By: Sakshi Shrivastava
The first part was easy. Jordan and I matched on a dating app in September of 2016, the onset of what would turn out to be a rather rough cuffing season. That was the last time autumn was glorious. We watched the sun set over gleaming golden bodies of water, as we circumnavigated confessing ourselves to one another. We talked about our lives, what it was like growing up in our corner of the world. Both the younger child of loving parents, with complicated relationships with our brothers, both misfits at school, both with families with a love for fascists. We shared stories of our already lived lives with a raging hunger, eager to bring one another up to date. It was intoxicating to be understood. I did not remember the last time I felt so at peace in a man’s presence, so completely uninhibited. I realized it was because I wasn’t enraged. Or terrified.
I never believed men could truly be feminists. I had grown up seeing my mother, grandmothers, and aunts trapped in marriages that were built on their subservience. I saw the women starve themselves so their husbands could live longer, and I saw them work all day, on their feet, to feed the men and their entitlement. I watched the shame burrowing itself in the faces of the wives whose husbands were sleeping with the maid or a colleague or a relative. Once I even watched an aunt convince the woman her husband desired to sleep with him so he would stop hitting her. It left me scarred for days. I remember when Hum Saath Saath Hain came out, my father’s cousin remarked how it could just as well be based on our family: with all its cousins and family trips and obedient women. I have hated the movie ever since.
What saved me was feminism. I came to it late, and academically. My journey of unlearning began when I was doing a feminist reading of Ayn Rand’s work, whom I had admired until that moment, for a political science project. (In my defense, I was 18!) I had never before realized how indoctrinated her work seemed from the lens of the feminist ideals of the second wave. I remember rushing to my hostel room from the library and pulling out the folder of my short stories. I had never before considered the pattern in the stories I was telling: a slacker invents time machine by accident, a boy leads a revolution, a teacher who saves souls: all of these characters with complex lives and astronomical ambitions, all of those characters men. It would take me years to realize how growing up in patriarchal Bhopal had warped my ideas of ambition, and none of my stories had any truth in them because they all came from the inflated images of men in my head. That moment was the beginning of a lifetime of unlearning. Feminism gave words to the anguish I had felt for all those years. The more I read, the more I felt the pain of my foremothers bleed from within me. I read about my own monstrosity, how my savarna privilege had made the life of so many women even harder. The rage and joy and pain and peace I got from learning was too precious to waste on men, so I stopped pouring my energy into them. What I got instead was something more wondrous and enduring: my relationships with women. I let myself be swept away in awe of every woman I met after that. Even at their worst, I cherished their wit and resolve and resilience. Within me I had reserved a deep well of emotions for a partner who didn’t exist, so instead I opened the floodgates and let all of that love go to the women who were closest to me to have all of it reciprocated a thousand times over. If a woman loves you, you become poetry I have been fortunate enough to find women who could turn me into sonnets.
This is the love I carried as I graduated from college and moved first to Mumbai, and then two years later, to New York City. I was still dating and getting into relationship with men because I still enjoyed sex and intimacy. Some were nice, but most were terrible. I lived in these cities by the sea and saw men from all over the world, living in them or just passing through. Everyone had an opinion about my feminism. All of them thought they were the exception. But sooner or later, they would exhaust me to my bones and I would stop seeing them. It never hurt to lose them.
Jordan came into my life at a time when I had space for him. I had broken up with the worst guy I ever dated only a few months ago and since then had only been to very casual first and/or second dates. We met in a country that had a black man as president, and a woman was all set to succeed him next. We both bonded over our attempts at coming to terms with our boundless privilege: him as a white cisgender man, and I as a savarna, cisgender woman. At the time, that was the most problematic aspects of our identities. I was still brown and he was still Jewish, but it was yet to bring peril in our lives. We could risk intellectualizing all of it. I would tell him about the rising hyper-masculine religious fascism in India and he would tell me about the racial politics the suffragettes. I told him I thought all men were problematic and responsible for the patriarchy. He agreed. He wasn’t the exception.
While that part of my life that I controlled continued to grow and fulfill me more, the random chaos of the now-different world knocked me hard. A few weeks into the bleak winter of Trump’s America, I was in a nail salon getting a pedicure when a thin, white woman entered and sat across from me at the manicurist’s station. In that room there were six women: three of whom were Chinese and owned the salon, one was an African-American woman drying her freshly done nails, and one was me and one, the white woman. The black woman had her headphones on and was nodding gently to the beats of her music. The white woman watched her idly as the nail technician began filing her nails, then she made a face.
