The SHEROES Contributor
Anu Singh Choudhary
Anu Singh Choudhary is a Communications Consultant, Documentary Filmmaker, Writer, Editor, Translator and Blogger all rolled into one. A compulsive multitasker, Anu writes columns on women and youth empowerment, weaves radio stories for Yaadon Ka Idiot Box with Neelesh Misra and trains students and corporates on video production. She is a trained journalist and has worked with NDTV for five years. In the past 4 years, she has directed four independent documentaries and has co-directed and scripted many others. As the Deputy Creative Head of Content Project Pvt. Ltd, India's first content company of its kind, Anu also works on content ideas for GEC and Films. She mentors the team of young writers who are a part of Content Project's nationwide Mandli. Anu is part of the core Leadership Team of Gaon Connection, India's first professionally run rural newspaper published from Lucknow and distributed in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand.
My Nani, Kailashpati Devi was the first working woman I had ever known. By "working woman", I mean someone who had some kind of an "office" to go to and a fixed salary to bring back home by the end of every month. Nani was an exceptional case in her generation. Youngest of the four girls, she was brought up as the replacement for a boy. In a society where education for girls held no meaning, Nani was forced to go to school and then to a Teacher's Training College, where she was probably the only female in the lot. Even when she got married, Nani couldn't leave her paternal home. My Nana came in to live with her and her parents because Nani was made the sole inheritor of her father's property.
Therefore, Kailashpati Devi should have been in control. Therefore, Kailashpati Devi should have raised a matrilineal family, even if she chose not to be the matriarch.
But, that unfortunately didn't happen. No one remembered her name. She was living way too many lives, and was constantly struggling to be the good wife, mother, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, while working really hard to run a government school where she perpetually had to up her ante against a system which was indifferent and unconcerned.
Kailashpati Devi became Mai, Master Saab (or Maa'saab, as she was affectionately called), and Naniji-Dadiji. She was constantly walking on the brink. She was torn between the two roles — of being the 'son' of the family and being this quintessential Indian woman, who had to be giving, accommodating and generous. Nani had to be the flag-bearer of two families, and that in itself must have been quite a daunting task.
So, how different was my mother's life from my Nani's?
My mother, the eldest born of Nani's five kids, became the de facto mother and matriarch at a very young age to run the household Nani couldn't manage alone. Maa looked after the ageing parents and in-laws of Nani, and fretted over the running noses of her younger siblings, all at the same time while making sure the domestic help didn't steal ghee from the kitchen and there was always enough ration in the kitchen to feed the unexpected influx of guests their house often saw. Maa was so engrossed in her role as the eldest daughter of the family that she chose to drop out of her medical school in the second year only because she realised that her family (and her mother) needed her more than the nameless, faceless hypothetical patients she would cure a few years later. "Patients would find other doctors. My family had no other replacement", my mother had once told me.
"Do you regret your decision?" I had asked.
"No. When I look at you all and the way I have raised you, I don't", she said. I don't know if she ever regrets her decision of not being a Doctor, but I do know what she means by 'the way I have raised you' though.
My mother raised me like a daughter, and she raised two of her sons like daughters too. "That's how this society will change", she would often say, "When we start raising our sons as carefully as our daughters."
Much against the norm that was followed in my extremely arrogant patriarchal family, my mother was the only woman who gave us no gender specific roles while bringing us up. All three of us were taught to make the beds. All three of us were expected to clean the tables. All three of us were made to wash clothes, and fold them later. All three of us learnt to cook. That's another story that both my brothers are far more dexterous in the kitchen than I am. And the woman, who had chosen to be a homemaker, slowly nurtured a rebel in her only daughter.
The only trouble was, the rebel in me had no clarity and soon enough, the rebel that my mother reared in me started to look down upon her own mother who had achieved nothing, had done nothing, and had no fancy career to put on display.
I had started to resent my mother who chose home and family over career.
When I was 16 years old, I realised what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted a career, a flourishing career. I wanted to be in complete control of my life. I wanted freedom. And I definitely didn't want to be like my mother — dependent and discriminated against. I shared my wish with the wind and the sky, and the clouds and the earth. I spoke to the burning sun of June. It became a chorus, a mantra that I filled my diaries with. Let me go then/When the morning is spread out against the sky, set me free/Let me go…
I wanted to express and write. I wanted to speak out and talk. I wanted to tell the world stories of women who never spoke, or expressed themselves, or spoke in a language her world couldn't decipher. I wanted to write songs and stories of freedom, and my mother was the first one who understood those songs.
