Confessions Of A ‘Dentist-Activist’: Why I Decided To Start Questioning Things Around Me

Posted on April 19, 2016 in My Story, Society

By Surbhi Shrivastava:

Confessions Of A 'Dentist-Activist'

Some of us were born to be doctors. Some of us were born to be engineers. Some of us were…

No, I’m afraid that for a mighty chunk of Indian parents, the list of prospective careers for their children ends there. But that’s not what this is about. This is about the bunch of us who willingly became doctors and then realised that’s not what we want to be. This is an attempt to understand the complexities of effective activism that must begin inside oneself and then spread outside to the home and then to the world.

I’m a dentist by qualification. I had a pretty straightforward career path where I chose to take up this field and my parents couldn’t be happier. Of course, they never made me feel that I had no other option. But that might have greatly depended on the fact that I never showed any signs of adolescent rebellion against traditional Indian cultural mindset.

Well, almost not until a few months ago when beef was banned and a meeting was termed seditious. I had discovered the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere I looked I saw violation of personal freedom. This left me thoroughly exasperated and made me much more self-aware than I was earlier. Incidentally, all of this was happening at a time when I was moving away from clinical practice to health rights activism and accountability.

My work helped me acquire a gender lens that I wanted to implement in every scenario and I was having a blast with it. I felt like it was my imaginary microscope and the daily microaggressions were the slides meant for my scrutiny. While for the most part my understanding of feminism used to be experiential, I was now seeing the nuances and realising my own inclinations. It made me shift the focus of my life to raising my voice every chance I got, even if that meant having regular arguments with my parents over ideas of masculinity, arranged marriages and everything patriarchal under the sun. Sometimes fantasize how much easier it would be if I was a long beach dentist in the states.

I expected that since I had never been pressurised academically, vocationally or in any other way, my parents would be in agreement with me over such issues as well. But that wasn’t the case. While I was quite aware of the fact that sexist comments at family gatherings were common, I had now started subtly pointing them out and this was instantly deemed disrespectful. My parents perceived my opinionated comments to be strange and told me that I was getting too deeply involved in this ‘stuff’ and I figured that I was evolving as a person quicker than my parents could grasp.

I realised that activism is not the same as providing enlightenment. You don’t speak a few words and then automatically receive favourable responses. It’s not enough to become vocal about issues outside the home and expect immediate resonance from those around you. You feel like you’re justly opinionated and that’s it, that’s who you are now. However, it doesn’t limit itself at that. You end up having an identity crisis. On one hand you’re fighting hard to define yourself on the basis of what you believe instead of the degree you hold and on the other hand you pick up unwarranted fights with someone who says something as silly as – “Dentist? Oh, so you’re not like a real doctor, hehe!”

What I was currently doing was practising covert activism. I would attend teach-ins at JNU but lie to my parents about where I was going. I would go for film screenings on suffragettes but change the subject while talking to my parents. This was gradually translating into an aversion to communication on my behalf, as I had so much to hide and so much I disagreed with.

It felt like a long overdue teenage rebellion had finally surfaced in my twenties – an extremely disorienting experience. Parts of me was trying to be true to myself and exercise my freedom of expression while the other part was fighting with mummy over how many rotis I must have. It gave me a sense of how freedom is never absolute. But it also reminded me that by lying I was, in a way, condoning what I believed in.

So I decided that I wasn’t going to cry ‘generation gap’ and blame that for the difference of opinion with my parents. I was going to make myself heard and there needed to be a strategy for that. It had to be a progressive change, one that was not forced. For any tangible change to occur there needs to be substantial dialogue preceding it. Granted, that quite often, strangers are easier to convince. But when my parents are the reason that I can even put two words together, they can’t be left out of my politics.

I suppose it’s a personal battle that I have to fight every day. When today I can openly discuss the subject of homosexuality with my parents and my support for it, maybe someday I’ll be able share the rest of me with them.