This is a story about my bloodlines: interconnected networks of epigenetics interlaced with my own DNA, saturated in trauma and resilience. It is a story about women who have resisted the construction of “good girls” for generations. I come from a mixed-caste, mixed-ethnicity, mostly-Brahmin, Hindu family from India and pre-Partition Pakistan. In an Indian context, the construction of “good girls” is of course about patriarchy and heterosexism, adultism, casteism, communalism, classism, shadeism layered on top of anti-blackness, and ultimately about the role women are forced to bear as the marker by which a society evaluates its success in making a set of cultural norms and values dominant.
In a nutshell, when we talk about “good girls,” we are talking about oppression and social control. Whenever these phenomena exist, we must acknowledge there is always resistance. Perhaps not in every single household, but certainly in every generation. And while it is true that the oppression we face as South Asian women in the United States is a particular flavor our ancestors did not have to grapple with, it would be wrong of us to assert we are the first generation to resist the demand to conform and play the role of “good girls.” Our burden is simply that in the ties that are broken through emigration, we often lose knowledge of the stories of our female ancestors and their everyday acts of resistance. I am very thankful to know some of the stories in my family, enough to know that I am but one in a long line of women who know we deserve better than what we have been served.
I start with the story of Lajwanti, whose name references the touch-me-not plant. Somewhere around 1933, she was a young bride with a newborn son, living in Lahore with her husband and in-laws. Their abuse caused her such misery that she tried to kill herself and her son with a bottle of poison. They both survived, and she would go on to have two more sons, cross the new border from Pakistan into India with her family during Partition, and 17 years after her suicide attempt would give birth to her fourth and final child, my father. Although Mataji was never able to escape the vortex of patriarchy, spending her life with a violent husband and later four violent sons, I honor her early attempt to take control of her life on her terms, in the only way available to her. Suicide can be an act of resistance.
Moving back a few generations and from Punjab to the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka brings us to the story of Janaki, my Naani’s Nani. born in the late 1800’s and married around the age of ten to a boy just slightly older as was the custom in those days. By age 15, she had a young daughter and a dead husband – he’d died of the plague spreading through their village. Janaki’s in-laws took their grandchild and left the village, locking my great-great grandmother in a room with their son’s dead body, hoping she would catch the plague and die, ridding them of the burden of caring for a daughter-in-law. After all, Janaki is another name of Sita, the obedient wife who willingly walked into fire to demonstrate her devotion and purity to her husband. Dying would have been the good girl thing to do. But Janaki lived. She and her daughter were eventually taken in by her brother, and she lived to be 105 years old. Survival can also be an act of resistance.
Janaki’s daughter was Shanta, my great-grandmother, born in 1900. Her name means peace. At twelve, her marriage was arranged to a fifteen-year-old boy in Belgaum who had started his own jewelry business. She went on to have several pregnancies, including eleven children – five boys in a row, five girls in a row, and one more boy. Her husband and his brother became local leaders in the fight for India’s freedom from British rule, and by 1942, her husband, all five older sons, and her eldest daughter were all jailed for their political activity. During this time, my great-grandmother was managing the household, a center of movement organizing, and handling the outgoing money of the family business; there was no incoming money for a few years. While incarcerated, one of her sons mentioned he missed his youngest brother, Abhay, a lot. Upon learning there was still a Yalgi boy running loose, the police paid my great-grandmother a visit – but she had received an advance warning from an insider. When the police arrived, they shouted, “We are here to arrest Abhay. Where is he?” Pointing to the baby in her arms, my great-grandmother replied, “Go ahead and arrest him; only, you have to take me too, as he is still breast-fed.” Abhay was only eight months old. Embarrassed, the police left. They never suspected Shanta of continuing movement organizing with her family behind bars. Meanwhile, she had stored all the political pamphlets from the main room of the house in the folds of her sari just before they arrived.
