My mother is also illiterate but she does not stop me from continuing high school. Although we are poor (my father worked as a watchman in a building after migrating from our village in search of work) and uneducated, my parents are broad minded. They push me beyond traditions and customs.
For girls in India, times are changing, pulling us in the opposite direction, often, from our parent’s hopes and expectations.
India is a richly diverse country where tradition and modernity co-exist, both among rich and poor, and among educated and illiterate families. We have a rich mixture of social and cultural customs.
Some teen girls in the country fight against traditions that are centuries old while others gracefully adopt their parents’ and grandparents’ lifestyle.
Take dating for example. In India, most girls do not date. It’s not part of our custom. But when some girls read English novels or watch movies that feature boyfriends, they want to go on dates, and this often causes a huge conflict between parents and their daughter.
But there are also girls such as Archana Udapa, 19, who married her childhood sweetheart. The fact that she is in a love marriage and not an arranged one puts her on the side of being a modern Indian woman.
Udapa allowed me to use her full name, but the rest of the girls asked not to be named.
Malini, 17, was willing to drop her junior college studies and get a job in a supermarket so her family would have enough money to help her brother Aditya, 15, complete his education. The family is poor and does not have enough money to educate two children. Like many families in India, the boy’s education is considered more important than the girl’s education. If the situation was flipped, they would never ask Aditya to drop out of school for Malini.
Neighborhood Changes First
Sometimes the neighborhood changes before the family does. An example is Bengaluru, where 13-year-old Akshatha N. lives. The southern India town was a small, quiet “Pensioners’ Paradise” city 20 years ago. Now it’s a big city known as the “Silicon Valley of India.”
One wintry evening, as it was getting dark, Akshatha finished her homework and wanted to go to the park with her friends. Her mother stopped her saying, “You can’t go, it’s late.” Akshatha sulked and argued. “You let my brother go out after dark while I can’t, that’s not fair.” Akshatha’s mother insists that good girls don’t play out after dark. In a city celebrated for its technology and modernity, teen girls are caught between new ways and old customs.
Varshini Rao, 14, also lives in Bengaluru. Varshini likes Western music but her parents want her to get into Indian classical music. Her parents want her to conform to Indian Hindu customs; for example, wearing a bindi (a red dot on the forehead) and not cutting her hair.
Diya A.D, 15, is the daughter of a coffee plantation owner in Coorg, south India. She wants to become a food critic and go abroad. Her parents insist that she can’t go abroad. They want her to stay close and live near them.
The changes over one generation are also shown by the example of Shanta, who completed her master’s degree at age 19 in 1960 and was chosen for a fellowship for Ph.D. research. Her parents stopped her further studies and arranged her marriage.
Shanta’s daughter Shivani got a similar fellowship from Harvard in 1984, when she was 19, and Shanta happily sent her off. Now Shivani is a respected scientist and unmarried.