The author has asked to remain anonymous
I was first labelled “wayward” 9 years ago, some ten months after my father had passed away. At first I didn’t think much of the term; I had been labelled many things by Indian society before: “a coconut”, “a white girl wannabe”, and a “slag”. I had also been reprimanded for “talking too much for a girl”, so I didn’t think about how wayward would be any different.
However, as time has gone on the label “wayward” has stuck. It isn’t just strangers who use the term against me; it is members of my family. It is a term used with the intention of tarnishing my reputation, of marking me as a “ruined woman”, to certain sections of Indian society. There is a lot of power in a label, in a name – just ask any ethnic minority how it feels to be called the p- or n- word and they will tell you.
So why am I wayward? I am highly educated and I don’t smoke, drink or take drugs; I understand British and Asian cultures very well and speak several languages fluently, meaning that I can converse with all generations – both Indian and British. I am respectful to all generations because that is the way that I was brought up. The problem is that I am outspoken, which is enough to be labelled a “whore” or “wayward”; it is enough of a reason for old men to harass me on the street, or women to stare at me as if I am tainted. Rumours can damage a reputation easily in Indian society; I have grown used to them.
My life changed drastically nine years ago, after I lost my father suddenly and unexpectedly. All of a sudden I and my (largely female) family were alone. I had just started studying at university when it happened. I came home to grieve but was met with people trying to control me and my future immediately. I overheard two distant relatives, that I do not know, corner my mother “it is best that you get the girls married off now, what is the value in educating them?” and “don’t you think it is better that the girls are here and married than far away studying?” It must have taken a lot for my mother to stand up to these people back then; she was heartbroken at the death of my father, and the last thing that she wanted was to deal with the minefield of Indian attempts at control.
However, it didn’t stop there. At the time my maternal grandfather had disapproved of his daughter (my mother) educating her daughters, and he had slowly distanced himself from us over the years. One day, eight years ago, he came knocking on our door. He was extremely rude to my mother and sat down in the living room, next to me. He hardly spoke, so I made small talk; I asked him how he was, and how his new flat was. Then, suddenly he exploded: “since when do you give a damn about me? You sit there and have time for your mother and other grandfather but not for me!” Without realising it I had said something back: “when was the last time you came to see us? When is the last time you cared about us given that we have just lost our father? Why are you still angry at our education? Why should I come to see you when you have treated us so badly?”
We sat in silence, he was reeling. In Indian society children (especially girls) do not answer back, even when they are mistreated; they put up and shut up, but I am not like most girls (at least, in that moment, I realised that I am not). He got up and walked out of our house and slammed the door shut without speaking to me or my mother. Of course the rumours started soon after: I’m a slag, our mother lets us run wild, and I was close to beating my grandfather with a hockey stick. All lies of course, but I’m merely a girl in Indian society, what do facts matter?
It didn’t end there, at the time my paternal grandfather was living with us, and we were very close. He was actually happy about the argument that I had had with my maternal grandfather, because they didn’t get on. However, one day our relationship changed in a way that has caused so much pain since it first happened. A few weeks after my maternal grandfather and I had words, my paternal grandfather started acting up. He no longer spoke to me; at the time I was looking after him as I was on summer holidays from university. I cooked and cleaned for him, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Then he started acting extremely strangely, he would deliberately urinate around the toilet in our bathroom and then shout at me to clean it up. He stopped speaking to me except to shout orders, and he started spending more and more time with my uncle (who hated me more than I can ever put into words – because I am highly educated and a girl).
I never told my mum any of this until my grandfather walked out on us. It happened one day, eight years ago; my grandfather had stopped speaking to me completely, for reasons that I can only guess. My uncle was interfering in our lives more and more, and one day I was chatting to my young brother about it. My little brother was upset; he had to endure games that none of us were equipped for and he couldn’t understand why our grandfather had stopped speaking to us. My grandfather overheard our conversation and erupted at me: “you bitch, sitting there corrupting your brother’s mind against your uncle!” I then tried to calm him down: “no, he is upset; I am trying to get him to talk about what the matter is.” Then it escalated: “do you want to know who was responsible for your father’s death? It was you, you whore! You dress like a whore, you act and talk like a whore, it should have been you that died, nobody would miss you, you whore!” I was dumbstruck; here was my grandfather, who I loved, spouting poison in a way that I had never known before. The comment that hurt the most was that I had been responsible for my father’s death because I was educated (that is what the whore comments were referring to). I just started shouting “shut up” as he repeatedly shouted his words. I know that it is wrong to say that to an elder, but what would you have done? Would you have sat there mute, waiting for him to finish and then pretended that nothing had happened? If you could, then perhaps you are better than I am, but I could not. After shouting shut up, I ran upstairs and waited for the end of the day when my mother would return from work.
