Privileged Freedom: Lives of Kathmandu’s Traditional Modern Women

kathmandu

by Anjana Rajbhandary 

A similar version of this was originally published and modified for republishing. 

The upper-middle-class women of Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, are born and raised in good families with a set of unspoken rules and expectations. These are not hidden secrets, but a form of tradition that is passed along generations. These rituals become modernized with every coming year, yet the root remains the same.

It is a story that some know very well, a story that some wish they understood better, and a story that some women live every day.

It is the story of the traditional modern women. The fortunate bunch has their parents to give them a beautiful house to live in, never having to struggle for food (conversely, striving to stay away from it), and most go to a good school because they are know the importance of a good education. They are the lucky crowd, as most things have been handed to them on a silver platter, which they are very grateful, but it comes at a cost.

Most of these women of Kathmandu have everything money can buy. But the unfortunate truth is, they do not have the freedom to live their lives the way they want. They live a web of lies which they eventually begin to believe.

They are ladylike. They listen but are taught not to speak or be heard because only rude women are loud and obnoxious. This teaches them that it is wrong to have a voice, to be opinionated. The life of a traditional modern woman of Kathmandu is a beautifully wrapped box of paradoxes.

They are taught to be worldly and learn about different cultures. Their families support their childhood dreams to go away for school, though some are still unsure why they should want to go abroad in the first place.

They are told that girls can do everything a boy can, but it is not encouraged. They are told that they are strong and they should fight against injustice, for their rights, and to prove their equality in politics, business, medicine, and many other fields in life. Still, someone important did not get the memo on why, in this day and age, it is still impossible to get one’s citizenship in the name of the mother.

These women of Kathmandu are very critical of their bodies and are taught to believe that the thinner they get, the better their life gets. Discipline in eating less is admired and rewarded with compliments. Little girls are seen using napkins to soak oil off a french fry. Every stretch mark tells a story of pain and victory, especially when there is an eating disorder involved.

They eat as little as possible, especially in public, because no real woman eats very much. Wherever they go, whoever they meet, someone will comment on their appearance.

‘You got fatter /thinner/ darker/ fairer…’

People seem obligated to give their viewpoint, but these women are well-trained to never retort because that would be rude and disrespectful to their elders. It just clearly does not work the other way around.

They are told they are strong but are constantly reminded that “you must have a man in your life.” Just look at our passports, they have our name, then the name of our fathers or husband, maybe they should also add the name of every other male relative as well.

Having an active social life is taboo and the sea of lies separates them from their families pushing them further apart every passing day. Having a social nightlife means a “loose” character and a reputation for not being raised in an upstanding family. Suddenly, they start “staying over” at friends’ houses more often to the disappointment of their conservative families.

Drinking and smoking, (only acceptable if you are a man) categorize women as “tramps” whose moral character is constantly questioned. Hence, these acts are performed in secret to keep up the squeaky clean family reputation, which gives birth to self-loathing guilt in these women of Kathmandu.

So the lies add-on.

Dating and relationships are also scrutinized for women. Men are not questioned as much, of course. But the question arises–so, are these men in relationships with other men?

Many of these women have given up on their dreams and ended relationships with people they loved because they were of differing castes or social standing, or some other equally ridiculous reason. They chose the obligation to maintain family lineage instead. These women are internally programmed to choose family over love, so their bloodline remains sacred and strong. They do not want to be the first one to cause eternal embarrassment to the family name.

They master the art of silently crying in the dark, covering their faces with thick blankets so no one overhears them, desperately hoping that they have the strength to maintain a smile on their faces when morning comes. And they do it so well.

Some marry whom they choose and disconnect, but most come back because they owe it to their families who have given them so much, and now it is their turn to give back. The happiness of their family means the world to them, and they would do anything to keep the peace.

When these independent women come back home to Nepal from studying in foreign schools and universities, they are no longer individuals but the pride of their family if they do things right. Their every action is associated with the family name. They go from living in apartments with roommates or alone, while paying all their bills, to becoming the next potential bride whose purpose in life is to find a good husband and have a lavishly expensive wedding.

The sad part of these extravagant weddings is that it becomes a strange coming together of two families to show off to society how many people they can invite and how much money they can spend, instead of focusing on the love between two people (if it exists). It becomes an implicit display of one’s bank statement where they try to outdo your last relative.

These beautiful, strong women of Kathmandu are valued for what they are worth to their family, or what they can bring to their old or new family…and they said dowry was a thing of the past.

At any wedding, the first word used to describe the bride is “beautiful,” if she looks it. Or else she gets an “okay” as a consolation to her existence. No big deal, it’s just her wedding day but society has to compare her to the rest of the brides of that season, or ever. Kindness and consideration from guests isn’t important, but for a bride to be that stunning piece of artwork that will someday decorate someone’s hallway is. Never waste the pretty.