“My boyfriend is a cop, we have a big Blue Lives Matter poster on our lawn.” I tensed up but didn’t react. My nails were almost done and I did not want to engage. She was looking at me so I met her gaze, she went back to watching her nails being filed. “Why wouldn’t he shoot them when they all look like ogres?”
There was a sudden silence in the salon. The woman who was filing her nails stopped and left. The other two did not acknowledge it. The black woman still had her headphones on. My body had dissolved in the chair, I had melted with rage. I turned to her “How the fuck dare you?”
What followed was a confused cacophony of the two voices yelling on top of each other. Mine shouting obscenities and outrage as I flung my arms around, her’s chanting ‘go back to your country, go back to your country’ as she sat calmly, waiting for her technician to return. The third customer finally took her earphones off and gently asked what was wrong. I had already left cash on the counter and stormed off, my red nail paint smeared like blood across my toes.
For the first time in my life I had realized how alone I was in that country. Never before had I wanted to run away and hide in the arms of someone I love. The need to be placated came in violent shivers across my body, the aftershocks of he ghastliness of what had transpired earlier that day, the humiliation, the rage. I called up my closest girlfriend, a white woman who was in my grad school, and told her about the incident. It has been two years since then, but I can still hear her voice clearly when she said this: “Some folks are just not as educated as you and I. It’s not their fault, they just don’t know better.” Maybe it was just not what I wanted to hear from a friend I loved so much or maybe it was a friend siding with someone who – sitting in a room full of immigrant/women of colour – referred to black and brown victims of police brutality as ogres, but at that moment, it felt like a bigger insult than anything a stranger could have ever said to me.
So when I was assaulted on the subway by a large, white man who called me a brown bitch and threatened to hit me because I refused his advances – I genuinely believed I had no one to turn to. What was the point? My friend’s lukewarm reaction had reminded me that this is not foreign in America, it was me who was. Oppressed castes in India have their humanity questioned on a daily basis, even by my family. So why was I surprised to find how little people can think of other people? This wasn’t the first time I had experienced racism, this was the first time I had seen it win. I shut myself down, refusing to see the monstrosity of the attacks on my person and gaslighting myself into believing I was the one who had to ‘learn’.
We were on a beach in Puerto Rico when we decided to get married. There was no proposal, no elaborate surprises. Just a long conversation about what we wanted from life, and if we could achieve it together. Later that night, in our beautiful bread and breakfast, I sat across from him as he called up his best friend to tell him the news. The romance of the sunset and the beach had worn off, and what took hold of me was shame. I looked at his whiteness and his masculinity. I thought of the woman at the nail salon, the man in the subway, my uncles who would cheat on their wives: how could I even be sure he was different? How would I ensure I did not go down the path of my foremothers? They did not have a choice but I did. And yet, here I was, willfully walking into the very institution that oppressed them.
I did not have an answer to these questions. I tried looking for other options to stay, but I couldn’t extend my visa. If we wanted to be together, the easiest way was marriage. On one hand, I just saw the faces of all the women I admired dropping in disappointment. I heard my friends’ voices in my ears asking me: but why a white man? I thought of my parents, whom I would be abandoning with the country of my birth. On the other, a persistent voice was telling me not to give up a good thing, that finally after all these years of wandering, I had found someone who was so close to my heart. If marriage was an institution created to control women that just meant I would have to upend it. It was patriarchy, not feminism. that informed my fears and the fucking patriarchy was not going to force me to cower down in the face of love.
In retrospect, it is hard to ascertain if we got closer because of the elections or despite them. I did not tell Jordan what happened with me at the nail salon or the subway for months. Strangely that made me open up to Jordan in a way I didn’t before. Now, instead of talking about politics, race, or feminism, we talked things we had forgotten: our favourite stories from every grade, the friends we loved who moved away, what it was like to see the ocean for the first time. In the days leading up to our wedding, I asked him to hold me as I told him my fears over and over again till they didn’t scare me anymore. I just needed to be loved for some time, without questions, and for that time he did just that.