I was trouble. That is to say, throughout my childhood, I got into trouble constantly. In my adolescence, if anything, it just became worse. I couldn’t sit still. I didn’t know how to be quiet. You couldn’t show me a rule I didn’t want to break. If it had been today, I would probably have been diagnosed with ADHD. As it was, I got scolded, and punished, and scolded all over again, all to apparently no effect.
When I told a friend this, he wanted to know specifics about my teenage years. I listed off the litany of my offenses. I wore shorts. I climbed trees. I put my hands in my pockets and whistled. I talked too loudly in class. Later on, I had a boyfriend and I was spotted on the streets (gasp) holding hands with him! My friend laughed at me. During the same years, his sister had been getting into trouble for using drugs and alcohol, until her parents finally turned her out of the house. I could not compare in either crime or punishment.
In those years, I had been engaged in a continuous battle against what I saw as repression. But suddenly I wondered if I should have been grateful for all the rules. Given my nature, I would inevitably have rebelled against something or the other. In a more permissive society, I might have rebelled by being a drug addict rather than being unladylike. Or worse.
In a way, my acting out was not only a typical teenage syndrome, it was the upholding of a proud tradition. In Bengal (where I was raised), in the 1970’s, there existed the Naxal movement. The Naxalites were primarily young urban elites, well-educated and well-off. They protested against the injustice that society perpetrated on the poor. They did this violently, with guns and bombs. I suppose you could call them terrorists of that time and place. They came to a bad end — arrested or killed by the authorities. And even though I know their way was not right, I could not help but sympathize with the underlying ideal. I’m convinced that, had I been born a few decades earlier, I would have joined them. Not now, of course. I have too much to lose. But in my late teens? Young blood, hot blood.
I may not have taken to guns, but I fought hard against what I saw as injustice against girls. I didn’t think big enough to address any of the real troubles — the child marriages, the denied education, the oppression that was common in rural and poor places. These were not relevant in my tiny slice of privileged society. But even there, girls were still being held back, pinned down. We were sent to school, and then told not to think for ourselves. We were told that we could do everything boys could, and then handed a long list of exceptions. I fought to bend the rules for my friends and myself. Sometimes I won.
The biggest fight we had was in the arena of sex. But it was guerrilla warfare, not open battle. While I was growing up, India was transitioning from an era of arranged marriages to an era of love marriages. Our parents did not care to know how rapid the transition was. There was no safe place to go, so we snuck around with our boyfriends on the streets. Cops would demand bribes from couple they saw after dark, threatening to tell our parents if we refused to pay up. Groups of predatory men would try to catch us alone and unaware, perfect targets for would-be rapists. We survived, mostly unscathed. We lost our virginities under the open skies. Practically all of my friends had premarital sex, and our parents never knew. They refused to know. They would have closed their eyes if you flung the facts in their faces. So, of course, there was no talk of safe sex, and consequently, numerous clandestine abortions. There were kind doctors who gave frightened girls a discount, because that was all the money they had. They got their office staff to witness as relatives, because the girls had showed up all alone, scared to tell anyone. The layers of deceit seemed to be the spit and glue that held society together.
Those days of deceit are now over. Most of us now live where we want, do what we please, speak what we choose, wear what we like. We are independent adults, answerable to ourselves, some of us with children of our own. What rules will we lay down for those children, I wonder? How will we walk the thin line between encouraging them to be honest, and giving them something harmless to rebel against? What lessons have we learnt from our own lives?