These women wonder how their families cannot hear them screaming on the inside. Probably because the members of their family were never heard either and now they choose not to listen.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – but it slowly shatters the souls. The majority are very well put together on the outside; they always look proper and pretty, but some are very broken.

If a woman is unmarried by her late twenties, she is pretty much doomed for life. Her moral character is constantly questioned, a sad reality to be used as an example for younger girls.

It is baffling how letting someone be happy does not seem to cross other people’s minds. Is it because most people are so jaded by the way of their strategically structured life that they do not even believe in the pursuit of happiness anymore? How come no one asks the most important question, “Are you happy?”

Mostly, these women of Kathmandu struggle and try to fight, but very few continue fighting. As mentioned in my article “Privileged Freedom” published in the Nepali Times Newspaper, some of us give in after burying our dreams under another layer of an unnecessarily expensive diamond necklace while some of us fight to stay true to who we are: and dear God, it is hard. By this time, these women like me have learned to heavily invest in waterproof mascara or just stop feeling altogether.

These women are not against marriage, they are against the reasons that people are pressured to get married. Most of them still believe in love, at least for now, and want to create a beautiful life with someone that is not measured by how good it would look to the outside world, and how beneficial it would be for the two families. I have a crazy theory that if more people allowed others to be happy and fought for their own happiness, there would be less resentment and judgment in the world.

After a beautiful and overly expensive wedding, these women of Kathmandu are expected to have children. Most love children, but isn’t it something that they should want when they feel ready? Some fulfill the role of time while most try to postpone the responsibility. Maybe they just aren’t ready, or maybe they are scared of becoming like those who never hear their children cry in the dark silence.

Of course, there is the epidemic of extra-marital affairs that everyone knows about but says nothing.  It is no shocker that when people are manipulated or coerced to do something that they do not want to, they find other outlets to maintain their sanity. Every person in the Kathmandu valley is aware of several such extra marital affairs, if not in one themselves.  It is difficult to understand how marriages are forced and staying single by choice is frowned upon, but extra-marital affairs are silently accepted. Welcome to the big city where everything will always look pretty, superficially.

Women who question the logic behind society’s belief system silently give in and readjust to the way of life that is expected of them. If women choose to stand up for themselves and challenge society’s norms, they are labeled as rebellious and negatively influenced by the West. God forbid that women have learned to think for themselves and chosen to do what makes them happy.

The thought of a caged life is never worth any designer purse once these women have tasted the free air. Freedom is priceless, they just have to pay a lot for it.

Some of them choose to have a better relationship with themselves because it ultimately helps them have a better relationship with other people. They learn to be kind to themselves for choosing happiness over artificial traditions. These women, in turn, are able to be kind to others because they know what it is like to be constantly judged. They learn to understand that no one should be treated with such ruthlessness. They become more accepting of others and allow others to be who they are.

Some of them realize that it is okay to be happy without feeling guilty. They realize that they cannot make everyone happy. When these women smile, it is genuine.

These powerful women of Kathmandu realize that it is their right to want what they want from their lives and it does not have to be what every other woman in their family has wanted or may have pretended to have loved. They learn to treat themselves the way they want others to treat them.

With years of battling themselves  for what they want versus what they should want, they learn to stop blaming other people for their unhappiness. It is always easy to blame someone else for everything that goes wrong in their lives, but they stop playing the victim and take reign of their destiny. These women of Kathmandu hold themselves accountable for the choices they make, and that is one amazing feeling.

It will not be easy, but these women knew it never would be.

These admirable women of Kathmandu choose not to be a stereotypical traditional modern woman. They choose the uncertain life full of struggle trying to find their way to their true self. More than money, status and appearances – they choose reality.

They choose their freedom. They choose their happiness.

I choose my happiness.

Let the wedding season begin.


anjana rajbhandary, kathmanduAnjana Rajbhandary is originally from Kathmandu, Nepal. She has also lived in Italy and Ireland. She received her Masters in Human Development from the University of Maine. She now lives in Chicago, IL, and loves it.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Fireside Chat With Debut Author Sophie Jai

sophie jai
sophie jai

 I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. — Sophie Jai  

“Wild Fires” by Sophie Jai is a story about one Trinidadian family’s journey through grief, identity and memory. Jai’s debut novel takes readers on a journey of a past Trinidad and present-day Canada. 

 

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In conversation with Jai, we talk about Caribbean stories, the psychology of a house and what makes a family. The following answers have been abridged and edited for clarity and concision.

