Welcome to 8th grade in a municipal school in urban Pune, a co-ed classroom with 18 boys and 12 girls, each of them unique in their own right. The most important factor that brings them together as a tightly-knit group is their age-range: 12-14 years. All these students are at the cusp of adolescence, a stormy yet irresistible world full of intense emotion, risk, and novelty. As they move away from parents to their peers for their attachment needs, the first peer group readily available to them is in their class. In the words of Dr. Daniel Siegel, these teens perceive their need to belong to their peer group as a matter of life and death, so much so that they can sacrifice morality for membership. In such a high-stakes environment, what should Atisha, Bala, and Fana (names changed) do when their all-consuming need to belong is at conflict with their private sexual choices?
Atisha decides to accept a relationship proposal from Virat in her class. Suddenly, the rebellious adolescents seem to not rebel at all, but follow the age-old patriarchal rules, only now, they recruit themselves to be in charge of upholding the law of the land. Atisha is immediately and unequivocally labelled a slut by her classmates – both boys and girls. Groupthink ensures that Atisha is alienated. Girls don’t want to be seen as “easy” themselves by supporting her. Boys don’t want to be seen as future husbands with low moral standards by being friendly with her. Pratap even walks up to her and says, “Come to me when he’s done with you.”
This is a community that will use Atisha’s private choices to justify their attack on her human dignity day in and day out with the choicest of synonyms of “slut” under the noses of oblivious teachers.
What must Atisha do?
Bala from the same class is approached by Sailesh, “Will you be my girlfriend?” Her “no” is respected and accepted until two days later when Sailesh’s best friend Ameet asks her out. Her second “no” is met with disbelief, but is still taken. But when Bala rejects Rakesh, best friend to both Sailesh and Ameet, the boys are baffled. Bala didn’t just reject one’s individual manhood. She ended up rejecting the combined manhood of the group. The assault on their ego was so painful for them to bear that they reframed their rejection as Bala’s rejection of all men. They told anyone and everyone they met that Bala is a lesbian and screamed “lesbo” when she entered class every morning while everyone else who watched sniggered.
Bala didn’t want to date Sailesh, Ameet, or Rakesh. What must Bala do?
Fana has decided that she doesn’t want to be part of romantic relationships until she completes school. Boys and girls who have decided to explore relationships already see it as an attack on their choices, although, as far as I know as their class teacher, Fana has never said or done anything to ridicule their choices. They are hurt by her rejection of their way of being, and as revenge, they now call her chhakka (hijra). A bunch of them surround her each morning when she enters the class and clap like a chhakka would at a traffic signal. Others laugh along.
What must Fana do?
In this microcosm of the world where privacy is honoured and respected as long as one’s choices tow the line drawn by the powerful (bullies), what options do Atisha, Bala, and Fana have if they want to defy the rules? All teachers and parents have consistently asked them to cut off from these groups of boys and girls which seems like a reasonable option to my adult brain. Would this option still seem reasonable to an adolescent brain? To cut off is to risk alienation – no friends, no community, no place where they belong, no place that belongs to them.
This world is not very different from the adult world, a world which believes that private realities and choices, such as the size of a woman’s breasts, who one is dating, how long one has been single, whether one wants to have children, when one wants to have children, are all legitimate matters of public discourse. The need to belong is not a need that ends in adolescence either; it is a fundamental human need, next only to physiological and safety needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, and exists for as long as we live.
What does one do when the external forces that scrutinize our private intimacies are the communities we want to belong to?