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Point of View: More than a Room of One’s Own

By Ranjani Rao Email By Ranjani Rao
May 2023
Point of View: More than a Room of One’s Own

When my grown children left home, my empty nest offered a chance of a lifetime—to convert one bedroom to a home office. A post-Covid world that offered the flexibility of working from home a couple of days a week served as motivation to carve out a space for my exclusive use. I could demarcate, decorate, and dedicate my new room to my taste. Behind the closed door I could attend to calls, write at my desk, or meditate on the floor as I wished. It was my private retreat, one that didn’t require me to make travel plans or book a flight to a remote destination. I was lucky.

I recall a memorable conversation with my mother when I was perhaps twelve years old. We were on a train speeding out of Mumbai on a rainy afternoon. After a series of tunnels we emerged into a verdant scene. No buildings, no traffic, no smog. Just open countryside with grazing cattle and an occasional small house in the far distance.

“I wish I could stay in that house by myself,” my mother said.

“Which house? That hut?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Why would you want to live in such a boring place?” I asked, curious about the strange words my mother had just uttered. She stayed silent.

As I grew into adulthood and life became increasingly complex, I slowly came to understand my mother’s wish for solitude. At any given time, her time and energies were enmeshed in the details of our family life. Meals, homework, illness, celebrations in the extended family—her connections were many, her list, endless.

Her fantasy was not to be whisked off on a magic carpet to an exotic destination but to be by herself in an unnamed one. Being alone meant not just silence but also fewer directions in which she was tugged. Solitude meant a space and time in which the cacophonous demands of daily life were temporarily dimmed, if not eliminated completely.

What links a Korean drama, a Nobel laureate, and an Indian mother?

A few months ago, I discovered Korean dramas. With the zeal of the newly converted, I shared my obsession with whoever cared to listen. Not surprisingly, I discovered that Korean dramas have a huge global following, especially among women. One avid fan informed me that unlike Hollywood, ninety percent of screenwriters in Korea were women.

No wonder they were able to dwell on seemingly insignificant details and small gestures that showcase unspoken moments of intimacy and kindness in the romantic dramas that I watched.

In Because This Is My First Life, a struggling, introspective writer enters into a contract marriage to find an affordable place to live. The meandering narrative touched on many topics familiar to women in patriarchal societies.

Despite the protagonists’ elite education and interests, the bride’s mother requests the son-in-law to ‘“et her daughter continue to write” after the wedding, the new daughter-in-law is expected to show up and cook at her husband’s family function and his family assumes that she will now consider bearing and bringing up children as her primary responsibility. Her life and choices suddenly were not her own.

In one episode I came across an interesting reference to “To Room Nineteen” a story about a young mother desperate for solitude. It reminded me of my mother’s statement from long ago and my own recent weeklong solo retreat in Thailand.

Written in 1963 by British Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, “To Room Nineteen” is a riveting story about Susan Rawlings, a housewife who ostensibly seems to have it all—a husband, children, a comfortable life, yet goes to great lengths to be alone. The fact that the sentiments expressed by the protagonist mirrored those of my mother in the 1980s in India spoke to the middle-aged me in Singapore, and also resonated with a young woman in the twenty-first century in Korea, illustrates how wide and deep the divide of gender roles runs.

Was it the brilliance of the writing which made a story set in England fifty years ago remain relevant today or was it the fact women still need to fight for their sovereignty against social expectations and entrenched gender roles, a struggle that cuts across generations and geographies?

The workplace may have changed but the home turf has not

In my newly converted “home office” in Singapore, a Cherrywood frame displaying my PhD certificate hangs on a wall. More than twenty-five years ago, when I received this precious document with pretty calligraphy, I opened the scroll, read its contents, and put it back inside.

In my family, I was the first woman to have persevered this far. Yet, instead of celebrating my achievement, I minimized it.

Why?

For family harmony.

And so it lay, curled into itself, just as I contorted myself to fit into the very real constraints of unspoken social rules and expectations that I tried to live up to but failed.

Until one day, I decided that I had had enough. Instead of hiding the document (which was by then encased in a frame by a good friend in the U.S. as a going away gift), I finally had the courage to display it prominently, at least in my own home.

Not as a marker of my vanity but as a reminder. For myself, but also for my daughters.

Despite this visible proof of my singular achievement, there is much more of what I (and most of the women I know) do that doesn’t get acknowledged or accounted for—the number of meals cooked, school lunches packed, parent-teacher meetings attended, birthday parties organized, doctor appointments made, social gatherings hosted, family celebrations tended to, phone calls initiated, and so much more that no one cares to tally. It seems selfish and petty to describe. Yet it all adds up.

As my millennial and Gen Z daughters navigate adulthood, it is highly likely that this invisible emotional labor, this undocumented effort of kin-keeping, the physical and emotional bandwidth that is sacrificed at the altar of family well-being will fall into their lap. Even if their work outside the home is praised and appraised, their work inside the home will remain largely unseen.

I can’t change the world for them but with this tiny act, at least in my own version of Room Nineteen I normalize the display of the tangible proof of my achievement as a marker of rebellion and a reminder to speak up and seek equity within the privacy of our homes with as much fervor as we do outside. It is not enough to have a room of your own, but to make a bold statement too. Because lasting change can endure only when it happens from the inside out.

 


Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My Happily Ever After: A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery and The Coherent Writer newsletter. She lives in Singapore.


 


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