Shanta’s third daughter is Mandakini, my Naani. Her name means river of the heavens, the Milky Way galaxy. But her family has always called her “Baby.” In some ways, my Naani followed all the rules: she studied hard, skipped a few grades, went to college, and joined the movement for Goa’s liberation from the Portuguese as a Satyagrahi, at age nineteen. This was exactly what her socialist, freedom-fighting parents expected of her. Her good girl status gets dubious after that though. When one of my grandmother’s female comrades was incarcerated for her underground and public movement organizing, news began to spread of the rapes female political prisoners were being forced to endure. My Naani organized a large public meeting to expand support for the resistance, at which one male comrade said “we are hearing the screams of these helpless women, and we need to come to their rescue.” Naani could not bear hearing her female comrades stripped of their agency; she knew they had weighed all the risks involved before putting their bodies on the line for their country’s freedom, and wanted them to be recognized as the strategic, courageous and heroic leaders they were. She replied, “these are not the helpless screams of women, but the sky-splitting roar of the lioness, and you can answer it properly only by honoring her call to follow her in her fight.” Meetings like this eventually resulted in my grandmother leading a batch of women, along with two batches of their male comrades, on foot and unarmed into Goa to hoist the flag of the new Indian republic at Fort Terekhol. She did not have her parents’ support for this action, as they knew it would be dangerous and they did not want to see their Baby raped or killed. She went anyway. Some history books (incorrectly) list my grandmother as a martyr, because the entire delegation was shot at; two of her male comrades died. She was lucky to not be hit by any bullet, though she was beaten by Portuguese soldiers bearing clubs. All of her comrades were. Their Gandhi caps and tricolor flags were snatched away, and first aid for their injuries was denied them, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Wounded and carrying their dying friend, all of the Satyagrahis had to walk back to Indian territory on foot before they reached aid.
I could write a book about my Naani’s acts of resistance, there were so many. She was ahead of her time in many ways. One of the more romantic ways she resisted good girl-hood was in the way she pursued a partnership with my grandfather. They met during that Goa action; he was about ten years older and a seasoned freedom fighter who’d led a group of his male comrades from West Bengal to Goa after the British were ousted. Naani, like her parents, was a socialist. She did not believe in caste. She did not believe in Hindu ritual. My grandfather courted her through letters for months after he returned to West Bengal, and even visited her family home a few times. She never knew his caste or religion, as she never bothered to ask. I learned just recently my Naani didn’t even believe in legal marriage – her deepest desire was simply to dedicate her life to social service and to have a relationship with someone who could be her partner in all ways – romantically, domestically and politically. She never planned to marry my grandfather, and was ambivalent about having children – “if it happened, it happened and I was okay with that, but motherhood was not a goal of mine per se.” A direct quote.
I wish I could tell you they had a happy life together. Nanaji was by all accounts faithfully married to the movement. Together with my Naani, he opened branches of Rashtra Seva Dal in the Midnapur district of West Bengal. Years later, he went on to be a leader in the national movement for Adivasi rights, and eventually became a member of the Rajaya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament. Being in the opposition party for most of his career, he was often in prison or underground. But Naani wasn’t around for any of that. You see, my grandfather was a total patriarch for all his belief in socialism. He filed court papers to legally marry my grandmother without her consent or knowledge, even changing her last name in the process. He also slept around – a lot. And when my grandmother tried to hold him accountable, he tried to poison her. My grandmother left him when her children were just two and three years old. She moved to Varanasi to serve as the superintendent of homes for orphaned children and women abandoned by society and to teach classes at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences. Eventually, she was accepted to a PhD program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and emigrated to the United States with her ten- and eleven-year-old daughters.
