Guided or Misguided?

What happens when you get swayed by religious beliefs, rituals and practices at an early age? What happens when a parent’s influence makes you adopt a path which you may not have adopted in the normal course of events?

My protagonist this time is a woman Shruti, who is now in her fifties, living on her own with not much contact with family or friends…a lonely kind of an existence. She grew up in a loving and cheerful environment, the eldest amongst three children of a middle-class family. She was what we would call a copybook child, extremely obedient, conscientious, loving and caring. She had two younger brothers who looked up to her and adored her. Her mother was a housewife, a devoted mother who depended on her daughter to help her in the house, help her in looking after her brothers along with getting on with her school and academics. Her father was a simple person but extremely religious.

They were modest people with simple ideas and beliefs but what set the family apart from others was their deep faith in religion. It wasn’t just about following a particular religion but it was about having blind faith in it. Every ritual, every practice which their religion advocated was to be followed with no questions asked. For instance, their religion advocated waking up early in the morning, taking a bath with cold water irrespective of the season and following a regimented schedule of prayer. All this had to be done on an empty stomach which wasn’t very easy but it was the done thing in their house and so everyone had to do it. The father made sure that they did.

Since Shruti was the eldest and the duteous one she not only started following all these practices from a young age but became a firm believer and an ardent follower of the religion. Her father was very well known in the small town in which they lived largely because of his religious affiliation and was always involved in organizing discourses and lectures which propagated their religion. He always encouraged Shruti to help him in organizing these events and attending them as well. Being the obedient girl that she was, she never ever refused and with time she even started enjoying the sessions. Following her example, her brothers also participated in all events enthusiastically. Seeing his daughter so dedicated to the cause made the father very happy and proud. But what he didn’t realize was that by doing that Shruti was becoming too religious minded, very rigid and fixed in her ideas which really did not augur well for her future. Not only the future even her present was getting adversely affected.

By the time she was about sixteen, she had got into the habit of waking up before daybreak for her morning prayers and other rituals after which she would get ready and go to school. She was a very bright student who always performed very well and so was the favourite of most of her teachers. Once school got over, she would head back home with her brothers in tow. No matter how tired she was or how much of school work she had, she would always take time out to help her mother in the kitchen. But in the evening when most of her friends would be out playing, chatting or spending time with each other, she and her father would be either busy attending some religious discourse or having some discussion related to their religion. All these sessions had a deep impact on the young and impressionable mind. This great religious exposure made her turn out into an extremely plain and simple girl. While girls of her age loved clothes, jewellery, going for outings, movies she preferred to be dressed very simply with no desire whatsoever of meeting anyone. She considered her friends to be very frivolous and shallow and could not relate to them in any way.

It was fine, to begin with, but gradually it was the mother who started realizing that she was being left out of all social gatherings, she had no friends and in fact, children of her age mocked her and made fun of her and her ways. She was far too frugal and austere in her ways and conduct. She tried to draw her husband’s attention to the situation but he did not pay much attention to her. He felt that his daughter was setting an example for others and was turning out to be an enlightened and evolved person as compared to her flippant and immature friends. What he failed to realize was the fact that Shruti was becoming a part of a world which was not the world of a normal, typical girl of her age. She was getting to be far too precocious, serious and way too mature for her age. Somewhere in his desire to guide her onto the right path the father ended up misguiding her as he did not teach her to draw a line. Too much of anything is bad and as a parent, he should have known that.

Being a bright girl she passed out of school with flying colours and in fact topped the city. The parents, she herself, the school were all thrilled with the result. She joined a medical school, something that she had always wanted to and it was only a matter of time before she qualified to become a doctor. Her parents’ and especially her father’s joy knew no bounds. However, what was disturbing and getting largely ignored by all was her continuing devotion to the path of her religion with its set of restrictions and do’s and don’ts. She was a complete loner with no friends other than those who sometimes needed her help in studies. Some of her classmates had now started thinking of getting married but this wasn’t something she wanted to do. In fact her beliefs about purity, piousness, dutifulness had made her think of a path in life which had nothing to do with the way in which most girls of her age were thinking of leading their lives. She actually looked down upon the others and considered their lives, their views to be impure, unholy and therefore unacceptable.

