The Smart Girl’s Guide to Ordinariness

By Anushka Joshi

Anushka is a class of 2021 undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

I know little of my great-grandmother’s marriage except that she was married when she was thirteen to a man thirty years her senior, as was not uncommon in her time; that when she was widowed the bangles she wore on her arms were taken off and smashed to pieces according to Indian custom; that she wore white saris, as was expected of her, every day until her own death, never allowing herself even a blue or gray thread to be woven in to alleviate the decreed blankness of her existence. It was I who persuaded her finally to give in to color; on hot afternoons when we were left alone by the napping family, I would paint her fingernails and toenails all sorts of colors. I had always thought it was an act of acquiescence to a persistent great-granddaughter, but now I wonder if it was defiance, rising like bile to her mouth towards the end of her life.  

I knew her as joyful, but in pictures of her she is never smiling; people of her generation did not smile for photographers, looking thin-lipped at the camera instead, as if facing a firing squad. When she died, my parents and I had returned to America after a summer in Ahmedabad, our hometown. My mother held me for a long time, and gave me a hair straightener she had bought for me as consolation; I had wanted it for a long time but at fifteen dollars, it had been reluctantly dismissed as a luxury by my struggling family. For the rest of the year whenever I straightened my hair, I would think of her.

She had never told me she loved me for the same reason she had never smiled in photographs: people of her generation did neither of these things. But I knew she had. There were a thousand examples of love, but the one I hung onto was that when I came down with colds as a baby, she would hang small cloth sacks full of garlic above my crib. This, she said to my mother, would clear my lungs. That, and, she kept unshelled pistachios in a bowl by her bedside for me when I went to visit her. And she spent hours telling stories.

I remember her solitude more even than I remember her. Because the smashed bangles and colorless clothes, were all, of course, to ensure that she was not beautiful, that she would never marry again, that she would never love or be loved. If her white sari was a white envelope containing her, then loneliness was the address stamped on it by a society determined that her life should be unsent and unspent, unshared and undelivered.  

My life as it is now, living independently and far away from my family, would have bewildered her rather than made her proud: her expectations for me would not have changed from her own mother’s expectations for her.

Because, although women’s education in India has changed utterly from the era of my great-grandmother, whose education was halted at the fourth grade, the expectations have not changed much. They did not change for the next generation. My paternal grandmother dreamed of being an actress and was offered a role in a film; her father forbade her from accepting. The director cast another actress who would become legendary. My grandmother does not speak of this with much regret – ruefulness must be rationed, a certain amount of ounces for every quietly forsaken dream.

The dream of being an actress was not the only one: she and her younger brother were the most academic in the family, and her father had enough money to send only one of the seven siblings to medical school. He sat her down and asked her if she wanted to become a doctor. She answered as she was expected to: no, she did not want to become a doctor, she was afraid of blood. Her brother became a doctor, and my grandmother endured blood when she gave birth to two sons, and endured it again when one of them was partially blinded by a slingshot. She was not afraid of blood; she was just afraid of claiming too many lives for herself.

She was happy, of course: happiness had not been banished from her life, she had just been made to realize that her happiness did not lie in becoming an actress or a doctor, but in having a family. Her dreams had been domesticated. I wonder how many stories there are in India of women like my grandmother, who have been given an education with the understanding that they will make little real use of it. A friend of mine studying architecture for five years bemoaned the fact that her grandfather wants to see her married at twenty-five, a situation which gives her just one year after college to live her own life before she is “settled”. How truly unsettling is that? When I was nineteen and on a gap year, a middle-aged acquaintance had chastised me for taking time off from my education; she was a privileged woman who spoke fluent English as she gave me a dressing down: “What are you doing? Your biological clock is ticking.” Before that, when I was fifteen, an Indian classmate who had been raised in America told me she felt compelled to get married before twenty-four because after that it was “slim pickings.” I found the juxtaposition between the American phrase and the culturally Indian sentiment jarring, but since then I have grown to accept what she said was the commonly held belief. It’s as if we live in a dystopian era created by Margaret Atwood in which a whole country conspires to make its young women believe that at twenty-four, their life will be over, all in a bid to rush them. If I had a minute for every time I’ve heard a friend rue about her parents pressuring her regarding the “ticking clock,” then I would have a lot of time on my hands.

Which is what we all need.

Of course, till twenty-five, my friend the aspiring architect can smoke weed and drink with us, her friends, and date whomever she likes, but only till then. Does the partying end upon being married? Sometimes, sometimes not. I know of someone from a conservative family who makes marijuana brownies with her husband and his friends. She is free to be drunk, be stoned, be outspoken, be smart, all things denied to our grandmothers and mothers; she is allowed to be whatever she wants to be, but she is not allowed to become anything.

Instead of becoming, growing, achieving, we wait. My generation of Indian girls is the generation in waiting. Girls who finish college and open up fashion boutiques or unthreatening patisseries in our hometowns, waiting to be arranged or loved into a marriage as if we’re waiting to be spirited away. I wish we, the Generation in Waiting, could be called something more glamorous, like the Lost Generation; but we are not allowed to be lost.

As India struggles with increasing reports of gang rapes, as a black-market industry revolves around doctors telling parents whether their baby is a boy or girl (and thereby deciding whether the baby is allowed to be born or becomes another case of female feticide), as women in crowded local trains count molestations with the same resigned, numbed matter-of-factness as they count station stops, this may seem like an irrelevant problem. But it isn’t. It’s as if those of us who have escaped the ultrasound and been allowed to be born are born with a guide to carry us through life, instructing us on evading excellence, on settling instead of summiting. It teaches us the art of un-remarkability. It is passed down through generations, because though the opportunities have grown, the options are still the same. I like to think of it as The Smart Girl’s Guide to Ordinariness.

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