My Choice
by Jonaki Ray

At four:
I feel that I am ugly.
Wild, curly hair—the sort that made rubber bands break
Flat nose and dark skin—in a country where Fair&Lovely is a best-selling cream
I refuse to look at mirrors, refuse to dress up
Clutch Naughty, my teddy bear, refuse to let it go.

At eight:
My brother has arrived
Parents, grandparents, relatives celebrate
I am ignored and wonder if I was adopted.
Why else would I be an outsider, all of a sudden?
I try to be good. Try to help by babysitting.
I never speak, unless questioned.

At 11:
I discover books.
I am Jo from Little Women
I will write and save my family
Or Katy from What Katy Did
I will be admired for my courage and calm.
But Dadu says, ‘You will get glasses and spoil your only good feature, and no one will marry you.’

At 15:
I am given a choice by Ma: ‘You can study and have a career. OR
Start learning to cook and be married “off” to a man of our choice and become a housewife.
In any case, you don’t have the looks to make someone fall in love with you.’
I ‘choose’: I plan for each annual exam as if it’s a war to be won.
I ‘choose’: To excel in poetry, music, dance, and learn Physics
Geography, Geometry, Chemistry, and Biology.
I ‘choose’: To be so good that no one will ever be able to hurt me again.

AUTHOR’S NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH: This is a photograph of me, aged four, and Naughty, my first and last teddy bear. At one time, we were inseparable.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: As I write this, there is a controversy raging in India about a popular actress appearing in a woman empowerment video, stating her choices about wearing the clothes she wants, sleeping with whoever she wants, and marrying if she wants. But, for millions of ‘ordinary’ women in India, these choices are luxuries. Most women don’t get the chance to study or have a job, let alone choose about their life or sexual partners. As a child, I was not told that I am less than a boy in any way, explicitly. But, in myriad ways, I was told that I will have to work harder than a boy. That the fact that I am able to study and opt for a career is a luxury. In retrospect, my mother who never got that choice, probably pushed me to study and have a job so that I have the life she didn’t have. But, at 15, I felt worthless because of her words, and some of that hurt persists till today.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jonaki Ray is a technical editor in India. Her work has been published and forthcoming in The Writers’ Journal, The Times of India, Down to Earth,, Pyrta Journal, The Four Quarters Magazine, and She is perpetually striving for a balance between the world of science, which she studied and works in, and the world of poetry, which she has come to love.