In fact, her chosen career path of being a doctor made her thinking even more rigid and firm. She wanted to spend the rest of her life serving others while following her religion passionately. Her mother was now getting alarmed because whenever she would broach the topic of marriage Shruti would brush her aside and show no interest at all. Seeing this even her father started getting concerned but now she was way past any turning back. Within a few years, she had crossed the dreaded thirty age milestone which in a small town was huge. All her friends were married, most had children of their own and what made it even worse for her parents was the fact that even the boys of her age were getting married and settling down.

In fact, given her ideas and beliefs, she had become the butt of people’s jokes and some would even suggest that she should go and live the life of a nun. Her parents were also not spared. With time her brothers after having completed their education started working and eventually got married. Once the sisters-in-law came into the picture, Shruti’s life became quite different. They found her ways very strange and weird and would never hesitate to make fun of her. What made matters worse was when her brothers also joined hands with them. This kind of behaviour really saddened and disappointed her. And with time started scaring her. She and her parents were now getting fearful about her future. They could very well see that it would be difficult for her to spend the rest of her life with her brothers and their families.

They continued with their efforts to convince her to get married. And now seeing things around her, Shruti started to see their point and decided that getting married was the best thing for her to do. But now there was a new hurdle. She had a long and exhaustive list of conditions that she wanted the prospective groom to satisfy. She wanted someone who belonged to their religious sect, dressed simply, was a teetotaler, a vegetarian and wasn’t given to socializing or entertaining much. Given the real world and its ways, this was a tall order. When her brothers heard about her requirements they couldn’t stop laughing. In fact, the elder one even tried to make her understand how impractical her thinking was. Her parents also tried reasoning with her but she was adamant and wouldn’t budge. As expected they couldn’t find anyone who could fit the bill. There were one or two proposals but the boys and their backgrounds made it impossible for them to even consider them. This went on for about two to three years. In the meanwhile whether because of the stress of not being able to find a suitable match for her or otherwise her mother developed a heart issue.

Everyone at home especially the sisters in law blamed Shruti for this. They felt that she had brought it all upon them by her uncaring and selfish attitude. They, in fact, would not let go of an opportunity to taunt her and make her feel guilty about it. The father meanwhile was at his wit’s end. He needed to care for his sick wife, look for a match for Shruti and put up with the unpleasant atmosphere at home. It seemed like an impossible task. But then I guess God has his ways and his timings. When everyone had given up all hope of getting her married they found a match. The entire family heaved a sigh of relief and not wanting to let go of the opportunity immediately got on with the preparations for the wedding. The mother also got up from the sick bed and her heart also decided to behave itself. Shruti, of course, had to relax a few of her conditions as the boy Navin was not a vegetarian and also not a teetotaler. But Shruti had no choice but to give in and so the marriage was solemnized much to the relief and joy of both the families, Shruti’s in particular.

Though she had agreed to get married, Shruti was not entirely comfortable about getting married to Navin largely because he was the complete opposite of her and did not care much about her beliefs or values. Therefore the marriage was a big compromise for her. But owing to the pressure from her family and the circumstances around her, she had been coerced to give in. So her entry into her marital home was not without trepidation and anxiety. Initially, it was pretty comfortable and she was given a warm welcome by her new family. The in-laws seemed nice and the husband was also quite loving though they all considered her to be too simplistic and plain.. in fact like a plain Jane.

Shruti had a sister in law who was younger and quite fashionable. It wasn’t long before people started making comparisons between the two and for obvious reasons the sister in law won hands down. This didn’t bother her much though her mother in law would try to push her to change her ways but obviously to no avail!!  Shruti wanted to carry on with her spartan ways. To begin with, everyone let her be because otherwise, they couldn’t really find fault with her. She, as in her parents’ house would go to work, come back and help in the house with all the chores that needed to be done which was appreciated by everyone. But her new family drew a line when it came to her attending religious talks and discourses as they considered it to be a complete waste of time. She missed those greatly and also missed the fact that her new family and the environment in the house did not provide her with any kind of spiritual stimulation at all. Very often her husband would come home very late, sometimes due to work-related reasons and at other times because he wanted to catch up with his friends, something that his wife was not too keen on. Since she didn’t seem to mind that and actually felt relieved at not being asked to be a part of such gatherings, it became a way of life for him. With Shruti not being around he could do whatever he wanted and in that manner was free. In any case, he did not care much for her ideas or beliefs.

