This story has been pieced together through several conversations with Veena, Preeti’s mother.
Preeti is an 18 year old girl from Mumbai; the oldest of three siblings, two sisters and a brother. Before we go into the recent events that concern this blogpost, a bit more about the family. Her mother, let’s call her Veena, is a tall, distinguished woman, whose unlined face and self-conscious smile are quite misleading. She has had a tough life. Her husband was self-employed, making a reasonable amount of money doing investments for people on a small scale. Several members of their extended family had also entrusted him with their savings. Around four years ago, they (husband, wife and three children) had gone visiting their ancestral village when the grandfather (husband’s father) had taken seriously ill, and passed on. “Off ho gaye”, as it is described in the characteristic sharpness of Mumbaiya Hindi. Tragically, as the day progressed, Veena’s husband also succumbed to his first and fatal heart attack during the preparations for the funeral, and father and son were cremated together. The family reeled under the shock of their doubled loss, but worse was yet to come. As the days progressed, the people whose money had been invested came searching for answers. It soon became clear that their funds were largely untraceable. For Veena, it was the beginning of an arduous period, through which she bore the burden of her loss and the accusations and ire of the investors. For a whole year, her own parents came to live with her to provide moral and financial support, and help raise the children. Within a couple of years, Veena was advised to search for employment, but as she hadn’t completed her schooling, there were few options available. Also, had her husband been working in a salaried job, she would have got a suitable employment in his office as is obligatory, but did not have that to fall back on either. She decided to look for a job as a part-time housekeeper.
Veena herself is not very chatty, except when there was something to say. Even in her weakest moments, she remains quiet and self-controlled. Recently, her brother helped locate a suitable match for Preeti, a young man with a stable career in the local administration in Mumbai, with a ‘good family background’. The engagement had gone smoothly, and everyone in the family was happy, especially Veena who, as a single parent, was also relieved about her daughter’s future being secured. The fiancé was eager for the young girl to complete her school education, and even wanted her to study further after that. Preeti, however, refused to go back to school. “I can’t understand why this girl just doesn’t want to study? I had no opportunity to study when I was young. Although I wanted to, there was no school in my village. I want her to have every opportunity to study, and she is lucky to have a considerate and concerned fiancé. He wants her to get a good education. But this girl………”, her voice trailed off uncomprehendingly. Preeti, for her part, seemed quite happy with the engagement, sharing pictures on social networking sites and responding cheerfully to private messages.
A couple of months after the engagement, Veena suddenly took off from work, and stopped answering any calls to her number. For those who had Preeti’s mobile number, she would respond only once in a while. One such conversation went like this: A low, muffled voice answered in between sobs, “She………she ran away.…………she…….she’s gone away…Why, Didi? Why?………Why did she run away from ME……………?” Apparently, Preeti had run away from home.
After a week to ten days of emotional (and physical) collapse, Veena gradually returned to work. It emerged that Preeti had suddenly left home one morning while Veena was out, and the younger children were at school. With nothing but the clothes she was wearing, leaving even her phone behind, she had left. Veena heard from one neighbour that Preeti had gone to the court and gotten married to someone. Who with? Veena couldn’t tell. Slowly she discovered that she married a guy she had mentioned about a year ago, but was completely nonplussed about how she hadn’t ever mentioned him again after the first few weeks of discussions. “I thought she was happy about her engagement. Why was she quiet for so long?”
Preeti’s side of the story
Almost a year ago, Preeti had indicated to her mother that she had developed romantic interests in a young man from the neighbourhood whom she met regularly on her way to school. At that time, the mother was shocked to hear about this and felt her daughter was too young and impressionable for marriage. She admitted that she also thought the guy was unsuitable as the family and neighbours talked about him as “not good enough for Preeti”. Veena had asked around about him and heard that he was an only child, lived with his parents, and there were some rumours about the fact that he was “into drugs”. The daughter reassured her that this was not the case. “Why do you believe others and not me” she is supposed to have said. Veena consulted her parents and brothers and was convinced by them that this was a wrong move, and that they would help her find a much better match soon. “Young girls can be impulsive, and you have no idea about who is his, what his family is like. Preeti will soon forget about him once you find her a good husband. Get her married now, we will look for someone suitable” Veena was reassured by her brother. While everything proceeded smoothly on the front of finding a match and getting engaged, Preeti maintained silent compliance. She was soon going to be 18, she must have thought to herself. Everyone believed that she had forgotten about the ‘other guy’, and discussions about the new family were in full swing, as were preparations for a marriage in summer 2018. Regarding school, Preeti remained firm. “I won’t go back to school”, she said repeatedly. Maintaining a quiet distance from everyone, she kept up appearances of being a newly engaged woman, exchanging messages, posting pictures and generally going along with the household events. Soon after turning 18, she took a giant leap into her new life. She walked out of her mother’s home and into her new family, exiting her old life, her fiancé, relatives, and much to the mother’s despair, her mother, brother and sister. She went straight to the court and registered her marriage with her new husband and entered his home where she was welcomed by her in-laws who were in on the whole incident. They had accepted her a year ago and were happy to see their son with her.
