Glossy magazine photos of distant lands, stories of wanderlust sated, of people living life on their own terms... it's enough to give you a serious itch if you are an adventurous woman who happens to belong to a fiercely protective family coaxing, cajoling, advising and even threatening you if you express a desire to - gasp! - travel alone. It is almost unfathomable to them. Yet, sometimes that itch is too strong to ignore. Sooner or later you will find inner forces pulling you to take the plunge, even as you devise ways to elude the scores of eyes trained and deployed to scrutinise your every movement and intent.
But hey, you are the modern girl of today, right? Fiercely independent as you call yourself -- financially and emotionally - and with no reservations about putting yourself above all the roles thrust on you. As you finally broach the topic of setting out solo, there's a sequence of reactions. It starts with the calm before the storm, an air of hushed incomprehension. Then the eyebrows go up a fraction. And then all hell breaks loose. There are cackles of disbelief, wails of lament. How can our daughter even think this way? Could a demon have possessed her? Hope is reposed in divine forces. God will help us, he will cure her of these unholy thoughts.
"There's something about the very idea of solo female travel that freaks out most Indian families."
And while talk of gods and demons whizz past your ears, you look dispassionately at your audience. Many are distant relatives and family friends who you are pretty sure you won't be meeting in your next nine lives. You wonder how something as simple as an expression of your inner longing induces such florid emotion, such hysteria. It's something I've seen often enough to give it a name: relative-induced high. A frenzy of energy and an uncontrollable urge to advise and preach triggered by the presence of near and dear ones. After a while you tune it out, glad at least that you're not married. If you were they'd be voicing their shock and horror at your impending divorce, brought on no doubt by extramarital activities.
There's something about the very idea of solo female travel that freaks out most Indian families.
It's not that I don't understand why. Even if you're not a news hound, social media abounds in hundreds of posts about atrocities against women, exhortations to sign petitions, calls for protest. Yet, you also see inspiring photographs of female bikers exploring the length and breadth of the country, traversing mountains, single-woman armies all of them. So, what's the truth then? Is it really safe out there? Fed by steady beams of virtual information, you cannot help but replay those very words of wisdom reiterated time and again by your loved ones. And so begins the dilemma -- to go or not to go?
This dilemma is sure to gnaw at the innermost folds of your grey cells as you contemplate following your heart. Much as you'd like to, you cannot ignore your loved ones. They care for you, they do have experience under their belts. Yet, are they not also driven by the traditions of decades and centuries past, bound by the collectivist weave of our social fabric and stuck with old mindsets that may not be relevant today? An affinity for safety and security so deeply ingrained in their psyches that "letting go" is not an option. You listen to the rebel in you, pining for freedom.
But as is rightly quoted time and again, with freedom comes immense responsibility. Responsibility to be open yet alert. Responsibility to be informed at all times. Responsibility to be safe and secure. I
"A heightened sense of responsibility pervaded my being -- not only for myself but for my closed ones."
Realising this, I embarked on my three weeks' solo "soul-finding" trip in the mountainous terrain of Himachal Pradesh. I learnt to be myself and yet not always be so. To be open and accepting, yet always alert and aware. A heightened sense of responsibility pervaded my being -- a responsibility not only for myself but for my closed ones. This enhanced my experience as I picked up the nuances of life all by myself, out there in the unknown. An eye for caution, a word well measured, and yet I got enveloped in a freedom beyond expression as I embraced my innermost fears and aspirations.
So, here's my two pence for anyone wanting to set out solo: Why wait? Set out now, fulfil that dream of yours. Call it whatever you like: "finding yourself" or "discovering the world". You will stumble, but remember not to fall. Get up and get going and prove to yourself you're as confident, independent and mature as you imagine yourself to be. Now is the time to bring it all together. Shout out a big "Yes" to your inner voice as you answer the question... to go or not to go?
A lesson on living as much as abiding...
A lesson on caution as much as freedom...
A lesson on self-belief as much as trusting others...
A lesson on letting go as much as holding on...