Image courtesy: Google
She was different from all the other girls in my class. Bold, daring, extremely energetic, defiant at times and almost always shabbily dressed. The contrast was glaring, right on one’s face. While most girls flaunted well-oiled plaits and pigtails secured by black ribbons, washed and powdered faces sometimes highlighted by a bindi or a smear of kohl and neat uniforms, notebooks and bags, this one just did not yield to such expectations. At first I found her queer, the odd one out, a girl with whom one could never associate the colour pink (as is ingrained in us by the media, garment and toy manufacturers and almost everyone in the whole wide world). She would chew gum in class, laugh out loudly, pick fights with boys that sometimes turned into physical brawls, roam around carelessly not the least bothered by homework and assignments, jump walls and climb trees. One could never find her gossiping with other girls about make-up, boys and the like. She was so different.
I soon developed a strong liking for her. May be because she reflected a part of me that was left unexpressed because of the way our family and society moulds girls. There are so many gender stereotypes and roles assigned by the society we live in, that it is really hard to escape being victim to at least a handful of them. She loved sports. That was her world.That was what kept her going. She championed in any sport she took part in. Athletic and agile, determined and dedicated, she was made for the playgrounds, and the tracks marked with chalk. The sound of the whistle, the gunshot that marked the beginning of a race, applause and cheers from the audience and the clinking of medals and trophies were music to her ears. In her I saw my unfulfilled dreams come to life.
However, the boys teased her and called her a “man”. They teased her mercilessly about having doubts about her sex. They invited her to “guys only” parties. The girls too did their bit. They didn't allow her to be their friend. They made it clear that she was not worthy of hanging out with. A friend who could never be introduced to one’s parents. She became an outlaw in my class and I watched helplessly. Gradually she was labelled a tomboy. Jokes about her floated everywhere, managing to creep up till the staff room. Teachers and well-wishers advised her to behave like a girl if she wanted to be loved and respected. Her mother was summoned for a meeting that saw the tormenting of a poor, hapless woman by some teachers. As I watched the mother leave the school in tears, I decided to do something about this. We had a class discussion where everyone spoke openly and freely. I stressed the importance of tolerance to diversity and the need for all of us to bust certain gender myths that plagued society. The students responded well and promised to be her friends. I desperately hoped it would bring about some change in attitude.
Of course it did. By the end of the year Sharmila became truly sharmeeli(shy), stopped going for sports and other activities, confined herself to her girlfriends and their gossips, never answered back or questioned me, came to school with oiled hair, clean nails, colourful bindis and “behaved herself” as the other teachers told me. Everyone except me seemed to be happy about her turning over a new leaf. The boys in class were happy as she had been “tamed” and was no longer a threat (as she was stronger than some of them); the girls were now ready to take her into their fold. She was not the same person any more. Instead of bringing about a change in mind-set of the society, she had erased her own identity and individuality. She seemed to be happy to be loved and accepted by everyone. But the part of me that had come to life after a long period of dormancy shrivelled. May be there will be a time when one can express oneself freely, without the fear of being isolated or rejected. I eagerly wait for that springtime where there is a little cosy space for everyone in this world.