Veena was really upset because she felt that her daughter had been most uncaring about the mother in this whole episode. “After all the hardship? After everything I have done for her? Why did she agree to the engagement? I was so keen to see her progress in life, for her sake. What has she gone and done? Why? Why did she run away from ME? She has shamed me in front of my family, and the community.” Veena was further upset because her brother had now stopped talking to her “How is it that you didn’t know what was going on in your own home? You must have known about this chap, and you kept it from us, and now we have been disgraced in the village”, he complained.
With deep embarrassment, the fiancé was informed and yet again, Veena had to face the backlash of the community for her daughter’s act. After several weeks passed, Preeti has now started to call up her mother regularly to explain her side of the story. The husband has also called Veena and apologised for the pain he has caused the family. “I didn’t forgive him. I cut the phone when I heard his voice”, Veena said. Preeti now tells her mother that when she had told her she loved this young man, she was dead serious about her resolve to marry him, but seeing the opposition and the subsequent conversations in the family, she decided to go into silent mode, and plan her own departure. “I knew you wouldn’t agree to my marriage with him, and if I had said or done anything, you would have got me married off to this other guy soon after the engagement. I didn’t want that. So I had to keep quiet about it.” With the freedom that her cellphone provided her, she kept in regular contact with her boyfriend. “I know I have caused you pain” Preeti said, “……..but only because you wouldn’t listen to me. You listened to every one else about this guy, and not to me, you didn’t trust me that he was a nice person, and that I loved him and wanted to marry him. His family has always accepted me. His mother is nice to me. I never wanted to study any more, I didn’t want to get engaged. But if I had said anything, you would have married me off right there?” She said when Veena asked why she had not confided in her, and why she had waited until after the engagement. “Would you have listened to me if I had told you the truth? You listen to your relatives more than to me, and remember, I will be the only one to support you as you get older, so you must believe me and trust me. I don’t want to break relations with you. In some time, I will start visiting and you and soon you will forget all this pain I have caused you. Don’t give importance to the village people, they only talk, they won’t help you when you need help, it is I who will come to your side.”
Commentary prepared in consultation with Neerja Sharma
Teenage years are a difficult time for the young person as well as the family, and also impact the larger community. Although adolescence is not a universal phenomenon (as anthropologists have argued), our contemporary worlds seem quite filled with teenage troubles. Perhaps it has something to do with delaying adult responsibilities and extending the gap between childhood and adult roles. We sometimes assume that urban, upper class, educated youngsters are most prone to difficulties with communication, going silent, and wanting to remain private. We have dealt with issues related to communication, resilience and vulnerability in an earlier blog. This story demonstrates that problems can arise anywhere, once there is a breakdown of mutual understanding. Sometimes parents can push too hard, and sometimes youngsters can pull too far, and relationships become strained. There is some evidence to demonstrate that multiple generation households can provide many buffers to a face-off between children and parents, but sometimes matters of family izzat (loosely translated as honour, reputation) can place huge constraints on the growing person. With the uneven developmental landscape, where physical, emotional and social capacities run ahead of cognitive control in the race to maturity, the adolescent can become torn between different sides of life and this makes them more prone to risk-taking. The research of Lawrence Steinberg and collaborators provides evidence of this cross-culturally. The years 10 to 20 are only a decade in a lifetime, but seem endless to many parents.
Adding to the complexity of these dynamics is the heightened role of the community, and the phenomenon of family izzat. Relationships do not function in isolation. The mother’s sense of obligation to her family, especially after their unrelenting support of her during the earlier crisis, her ambitions for her daughter, and the dismissal of her daughter’s emotions, seemed to lead to a suspension in communication between the two. The daughter went underground, complied with a ceremonial alliance, left home with someone else, even at the cost of a loss of face in the community. What she remained firm about was that she would not study any further, and that is a mystery that has not yet been unearthed. Perhaps she was prevented from going to school for the period after she mentioned meeting the young man on the way to school, we don’t know, but that is a distinct possibility. However, regarding her resolve and subsequent return to communicating with her mother to explain her point of view, is a significant step forward. This speaks volumes about Preeti’s affection for her mother and also about the relationship they shared. After the trying period of post-pubertal risks to chastity among close-knit traditional Indian communities, this post-marital recursion to the earlier ‘intimacy’ between a mother and daughter has also been seen in some research studies. Neerja Sharma’s thesis on adolescent girls showed some instances of this phenomenon in cases where the girls were married at an early age. The stern upbringing between puberty and marriage transforms again into the affectionate, caring relationships mothers and daughters shared during childhood. Although the study was completed several decades ago, the findings still find resonance in present times.
