Singaporean inquisitions.

October 2nd, 2015

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.”— Elizabeth Cady Stanton

It never ceases to amaze me how our interactions with others have the ability, at their best, to be the most nutritive moments of existence while, at their worst, they can drain us emotionally. Perhaps even more strikingly, the people from whom we can draw strength often present little outwardly to commend them as empowering.

Earlier this year, I experienced this odd juxtaposition across several days in the midst of preparing to speak with Asha Devi (Nirbhaya’s mother). Someone I treated like a friend introduced me to a well-connected woman who desired to make my acquaintance. While Asha Devi had experienced mammoth loss as a result of a heinous crime against her daughter, I drew strength from her and esteemed her resilience. In contrast, the older woman’s behavior cost her my respect and, combined with our mutual friend’s reaction and other incidents, set forth into motion my emotional and physical health to deteriorate.

Wanting to do right by my friend who introduced us, and honour the older woman’s sentiments, I stepped out of my comfort zone and invited the older woman to my home. It rapidly became evident that she was unaccustomed to genuine respect and being treated as an equal—she is used to being humoured by others who seek to further themselves. I have never been and am not charmed by titles or addresses. I have yet to encounter a moment in which I desire to boast on social media or otherwise about where I am or with whom I am sitting. While I appreciate that such outward shows of status are helpful to those climbing the social ladder, I am content to stand my own person.

Not long into our conversation, the older woman felt entitled to ask me, “Were you sold by your father [for money]?” This offensive first salvo, compounded by other inappropriate questions and assertions, stabbed at my soul and humiliated me.

While the woman who spoke with me has considerable influence, her presumptuous questions and assertions against my generous, but dysfunctional father was uncalled for. My father comes from an educated, accomplished, and wealthy family. His father, a man educated in India and Singapore, was trained to be a surgeon. Such a fine surgeon was he, and such steely cool did he possess, that when the British abandoned their hospital and patients during the Second World War, my grandfather stayed back and diligently tended to his patients. For his medical service, acts of leadership, and bravery, he was awarded the Order of British Empire (OBE).

The honors bestowed upon my grandfather did not end there. Upon his retirement, and decades before the widespread adoption of civilian air travel he was flown home, to India, by a special British Air Force plane. My father’s father never took a paisa from anyone. He educated many and gave generously to his children, extended family, and community. Sadly, honors and esteem do not translate into loving parenting for he crushed my father’s spirit.

Just as his father gave freely, my father never took a paisa from anyone, ceding even his inheritance to his siblings. My father is entirely self-made and, through hard work, he provided well despite his paltry Army salary. When my father’s higher study in the Army limited his earnings, he would consume only tea and boiled potatoes so that I would not go without (like him, I also know what it is to be poor). There is no shame in this humble beginning. Despite the wounds I suffered, I am proud of him and our journeys. I admire the way my father, when he finally achieved outward success, gave generously to all while accepting handouts from none and treated countless poor patients for free.

I am aware that, while many Indian children lack financial stability and education, my father provided me with both. I am grateful for my schooling, teachers, and the army shaktiman trucks that transported me and other children to school. In the West, because of my spoken accent, many assume that I was educated in England.

I proudly assert that whatever I am, it is because of my formative years in my homeland, my teachers, and my father who suffered in many ways to provide. My soul and thinking are Indian.

Perhaps it was this learning and exposure that allowed me to cultivate an attitude of resilience and to be secure in my person. Sadly, unlike many talented and deserving actresses who are forced to advance through the film industry by having sex with actors, producers, and the like, I never had to compromise my person. While many deviants (I believe only the weak and worthless imposition others with sex to gratify their minuscule power) tried to make demands on me, I had the luxury of going without work or walk out of projects thanks to my father. He has given me a great deal and has never taken a paisa from me (he also has never flattered or descended to obsequiousness as countless people I know have and do). Just as he shared his father’s drive, my father shared his deficiencies. He was a poor parent and the manner in which he degraded my spirit paved the way for my destruction. Looking back, I realize that all I truly craved was his unconditional love. However, to love, protect, and do right by a child (in actions, not words) one must first love one’s soul. Because of the love I have for my father, I find the scale of cruelty he enabled and consistently inflicted all the more painful. Despite this, it is unacceptable for an outsider to strip this successful and giving man of his dignity and admirable qualities. While my movies are open to others as entertainment, my personal journey of suffering is not. My life of suffering is a narrative I will share, when I wish, in a balanced manner, to serve humanity.

