In this piece, WeAreTheCity talk to TechWomen100 alumni, Tribeni Chougule about having, cultivating and keeping courage.
Did I hear you say “courage”???
My childhood memories of myself are that of a girl who was sincere, studious, and obedient, growing up in a small town in Assam, India. I loved being part of a close-knit family, growing up amidst my siblings and cousins. I was quite frail and, in my mother’s words, was “prone to illness thirteen times over the twelve months of the year”. I never saw it as anything unsurmountable and took it in my stride. I would frequently be on antibiotics, and used to herald the winter season by being the first one to wear a jumper in my class at school, a unique characteristic of mine for my classmates. It is difficult for me to fathom if these minor ailments prepared me to be brave when faced with something relatively major, like the emergency appendicitis surgery that I underwent when I was twelve years old. I was proud of my courage then, but somehow this trait started diminishing as I moved into puberty. I almost felt that the overwhelming responsibility of being an adolescent girl eroded this courage from me.
As per primitive Indian rituals, the first time I got my period, I had to stay locked in a room for four days without being allowed to meet any other human being or seeing sunlight! The trauma of this practice aside, I was distraught as it robbed me the opportunity of attending a concert of the most famous female Bollywood singer at the time. Little did I realise then that my challenges had only just started. The days of my periods used to be the days of the month that I would absolutely despise, not just because of the stomach cramps but because it meant handwashing clothes, including my bedsheets for the first three days first thing in the morning, be it summer or winter. I would become untouchable at home, and the worst was visiting relatives because that would mean sitting in isolation on a footstool, and everyone would know that I was on my period. I started feeling the burden of being a girl and while I was not alone as most of these practices were common in every household back in the day, it made me accept the norms to remain an obedient girl. I was crushed, when I saw my mother worry more about the “damage” to my reputation if I underwent a D&C procedure to cure my severe menstrual bleeding that was not yet responding to different treatments over being cured.
I started living in constant fear of sexual harassment in public places as there were always men out there trying to take an opportunity to outrage your modesty. Even at home, some visitors would try to misbehave. The only response I could come up with was to do my utmost to avoid and plan my escapes with the least harm. I did not feel safe enough to confide in my elders and always thought that the only action to take was to be cautious. I had started living life in fear, while I continued to strive to live the life of a normal teenager.
My courage was tested once again when, at the age of fourteen, I learnt that my father, my idol, was suffering from lung cancer. Initially, my father responded very well to the treatment and remained positive, trying to live a normal life to the extent possible. I had to muster a lot of strength to be with him during his chemotherapy cycles and my love and respect for him, made me find the strength. However, after six months of treatment, his condition deteriorated drastically and seeing him suffer was extremely difficult for me to see. I would not want to see him because his condition would really upset me, and yet at the same time, I would feel guilty for harbouring such feelings. A year later, he passed away.
As a fifteen-year-old girl, I struggled to cope with his loss. My world came crashing down as I felt very lost and vulnerable. I saw my mother in the year that had gone by, be a courageous woman, dealing with my father’s illness, managing my sister’s wedding and transitioning from a homemaker to an entrepreneur to support the household, especially me as my education was far from over. My brother sacrificed his career for my mother and me – leaving a job in a very reputed company to join the academic line in a local educational institute. Courage re-entered my life as I felt that I had to be responsible and very independent and manage my life so that I insulated my mother from my worries. While many showed their support to our family, others made life difficult for her as a widow.
My resolve to cope with my own issues was stress-tested when I was sexually harassed by one of my tutors, who had a daughter the same age as me. I was extremely shocked and confided only in my closest friends, and my response was that of ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’. I convinced my mother that I did not need the tutoring as I lost a lot of time in the commute and managed to get hold of notes from other friends that would serve the purpose. The incident damaged me emotionally. I was completely distraught and contemplated giving up on life. I struggled to study for my upcoming board exams, which were critical for my career ahead. I dug deep and resorted to spirituality to help me overcome my fears of failure in the exams and to erase memories of the incident. My results were decent (great in my own eyes considering my mental state) and enabled me to get a seat in the best college in town. Courage had made a return in my life, helping me to move ahead.
