Edited by: Lavanya Goswami
You’re a woman today. Happy birthday! As an older sister, I’m to write and tell you that you have your Whole Life Before You and that it’s Criminal if you don’t go after a Ph.D. and realize your full potential, you dirty little bookworm. (Congratulations are in order for the 97.45% in your JEE 2.) Or so Buddy would tell Zooey in his letter.
However, the truth is, I don’t know any better than you. But from what I’ve seen of the world, I want to give you a heads up. Customs, the world over, have been created in the reflection of man. You will find a copy of The Palace of Illusions in this parcel. It’s a novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. A lot of thought went into picking out the perfect 18th gift for you. Let me spill some ink over why. The novel is The Mahabharata from Panchali’s perspective: a story about a woman born into a man’s world.
My thoughts, which literary theorists would argue aren’t mine at all, are better articulated by some of my favorite writers. Forgive me for the haphazard flurry of reflections that is to follow.
First, I do not mean to color you with my personal convictions, I merely wish to demonstrate that conformity is not the norm. Dissent is quintessential; so dissent, question, fail, but I urge you: conform, you must not. Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it (Mark Twain). You may arrive at the same conclusion that you started off with, as many before us have; the difference will be that it will have been your journey. By all means, follow the conventions, but remember that it is only in personal independence that happiness is to be found.
Education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter, if it didn’t begin with a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest for no-knowledge (J. D. Salinger). “Think outside the box” has to be the most inside-the-box phrase ever uttered. Don’t be afraid to question the box.
One of the most revered writers of all time, James Joyce, wrote in Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met”. Keep good company. You deserve nothing subpar. This cut-throat world will try to tear you down. They did it to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. They did it to Simone de Beauvoir. They’ll do it to you. Surround yourself with people who can recognize and value your worth. There’s pithy truth in these banal, platitudinous adages, but the most commonsensical things are where we find ourselves most mazed. So, I hope you will forgive me for yet another aphorism.
There are no shortcuts to any place worth going. My admiration for your perseverance is ineffable. Keep at it. At the same time, if youth must canter, then who’ll do the galloping? (André Aciman, Call Me by Your Name) Remember to, as Gen Z quite eloquently puts it, “chill out”. We are happy in the pursuit of success, but having got there, we find that all the fun was in climbing (Ruskin Bond). Enjoy the hike. Take a break.
You’re not one to melt into crowds, Diya. Be your own woman.
Love and solidarity,
P.S. I took a stab at condensing my haphazard flurry of reflections into a poem. Consider it a birthday gift.
suffragists vs suffragettes
Methodless madness, godless heathens
Their banner, “Votes for women”
Scribbled on vandalized walls,
Whispered under hushed tones,
Eulogized in solidarity,
“Deeds, not words”
Jailed and force-fed.
What did they do?
Trained in jiujitsu
To prevent another Black Friday
in white, purple and grue.
With lewd epithets
By casual sexists.
Conform they couldn’t,
To customs created
in man’s reflection.