[Read Related: Author Kirtie Persaud on Representation for Indo Caribbean Girls, Motherhood and Balance ]

 What inspired you to write “Wild Fires?”

I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.

When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?

It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.

How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?

Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community. 

Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?

My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience. 

 

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Is the rest of the book based on a true story?

It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my  life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.

The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?

I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.

One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?

For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.

Why explore the psychology of a house?

It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.

What makes a family?

I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.

The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?

Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.

 

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What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”

I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of  these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.

Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.  

“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.

Featured Image Courtesy: Sophie Jai

By Usha Sookai

Usha Sookai is an undergraduate student at New York University, studying Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis. With a passion … Read more ›

Reflection Comes From Within, not From Others

“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.

I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.

We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!

[Read Related: Uncovering the Brown Boy in Hiding Through Poetry]

Confessions to a Moonless Sky

Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.

If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.

But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.

[Read Related: ‘headspun’ — Bengali Muslim Boy’s Poetic Journey Through Himself]

By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›

Book Review: The Freelance Mindset by Joy Batra

“What you do is not who you are. Our capitalist society spends a lot of time trying to convince us that we are our work, but we don’t have to fall for it.” 

When I first met Joy Batra, she wasn’t an author. She was a multi-hyphenated individual who floored me with her charm and her aura. Joy not only had gone to business school and law school at one of the most prestigious universities in America, but she also valued her hobbies and her passions that were completely extraneous to her working persona. Her nontraditional career path was one that, at first glance, confused me. “I’m a dancer and freelancer,” she had said, and I batted my eyes as if she was talking in a foreign language. What’s a freelancer? Why and how did she come to identify herself as a dancer, when her degrees all point to business and law? 

[ Read Related: Indra Nooyi Talks ‘My Life in Full’ and her Journey to Becoming PepsiCo’s CEO ]

Joy Batra’s therapeutic and timely book “Freelance Mindset” provides relevant stories, guidelines, and motivation to take ownership of your career and financial well-being. Particularly, the book is centered around the pros and cons of life as a freelancer and practical advice for how to get started as one. At its core, the “Freelance Mindset” encourages diving deep into the relationship between career and identity, and how the balance of both relate back to your life view.

In the words of Batra:

“Freelancing is a way to scratch a creative itch that is completely unrelated to their day jobs…Freelancing harnesses that independent streak and turns it into a long- term advantage.” 

Batra’s older sister’s advice is written with forthright humbleness and glaring humility. Batra leads us through the fear of facing our existential fears about careers, productivity, and creativity. She leans into the psychological aspects of how we develop our careers, and reminds us to approach work not just with serious compassion but also with childhood play: 

“You are naturally curious and passionate. As a child, before you needed to think deeply about money, you probably played games, had imaginary friends, and competed in sports. Those instincts might get buried as we grow up, but they don’t disappear altogether.”

[ Read Related: Learning How To Freelance in a Cutthroat Industry ]

Batra also provides us with a diverse cast of inspirational freelancers who provide their honest perspectives across a wide range of domains from being a professional clown to actors to writers. Especially noticeable is the attention paid to South Asian women through notable interviews with Vyjayanthi Vadrevu, Saumya Dave, and more. On social media, it’s easy to find these women and immediately applaud their success, but behind the scenes, it takes a lot of grit, persistence, and determination to reach the successful level of freelancing that you see. Batra encourages a spiritual way of thinking that is marked by rational needs (ex. Maslow’s hierarchy): not to seek immediate gratification and corporate climbing, but rather to view life as a “jungle gym” as coined by Patricia Sellers. Taking risks is part of life, and just like entrepreneurship, freelancing is just as ambitious and off-the-beaten path, despite stigmatization.

“One of the strange paradoxes of the working world is that entrepreneurship is fetishized and freelancing is stigmatized.”

I recommend the “Freelance Mindset” to anyone who is starting out their career in these economically uncertain times, as well as seasoned workers who are looking for inspiration or a shift in their career life. Whether or not you are considering becoming a freelancer in a certain domain, this book is the practical wake-up call that workers and employees need in order to reorient their purpose and poise themselves for a mindset of success. I view this book as a “lifer,” one to read every few years to ground myself and think critically about the choices I make and where I devote my time. 

I leave you with this quote:

“We can adopt the new belief that no single job will meet all our financial, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs…We have one self, and we must figure out how to integrate it into the various situations we find ourselves in.“

You can purchase a copy of the Freelance Mindset here. Follow Joy Batra on Twitter and Instagram for more content!

By Anushree Sreedhar

Raised in Edison, NJ Anushree is an avid reader, imaginative creative writer, dramatic storyteller, obsessive shopper, experimental yogi, and a … Read more ›