"I am nobody," that is how Shefali introduces herself to others. This 46-year-old woman has no time to ponder over the existential, and to her often meaningless, questions of life. Her day starts at 5 a.m. and she continues to work tirelessly until almost midnight, hopping from one house to another, cooking meals for others so she can put food on her table. She is single-handedly raising her daughters and her mind is often preoccupied by the everyday challenges of getting to work on time, ensuring her girls are safe, paying their school fees and making sure they are well-fed.
While her grit and determination to overcome every challenge has been an inspiration to me for the last several years, her resignation to life is baffling sometimes. "I had no choice but to struggle. Does life leave you with too many choices," she asks and I wonder what this whole hullabaloo around the video "My choice" is about.
The origin of the debate
For the benefit of the rest of humanity, which may be unaware of the social media war going on in India, here is a brief background. Last weekend, a video was released featuring Deepika Padukone (pictured above), one of the reigning stars of Bollywood. This video is part of the "Empower" initiative launched by leading fashion magazine Vogue a couple of months ago.
In the short film, Deepika talks about women's prerogative of choice with the aim of raising awareness for the cause of women's right in India. She speaks in verse, reciting the lines "My body, my mind, my choice; To wear the clothes I like; even if my spirit roams naked; My choice; to be a size 0 or a size 15; They don't have a size for my spirit, and never will." The video also features successful models, actresses, film critics, directors and writers - in other words, women who are independent and have created a mark for themselves.
The film has divided social media users into two groups: one that has been enthusiastically applauding the effort and the other, which is questioning the motives behind the whole exercise.
The ordinary Indian woman's choice
What does the prerogative of choice mean to ordinary Indian women?
"I do not associate choice with gender. It is as tough for a man as it is for a woman. We all live in a world where our choices affect each other. I can't be selfish about it," says Kajal and I know where her view is coming from. She is a mother of a teenager and would have a heart attack if her son turned around and quoted these lines from the video: "My pleasure might be your pain/ My songs, your noise/ My order, your anarchy/ Your sins, my virtues…"
"Choices come with responsibilities. If I am willing to make a choice, I must not play the victim when it doesn't work in my favor," says Ruchi Kumar, and I can't agree more.
Aparna Praveen ponders her own choices or the ones she couldn't make while we talk. "I am not only I. I am a sum total of all the roles that I play and therefore all these roles define my choices," she observes.
Choices mean repercussions
Making a choice is not merely a physical event. It comes from the inside, revealing truths that might seem too intimidating to others. Therefore, it becomes imperative to speak about "choices" and "repercussions" in the same breath, because the most personal of choices also have the potential to affect others. If my choice can liberate me, it could also become someone else's heartbreak. My choice becomes empowered only when it is respected and strengthened by others.
In India, there is one minuscule section of society that fiercely - and almost ruthlessly - guards its choices in terms of clothing, sexuality, relationship status, financial independence and professional choices while a large number of women from the same society struggle for basic rights within their own homes and families. This right could be as basic as the right to live safely or the right to have an opinion. The choices they want to make are their basic right. The choices that the Vogue video talks about are those of a privileged section.
If my basic existence is what I fight for, does the "universe offer me infinite possibilities," as quoted in the video?
One may be more empowered, creative and resplendent without being vocal and arrogant about the choices one wants to make. It doesn't need a celebrity endorsement. It doesn't even need endless online debates.
Empowerment has to become the inspiring power to transform the perceptions of the world around us and to determine how we collectively and consciously act with it, for ourselves and for others. In a fair and equal world, empowerment has to come regardless of gender, race, class or country.
Anu Singh Choudhary @anusinghc is a Delhi-based freelance journalist, author and documentary filmmaker. When she is not fretting over her 8-year old twins' handwriting and spellings, she travels through villages and cities across India in search of stories.