“Log kya kahenge?”. Translation: What will people say? It is unfortunate what a common phrase this is in Hindi and the number of times I’ve heard it is probably equivalent to India’s entire population. Those three words have reverberated in my mind every time I’ve done something as quotidian as dressing myself in the morning or making conversation with peers. It was those three words that served as an explanation for why my neighbors would eye me disapprovingly if I ever wore a slightly low-cut top. I had been a member of Indian society long enough to know that the design of your shirt was directly correlated to your character. And God forbid I was seen speaking platonically to a boy at the mall. It was almost guaranteed that the next round of community gossip would include my parents’ presumed negligence and their role in raising such a salacious daughter. And, just to get really wild with it, if I was seen speaking platonically to a boy at the mall WEARING a slightly low-cut top? We might have to move. Yes, my tone is satirical. But that’s because the amount of weight that Indians place on the opinions of others when making decisions about their own lives is so ludicrous, it’s almost comical. I remember a couple months before my dad turned 50, he mentioned that he didn’t want a 50th birthday party and instead just wished to go to Atlantic City with his friends. My grandfather wouldn’t have it. “How can you do something so silly? Every adult has a big party in a hall. Log kya kahenge?” So, let me get this straight. We are going to spend thousands of dollars, book caterers and photographers and DJs, phone all our friends and relatives and friends of friends and relatives of relatives, and expend several months of our lives to exquisitely put together the aforementioned, all to throw a party that you don’t even want? Just to prevent our name from being brought up at the neighbor’s dinner table a couple nights? And the most common answer is…yes. That is how far members of the Indian community will go so that their reputation remains wholly and immaculately intact, even if it means sacrificing one’s happiness in the process. And as patently obvious as it is that I am an opponent of this way of thinking, I, too, was no different in letting the opinions of my community dictate my life.
In retrospect, it’s ironic that my eventual condemnation of this mentality was brought on by my initial love for it. The flipside of people criticizing you for not being the perfect Indian girl is that they will revere you if you are. I made sure to be the paragon of Indian morals: always being respectful to my elders, participating in Indian classical dance, and most importantly, consistently staying at the top of my class. The community loved me and I loved that they loved me, especially for my academic prowess. But my fondness of this adulation soon turned into a dependency on it, and the effects of this were detrimental. At first, I’d simply study a bit longer than necessary or I’d give myself an innocuous scolding for not starting a project due next month. But as time progressed, the pressure I put on myself intensified. I proofread essays a dozen times because I knew a single spelling mistake could cost me my perfect score. I’d cry on the bathroom floor over a 92 on my math exam, banging my head against the wall as if sacrificing the shape of my skull could grant me those eight points back. The mental space that had originally housed facts and equations had now been replaced by incessant thoughts of inadequacy. What kind of shame would be brought to my parents if I was just average? How do I explain that I can’t do the one thing I’m supposed to? Every imperfect grade left me feeling more inferior and my father only reinforced the notion that my grades were a reflection of my worth. Mind you, I do not blame him for this at all. He was simply raising me the way he was raised and high standards for academics are so entrenched in Indian culture that he is not culpable for enforcing them as well. But my desire to live up to this standard had rendered me mentally incapable of doing so. And with this incapability, so went my confidence.
Since I had been trained to put my self-worth in the hands of those around me, I decided to boost my confidence the only way I knew how: through the opinions of others. I found myself attempting to thrive socially, relinquishing my duties as the perfect Indian daughter so I could spend more time planning stylish outfits and hanging out with popular crowds. Being accepted by my peers seemed to restore my self-confidence, albeit not for long. The more I traded my books for beer bottles, the more I felt myself fitting my community’s label of a “disgrace.” And maybe it was the sudden realization that I had become stuck, or simply the build-up of years of mental torment that had never completely manifested, but one day I completely dissociated from my own body.
