Jyoti was standing just outside the gate when I stepped out. I walked past her hurriedly, on my way out to work. She caught up with me.
Hello, I said.
Hello, she smiled.
My father is asking if you will tuition me, she asked.
Tuition, what? I asked in return. I’m not sure.
Oh, if you will teach me.
Teach you what? I laughed lightly.
Teach me. She smiled again.
I said: Okay. Let me think about it. Let’s talk about this later?
I smiled and she smiled back.
Rushing to work, I kept thinking about how she had beamed when I had said okay. And inside my head I was already starting to plan what I could ‘teach’ her. The opportunity that had presented itself to me drummed an excitement in me. I was being given this chance to influence a young mind and how much I could do to help her discover.
I could not stop smiling to myself. Book, books, I thought. I could begin with a book. I rummaged through my bookshelf in my mind. What would an 11-year-old want to read? Maybe stories about birds or dogs? Or about women role models? Or maybe a book of short-stories. Or maybe a comic book?
When I was 11, one of my uncles had given me a book. Here, he had said, presenting it to me. Pretty As You Please (365 Recipes for Young Ladies). Read it when your period comes, he had said. And it did come soon after.
The book had exactly 365 chapters, beginning with what it means to be a lady. So, a lady was what a woman was not, which introduced the idea of ‘class’.
The book had a list of instructions on a number of things: how a young lady should sit, how she must speak, how she must walk. A lady is never supposed to sit like a man, she must sit with her legs together. She must speak with her voice calm and low, and walk in the same manner, calmly. Never run!
The book also prescribed the correct way to laugh. Do not open your mouth and laugh like boys do. Laugh softly and wave your hand before you, just so that you can hide your embarrassment a little.
Years later, I had retrieved the book from a box of old things and dumped it into the carton going out to trash. i am not a pretty girl. that is not what i do.
The book did have a couple of useful tips though — exercises for menstrual cramp, and on how to ask a male friend not to touch you. But do it politely, it said. I can barely recall what else the book had, but what I do remember is that I had gobbled the book down.
At that time, I heard the term ‘act like a lady’ so often in school that I was convinced that was the only way to behave. Never sit with your legs spread out. Be kind, polite and gentle—all very well, but also to male friends who touch you in ways you do not like?
So, when a boy punched me, I would say ‘ow’ in pain but never retaliate. When a family friend tripped me on Holi and pinned me down to the marble floor, the cold, hardness of it stinging my back, while he put abir on my face, again, I did not retaliate.
When another boy slammed my head with a water-filled balloon and when the balloon fell on the road without bursting, I merely crushed it under my feet so that he would not pick it and use it against me again. I did not pick it and throw it back at him or tell him he was being a jerk. I had to be polite, right? Even in my aggressions. That is what the book said. And I had read the book too many times.
In those days, my access to books was limited to the Enid Blytons. And while mysteries were still my genre, Nancy Drew Case Files were still not allowed because she had a boyfriend. And Agatha Christie, you could read a page or two in the library, but not borrow. So yes, I read Pretty as you Please on repeat, until I knew some recipes by heart: A good girl takes care of everyone around her.
It was a while before Nancy Drews and other books happened. But it was not until I turned 14 that I met Little Women. I won the book as a prize. Spelling competition. And it was then that my impulse to run was validated. It was possible to be a girl and want to only read and write and not cling to a man, like Jo March — the girl who changed the lives of millions of young women.
Over the years, though, I find myself gravitating towards the idea of Aunt March. I’ve often wished I could have one to whisk me out of certain situations, but now, I want to become one. For Jos. Maybe for Jyoti.
I make a mental list of books for her. I imagine explaining books to Jyoti. I plan assignments for her. She will be rewarded with a new book every time she finishes her assignment.
Her first assignment will be around A House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. When I hand her the book, I will ask her to open to the chapter, ‘A house of my own’ and ask her to read aloud:
Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house
Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after.
Only a house quiet as a snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.
I surmise at Jyoti’s surprise and the sense of familiarity the words might evoke in her as she reads. I imagine she will shut the book and look at me and smile at me in acknowledgement. And I smile to myself.
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in the author’s life.