My mother came home and attempted to understand what had happened, but my grandfather wasn’t done, he started shouting abuse at my mother: “you are a whore, your family are whores! You tainted our family the day you married into it. Your daughters are chamar (a low caste). That one there (pointing at me) is dead to me.” My mother told him calmly that he should stop. Once poisonous words have left your mouth you can never take them back. He told her to get lost. We all went into separate rooms to calm down, though my grandfather continued shouting abuse at all of us into the evening. A few days later, after not speaking to us, he left our home and never came back. He went to live with my uncle who seized the opportunity to tell my family and the Indian community that I had attempted to beat my grandfather with a hockey stick, which is why he ran away in fear. The rumours started that I used to invite men over to have sex which desecrated my father’s memory. The worst was that my mother had deliberately murdered the love of her life – my father. They didn’t stop there, they continued to fuel rumours and lies over the past 8 years. My uncle could have attempted to rectify the situation; instead he chose to escalate it. I have thought about that day a lot over the past 8 years. The main point of confusion for me was why my uncle had chosen to escalate the situation; then it hit me, it is because women are not supposed to be outspoken, we are not supposed to be able to get up and carry on after tragedy (such as losing my father), and we are supposed to put up with a lot from the men in our community, however abusive.
The backlash, after my grandfather left, was horrendous. Since that day there have been large sections of the Indian community who have avoided us, who believe these awful things. Thankfully large sections of our extended family didn’t believe the rumours, they loved that we were highly educated and they sought to protect us from the backlash; they are still with us today and I love them in ways that I cannot even begin to express. If it wasn’t for them, Indian men would still be knocking on our door at all hours shouting abuse at my mother and us. They intervened, and I’m not sure how I will ever thank them.
The backlash continues to this day; though it has decreased as my siblings and I have become more educated. Throughout my life, my late, beloved father used to say something that I only really understand now: “education will give you your freedom”. That saying has so many interpretations, but I realised that Indian society cannot control you when you are highly educated, they largely leave you alone. It is on the way to achieving our goals that we had the most horrendous abuse. I and my siblings are all highly educated, and we have noticed that people now largely leave us alone. Believe it or not, they actually WANT our company now, because the prestige of knowing, or being associated with, doctors, lawyers, engineers etc is so great.
Although there are those who continue to lie. My grandfather passed away 5 years ago. My uncle never told us he was ill – because it would make us look bad when we didn’t turn up to the funeral. We found out that he had been unwell after he had died. My grandfather did have regrets; he spent the rest of his life bitter and angry, and spent increasing amounts of time away from the UK; all because men don’t say sorry, elders don’t say sorry. My grandfather had actually loved my mother very dearly, and though he had (at times) treated my father appallingly, he loved my dad too. He asked for my mother repeatedly at the end of his life, but my uncle lied to him saying that she knew he was ill, but did not want to see him. He died believing that. I only feel sorry for him, what he did could not be undone, and he was too weak willed to ever tell his son that what they had done was wrong. Patriarchy is damaging to all sections of society in the long run.
My cousin (my uncle’s son) recently got married and they hesitated in inviting us, but did. In Indian society, it is common to “put on a show of unity”, even when somebody has abused you, or attempted to destroy you. There are many open secrets which are overlooked so that a family does not look bad. In this culture, all family members are expected to attend. Except we didn’t. We all refused to go, as did many other sections of our family. Why should we ignore all that has gone before? The strength of this action is difficult to describe; my mother is the eldest daughter-in-law and in Indian custom if you openly treat your daughter-in-law with disdain it is considered very bad (of course, daughters-in-law are treated badly, but it is often hidden). That my mother did not attend a wedding means that the seeds of suspicion about my uncle have been sown in the sections of Indian society that he associates with. In short: he is now on the receiving end of damaging rumours; not from us, from those who once sought to destroy us.
So tell me, am I wayward? Do I not have the right to defend myself and my family against lies and abuse? How is it that abusive actions, by elders or by men, are justified? I am respectful but will not stand for abuse against my loved ones, or myself; if that is wayward, then I welcome the label.