Preeti and her story reminded Punya Pillai of a character in a book by M. T. Vasudevan Nair, Kuttiedatti (elder sister), which appears in a collection of short stories and has also been made into a film. Here is a link in case you wish to locate this and other short stories by Nair: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/326491.Kuttiedathi_and_Other_Stories
Neerja also reminds us that teenagers and young adults can often appear grumpy, and sulk or remain silent for long stretches of time. Usually, the regular demands of social obligations can keep some sort of outside appearance of normalcy as was seen in Preeti’s case. No one outside of her private world was let in on the escape plan, not even the siblings or mother, whom she clearly loves and wants to return to emotionally. There can also be phases of complaints about small things that didn’t seem to bother the child when she was younger. Rather than putting this down to defiance and unhappiness, it helps to understand such episodes as an expanding perspective that allows other ways of living to enter. If we didn’t have this capacity, we would all be younger version of our parents, completely constrained by what they wanted for and from us. Preeti was able to see this happening before her eyes. We don’t want to take sides here. Both Veena and Preeti had their points of view and we’re not trying to fix blame on either. Yet, trying to understand the concerned vigilance of the daughter by the mother from her (the daughter’s perspective, does seem to indicate that the mother had failed to really ‘see’ her daughter in this whole episode. The daughter was definitely fearful of the consequences, and that most probably drove her inwards. The absence of faith in her by her mother led to fear, as Indu Kaura notices repeatedly in her counselling practice involving young people and their families.
Although research has shown that worldwide, Indian adolescents spend about the maximum time with family members, there is no denying the changes that are being experienced. It is also very common for adolescents and young adults to want to be alone. Indian families are not the best place for that to happen, and we need to recognize that. Parents are usually very wary of youngsters wanting to be alone, and others often rush in, sometimes further isolating the young person. Preeti seems to have developed her silence out of such a need. This too is, as Neerja points out, is an essential step in developing one’s own identity, and it is an area of concern for highly interactive and communicative families where, as the child gets older, these changes may become a source of worry. The writing of Haim G. Ginott has several important lessons in family communication. For him, setting limits for children is not a disfavour to them, but the opposite. He writes: “Young children have genuine difficulty in coping with their socially unacceptable impulses. The parents must be an ally in the child's struggle for control of such impulses. By setting limits, the parent offers help to the child. Besides stopping dangerous conduct, the limit also conveys a silent message: You don't have to be afraid of your impulses. I won't let you go too far. It is safe.” In Preeti’s case, we find that the complete suspension of dialogue that resulted from the impasse led to the sequence of events. We do believe that with a more understanding approach, perhaps an acceptance of her romantic involvement, Preeti could have continued to pursue her studies and eventually take a more favourable move towards her own future. She may not have needed to ‘run away’ or abandon her education.
Regarding school, it is important to point out that it is not just a simple matter of families wanting early marriages and young people wanting to pursue education, as it is commonly assumed about Indian parents, especially the poor. In fact, more than ever, we see that the parent generation is eager and enthusiastic about schooling for their children, as Anandalakshmy has noted in one of her articles. The matter is much more complex than that. Many young people too are choosing to opt out of school even when their families want them to study further. This seems to be a recent trend. The work of Dipjyoti Konwar among the tribals in Assam demonstrates through a case-study, how a young woman fought for her autonomy, both against the traditional demands for an early marriage by her grandparents as well as the current trend among her peers to become involved with dating and early marriage.
As adults, we tend to remember ourselves as obedient adolescents, and compare our teenagers’ conduct with our own. Yet the circumstances and experiences of childhood have drastically changed, and adults need to recognise that. Children find this very difficult to live with. It is advisable not to label him/her as asocial or self-centred. All adolescents need space to reflect about their relationships now and their life in the future. No harm will come in being a little tolerant, respecting their struggle for autonomy and at the end, win their confidence.
There are several important concerns that emerge from this story and commentary that we need to discuss among ourselves. The failing popularity of school is one important issue. A generation ago the importance of an education was undisputed, and higher education was believed to be the solution to many problems. We need to understand why this is no longer so for many children; maybe we have failed in making our schools and colleges an attractive option for everyone. Some of the other issues that also emerge relate to accepting children’s growing autonomy and not seeing that as a threat to family relations. Autonomy and relatedness are not natural opposites as the Turkish scholar Çiğdem Kağıtçıbaşı has proved so convincingly.
We end with a quote from Ginott that brings home an important truth: “Parents often talk about the younger generation as if they didn't have anything to do with it.”
Some videos of interest: