanging up, she immediately got ready, picked up her laptop bag, pen and diary, wallet, car keys and home keys, all of which was kept cleanly at exactly the same position where she had kept it on Day 1 after shifting to this house. She rushed outside, locked the door, kept the keys in her laptop bag, walked a few steps to reach her car and started the ignition. Within a few minutes, she was surrounded with what seemed like never-ending chaos on the Delhi roads. But she utilised this time to mentally prepare a few notes.
She was just round the corner when she received an SMS.
“Maám, I am here at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. I will be waiting for you. Just call me when you reach here.”
Shelja checked her watch. It was 9.45 a.m. In a few more minutes, she parked her car and went inside. At exactly 9.55 a.m., Shelja was at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and after having found Aarushi there; she took the seat next to her. She searched for the first expression in Aarushi’s face and voice, but she looked sad, just like she sounded on the phone. Aarushi’s eyes were distant and still searching for something in Shelja. Shelja observed that this 25-year-old-or-so girl looked far more tired, cheerless and distant than other girls of her age. She waited for her to say something.
And after a few minutes, all Aarushi said to Shelja was, “Maám I don’t want to die like her!”
Shelja was taken aback. Surprised; yet suddenly cautious she first tried to understand what Aarushi wanted to say. She made a checkbox in her mind to take out her diary and pen after a few minutes, once Aarushi feels comfortable in her company.
“Aarushi, please be comfortable and tell me the reason of this meeting,” Shelja tried to be considerate with her, just like she had always been with all the protagonists of her stories.
After sometime, Aarushi asked Shelja, “Maám, what according to you is the right marriageable age?”
Shelja had covered a lot of women-centric stories- acid attacks, domestic violence, rapes, love in kidnapping, break-ups, single mothers, successful professional women, a happy housewife and a lot more. In three years of her association with ‘Women and Life’ magazine, she had never come across a young girl asking her a question that is so common in almost every Indian house. Something clicked Shelja and she became more curious. She wanted Aarushi to open up more in her conversation so that she could catch the right nerve of the story.
“Aarushi, I want you to tell me exactly what you feel?”
“Maám, please tell me first, what is the right age to get married for a girl?”
Shelja, tried to calculate in her head the appropriate marriageable age for an Indian girl. Suddenly, this 25-year-old-or-so girl had pushed Shelja back in time, when her mother used to tell her, “You are 23. One or two years more and we’ll find a suitable match for you.” And yet, Shelja, at that time, despite being a goal-oriented girl, had never questioned her mother, because in almost all Indian families, we have a notion that the “right age to get married for a girl” is somewhere from 25-28.
“Ammm..Maybe till 28,” Shelja answered Aarushi.
“Maám, this was the reason why Meher committed suicide!”
Shelja was once again taken aback. “Who was Meher?” Shelja thought in her head. She could not wait anymore. She took out the pen and the diary and wrote ‘Aarushi’ in it. Then she immediately noted down the name “Meher” and circled it. It was getting perplexed for her to know who the story was about- Aarushi or Meher? And by the way, who was Meher? Why did a “marriageable age” question push her to suicide? Thousands of questions started popping in Shelja’s journalistic head, but she wanted Aarushi to do the talking first.
“Alright! See Aarushi, I have a whole day for you. Please feel free to talk and pour out your heart to me. That’s what my job is! To let other women in our society learn from the stories of girls like you. What is your story? Tell me?”
“Maám, I called you here, not to narrate my story or cover me as a protagonist. This is my best friend- Meher’s story.”
Meher- the protagonist: Shelja wrote in her diary.
“Go on Aarushi and tell me what happened to Meher? Why did she commit suicide? And why, in the first place you asked me about the right marriageable age for a girl?”
“Maám,” Aarushi started her story, “Meher and I had been friends since play school. When I think of a real friend, only she comes in my mind. And now she is gone! No one, except a few people know that she committed suicide. Her family doesn’t want anyone else to know. And no one knows the reason either. But I know.
Meher, you see Maám, was a girl blessed with exceptional beauty. She was extremely beautiful and attractive. From school to college and to professional life, Meher had always been a centre of attraction for boys. She was independent. She loved travelling. She loved dressing up in whatever she could, and everything suited her like it was made typically for her body. Shorts, dresses, sarees, suits, lehengas, jeans, jackets- whatever! You name a dress for a girl, and Meher was found wearing it. And God! She looked so beautiful and attractive in everything. There is no particular attire that I can pick up because she looked perfectly immaculate in each and everything. Fearless, independent, utterly gorgeous, well-travelled, well-spoken, full of life, cheerful and the one who loved making friends- this was Meher, my best and the only friend!”
In her mind’s eye, Shelja was imagining what Meher looked like. She was trying to visualise the kind of girl Meher was. She was unique, about this Shelja was sure already.
Aarushi carried on, “Maám, you know what, she loved making friends. And she had more of boys as her friends. But do you see any harm in that Maám?”
