The Girls I Could Have Been

In January, while I was conducting creative writing workshops for children at a literature festival, I tried explaining to those present about the necessity of having grey shades in every character; after all, people are not completely bad or good in real life. I needn’t have bothered, because the children were completely into the bad guys. Who were their favourite bad guys?

Darth Vader. Joker. And Voldemort, apparently. Ouch. Nevertheless, I was intrigued. I wanted to know why they loved them and one girl answered, “Because they don’t stop trying.” That statement has remained with me and I’ve repeated it to other writers and friends, marvelling at how insightful children are. A friend remarked that bad guys are doomed to failure, and yet, that never stops them from trying to achieve what they want and how surprising it is that a 12-year-old girl could understand this. But there’s something else that I’ve learned here, and it’s not that you have to be a bad guy to never stop trying.

No one should ever stop trying.

Okay, well, let me give a little context here. I belong to the Lababin community from Tamil Nadu, a very small and close-knit community, with orthodox views. In school, I missed out on an important excursion in class IX, an overnight trip to Belur and Halebid, towns in Karnataka’s Hassan district which were renowned for their distinct Hoysala era architecture. My mother was paranoid about sending me away for various reasons, not least among them being that girls in our families don’t go away with school friends, especially on overnight trips. So, I stayed back. I watched my entire class get on the buses as they left and I stood back, thinking that it’s okay. It’s sunk into my head more than two decades later that I had stopped trying and, perhaps, too soon.

If I’d persisted, maybe, and convinced my mother, I, too, would have joined the gang of girls who smeared toothpaste over sleeping faces and stayed up late at night telling ghost stories to each other. Giving others (mostly my mother) the benefit of the doubt was probably the reason why I missed out on several such outings and events. I felt protective of my mother because she was bringing us up alone and I’d like to think I was wise beyond my years when I wanted to make things easier for her. But, in retrospect, I think I was just complacent about letting things be. Why upset the apple cart? My mother was a young widow and life was difficult enough for her without me being rebellious — although being easygoing never really got me what I wanted!

Many other instances come to mind, where I let things be because I thought it just wouldn’t be possible for me to do it. I gave up before I even tried. There was one time in 2003 when I got a call from a friend about a possible three-month job and for some reason, before turning her down instantly (because girls in our families didn’t go out for work was the diktat I was subconsciously following), I decided I wanted to try it. I broached the topic cautiously with my family, and, to my surprise, they were okay with me trying it out because it was short term.

The three-month stint didn’t work out because the project was cancelled. But when the next opportunity came up, I took it. It was my first ever job as a technical writer, and, more than five years after all my contemporaries, I discovered the joys of financial freedom. Even then, I couldn’t quite believe it was happening. In fact, I remember, when I was in Class X, I didn’t even feel like attending career guidance classes because I thought it was useless for me — I hadn’t even considered the possibility of ever having a career. I realised then that I had set very low expectations from my life.

Fortunately, it turned out very differently. But it was possible, only because I tried. Over the years, I’ve done things that are so commonplace for a majority of women, and yet, unheard of in my family, particularly for women. I’ve travelled alone for literature festivals (yes, it is a big deal for my family), stayed alone in hotels in cities like Pune and Delhi (my mother is still aghast) and I’m just waiting to see what comes next.

People ask me if characters in my novels are like me, and it was true for only the first book I wrote. My protagonist Mehnaz resembled me in personality and her reactions to life and the many situations it presented were how I would have reacted as a teenager. From then onwards, I thought I was consciously stepping away from writing about characters who resemble me in any way.

However, what I’ve realised, is that I’ve actually been writing characters of girls I could have been. In most of my young adult books, particularly in Asmara’s Summer (2016), Asmara is the kind of girl I might have even shied away from, let alone be friends with or be her. Where I’m timid, she’s fiery. Where I’ve let things be, she doesn’t. It took me a bit of introspection to realise that Asmara and even Maria from When She Went Away (2015) are protagonists who do not let their fates decide their lives. They charge head on. And in a way, they are me, or they are girls I could have been. These girls are on the opposite end of the spectrum in so many ways and yet, they are my alter-ego.

At times like these, I feel fortunate to be a writer because I get to relive those years through the lives of my protagonists. In a way, it’s liberating to write about these girls who are so much in control of their own lives because it reminds me as well to never stop asking, never stop trying.

This piece was first published in The Indian Express, 19th February, 2017