Wednesday, 26 August 2009 - VERVE Magazine
I had the most unusual experience a few months ago, a first of its kind, and it took a
while for me to digest. It put me on the path of re-evaluating my identity in this new city
that I suddenly found myself in. Let me start with the night of revelations.
Scene: A fun private party in a five star hotel bar where I'm hanging out with the host on
the edge of the dance floor.
Incident: A lady heads to the dance floor and starts to dance, she seems fun, carefree,
mid-50's with short grey hair in a boy-cut. She chats and dances while we gossip with
different friends and it's all very jovial. She then asks me if I am into modelling. “No,” I
answer, and she shakes my hand in congratulations. "Then you must want to get into
Bollywood?", she asks, again I answer no, again she congratulates me with a hearty
handshake and a stream of “well-done’s”. But she's curious about what a ‘Brit’ is doing in
Bombay. I explain it's due to the love of a man and also begin chatting with my friend
Parmesh. She then asks “Which man?” I’m surprised she's even asking, but I answer her,
"Kabir" and leave it at that. But now she wants to know “Which Kabir...” I look at her
amused and confused by her boldness. "Bedi" I reply.
"Dump him dear!” She says, looking me at me in the eye, and continues dancing as if she
hadn't said anything of significance.
She must have noticed my jaw drop and my utter shock at what a complete stranger had
said to me. "He's very, very nice, ever so NICE” she continued nonchalantly “but dump
him dear, you can do better!" and went back to dancing to the Michael Jackson tribute
songs. I didn't know what to say! I was confused and disturbed that a stranger could say
such a thing to me, and even more so by how it affected me. It caught me completely off
guard. There are so many things that I could have said, but I said nothing, absolutely
nothing, stunned into shocked silence.
This was the first time since Kabir and I had moved to Bombay that I’d attended a party
without him, or his daughter Pooja (my saviour in Bombay), and it was an utterly
different experience. I was enjoying my anonymity, the feeling of just being able ‘to be
me’, to enjoy myself rather than be the observed. But later into the evening as the
regulars on the party scene started to roll in, and the Press began to join in the party, I
started to feel more and more conscious of the fact that I am Kabir Bedi's girlfriend and it
stifled me. It prevented me from dancing with gay abandon with newfound friends, or
discovering more about the fun group of guys that I had just met. I became aware, once
again, of being observed as the "girlfriend" and all the baggage that comes with it: the
unsaid etiquette of the party circuit – you go to be seen, not to party with abandon. I
might be wrong about the etiquette thing, but I know the London scene. All the same, it
was a defining evening for me, a stark reminder to myself of wanting to return to my
carefree side and to stop caring about other people’s perception of me and my relationship
with Kabir. When did I begin to worry about all that so much?
When I came back home and recounted my story, a complete stranger telling me to dump
him, Kabir just laughed and said, "That's so Bombay.” That confused me even further; I
said I’d been unhinged by a strangers comment. He giggled and said, “Well here it's about
doing better, climbing up - it's just so Bombay.” I told him I’d had a completely different
experience without him, and the feeling of being torn between ‘letting my hair-down' and
my identity as his girlfriend. He simply said, "Remember I fell in love with you, the way
you are... and that means, you being you, above everything else. Simple as that...”
But is it that simple?
I soon got over the strangers comment with a little help of Facebook-catharsis and instant
on-line therapy. (Facebook at its finest! I thoroughly recommend it.) As my dear friend
that was with me that evening said, “Are you sure she didn’t say HUMP him? After all it
was rather noisy in there.”
Initially, when I began the free-fall questioning of myself I had naively thought that the
Celebrity-Girlfriend tag, or the WAG label (Wives and Girlfriends), had become stifling. On
closer introspection, I realised that my 2 years in Italy with Kabir had been liberating.
Handling the paparazzo’s interest in the new woman in his life, the “nouva fiama di
Sandokan”, was never an issue. It was certainly an adjustment but always fun – they’d
try to catch us during our walks in the park on a Sunday, and sometimes shot us in
tracksuits at ATMs. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t speak Italian and I never kept up with the
glossy magazines. And why would I? I had Rome to explore.
I realised it was more than being a WAG that was bothering me that Bombay evening. Two
things had happened – first, being caught off guard by a stranger’s comment, and second,
the realisation that I had morphed into, and trapped myself in, an identity that was not
only restrictive but also completely self-inflicted. Only I had created the dos and don’ts of
this role, but at what cost?
