Ever met somebody who literally forced your attention away from your comfortable, familiar little world to show you a glimpse of a starkly different life? I hadn't.
Until a few months ago, that is.
I've never experienced life in a village. This girl I'm writing about has spent most of her young life in a village located in a fairly under-developed region of India.
You'd never guess that, though. She's not a country bumpkin. At first glance, she's your typical girl next door; completely ordinary.
And yet, beneath that cheerful exterior is an extraordinary individual, as I discovered.
Where she comes from, the list of forbidden things is long and never-ending. It includes stuff that wouldn't even merit a second thought in my realm, and yours, I bet. Like going to the cinema.
Or admiring a beautiful "western" dress. Or enjoying an evening with childhood friends, even if they've been playmates since age 2 and spent endless days together by the village pond.
Or asking the village elders "why?" to an alien-sounding diktat.
This girl has narrated, quite nonchalantly, an incident of having been beaten up by her own grandmother for refusing to abide by some ridiculous rule (applicable only to girls,
of course) and being left out in the courtyard all day. In the scorching Indian summer. Without any water. Tied to a lamppost. At age 7!
And she actually grins while telling me about this, saying it was a way of life back then-and in that place, it still is. That's all old news, she tells me proudly.
You mean all is well between your grandma and you now, I ask? Well, she tells me with a twinkle in her eye, she's not my favorite person, but I have learned to tolerate her presence.
Huh?? You are one generous girl! Not really, she responds. She thinks her grandmother and the rest of the family were actually quite lenient, considering the bold steps she's taken.
In her world, they amount to violations that could attract severe repercussions, such as being disowned altogether. Consider all this:
* She has fought with every family member and the entire village, practically, to study beyond high school.
To get to the engineering college in a city far away from her village was an arduous journey peppered with plenty of drama, threats, entreaties, and terms & conditions.
But she got there, and graduated with respectable grades.
* She made friends with people from other communities. This included several male friends (OMG OMG OMG!!). Once, she clicked a photograph to share with her folks.
Her brother showed it to his friends and she was maligned throughout the village for having such a "westernized way of thinking, absolutely defying our traditions".
* She is an avid traveler. In a country where even the most independent women are skeptical of travelling alone, this girl makes solo trips to far-flung areas without any fear.
She has had to endure severe punishments for this, but that has clearly not deterred her.
* She is an atheist, and has no qualms saying this in public.
She maintains a respectful stance towards others' religious views, but steadfastly declines to bow to societal pressure about "accepting" the presence of the Almighty.
* Besides holding a steady job and supporting her younger siblings' education, she is inching closer towards her dream of entrepreneurship.
The seed was sown when she sewed some beautiful outfits for herself.
When friends discovered she was so talented, they did what good friends do-they encouraged her to pursue this! She began customizing designs and word spread, slowly but surely.
Today, her hopes are high, and her willingness to work hard is great-she is this close to launching her own fashion label.
* Her latest crime: chopping off her lovely long locks. It's not an act of defiance. It's simply her wish to contribute towards a cause.
She wanted to donate her hair for making wigs for cancer patients.
Her family has, as expected, cried foul and declared she has made it that much more difficult for them to find a suitable groom for her.
* Marriage? Ah, that could be a whole story in itself.
Suffice to say her "unconventional" ways make her an "exciting" prospect as a girlfriend, but a thoroughly intimidating one as a would-be wife!
Prospective mothers-in-law cluck in disapproval at her "forward-thinking" nature, whilst secretly being intensely envious of her, no doubt!
The more I get to know her, the more impressed I am. Her steely determination to turn around her circumstances is remarkable.
Her capacity to ignore those that ridicule and befriend those who mentor is strong. Her ability to stand up for herself is amazing. Her fortitude is exceptional.
In my book, she exemplifies Courage with a Capital C!
More power to you, my friend. More power!