Once, long ago

When we were seventeen we knew everything. We knew our lives were complicated. We knew our parents would never understand our darkest thoughts. We knew how much hearts hurt when they break. And in between listening to moody romantic music and flicking our long hair back over our shoulders we pretended we didn’t care about anything. On wet windy mornings we loitered by the stone arches of our old college, reluctant to climb the stairs to our education. Never again in my adult life would I know things with that certainty.

Reproval from adults, including teachers was swift and stinging. And we minded that. We really did. Some of us had just been unlocked from the high walls of our all girls convent school and needed to negotiate this new world in which strange boys looked at us and our hearts felt those looks. Our brothers had not prepared us for this. Our fathers were planning our marriages and the careers of our brothers. Our mothers massaged our hair with coconut oil and adjusted our scarves over our shoulders in an attempt to make us look androgynous. They told us honour was more important than a degree in English or Economics. Our aunties told us to stop riding bicycles because we would grow muscles in our legs like boys, and who would marry a girl with tough thighs?

So we formed gangs because there was safety in numbers. Gangs of girls looked at gangs of boys across stone arches, culverts, corridors and peepul trees. Occasionally a boy and a girl would saunter across, towards each other and away from us, and we marvelled at their boldness and envied them. On the threshold of a future we couldn’t predict, we held on to the present and felt the pang of every moment that denied us our inarticulate feelings. Especially when those renegade boys and girls, sparkling with fresh knowledge, told us not to let our schooling interfere with our education and we sighed with discontent.

Our parents thought we were getting an education. We indulged them by masquerading as their obedient children and hiding from them the things that really mattered to us. Like our future. Our souls. Illicit conversations. Invincible convictions. And how we were going to sneak away to see a movie at Empire Talkies without them finding out. Even then Empire Talkies was derelict, mouldy and crumbling but it had wide chairs and screened smart English movies some evenings.

And now my daughter is older than I was then. I have raised her many thousands of miles, languages and associations away from where I was raised. To her, my hometown is a distant, exotic place with eccentric characters who speak many languages simultaneously and English with an accent. She grew up in a fiercely bright coastal city with the sun in her eyes and sea water in her hair. Here the ocean is blue and cold and familiar and she shows no fear when she treads water after a summer swim. I grew up landlocked, watching in dread and fascination as a muddy river rose and burst its banks in the monsoon. She doesn’t have to worry about being whistled at when she walks to school or avoid brothers and cousins lurking outside Coffee House, asking awkward questions. She will not be told off by the college peon for sitting on the culvert like an orphan when everyone else has gone to class. But she will always be told that the best food in the world is served in a dark hut with wooden benches, where we queued patiently, day after day, pooling our money; where, really, our education was completed.

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18 responses to “Once, long ago

  1. Beautiful piece, Rashida x

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  2. Ah, lovely, evocative piece Rashida. I especially loved the local wisdom to not get tough thighs – what a calamity that might have been! It reminded me of the daft things we Irish were told to prevent us from fully inhabiting our bodies, our strength and (gasp!) our sexuality. I remember the half conscious signalling to the boys at the youth club dance. The thrilling fear of having a signal returned and pretending not to care a fig.

    Although the culture I grew up in was miles north and quite different, your piece evokes familiar experiences, such as “masquerading as their obedient children and hiding from them the things that really mattered to us. Like our future. Our souls. Illicit conversations. Invincible convictions.”
    Now that we’re parents – ours no doubt, do the same, do they not! And so it goes, the great looping task of being human.

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    • Thank you Karen. Yes, I expect our kids did the same to us as we did to ours! Yes, we weren’t allowed to look female, I think, although it wasn’t okay to look like a boy either. But I do miss illogical homespun wisdom!

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  3. Beautifully written, as usual Rashida. Transports me back to my uni days- where we were encouraged to do well enough, but not too well, for fear of not finding a future husband who would feel threatened by an over achieving female! And didn’t we all do things on the sly – going to the matinee shows , instead of attending tutorials and all the afternoon parties with darkened rooms to re-create the atmosphere of night, to accommodate the romances of my Gujerati friends who weren’t allowed to go out at night!

    In my case we didn’t ride bikes so there was no concern about us developing thigh muscles which would make us look unfeminine, but rather we couldn’t go and swim for as long as we wanted in the pool as that would make us ” dark” and only fair skinned girls managed to trap suitable men! Crazy logic of the previous generation. Unfortunately I don’t have any daughters to pass on my knowledge to, so it will have to die with me!

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    • Yes, those words of wisdom will resonate for generations of women of a certain age, regardless of where in the world they may have lived! And one day I’ll write about the dangers of becoming dark and studying too much! Of course if you were born ‘dark’ there wasn’t much hope until ‘Fair And Lovely’ came on the scene, and then every aunty I knew recommended I try it!

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  4. Such a beautiful piece, Rashida; a prose poem. Thank you.
    One thought comes up for me; your daughter doesn’t have to worry about the things you had to. But it’s not easy being a young woman, or a young man, in our culture. There are many other pressures. But with a mum like you, I’m sure she may not have to hide as much as you did, and I did, when we were young.

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    • Thank you Christina. It wasn’t so much the hiding things, as what we accepted as ‘normal’ – without questioning, which I don’t think my daughter would have accepted with quite the equanimity that I did. But you are so right, in many ways they were more innocent times, and the pressures on young men and women are so much greater now.

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  5. PS forgot to click notify me of follow-up comments, so am doing so now.

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  6. Rashida, this is exquisite. You convey the mixed feelings associated with your upbringing with poignancy but never self-pity. Your writing is a gift and thank you for sharing it with us.

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  7. Stunning, beautifully written piece, Rashida. Your words cross cultures and resonate back through the years. Simply woonderful

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  8. Not woonderful – wonderful.

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  9. Beautifully written I can relate to all this ’cause I also used to be part of one of the girl gangs

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  10. Beautiful, Rashida.

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