A decent dress becomes a potential instrument of attracting boys in an overnight journey. This was explained to me as soon as I de-boarded the train at Varanasi, a little more than twelve hours away from home in New Delhi. Speeding into a new day of modern era, the train takes you to a space still heavily laden with the influence of a conservative past.
Benaras is the land of temples, The Ganges, and ever popular paan. But it also lies on the other side of the great dividing line called culture.
While one section of the country progresses on the path to modernity and liberalization as defined by our great grandfathers from the west, another section is labeled as regressive, undeveloped, backward and even static owing to the fact that it has failed to change its ways at exactly the same speed as the rest of the world. And so, Benaras is an eye-opener.
This is Delhi- India’s cultural hub where you find everything from chappals to stilettos, from chaat to sushi, from burkha-clad women to women in short skirts high enough to label them as barely there. And I am a proud Delhiite, having studied in an English medium school since the very beginning, connecting to my long distance friends through the internet and voicing my opinion over every issue I feel is not getting enough attention. There are no taboos, no restrictions, we do what we like and we love it. We are also proud of the fact that we are teenagers, and teenagers are born to rebel and scornful enough to break the law.
So what happens when a liberal, independent, proud Delhiite goes to the old city of Benaras..the sacred place for all of mankind? She gets a reality-check. Her rose tinted glasses are taken away and she realizes that all is not so rosy everywhere.
The moment I stepped out of the train my various aunts and uncles who still live together in the same house came to receive me at the railway station. Like every good family they welcomed me with tight hugs and cheesy smiles and then commented on how I had lost so much weight and promised me they must send me back ‘healthier’.
Next came the comments on my attire and my first shocker of the trip. As I straightened up after all the feet-touching and namastes a gust of tchs tchs filled my ears and followed by a series of comments on how ‘today’s kids don’t know how to dress up’ and ‘how they only wear short clothes to attract boys’. Sure, I was wearing a pair of Bermudas with a t-shirt I considered decent enough to carry off in a train compartment. But it never ever occurred to me that I was doing it to lure potential love mates in this simple natural instinctive act of dressing up.
But then I also knew how some people were orthodox, so I just smiled and brushed away my embarrassment and shock. Then came the second shock.
My language too was not acceptable. Having been teased my whole life at my complete inability to use even a single abusive word back home was a matter of pride for me till I came here and uttered a word we consider harmless and here considered a mortal sin! What’s more I was also secretly accused of making up a ‘firang accent’ and using ‘French words’ to impress the common people of the city. I was immediately labeled as the spoilt-snobbish girl from the city.
This did not bother me much because I knew that sooner or later my folks would realize how well-bred I am and using good English and wearing knee length clothes did not necessarily mean I was a pampered princess.
I did the dishes, made food almost as well as my ‘homely’ cousin sister and still had the decency to stand up to greet whenever an elder entered the room.
Nevertheless, the next few days too were filled with surprises.
I ate more ‘foreign food’ than ‘desi khaana’. I cooked Italian foods better than daal, roti, sabzi and that was a sin and it meant I was absolutely incapable of taking care of my future-husband and his family.
This appalling revelation was followed by hour-long lectures and discussions on what I should do when I get married which of course should be the ultimate aim of my life. I don’t think I would need to take a poll to see how many people’s future plans clash with our grandparents plans for our life when ‘we grow up’. We Delhi women happen to take pride in the fact that we are modern forward-looking ladies who have much more to their lives than have children.
Quite used to the Delhi Metro trains in Delhi and traffic signals in almost every corner of the city, I found it very difficult to walk on Benaras’ heavily crowded and congested roads. My constant complaining was obviously a chance for the neighborhood auntie to say ‘Aaj kal ke bacche, how indulgent. They only want luxury.’
I also discovered that the evils of child marriage still existed. Though the situation is not as bad as Rajasthan where little kids are married of to 25 year olds, young girls are still not allowed to reach the age of 18. They are not allowed to dream and pursue something else rather than produce 10 cute little children before their great- grandmother is no longer alive to see them. The boys are allowed though; they dream, they fly and they also most often than never return to Earth.
But in this entire hullabaloo somewhere I paused to think about how different my life was from theirs. Although I was happy to be different from them, I also realized that even though I scorned them for their conservative attitude, I knew that they are not entirely wrong. They are just sticking to what their tradition has taught them. And if tradition has taught them to worship a certain God/Goddess on a particular day of the week…it isn’t so bad is it? If tradition teaches you to be respectful towards your elders and husband, it might just save a rocky marital relationship from a complete fiasco in a couple of years after marriage.
Being conservative and traditional isn’t wrong, but only if it does not harm or restrict us in any way. If old tradition teaches us to be patient and fast it doesn’t exactly stop us from having a whole pizza the other day when the fast has culminated. Not treating a spouse like a God does not mean your significant other has no meaning in your life.
If old rituals do not stop us from looking ahead in life then it is good. In fact if they control us in our fast lives then it is like a boon. ‘Old is gold after all’. We just have be careful of how fast we are going and where we are going. There is no need to scorn our old traditions. There is just a need to revamp them from time to time.
As a matter of fact we just need to be aware of the evils of our social system. We have to make sure those old rituals do not get the better of us. Child marriage and ill education (or no education) for girls is a demon we want to kill.
Wearing short clothes does not mean we are oblivious to the predators on the street. It just means that we have a different sense of style. Of course we still love our kurtas! What better way than a pair of jeans and a kurta to show we are proud modern fashionable Indians!