Who raised you?

Checklists, societal pressures, and one's own dreams

A blue watercolour of a girl with speech bubbles questioning her abilities. Art by Shrawani Bhattarai

I have always, essentially, been waiting. In my mind, I have a checklist of things I have to accomplish before I turn 30, before I get married, before I graduate. There is a clear mental space dedicated to all of those colour-coordinated milestones that will get me one step closer to having my ideal life.

Or so I was led to believe. Only later — much later — did I realise that the list was not my own, but one constructed for me based on who I was supposed to be, and where I was meant to fit in within my society. Growing up in an Indian household, it was understood that my accomplishments and shortcomings were not merely my own, but also reflective of my family. It was very easy to construct seemingly logical arguments like, “I am my own person” and “I can make my own decisions,” but every mistake was met with questions of  “who raised you?”, and “what will people think of me?” from my mother. After all, most of my choices were not the ones she would have made for me.

I was immensely grateful that my mother always gave me freedoms, be it picking what books I wanted to read growing up, my subjects in high school, or what major I wanted to study in university. She would say that my life would be a result of what I decided, and not what was decided for me. 

But how much autonomy could I really exercise in a collectivist society deadset on fitting me into a mould crafted by preconceived beliefs? Would I really be allowed to change my mind again in a world where I should have known what I wanted for the rest of my life at the crisp age of 16? Why would one assume I was fit to make a decision when I was too scared to tell my legal mentor that the air conditioning was too cold for two weeks, and wore a shawl in the middle of New Delhi’s worst heatwave? 

I come from a family of businesspeople and lawyers, and I was always asked when I would finally fill my parents’ shoes. For a long while, I considered going along with it. I could study economics, or law. I could’ve become a lawyer and argued in a courtroom; I could’ve gone into marketing and come up with new business strategies. I could have repressed the writer, the painter, the creator.

Deep down, I knew most of this pressure came from within myself — the need to conform, to belong somewhere, to have it easy and never have to explain why I deviated. Once I realised this, I also realised that amidst these pressures, I still had free will. 

In retrospect, I know I needed to brave that storm before I could discard it as a career path without a ‘what if?’ haunting me later. I had to be strong enough to tell everyone that no, I would not be going to law school, despite dedicating a whole summer to it. I had to make peace with the tight smiles and pitiful head-tilts to find the people who said “Yes! The world needs you to write!” 

Hence, I wanted to know I wasn’t alone, that there were other people out there who were meant to be somebody else. And once I found them — and it wasn’t difficult — I found that the one thing all of us had in common was a crippling sense of dissatisfaction and a lot of repressed rage.

All of a sudden, my mind went blank. The checklist blurred and disappeared, leaving an uncertain path and unsteady legs to tread on. But I knew I was blessed for the choice I had been given, and would forever mourn the lost creations of those less fortunate than me. I learnt that you become so many other people before you find yourself, and no Europe trip or mountain trek can speed the process up.

I recall being seventeen and scared, clutching onto the blossoming ideas of a fiction novel and newspaper article in my mind, going to my mother, and saying, “I want to write.”

I remember her smile, her determined eyebrow raise, and her saying, “then write.

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