Mandakini’s oldest daughter is Swapna, pronounced the Bengali way because she was born in Bengal like her father and his father before him (though that line of the family is ethnically from Uttar Pradesh). Her name means dream, and she is my mother. My mother’s biggest act of rebellion against my Naani was to be as obedient to social conventions, both American and Indian, as possible. She coveted Good Girl status, believing a lot of her unhappiness in life had been caused by having a Bad Girl for a mother. In high school, she converted to born-again Christianity. During her freshman year of college, she dropped out to marry a man she’d only known for three months – my father. At nineteen, she became a mother very deliberately and happily. There isn’t much I can say about my mother’s acts of resistance, since she stayed with a man who brutalized her and her children for years in pursuit of Good Girl status. But I’ll give her this much – at thirty-four, she finally found the courage to have him escorted out of the house by the police, filed a restraining order, and promptly enjoyed dating again. Since divorcing my father, she’s consistently dated younger Indian men, including my stepfather, who is five years younger. They’ve been together almost twenty years now. The other desis in New Jersey had a lot to say about my mother’s life choices for a long time. I’m glad she finally learned to stop listening.
Despite all of these acts of resistance by my foremothers, the poet Nayyirah Waheed’s words ring true: all the women in me are tired. Janaki lived, but she donned an austere widow’s garb – all white, no jewelry – and slept on a mat on the floor until the day she died. I really can’t say whether Shanta enjoyed being pregnant all the time, or whether she would have chosen to use birth control if that had been an option. Mandakini left her husband, but until she left India, she visited him almost every weekend with her daughters, and even went back for one more attempt at reconciliation after she’d moved to the U.S. In fact, she didn’t divorce him until her younger daughter divorced her own abusive husband, and when my grandfather passed away in 1991, she went back to India for his funeral. He never paid a cent to support her or their children, and yet she never told her daughters or grandchildren anything bad about their relationship until we were all well into our adulthood. As for Swapna, she put up with so much torture and abuse, and even after she learned of her husband’s extramarital affairs and sexual abuse of her daughter, chose to sacrifice the wellbeing of herself and her children to save face in her community and avoid wearing the mantles of “failed marriage” and “divorced woman” – for over a decade.
And then there is me. I am the first person in my lineage born outside of the South Asian subcontinent. I was raped by my father at least three hundred and fifty times starting at age four, and tortured by him in numerous ways for the first sixteen years of my life. And I talk about it, to help other survivors come out and begin healing. My mother’s family in India and her community in New Jersey follow my work on social media. I have stood on stages in front of hundreds of people and told my story of survivorship. I am queer and genderqueer and have been out to my family and my mother’s community for almost twenty years. I do not want to get married or have children, though I enjoy building life partnerships and taking care of the children in my blood and chosen families. I am polyamorous – I enjoy having sex and falling in love, and do not believe I need to share these experiences with only one other person for the rest of my life. I only date people of color, including Black people. I date people of all genders, cisgender and transgender, men and women. I am an atheist. I once told my mother she should not count on me to care for her in her old age, and I meant it, without malice. I have talked to my Naani and my teenage female cousin and half-sister about masturbation and ways they can enjoy their body, because I believe this is everyone’s birthright. I believe children should be supported to define their own gender identity, sexual orientation and general desires in life, and I hold space in my family for my youngest sibling, who is ten, to do so.
I believe the gift of being the first in my family to be born to the diaspora is the power of invention. I am the first person in my family who has ever been “South Asian American,” (not Indian, Maharashtrian, Bengali, Uttar Pradeshi, Kannada or Punjabi) as my predominant racial identity – frankly I am probably the first to have a racial, not just ethnic or national, identity. I am certainly the first person in my family to ever think of myself as “Asian American.” My peers and I get to define what that means. I believe we have an opportunity to transform oppressive constructions and customs we’ve inherited and co-create a new way of being. Sometimes people call me shameless, which frankly I take as a compliment – it has taken decades of healing work to let go of shame and to love everything about my life. Some might even say I am the opposite of everything I should be, a very bad girl. But I know in my heart the opposite of a good girl is simply a woman bold enough to set herself and her ancestors free. If this makes me bad, then I embrace that identity – watch me wear it well.