Mustering up the courage to tell my father what was going on wasn’t easy, but the challenge of accepting it myself was tenfold. Within the first five minutes of meeting with a psychiatrist, I knew my life was about to change. How could it not change when he had just made me cognizant of the problems my mind had tried to vigorously suppress for years? Those ceaseless thoughts in my head that prevented me from getting a proper night’s sleep? That was anxiety. And those hours I would spend crying over nothing in particular and yet everything all at once? That was depression. This was my reality, and it was something I needed to accept. But as painful as this was to accept for myself, what was even worse was being forced to hide it. In the Indian community, if you have a mental disorder, you are a “crazy person.” You are not normal. You are an unfortunate soul whose body has been taken over by evil and the only way to rid yourself of that evil is to make prayer offerings to God. The rejection of medical science in India is truly astonishing. There is no way a pill made specifically to target depression could be of any use, but 17 Indian priests chanting hymns in a circle while the depressed individual throws rice into a fire? Now THAT is how you target a mental disorder. And no, that was not satire. That is the exact treatment method that was used on me when I mentioned my disorder to my family in India. So, you can see why as my condition got worse, my family and I went to greater lengths to keep it a secret. Why is she wearing long-sleeves in the summer? Why was she out of school for a week? Self-harm and a suicide attempt were the veridical answers we wouldn’t dare mention, so instead we came up with some believable excuses to satiate their curiosity. But Indians have a notoriously ravenous appetite for gossip, and all I could do was lie to keep my life from falling onto their plate.
Having to constantly hide my emotions added so much angst onto the anxiety and depression I was already feeling, and it was this additional worry that led me to reevaluate the importance of a high standing within the community. Every day I woke up feeling utterly miserable, yet, the mores of my culture had been designed in such a way that I had to fall into a deeper sadness just to stay afloat. How could I reconcile my desire to be honest about my condition with my dread of what my community would say once they found out?
My eventual enrollment in therapy gave me insight into how to achieve this, and the answer was as simple as it was complex: stop caring about what other people think. If I found a way to disregard the opinions of others and solely focus on my own life, I could rid myself of all this additional misery and just work on getting better. How much quicker would my recovery be if I could be honest that I was attending therapy and openly practice the skills I was learning instead of being limited to doing so when no one else was around? How much happier would I be if I was welcome to spend time with loved ones even if I was sad instead of isolating? I had found the solution but the question was, how could I possibly implement this if years of nurture had taught me otherwise? The answer: discover for myself why happiness was more precious than reputation. With the advice of my therapist, I started purposely putting myself in situations where I could recognize this. There was a neighborhood Diwali celebration coming up but I just really wasn’t in a place to be around people. All I wanted to do was go eat strawberry ice cream by myself. Normally, I would have either forced myself to attend or lied and said I had too much homework, consequently having no choice but to stay home in case a neighbor saw me outside. But when the host of the party called, I decided to blatantly say, “I am not feeling very good mentally and am not capable of being around people at this time.” Later that night, with a cup of strawberry ice cream in my left hand and a spoon in my right, I found myself feeling more liberated than I had in months. I had no one I had to lie to, or fake a smile around, or force myself to impress. The only thing I needed to focus on was what I could do to feel better. It was incredible. Sitting with that feeling that night was the first time I truly understood that happiness was dearer to me than a good reputation and each day afterwards, I took greater and greater strides to feel it. I shared my emotions directly and honestly and prioritized getting better, even if it meant openly saying I was leaving a function early to attend my therapy session. I was unsure of how my parents would react, but after witnessing everything I’d been through, they had nothing left to ask of me except my happiness. So, I am blessed to say that they supported this decision all the way through, despite what may happen to our reputation. And after a couple years, through attending therapy, having a wonderful support system, and keeping happiness as the paramount goal, I was able to break free of my mental disorder.
There are undoubtedly positive and negative things about all cultures, and if you ever attend an Indian wedding, the glamorous attire and sublime buffet table will surely demonstrate the former. But if you ask the bride why her sister’s hairdresser’s dog’s groomer’s second cousin is standing in the buffet line and she responds the typical “It would look bad to others if we didn’t invite him,” then you will witness the latter. I am incredibly proud that my family and I were able to emancipate ourselves from this schema, for it is as deep-rooted in our culture as the sky being blue. My sky is now pink, and I have no doubt that others in the Indian community wish to see this pink sky but are not yet ready to do so. For that reason, I am determined to continue being open about my story so those struggling no longer feel like secrecy is their only option, even if it means the name Sarika Agarwal is defamed at each and every neighbor’s dinner table.