Vio stood aghast for a minute as I sat sobbing on the sofa before she realised what she had said. Then she sat down and put her arms around me. "Of course he will want to show you off. Anyone would," she said. I burst into even louder sobs.
I was in Seattle, on a ten-month long fellowship program. And there I had met a wonderful man. A few weeks after we began dating, he wanted me to meet his family. As I fretted about the upcoming evening, I had grumbled aloud wondering why he wanted me to visit his home. That is when my housemate said, "He wants to show you off, my dear." I had looked up at her and started crying.
It had been very different back home in India. There I had not been the one to be ‘shown off’. At thirty, I had already been labelled ‘the one who could not get married’. Never mind that I abhorred the idea of an arranged marriage. I was the nerd, the fat one, the shy one, the gauche one, the oddball, the one to be hidden away.
In Seattle, no one knew these labels. I was recognised as the ‘Why not!’ one- as in the one who responded ‘why not!’ when asked if she would consider doing any challenging but fun thing. I was the upbeat one, the social one, and most surprisingly, the one that a man would be proud of.
The experience of being seen without the labels stuck on by a dozen disapproving relatives, shocked me into a reassessment of my idea of myself. All these people could not be wrong, I thought. My program coordinator was probably right when he told me he could rely on me to pull my cohort out of the dumps. So was the homeless man outside the office I interned at who noticed whenever I dressed for a meeting and greeted me with a ‘looking good, lady!’
I deserved to be happy, I decided. I was capable of reaching out for this happiness myself, I realised.
And so, when I returned to India, I packed my bags again. Instead of continuing to stay with my family, I found me a job in Dehradun. This move was a lot harder than my experience in Seattle. I was doing it on my own without the support of a fellowship program. Here there was no supportive cohort sharing the same experiences, no magnificently unflappable program coordinator with a quirky sense of humour. Here there was just I, my trunk, and a one-week time limit in which to find me a house.
I did find a house to stay in. I found a library and a coffee shop. I discovered shops where I could buy both necessities and treats. I crammed my weekends with fun things to do. I settled down and made me a home. I even made a few friends.
Not everyone recognised my home for what it was. Among my colleagues and my family, it was ‘a room’ to stay in because a single woman is only play acting at life. Colleagues seriously suggested that rather than stay in a 1BHK flat, I live as a paying guest somewhere. "Why do you want a house?" they asked. "Because it is my home now," I told them. "Because I want to live comfortably. I want to cook proper meals. I want to entertain. In fact, I want to do the very same things you do." It saddened me that I needed to defend the legitimacy of my life. It frustrated me that my family expressed surprise when I told them of the furniture I bought. Though I was thirty-two, I was still expected to live a student’s makeshift life just because I was unmarried.
It has now been eight years now since I moved to Uttarakhand. I married the man I had met in Seattle and we since acquired a dog, a flock of quarrelsome chicken, a garden, and clutter.
Six months ago, I was counselled by my family to have my mother’s address on my Aadhaar card. Because apparently, the flat I have not lived in for more than a week over the last decade is my ‘real address’.
The one thing I have learnt in the last decade is that the labels other people create have no power over me.
Chicu is an independent consultant working on water conflicts with a focus on stakeholder negotiations. She lives with her husband on a farm in the Himalayas.
This story is from Beyond Relocation, a series on migration and how it impacts our emotional and mental health. Read more here:
1. We need to acknowledge the emotional impact of migration: Dr Sabina Rao
2. Organizations must help employees transition: Maullika Sharma
3. Moving was all of these: a challenge, and adventure and an opportunity to learn about myself: Revathi Krishna
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