‘She’s come of age, our daughter is all grown up!’ my parents cheered with excitement, in Tamil. For those of you who aren’t aware, in South Indian and Sri Lankan culture, after a girl goes through her very first menstruation cycle a celebration is held for her, sending her off into ‘womanhood’. You may interpret 'celebration' how you wish: some like to do a simple ritual, others a helicopter, bridal photoshoots and a 4 tier cake. Each to their own, I guess.
‘A simple ceremony, where we can invite our closest family members and friends’ my dad said, sipping his cup of Horlicks. ‘I want to do this for her’ he said in Tamil with so much warmth. My mum smiled, the most heartfelt smile I had ever seen. I had seen nothing like it in my life. She started brainstorming a list of snacks, meals, drinks and sweets that she wanted to prepare. ‘We’ll have so much to do, SO much to do! We have to be organised and fast!’ she said militantly in Tamil, still smiling.
Watching her grab the phone and hurry into the next room, I grinned to myself, remembering her beaming face when she heard the news. ‘They’re so happy. Whatever is going on, I love this feeling’, I remember thinking to myself. ‘It feels nothing like school. Everyone here is smiling and laughing for a different reason’ and for once, it wasn’t because I was different.
As I sat on my bed, waiting for my mum’s return, I gazed at my right hand. ‘I wonder if everyone that comes to the ceremony will laugh at me’, I pondered. ‘No, it can’t be. They’re a lot older, they’re adults. Adults are kind’, I reassured myself.
My parents slowly walked into my room and sat on either side of me. My dad gave me the warmest hug I had ever got. I looked up at my mum and the beaming smile had vanished. ‘She said…’ she looked at my dad hesitantly. ‘What did she say?’ he asked curiously. My mum had just got off the phone to an aunty. ‘She asked how we were going to have a ceremony for her because of her hand, everyone will see’, she exhaled in Tamil.
‘Oh, that’s normal’ I murmured to myself, whilst my parents continued to discuss what she had said, the volume gradually increased. Somehow, I could only hear a monotoned ringing that nullified their noise.
The most tragic part of this story is not what the aunty said, but the fact that I didn’t even feel sad after hearing it. The real sadness in all of this was the belief that this was normal, acceptable even. The genuine belief, that I had as a young girl, that something beyond my control didn’t entitle me to the same experiences that all the other Tamil girls my age were having. A deeply, deeply engrained self-belief of helplessness and extreme inferiority.
The regressive mindset is a disease. With its deep historic roots, it has wormed its way into our current times and continues to live on in the human psyche. It spares no one. The few that have cured themselves of this disease have either gone through some hardship of some sort or have made a genuine effort to educate themselves.
And interestingly, I have found throughout my life, the belief that a disabled person is somehow inferior or incapable extends beyond aunties and uncles. The majority of south Asian youth, girls and boys alike, have inherited these beliefs too. And if your thoughts are ‘I’m not like that’ ask yourself this: what is your immediate reaction in a situation where you go about your daily life and you walk past a person with one arm, or a shiny prosthesis, or even just any visible difference. Or perhaps you go on a date, and your date shows up in a wheelchair or is missing a leg. If your answer is awkwardness then I urge you to challenge yourself and ask yourself why you feel like that.
As I said, the disease spares no one.
This article is not intended to make people feel guilty, highlight mistakes or embarrass anyone in my life. It is simply a genuine, heartfelt attempt to de-stigmatise disability or at the very least, get the conversation going. And I'm afraid, this change cannot happen without asking ourselves uncomfortable questions.
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