One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time.
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet
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I stood near the railing, sipping from my glass cup as I admired the make shift stage occupying the centre of this hotel’s roof. Silently in the midst of mild applause I watched the best NGO’S get awarded for their work in their respective fields.
My friend, Ria, smiling, made her way towards me. I gave back a slow smile. She was representing her NGO for the category of NGO with the most creative ideas and initiatives in the field of education. She stood with me for a little while and then turned to take her place at the stage. As she was about to leave, she hesitated a moment. She looked back at me, searching for something in my expression. I raised my eyebrow at her in a silent question. She chuckled and slowly shook her head. A slow smirk crept on my face as we gazed at each other. Finally she took a step closer to me and held my free hand in both of hers.
She said, “This would not have been possible without you” and squeezed my hand. My smirk turned cheeky as she returned it with a wide and toothy grin of hers. She turned towards the stage and left. I turned around and leaned against the railing. I stared past the horizon where the city skyline glowed in a million hues against the canvas of the dark night sky. A gentle breeze caressed my face as it made the wind chimes hanging on the railing dance to its melodies. The lights and sounds blurred as my mind drifted to the conversation that had been the first step in this thousand-mile journey.
It had been the night of my birthday. I had thrown a big party and invited a lot of my friends, many of whom I had not seen for years, Ria was one of them. Once the celebrations had died down, I had gone to sit in the verandah overlooking a small garden; from the extended roof hung a boat shaped wind chime. The bells on the sail rang as the winds blew past it. Sometime later Ria joined me. I decided to catch up with her so we talked about mundane topics till we came to the subject of streams.
“I took commerce”, she said timidly.
“What! Why?”’ I asked aghast. I couldn’t believe it. For all the years I had known Ria, it was her dream to be a scientist. Though she shrugged and feigned indifference I could see the hurt, helplessness and exhaustion in her eyes
“Well, I come from small family. Poor in both pocket and at heart. They send me to that pathetic excuse of a school which does not allow girls to participate in lab activities. They think it’s impractical to spend money on us since we are going to be married off anyway.” Her tone turned bitter as she nearly spat the word ‘married’.”
When I gave her a shocked look she continued, “Ours is a patriarchal society. Reek of masculinity shamelessly overpowering the fragrance of equality. Here, all their lives women are told to just accept whatever comes their way. Be happy with whatever your men provide you with. They can lust over other women but you can’t even look at other men. They can ogle other women but you have to hide your face under a veil. You are just a property to be possessed, showed off or bargained for either power or position or money.” Her voice oozed enough humiliation and desperation to testify that she spoke with firsthand experience. Her earlier bitterness and anger replaced by the sudden helplessness of a drowning man who knows that any next breath of his might be his last.
When she spoke again her voice had lost an octave, “all you are required to do is sit at home, clean the house, make babies and look pretty…. Preferably all at the same time” She added with a smirk.
“You can’t even make your own decisions, either your father or your husband does it for you.”
We sat in stunned silence.
“Why don’t you stand up against them?” I asked softly.
She barked a laugh and turned to completely face me. “How do you hope to fly when you never really learned to spread your wings?” she turned her head away. “I am a single girl. Alone and powerless. I can’t change schools. I can’t stay at home. I’ll be married off. My brothers will make sure of it.” She scoffed. After a small pause she looked at me with a rueful smile.
“I envy you so much sometimes you know. You have supportive parents. You are financially strong. You have an open environment, helping friends, moral strength. You don’t have a problem to worry about and me…… nothing”
Silence descended again. But this time it was deafening. I should have been angry with her, yelled at her, never talked to her again for making my life look so perfect…..
But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. For, somewhere, in some desolate corners of my heart I knew, compared to hers, it was.
I was privileged.
But I couldn’t just let this go. Gazing at her, her eyes though bright with unshed tears yet barely holding back her rage, I realized that I could not just sit and watch the bravest and most resilient person I have ever known fall apart. I couldn’t just leave her to get lost in her own personnel hell. But what could I do?
The winds blew again making the chime ring and something dawned upon me.
I said, “Do you see the chimes, Ria? These strong winds… they blow with power enough to destroy. It’s a powerful force of nature in its most primitive form, battling against it is nothing but delicate fusion of bells and glass. Yet whenever the winds blow; even in their most feral form, the chime just spreads its flaps and turns the force of annihilation into a soothing caress of melodious bliss…. This wind, it’s your reality. You cannot fight it. You cannot alter the core of something that has been alive for this long but you can harness it. You can use its power to create a reality of better ideas that makes the older one look obsolete.”
Neither of us spoke. I heard my mother calling me in the distance. I got up and said, “ as for you being alone, all it takes is a single stone to create a thousand ripples. All it takes is one. YOU, ME….. US”
I continued back into the house as I called over my shoulder, “Be the change”
“And the award for the most creative ideas and initiatives in the field of education goes to ‘Takes One’.” I turned around amidst deafening round of applause to see my best friend Ria take the award.
It had taken some time but justice had prevailed. I had used some of my parent’s connections to get Ria connected with an NGO which rooted for women’s rights. They had taken up her case and filed a petition in the favour of taking severe actions against such institutions that encouraged gender bias. They had staged protests and organized rallies. Their activities had gone viral and gained public support, years of barely concealed rage in millions of hearts had erupted like a volcano. Their activities had thrown light on plight of women in our society. They had shown the world that a woman’s calm hides a storm. During the legal battle of six months, which they ultimately won, the nation had been rocked by hurricane of change with Ria at the eye of it. The strong held notions of meek, submissive women and dominant men had crumpled in the face of female fury. No longer were women a symbol of weakness and vanity. Now they held power. The river had finally broken the dam.
I watched Ria thank her supporters. As she launched into a speech of their NGO’S achievements and the importance of support and creative initiatives to increase the strength of women in STEM, I turned around again to stare past the horizon and lose myself again in symphony of the wind chimes.