These words you’re reading here are a result of the freedom I’d claimed when I was eighteen years old. You see, I’d succumbed to parental pressure and chosen a science combination for my 11th and 12th grade, when I’d really wanted an arts combination. Halfway through the 11th grade, I’d realised I couldn’t deprive myself of the only passion I’d ever had–to be a writer. And so, after having put up with studying science until the 12th grade, I told my parents I’d pursue literature for my bachelor’s degree and writing for a career. They weren’t impressed; I’d chosen to earn a modest living for life! But I was happy I’d taken the first step towards my dream.
Another writer (a celebrated one) once wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” That’s Virginia Woolf for you. She wrote this at a time when women were confined to domestic chores and had little wiggle room for expressing themselves. Naturally, strong finances and a dedicated space to write were Woolf’s idea of a writer’s freedom. Of course, many women of that time were constrained not merely by the patriarchal setup, but by their own inferiority complex. So, it’s not that they didn’t have a choice, but most women didn’t realise they could choose their freedom.
Freedom starts with a choice. It begins with making a decision to move in a certain direction. “Freedom,” says clinical psychologist Shivangi Dhaundiyal, “is choosing to do a task which is fulfilling, and exercising the right to take a course towards achieving it.” Usually though, exercising that right comes with a caveat. Our idea of freedom might be in conflict with the expectations of our loved ones or even society. I’m sure many of us have had at least one instance where we had to go against societal norms or loved ones in order to get or do what we wanted.
For Swati Sathyashankar, a language teacher, freedom was all about achieving the ability to speak her mind. She shares, “I grew up in a joint family with orthodox views. As a child, I never got the answers to my enquiries. I wanted to know why we follow certain rituals and what purpose they serve. But my grandmother’s answer was always the same: Because my elders asked me to follow it, and so should you.” In her teen years, Swati considered the fact that sometimes, she might know more about the world than her elders do. So, when she finally realised she can think about these questions herself and find answers, she felt liberated. However, she observes, speaking her mind while questioning another’s beliefs can be quite a dicey situation.
Freedom is not so much about having no shackles, as it is about choosing to do something we believe is right.
True. It’s all too easy to want freedom. But to actually follow through on that path, after you’ve attained the freedom, is a whole other ball game. There’s the risk of displeasing another in the process. After all, my parents were disappointed when I chose writing for a profession; they’d hoped I’d take up engineering. Then, there’s also the risk of failure. What if I didn’t make a career out of writing? But that was a risk I chose to take.
This was my idea of personal freedom. But of course, freedom may take various shapes and sizes–freedom of speech, freedom of thought, national freedom. Then there’s also freedom on a more social and human level. In the classic movie Lagaan, the Indian villagers struggle for freedom from oppression by the British. They accept the challenge of beating the British in a game of cricket, in the hope that their taxes would be waived off, should they win. The farmers could have remained in the seemingly safer territory of paying taxes. But they take responsibility to give themselves a chance at freedom, despite the fear that it might go badly.
Clearly, freedom is not so much about having no shackles, as it is about choosing to do something we believe is right. Media professional Anusha Ravi probably understands this best, as she was brought up by a single parent who’s very liberal. Even though she’s surrounded by people who drink and smoke, she chooses not to. Not because she can’t, but because she doesn’t want to. Drawing the line between what you’re allowed to do and what you choose to do is personal freedom, Anusha believes.
Responsibility sure is a large part of enjoying any kind of freedom. After all, even freedom fighters found this to be true. When anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela sought freedom from racial oppression, he knew he’d probably face several years of prison. Yet, he chose to fight peacefully. When Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi fought for freedom from British rule, non-violently, he knew it would probably take him longer to succeed. Yet, he chose ahimsa over brute force. Today, the 18th of July being Nelson Mandela Day for Freedom, Justice and Democracy, is as good a day as any to give our idea of free will a thought.
Freedom can mean different things to different people. To Woolf, it was about having enough money and a dedicated space to write. To Swati, it means building her own beliefs rather than blindly following one. To Anusha, it is all about self-control. To me, freedom means being able to write for life. It means I get you to read these words.