“Absolutely not! There is a whole new generation now. Why would someone see harm in making friends with boys? It is quite common these days for girls to have boys as their friends, because we all, as a woman know that there is less of drama in a girl-boy friendship. Zero jealously, more fun, ability to open up more and having a helping hand always. So it’s always good to have boys as friends. I don’t see harm in that Aarushi.”
“We are a new generation Maám, but our accepted wisdom, our mindset; our “values” as they call it, are still rooted back in the 30s or so era. May be we all want to ape the West, we all like their culture deep in our hearts- children leaving home once they are 16, children learning from their own mistakes, getting to earn early, getting to be independent, getting to talk to the parents freely about friendships, love, relationships, broken hearts, getting pregnant, abortions, learning what is life- everything! But you know what Maám, we are all hypocrites! We are all doing this drama of being truly Indians, we are all covetous of our Western counterparts because we all know that we want a life like them- independent, free and open; especially with our parents.”
After hearing Aarushi speak like that, Shelja felt like someone was exactly echoing her words. Wasn’t this she felt right from her adolescence? Wasn’t this the kind of life that she wanted? Ability to live free, independent, open, learning from own mistakes and having a friend-like equation with the parents! Aarushi was right, we are all hypocrites and isn’t it for this reason that when we Indians get a chance to go and study or live abroad, we pounce on that ‘opportunity’ almost immediately? Because, we all want to live like them, because we all love the Western culture and because we all have come to know that there is absolutely nothing wrong in letting a child free as soon as he/she hits adolescence.
“But you know what Maám,” Aarushi continued, “when someone starts doing all this in our country, everyone; and trust me- each and everyone becomes that green-eyed “really-well-cultured-Indian.” Age doesn’t matter then. And this I am telling you from Meher’s own experience. She travelled the world with her friends (boys), she drank whisky like a fish, and she smoked in a way that gave men a run for their money! And when she shared her happy-independent-free-outgoing-life like pictures on Facebook, everyone, almost everyone was making a “tich” sound and calling her a “slut,” while we all knew that they all wanted to live a life like her’s.
“Who called her a slut?” Shelja was actually enjoying this conversation from a 25-year-old-or-so girl Aarushi, who seemed to be like a completely broad-minded, well-educated and well-informed independent and mature girl. And her friend, “Meher,” she felt like a girl who could make any other girl feel envious because that’s exactly the kind of life that every subdued girl in Indian home wants to live! Hadn’t Shelja wanted to be like this? She had never echoed her deep expressions and intentions to anyone; but the truth was that she always wanted to travel the world, be independent, earn a lot and then spend it on her ownself. She was herself tired of being someone who was always trying to keep everyone happy, whether at her home or at her work. The last person, at the end of the day, she did not manage to make happy was herself!
Shelja, clearly drifted in her thoughts and trying to connect with Aarushi and the girl who was not even alive (Meher), asked Aarushi, “If Meher was so happy, so independent, so fun-loving and so out-going, what motivated her to suicide?”
Aarushi continued, “Her so-called friends, her family, her relatives, her neighbours; but most of all- this hypocrite well-cultured green-eyed Indian society that I described to you earlier. This society that doesn’t want a girl to live the way she wants, this society that keeps poking a girl about her marriage as soon as she is in her 20s, this society that thinks that drinking alcohol, smoking, partying, travelling around, having a lot of friends and speaking what you feel like without bothering to please everyone else- is all the gift of patriarchal society to our Indian boys and does not “suit” a girl! Maám, Meher was a very out-going girl, she loved to live, she sang, she danced, she painted, she was beautiful, she was independent, she had a great career, she had a lot of friends (mostly boys), she was truly a gift to the womankind; but what broke her gradually from inside was a constant pressure of this society to “settle down.” Why was it so difficult for everyone to comprehend that she was already “settled down” and that there was absolutely no need for a man in her life to settle down. She was a man by herself. She didn’t want a rich man, she didn’t want an intelligent man, and she didn’t want to marry at all; RIGHT NOW! But it wasn’t that she didn’t want to get married at all. Maám, Meher always said, “I will get married Aarushi, but it will be exactly when I feel like; not when my relatives, neighbours and society feels like. I don’t want to get married at this stereotypical 25 or so age. I want to get married exactly when I feel like a man wants to have me in his life as a good luck, as a pride, as a blessing; and not as his responsibility.”
Aarushi silenced for a while and Shelja observed that she was fighting her tears as the pain knocked back in her throat. Shelja, too, gulped down her tears, as she came face to face with the fact how the system of our society can completely demolish a true gift of womanhood, a true symbol of independent woman; who, perhaps, in some other country would have been enjoying her life; living on her own terms and conditions and not according to what people wanted! Shelja, was waiting for Aarushi to talk again, but in her head, she had already thought of the title of her new story- “That Girl Like Your Boy.”