I had opened a Pandora’s Box. Here I was a British-born Indian who had come back to her
mother’s land, to an unfamiliar city, and wasn’t sure where I belonged. Or if I belonged
anywhere at all. My only identity in Bombay seemed to be ‘Kabir Bedi’s NRI girlfriend’.
The fact is that I always had issues with tags and labels and the neat categories I was
supposed to fit into. The realisation that I’d become victim of them while taking on my
new avatar, a restrictive one-dimensional identity, was a sad revelation to me.
In Britain I was a BME (Black Minority Ethnic), a second-generation Brit-Asian, the tags,
labels and boxes with which government and society categorise us. I’ve worn various hats
over the years, which I’m very comfortable with – graduate, lover, fiancé, sister,
daughter, humanitarian, Consultant, Sikh, Activist and much more. I’ve worn all my
contextual identities well, some better than others, but I was familiar with them. I have
grown up with many of them. Some I’ve shed, others I’ve grown into like a second skin.
They had defined who I am. So, why did the girlfriend tag bug me so much in India? Why
did it matter so much?
You may well be asking why I’m battling with myself, that all this is just self indulgent
Bo****ks! I’ve questioned myself many times since that incident and I finally cracked it,
filtering my way down to the source of my agitation. Along with the one-dimensional
identity as “Kabir Bedi’s younger NRI girlfriend” come many in-built prejudices. I see it all
the time when I meet people. Dismissive smiles. Subtext: she won’t last long, must be the
flavour of the moment…why waste my time with her! Then there’s the surprised
expression. Subtext: Oh my, she’s smart… it must be his money she’s after. Gold-digger!
The obvious ones were re-enforced by the stranger at the party, most people think that
I’m with Kabir because it gives me access to Bollywood and the silver screen. When they
figure out that’s not the case, I get other looks. Subtext: must be the sex, or maybe he’s
after her money. It amuses me immensely, and I’m always prepared for it when I go out
with him. And the first evening I went on my own with friends, just being me, not his
“girlfriend”, my guard was down and I got hit. Consciously or unconsciously others
perception of my relationship with Kabir, and their unkind reactions, had affected me.
Even after 4 years of being together I face it every time we step out, but there are so
many positives I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s always a balancing act to live in a society that is judgemental, one that has needs for
labels, categorisations and tags. It creates an order, and wants people to live their lives
according to it. It’s a comforting framework for some and a confinement to others. I, and
many women like me, defy the protocols when we fall in love across countries and age
differences. For me, it’s as simply love. So maybe Kabir is right when he says it’s simple.
As I write this I think of the quintessential Indian bride who enters a new family and a
new home with the new tags as ‘wife’, daughter-in-law’, ‘sister-in-law’. She goes on to forge
new and multiple identities for herself. Kudos to all of them for it’s a scary transition.
Obviously they learn something from their mothers, families and friends and are
somewhat prepared to walk the tightrope of new family structures. But how do you get
trained to be a celebrity girlfriend, “KB’s NRI girlfriend”? To handle the barbs? The
prejudices? It’s not exactly something that you aspire to be when you’re younger, and
there’s no handbook to guide you.
But I think I’m figuring it out. This isn’t entirely a new dilemma; identity in new lands is
an age-old discussion. Kabir’s English mother summed it perfectly when writing about her
experiences of living in Punjab as a freedom fighter in the 1940’s:
"Mother, brother, father, school friends. Oxford and college companions. They are part of
me. They are my childhood and the blaze of my youth… But India? India is my
womanhood and my wife-hood and the place where my home and my future is. It is me,
to-day. I am still the same as I have ever been; fundamentally I don't think India has
changed me at all. But l am Indian now, to all seeing. That is the falseness of these labels,
'Indian' and 'English'… I am living in an Indian way, with Indian clothes, with an Indian
husband and child on Indian soil, and I cannot feel even the least barrier or difference in
essentials between myself and the new country I have adopted. For there are things
deeper than labels and colour and prejudice, and love is one of them."
I don’t expect people’s prejudices or preconceptions to change. How many times have we
judged a book by its cover? But I’m back on track now, back to the roaring me. I’ve made
my transition without a guidebook. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that one day I’ll fully
understand this city and its nuances and feel as comfortable in my skin as I was in
London. Until then I'm nurturing my carefree spirit and reinstating it's rightful place in
my life. Welcome back, Parveen.