The Slumdog Feminist

CW: Death, family, grief, mental health

The smell of shit was always in the air, in the Mumbai slum where I grew up. Now I smell the crisp canal air, below the East London flat where I live.

This isn’t one of those rags to riches stories that South Asian families like to tell. This is a tale of a long journey, of coming a long way and of paying the price for that journey.

As a young girl, growing up in a traditional Indian family in Mumbai, being married off to a nice man was the best I could hope for. By nice, that meant a man who wouldn’t beat or abuse me. Love wasn’t even a word in the dictionary. Neither was the word dream. Or ambition.

Indian girls just don’t leave home. I stayed with my family for decades and I fought for everything.

From the right to cut my hair short, to choose the job that I wanted, to refusing to marry someone I was told I should marry. None of the other girls around me rebelled like I did, but a strong survival instinct spurred me on to fight, fight, fight.

Today, I live the sort of independent life that would’ve been unimaginable to my little girl self. I moved to London thirteen years ago (the details involve falling in love with a pale man I met on a beach in Goa). To a great job, my own flat, great friends and a life of theatre going and socialising in Soho’s trendiest bars.

It all changed two years ago, when my mind unleashed panic attacks on me.  Yes, I was brave fighting with my traditional family and society for the life I wanted, but I wasn’t brave enough to face my own pain.

My father was an abusive alcoholic who beat my mother: that was my childhood from age 1 to about age 12. My earliest memories were of my father bashing my mother’s head against a concrete wall, in our little one-room slum home, in that filthy suburban corner of Mumbai.

My mother had lived most of her life suffering physical violence at my father’s hands and she died suffering violence from a stranger’s hands: her throat slit, her belongings stolen, her body with his piss all over it.

I never grieved for my mother, or for myself as a terrified, unloved child. I did what many South Asians families do – pretended it never happened. Until I couldn’t pretend any more. It’s been a horribly painful journey for two years.

I’ve suffered debilitating anxiety and depression. I stopped working, I stopped going out, I stopped most things. I grieve over my lost childhood, for not having the one thing kids need: a secure, protective loving home.

I see older women on the street & the pain of my mother’s loss punches me in the gut.

Having escaped across all those thousands of miles, I haven’t really managed to escape my life. Therapy and self-reflection revealed layers of pain that I have been running away from my whole life. It feels like a limb has been chopped off, and I’m all bloody stump. Red, raging, fresh, raw but I’m learning to do what I’ve never done before: face the pain, not run from it.

Through all the pain, the one thing that helped me was talking to other women about our common struggles and victories, our pain and our joy. It's what inspired me to create MASALA MONOLOGUES™  -  a space for stories from British Asian women - real stories that reflect our real lives. Nothing gives me as much joy as leading a workshop where we explore everything from our personal pain to how our traditions affect the pleasures and pains that our bodies give us.

Someone asked me recently why I choose to work with British Asian female power & sexuality? My answer: because I can. Because that little girl cowering under the bed in that Mumbai slum wouldn’t have dared even imagine this was possible.

I don’t know how long it will take me to get “better” and crack on with these projects that I can’t wait to bring to life. One thing I do know is I never did as I was told and I don’t intend to.