The evening after the incident, I shared the humiliating and painful interrogation leveled by the older woman with my friend. She oscillated between acknowledging her dominating nature and minimizing my humiliation while emphasizing the older woman’s influence, “But she is a good contact to have,” and further observed: “This is typical Singaporean culture. Don’t take it personally.” And then a few days later, she vaguely mentioned an email from the older woman, “She did not know what to make of your situation. She was scared.” The older woman’s reaction is akin to telling a child who was raped, “You were raped because you were the only one who saw a human being in him/her and extended him dignity. You are a scary monster.”

If the older woman was questioned with the tenacity with which I was, one might ask, “How much did your father sell you for to increase his status? How many of your relatives trade in on your husband’s status?” Her friend would be asked, “How much did your father sell you for to support your poor family? How many of your relatives trade in on your husband’s status?” If this sounds personal and hurtful, it is. So, when you step into my personal space and ask me leading personal questions, it is bloody personal. When you make accusations against my character, my father and negate my feelings, it is acutely hurtful.

I try to display my good nature to all I encounter, but the privilege of my character and class, once lost, cannot be reclaimed through assertions of status. The day I refuse to assert my right to my narrative, I will have lost all respect for myself. I have not survived by seeking others’ approval, and I will accept the hardships imposed by standing on principle.

What makes it all the more offensive and unacceptable is that neither of the women held themselves accountable and ever acknowledged the pain their actions caused me. By disregarding other’s feelings, instead, repeating our callous actions, we demonstrate that our intentions are diametrically opposite to caring and friendship. When we normalize what is wrong, to protect our self-interest, and fail to take accountability, it is disturbing on many levels. Diminishing the spirit of another robs us of our human dignity. Masking an absence of compassion with connectedness cannot help restore the human spirit. If you are going to mislead me, to put it in the younger woman’s words, “kill with kindness,” it will bruise my soul (as I go through life as a person, not an object), but it will increasingly prevent you from nourishing your soul and becoming wholehearted. Whereas, if you have the dignity of life, and embrace me with honesty, compassion, and integrity, you will help in healing my soul, and you will earn my respect and loyalty.

One day when the superficial gloss dulls, when the older woman’s husband is left without anything more to give, when all those who fluttered for favours depart, I hope she dares to stop and smell the frangipani. She may notice the tiny ants in the shadows of the petals—ants that did not dare to face the sunlight. At that moment, she might realize that to face the harsh sunlight of life takes courage. As far as her friend is concerned, her words and actions established her true character. Maybe one day both women will dare to ask: “What defined our friendship? Can an environment defined by hierarchy, pretense, and enabling be called a friendship? Why didn’t we think of ourselves capable of embracing and restoring life?”

Here I am. I have lost on a scale that is unimaginable, and my agony is brutal. But instead of extending me compassion—how can we be there for you—their questions, comments, and actions were rooted in insensitivity and entertainment. If their families were destroyed by the inconceivable and they let me step into their personal universe, sharing their pain, I would never respond with, “You need to get laid. You remind me of someone who came knocking on my door. That is really difficult, it will not happen. How do you know X? What do you share with Y? The money…? Why don’t your walls have pictures of your family? How can you be an orphan? Wait, I am confused, let’s start all over again.” When we ask personal questions, exchange money for virtue, we demonstrate that we are sapped of our ability to handle life’s expansiveness.

In our moments of rawness, grieving, and healing, we need to hear that our experience is heard and felt and that we are loved.

If you are a person of character, who is not informed, remember that education and professional success do not translate into emotional and mental wellness. Countless children may be blessed with good education and ample financial resources but are left deprived of family stability. Nothing exceeds fundamental love and compassion. Millions of children, wealthy and poor, are not only left without basic foundations of wellness but also find themselves in situations of cruelty and emotional abuse. These pressures are often compounded by the child’s lack of agency to advocate for themselves and by strong pressure to maintain secrecy and hide painful, dysfunctional, inherited legacies.

Please learn to STEP UP in your life, take ownership, and then STEP IN from a place of integrity and good intention to do right by people. It is this attitude that you will come to develop self-value and purpose in your life.

And if you are in the right, never compromise. Never apologize, never diminish your pain, and never let people talk you out of your narrative. If you deny your truth, you deny your life, your rights, and your voice to please others. And bit-by-bit they will erode what you stand for.

Heera

“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do. Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. And you will not have a pleasant death.” — Elisabeth Kübler-Ross