I first met Ankita Isor at a Starbucks on campus. She was an exchange student from Mumbai and had my friend as a professor in a Women’s and Gender Studies course. My friend suggested we meet because we both share a love of women’s issues and India.
I liked her the moment we met. We talked about her life in Mumbai, how she was finding her time in the US, but her eyes lit up when we started talking about women’s issues in India. Her sweet smile gave way to someone who is passionate and vocal about girls’ rights. We talked about patriarchy and marriage, and I remember leaving our conversation hopeful about the future.
Ankita grew up in a family of four. Her brother is nine years younger than her, so she spent the beginning of her life as an only child. Because her brother is so much younger, she feels they have an unusual relationship, “I cannot share a lot of what goes on in my life with him, so we bond over cricket, soccer, movies and food.” She adds, “He’s also the funniest in our family.”
Her parents married young and had her a year later. They married for love, but Ankita says, “I feel like they missed the joys of being independent in their 20s.” Due to societal norms, her mom did not pursue a career of her own, and Ankita wonders if she would have been happier if she had done so.
“She wants me to achieve all the things that she could not because of her time,” Ankita says. “She is one of my best friends.”
Both Ankita’s parents have been extremely supportive of her education. Her father came from a small town in West Bengal and is fairly conservative. Ankita shares, “His side of the family believes in early marriage for women, but he never even proposed that thought. He always has supported my education, morally and financially.”
Mumbai is a city that has changed a lot over the years, and Ankita believes her mom has embraced every change. Her dad comes from a conservative patriarchal school of thought. “We argue about our view on feminism because I am very liberal, but I always find a way to logically appeal to his mind,” she laughs.
Ankita explains that her father is especially proud of his Bengali culture. And so is she. Durga Puja, a Bengali festival, is her favorite family tradition. “It is the favorite time of the year for us just like Christmas here,” Ankita says.
“It is a 5-day affair with lots of food, shopping and dressing up in gorgeous clothing. Most importantly, it’s also the celebration of Bengali culture. We pray to Goddess Durga to end all evil and restore peace in the world. We also have cultural programs showcasing Bengali folk songs, poetry, songs and musicals written by Rabindranath Tagore. We have traditions where we invite Bengali artists from Kolkata.”
Ankita says she wishes people knew about the diversity in her religion. “We have so many Gods, Goddesses and cultures integrated together.” There are different sections that follow different norms, and there is a lot of freedom to practice one’s faith in different ways. “At the end, it is all about loving each other,” she says.
Ankita is once again back in the states–this time she’s pursing a master’s degree in chemistry. Her Facebook page illustrates the role both cultures play in her life. There are pictures of her with her American friends dressed in Halloween costumes alongside news stories on India.
“My friends in St. Louis ask me if I wish I was born an American, but I always tell them that I am so proud to be born in an upper middle-class Indian household in Mumbai.” She adds, “I understand the struggles of poor people because there is so much poverty in my country, and we have to live together through the ups and downs. It has helped me understand the value of money, education and security.”
She is proud to be from Mumbai. “My city has taught me that you can be conservative or liberal and still coexist together. You have to deal with everyone through the overpopulated train rides, the heat and humidity and you still smile through it all. You cannot have that experience in America because people have their own cars. You learn to live together.”