In other households, when the phone rings in the middle of the night it usually bodes no good. In my house, it means some dizzy friend has once again forgotten about the concept of time difference.
“But it’s morning in India,” one such recent caller said.
“Yes,” I replied. “Too bad I’m in New York.”
Then there are the people who call my parents’ house in India at two in the morning for a bit of chitchat.
“Wassup?” says G, entirely too happy and ghetto fabulous for Ungodly Hour in Sleepy Cochin Where Everyone is Abed by Nine. “Heard you were back, babe.”
“Er, nothing,” I mumble, trying to ignore my father’s scowl as he waits for me to hang up so he can go back to sleep. “Thing is, I’m in my parents’ bedroom…”
“You sleep with your parents?” he asks incredulously, displaying poor sentence construction skills. “Wassamatter? Ran out of bedrooms? And to think you used to make fun of me just coz I lived with my uncle and aunt when I was an undergrad.”
“Freak,” I say, as kindly as possible. “I don’t share a bedroom with my folks. This phone line, on the other hand, definitely does.”
The good thing about such an occurrence in my parents’ home is that I never need to explain much. Having met my father, every single one of my friends immediately hangs up. Of course, then I have to hear all about it, but since my father is secretly proud of the fact that his little girl is capable of maintaining friendships even across great distances, the mutterings generally die down within a day or two. Once in a while, though, he will ask –
“How come only boys call you?”
It puzzles the parental unit that I don’t know many girls. Well, it puzzles me too.
I like girls. Not in any snicker-snicker nudge-wink sense, but in a general way. I am not awkward in the company of my own sex. I have plenty of stuff to bond over. I like discussing things with my girlfriends; two out of my three best friends are women and so on and so forth. And yet, when you look at the overview, I do know more men than women.
I went to school with more men, I played with more men, I studied with more men, I partied with more men, I competed with more men – you get the idea. In college I was the only woman in a group of four to eight guys who went out regularly, to the point that I think they kind of forgot I was a girl. I certainly found out more about the male gender than I ever wanted to know, especially bodily functions and male imperatives (food, sex, sports and drink – in no particular order, with occasional breaks for Other Stuff like, maybe, a job).
And I don’t think I was anything special or unusual. Or maybe all the women I know are similarly situated. My best friend, Sangs, who went to school in our rigidly conservative hometown and ended up with an equal number of guy friends with whom she was most emphatically not romantically involved, once told me about a family friend whose marriage plans were cancelled at the nth minute. Apparently she was marrying some guy who’d never looked a girl in the eye before his horoscope was matched to hers while she was a normal kid who’d grown up in the Middle East and who’d managed to scrounge up some friends of both sexes and different nationalities in spite of the fact that she attended a same-sex school and nationalities tended to segregate in her locality. So the hick that she was going to marry (pardon me my condescension, but really!) came to visit or for the engagement or whatever and ended up reading her emails.
I have no idea what he was doing in her email account but he came across her inbox which was filled with “hey wassup” notes from various friends. He was outraged to discover all those male names in there – none of which went beyond the hey-how-are-you stage – and broke it all off. The girl was only too relieved coz she was basically in it to please her mom and dad, but Sangs was mad.
“What an asshole,” she said.
Her father agreed. Her father, who has the strictest Malayalee father notions on girls and how they ought to behave, was taken aback by this young man’s behavior. “In this day and age,” he said to me, “One has to expect that girls and boys will be friends and that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
And therein lies the problem – sex and sexism.
Sex, because for a people who live in complete denial of it, the act determines so many aspects of desi lives. What we wear, how we walk, what we say, the people we interact with, the way we regard someone, where we go, what we read, what we hide, so many things, all based upon sex. The fear of it or the suspicion of it.
And sexism because we still haven’t understood that when you talk about leveling the playing field, then you can’t do it in some ways and not in others. When girls and boys are given, even nominally, the same opportunities as each other then you can’t expect it not to leave some sort of mark. You can’t tell a girl that she is just as good or even better and give her every chance to prove it and in the end turn around and tell her the past was all prologue and now that she’s topped her class, become a neuroscientist, and beaten every other obstacle in her path, what’s really important is the quality of her curry. Because, you know, that’s the bottom line – Ms. India Perfect, Neuroscientist and Curry Maker. Well dowried for a good home.
It makes me furious when I hear nonsense like that. Mainly because I have heard it so many times.
I come from a long line of women, just like everybody else on the planet. But unlike many other families, the women on either side of my family are wonderful, strong creatures who’ve never heard the word impossible. Or rather, having heard it, have chosen to ignore it. When I say that one of them is a housewife, I don’t mean that she ‘ended up’ as one; I mean she chose to be that. It doesn’t matter what generation they belong to or which unheard-of village in the back of beyond they grew up in – no one who meets them once is ever in doubt that these are not women who bow down to anyone or anything, even their fate.
Now, my choices are not theirs. My path in life is an unconventional one by my family’s doctor/banker standards and they would perhaps have liked to see me do something – safer. But they raised me to be like this. Whatever I am, they created me. They laid the world in front of me and let me go my path and told me that it was more than OK – it was brilliant.
And so when people come up to me and expect me to act the way my mother or grandmother might have acted in my place, I never know quite whether to pity them their lack of understanding or scream at them for seeing nothing more than a gender when they look at me.
I get calls in the middle of the night from boys. Not because I am a ho or because I am trying to carry on a clandestine affair, but because I have friends and I value them and they value me.
We live scattered over the globe and we are all young and busy people. We have begun to settle down and establish our own families. But we make the effort to keep in touch. Sometimes I will be sitting in my big chair at the bottom of my bed and it will be the middle of the night and I will shut down my laptop and pick up my phone and dial for London. Or Bombay. Or Dubai. Or Los Angeles. Or Bangalore. Or Sydney. And the person on the other end will mumble a hello.
“Hey dumdum, it’s me,” I’ll say cheerfully. “I just felt like listening to your scratchy voice. Wassup?”
“It’s fucking three in the morning here, dumbass,” he or she will mutter in reply.
“So rise and shine, babe, rise and shine. It’s a brand new day and we need to catch up.”