Like a meaningless poem, 'freedom' was just another word stuck in my head. But that word was opening up various possibilities simultaneously. That word — freedom —begged for understanding and invited dislocation. I would have to leave the comforts of home. I would have to explore the world. I would have to stand on my feet, just as my brothers would do. But how? I was hoping against hope that a family which didn't even allow their daughters to venture out of their homes without 'dupattas nicely covering them up' would let me pursue my dreams of 'freedom'.
My mother came to my rescue yet again. A woman who never had a career, who had never worked, or didn't know what freedom meant, and had never travelled alone in her life, took a train with her 17-year-old rebellious daughter to Delhi, inviting the wrath of all high and mighty within the family.
But she stood her ground. For the first time, I realised that courage in a woman has nothing to do with her having a career or financial independence. In a cramped, humid sleeper class apartment she sat beside me on my way to Delhi. "Don't let me down", she said. "Do what you have chosen to do, and stay on the path."
Stay on the path. That path criss-crossed through another world, a parallel world I had never experienced or seen. College, and then University, and then my work place became my sanctuary, my home. At 22, I was working as a production assistant in Mumbai for a feature film that was based on gigolos. Bollywood, and Mumbai allowed me to comfortably turn into a nomad. It allowed me to surrender family as identity. It allowed me to make sense of things that had remained incomprehensible. Who was I? Where did I come from? Where did I belong? What did my father do for a living? My caste, colour, religion, gender, family background — nothing mattered. What mattered was how efficiently I delivered my work, and how judiciously I used the budget shoot. And how well could I fit that budget into my stories.
I had to go back to Ranchi when the film was released. It took three months for everyone to get over the shock. Their daughter was not only defying the set rules, she was also working on something one couldn't even talk about! The only penance was a decent job with a prestigious organisation. So at 24, I was working on the news desk of a leading news channel, trying to act informed and empowered all the time. It didn't take me anywhere, that steady and beloved job of mine, I mean. But I continued to work harder, month after month, braving the monotony of producing the same kinds of bulletins over and over again. I continued to be the insignificant victim of the TRP race and the appraisal system.
And then, at 27 motherhood happened. My focus changed, everything else became immaterial. But the overindulgence with my twins was short-lived. Leaving five month old twins into the safe hands of my mother and mother-in-law, who were taking turns to help me out, I was back in the newsroom.
First few weeks were superb and seamless. I had a support system and three domestic helps to run the chores. I would wake up with the twins, feed them, bathe them, play with them and would refer to Dr. Spock's once in a while to be sure if I was matching up to the universally set parameters of motherhood. In my comfortable cocoon, I was this 'superwoman' who didn't need anyone else other than twins and her mother, and the three domestic helps. I didn't even need my husband.
Everything was fine till I landed in the hospital with a prolapsed disc. A desperate attempt to recover through every single kind of therapy failed and relapses followed. Meanwhile another crisis emerged. My mother couldn't be held up forever in Delhi. She had her own establishment to take care of. Two months of bed rest and a number of changes of guard at home front later, I quit my job. Almost suddenly, although not unexpectedly.
Stay on the path, Maa had said. But where was this path leading me to? Family and careers don't happen simultaneously, I told myself. I had stopped writing songs and stories of freedom now. I was writing lullabies. A mother knows what it is to weep, knows when to stop and when to endure patiently. I had started emulating my mother almost unknowingly.
But did I not resent my mother being dependent on others? Did I not hate the fact that she wasted her life? In my head, I was constantly questioning the stereotypes and the gender roles now. And I was constantly questioning the career choices that I had made. Would it not be easy if I chose a more stable and regular career option? Why did I choose to become a filmmaker? Or a TV waali? I shouldn't have invested so many years in myself if this is what a woman is expected to do — compromise on her dreams.
"Stay on the path", my mother gently reminded me often. "Do what you are good at."
So, this is where I was getting this insane craving from for sharing stories with the world. My mother was the reason. And several other mothers like her were the catalysts. I was constantly trying to tell a story, several stories, through newspaper columns, documentaries, radio, TV or even films actually for them, and for my mother.
But do these stories really matter? What would writing change? If nothing else, these stories and this incessant writing is changing me as a person. Despite every day being a fierce and significant battle, I hope to find clarity through my writing. Through my writing, I want to create an empowered home where choices and decisions aren't based on gender. I hope to become a part of the world where work-life balance becomes a necessary practice for both men and women, like turning off a water faucet or not using a plastic bag. And I want to share these stories of love, compassion and courage through my writing.
My experiences come from the two preceding generations. My mother gave up her career for the sake of her mother, who was constantly juggling between the two extremely disconnected worlds. Both of them fought silently, and fiercely. I must do the same. And I must also strive to create a world where both my son and my daughter will have the courage to follow their true passions, irrespective of their gender identity.
I have also realised that 'staying on the path' actually means finding and following the voice of one's soul.