But what really got to him was when she would wake up at an ungodly hour and start with her prayers and chanting. What made it worse was the fact that she insisted on doing it in their room!! Many times he tried to tell her to either stop doing that or at least cut down on the duration but this was one thing she wasn’t ever going to give up no matter what. With time Navin’s tolerance levels started dipping resulting in frequent fights and arguments. And of course, no one in the family could see her point. They thought that not only was she dogmatic but selfish and inconsiderate too.  

Thus, marriage could not bring happiness into her life. Yes, it made people stop talking, it put her parents out of their misery and stress but for her, it was like a ’ frying pan into the fire’ kind of a situation. She had left her father’s house out of fear for her future but this new house also did not seem to be giving her a lot of security. And obviously, now there was no getting away from the situation.

To add to her woes, Shruti became pregnant. Her mental state as it is was unstable and now physically too she wasn’t keeping too well. And to top it all there wasn’t anyone who could take care of her or be with her. Her mother wasn’t too well, her sisters in law couldn’t care less and her husband or she in-laws also were not really interested in her well being. She felt terribly lonely and desolate and the only thing that could give her any kind of solace or an anchor was her religious regime. She felt as though she was all by herself and it was only the thought of having a child who would be hers and hers alone that kept her going. The attitude of her family, in fact, ended up pushing her more towards the spiritual side. She started visiting the temple more frequently and would sit there for hours on end neglecting everything else in the process. She was totally disenchanted with the world and its ways. In fact, she befriended certain other women who were also frequent visitors to the temple and shared her views and way of thinking. That gave her a lot of comfort and helped her to give vent to her feelings which otherwise remained suppressed.

As was meant to be, her mother not able to deal with the health issues any longer passed away. This was a big blow for Shruti as now her only confidante in the world had gone away. Her father, too full of his own grief couldn’t really care about her or anything else. And then one day while she was on her way to the temple, Shruti slipped and fell down. As a result, she had to be rushed to the hospital where in spite of the best efforts of the doctors the child could not be saved. She was shattered, she was heartbroken… She who believed so much in God couldn’t quite believe how God could have been so cruel to her. Within days of this tragedy came another one which seemed to be waiting just round the corner. Though there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with her father but maybe the loneliness of his life or the sadness in Shruti’s life just got to him and he too passed away. All these tragedies left her feeling completely abandoned, forsaken and so, so cheated.

Her husband or his family could not offer any kind of support to her. They couldn’t sympathize or even empathize with her. They, in not so many words communicated that they did not really want her to stay in their house. Navin, though officially still her husband could not leave her because of the society they lived in but he did not want to have anything to do with her.  And of course, there was no question of her going and living with her brothers. So there she was all alone with nowhere to go, no friends, no family. The thought of living by herself petrified her but there was no other option. Thankfully she was a qualified doctor and therefore did not have to be at other people’s mercy.  In that sense, she could be self-reliant and could start earning a little to sustain herself. Taking pity on her, a friend’s father gave her a small flat to live in. This took care of her immediate problem. She moved out of her marital home and started living by herself. Along with that, she started seeing patients which enabled her to earn some money. It wasn’t easy but it being a small city, and people being considerate she could get them to come to her to consult her.  Gradually by word of mouth her practice started picking up making her life a little easy. This enabled her to sustain herself without depending on anyone ( not that there was anyone she could depend on!!)

Thus life moved on. She continued to be her simple self but she was no longer the rigid, inflexible religious person she once used to be. She was still into her beliefs but they no longer controlled her life. She had learnt the hard way that it was never a good idea to be too much of an extremist in one’s thinking. She was more of a healer now, caring for the sick, the diseased and being there for them. Living in the same city she was quite aware of how the rest of her family was getting along. Her brothers and their families never bothered too much with her and she was never a part of any celebration or event in their house though her younger brother would visit her once in a while. It did sadden her, disappoint her to see how all of them ignored her and behaved as if she didn’t exist. But there wasn’t much she could or wanted to do about. She had found happiness in her own world, in her patients, in her spirituality. The trappings of the world had never impressed her and were not likely to do so at this stage of her life.

And so her life did turn out the way she had wanted it to …. Independent, spiritual, simple and selfless…  

So what would you say? Was she guided or misguided?       

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