The sun set against the mucky Chowpatty waters and I sighed with contentment. It was 9 pm, and it had been a long day at the bank I was interning at, but I was walking under the palm trees on Marine Drive and listening to the sound of the waves and chana and balloon hawkers. It was a short 20-minute walk from the office back to the  captivity of the dingy girls’ hostel I lived in (with its strict 10 pm lights off; gates locked; quiet-in-all-six-cramped-beds-per-room policies). But until then, I was free.

As I started to write about freedom, this particular image popped into my head. Perhaps because being able to breathe in the salty sea air and stroll at my pace, without having to look over my shoulder was one of the first battles for freedom that I had fought, and won. The strive didn’t end there, and every subsequent combat—my own or ones that I’ve witnessed; won or lost—taught me something new.

1. If you’ve always had it, it is hard to truly value it

I learnt that in my initial tryst with freedom. I was 22 when I went to Mumbai for my internship, and my happiness was a source of puzzlement to many Mumbaikars. But you see, I was a Delhi-ite. What that meant was that I spent my teens with a permanent curfew at sunset (or thereabouts), since the nation’s capital was no safe place for a young girl. 

And yet, on this daily walk on Marine Drive, even though the street lights were dim and I was among strangers, I felt safe.

2. The fight for basics is still to be won 

My cousin and her husband run a phenomenal clinic focused on providing healthcare to the families of migrant workers in rural Rajasthan. A few months ago, a very bright nurse in their team (one my cousin said, in terms of her clinical acumen, was no less than a doctor and in terms of sensitivity towards tribal women, was way ahead of one) quit since her husband and in-laws were demanding she stay home. No pleading, cajoling or reasoning worked—the nurse was tremendously qualified, and yet her husband and in-laws were determining what she should do. These stories are everywhere. 

3. It is a dynamic concept 

While the fundamentals of its definition remain unchanged, voices are being raised on new topics daily. Gender neutral/ inclusive bathrooms might not have been a cause five to 10 years ago, but have caused significant moral, ideological and practical debate in recent years as gender identity challenges have become better understood. As long as human beings, technology and the world continues to evolve, old norms will be challenged, previously established social constructs and conventions will be debated and new freedoms/“bathroom bills” proposed to instrument change… as it should be.

4. Sometimes the oppressor lies within 

In the documentary Meet the Patels, Ravi Patel breaks up with his girlfriend Audrey and embarks on a journey to find the perfect “Patel girl”—ostensibly because his parents would not accept a white girl. Some 20-odd blind dates, a Patel marriage convention (yup, there is such a thing) and a year later, when he asks his parents a theoretical question about their reaction if he married an American, they answer that they would accept anyone that makes him happy. Both he and his sister Geeta (who directed/ filmed the documentary) reluctantly admit that the real demons were their own personal constructs about what an ideal partner might look like, and that was what was really preventing them from making alternative choices. 

5. Exhibiting restraint is not equal to a constraint of freedom 

Trolling on social media is one such example. Spewing venom, threats and abuse from behind the cloak of anonymity can be claimed as a freedom and a right, but is just plain cowardly. Attention seeking folks that leverage online forums to viciously and deliberately target vulnerable folks with an aim to offend has become commonplace—and for them, it is just sport. But while criticism is healthy, hate is not. Such “free speech”, without attribution, is nothing but bullying.  The twain should not be confused. 

6. It is a privilege, make it count 

An African American friend in the US recently wrote on her page that she felt unsafe and on alert when she saw cops. That statement gave me pause—I’ve always thought of the cops as who you turn to for protection. While I was aware of the incidents and deaths of African Americans by police actions or while in police custody, her statement triggered me to delve into the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the statistics and the stories to help me better understand her fears. 

In a recent discussion with a few women friends about feminism, someone commented that we were the privileged lot, who had seen the least discrimination—so why be so vocal about women’s’ rights? But that’s the point, you do it so a brilliant nurse is able to do her work and make a difference to her tribe, and to support a friend in combating her fears, and so that the next generation is able to walk safely in Lodhi Gardens in Delhi and enjoy the sunset. If we do have the privilege, then we have to make it count…

In other words, if you have it, don’t “f” it up!

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  • Surbhee Grover


    Steel & Graffiti Inc.

    Surbhee is a strategy consultant, entrepreneur and storyteller based in New York. She provides growth strategy & innovation advice to leading consumer companies and has partnered with clients across Asia, North America and Europe (e.g. Philips, De Beers, LVMH, Four Seasons, National Restaurant Association, Clorox). She also works closely with start-ups in the consumer space. An avid traveler, explorer, and rainbow chaser, she likes to capture moments and craft stories. Her writing and photos have appeared in Forbes India and HT Brunch.