Since then, I have been courageous off and on. I have been brave enough to ask my mother to allow me to take a gap year (this was very rare and frowned upon by society) to pursue my desire to become an engineer and pursue my degree in a city, over 2000 km away. The travel time was 44 hours by train. This bold decision was much tougher to live through than I anticipated, but transpired to be one of the best decisions of my life, enabling me to lead a respectable life and pursue a career. I experienced a city that was so much safer for girls and also where girls were very independent. Courage meant that I appeared for all my second-year exams despite suffering from kidney stones and managing to pass in nine out of eleven subjects. Courage also ruled when I returned home after finishing my final year and pleaded to my mother to give me three months to secure a job in another city (this time over 2500 km away) so that I could live life on my terms, failing which I was willing to return to my hometown and accept the fate of being married off and letting my husband decide whether I could even have a career or not.
My most powerful support system were my friends since my teenage years, and it was this support system from whom I derived my courage and confidence to deal with life. When I secured my first IT job with just a week to spare of my three-month period, my joy knew no bounds, even though I was broke and had to borrow money from my friends to buy workwear. It was courage again that made me move to another city when I secured a job one of India’s top 3 IT companies. Courage continued to be with me as I tried to come to terms with the loss of my mother at the age of twenty-five. I settled into my work life, and with the companionship of my husband, life was good.
My next bold step came when I travelled to the UK alone, leaving behind my one-year-old daughter with my husband for an on-site assignment. This assignment was crucial as we had taken our first mortgage, and things hadn’t gone to plan financially. This was the most challenging decision of my life, with every single day in this new country being incredibly lonely. I missed my family terribly. Fortune favours the brave, they say, and so it did. I was reunited with my husband and daughter after six months when my husband secured an onsite assignment too.
I started loving this country and as time elapsed, became firmer in my desire to let my daughter grow up here to experience a more secure and safe life as a girl. As I settled into my work life here, adjusting to the cultural differences, I didn’t realise that I would face the biggest calling of courage. I started losing my voice in meetings – becoming very conscious of my Indian accent and English. Slowly but surely, I retreated. I didn’t anticipate being discriminated by a manager because of my gender and race. It took me a while to understand what was going on, and even after I understood what was happening, I couldn’t gather enough courage to raise my voice against it or confide to someone on how to deal with the situation. I thought my work was falling short of the standards, and I put in more effort, only to find that the outcome didn’t change at all. Gradually as I saw through it, I tried to find ways of dealing with it but failed. I feared going to work and yet I couldn’t figure a way out. Again, my courage was nowhere to be found, and I resorted to ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’. I focussed all my attention and energy in moving to another team. Every single day, while I told myself that the behaviour was unacceptable, I couldn’t speak up and challenge my manager. I feared the confrontation and I feared the emotional turmoil that I would have to live through if I made a complaint. As an individual who believed in gender equality and was committed to wanting to increase the number of women in technology, I felt morally obligated to speak up for not just myself but all other women, in particular women of ethnic minorities and colour, so that they do not face such behaviour. Still, my courage failed me – a failure that continues to haunt me.
I will have challenged the individual who would have thought it okay to behave unfairly towards a woman – physical or verbal. It can also mean that it will prevent other women from being subjected to the same behaviour if the person is made conscious of their behaviour and is therefore less likely to repeat such acts/hold such biases against others This piece is my attempt to make courage an inseparable part for the rest of my life. I have been brave to speak of troubling incidents from my past and resolve to fight rather than ‘flight’ for challenges that come my way. If there is only one quality that I could ask any girl to cultivate, undoubtedly, it will be courage.
About the author
Tribeni was born in the Scotland of the East (Shillong) and brought up in Guwahati, Assam in the north-east corner of India. Tribeni has a Bachelor of Engineering in Electronics and Power and currently pursuing an Executive MBA from Warwick Business School. She is a strong advocate of Inclusion of Diversity and continues to work in fostering an equal society through her workplace and mentoring within and outside her organisation.
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