I still carry the scars of this humiliating experience.
I grew up in the 60s and 70s in a small town of India called Cuttack, in the state of Orissa (now called Odisha). Not many people in that day and age outside of our state seemed to have heard of it. It was a sleepy town but many of us had dreams.
Those were the days when freedom, art and making a difference all seemed to be the order of the day. My little town seemed to be closing in on me. The stares, the pitiful looks, the shaking of the heads of spinster "aunties," all deciding I was getting too old to find a nice boy.
Yes, I grew up in a world of arranged marriages. At 19, I was engaged to a family friend's son. He was a young handsome Naval Officer and I couldn't have been happier. A 19-year-old with her head in the stars and an avid reader of Mills and Boon's books, I was in romance heaven. Of course, there was no dating and no going out; writing letters to each other was the only communication allowed.
He lived in a different town, so it made it easy to follow the "rules." Every three days I would wait for the postman to walk up with a letter for me from him. I lived for those letters. My saris were bought, my jewelry was made, and pots and pans were being collected for my trousseau.
But little did I know, a month before our wedding a part of me would die with one of those letters. He wrote saying he realized that he loved someone else and needed to be with her. I was devastated, but growing up you were told that girls weren't supposed to get dramatic, loud or agitated.
I suffered in silence, pretending all was right with the world. All I had now was my advertising world. I had to embrace it, feel it, to feel alive again.
I had just finished a Masters in Advertising and Marketing from Delhi University in India, and had aspirations of joining an advertising agency on Madison Avenue. The advertising industry in India in those days had still not come of age. The examples we followed in class were mostly out of agencies in New York. Needless to say, that's where I though my talent would blossom.
Sitting on my front steps in my hometown, I looked at the skies and wondered if the skies in New York looked the same.
I was done with college. I was done with dreams of a relationship that would be my world. My only dream now was to be one of the million people who I had seen (in movies) walking the crowded streets of New York.
I would be in my blue Levi's jeans (it was a craze then), carrying a brown paper bag full of groceries walking up to my apartment back from my advertising school. I would stop somewhere for coffee and sandwiches, read my Advertising Age and think what a wonderful life I had.
I needed the wide open roads, the bluest of skies, the snowiest roads — all of that seemed picture-perfect in postcards when friends or family from beyond my little towns horizons sent me. Going to America was my dream. I could finally reach out and catch my dreams, those dreams that seemed fleeting or nonexistent where I stood in my tiny town.
In my late twenties I came to America. I was finally married to a different man and was no longer a spinster. And my crowning glory? A son to carry his father's name forward. When I grew up in India, that was important. Your role as a wife, daughter-in-law, mother and a person all went up a few notches.
My husband at that time had gone to school in Albany and had family in America. We migrated when my son was three years old. So many of us migrated to the U.S. under so many different circumstances. Some came to study, some came to work, and some of us — like me — came when we were a little older, married and with kids.
Whatever different routes we took to come here, we came with different dreams and aspirations. But the one thing I had in common with everyone else (from my part of the world) were the lanes we had all left behind in our hometowns, the little streets that wove into each other and spilled out onto the one main street that all of us owned.
Suddenly along the way, this journey to follow my dreams that I started out on seemed to fade, seemed to disappear, seemed an illusion after all.
The first thing that hit me in America was the loneliness, that you're alone. Your family and your support system is thousands of miles away. If I had to go out and work or study, where would my son go? Where was my mother, who took care of my baby every time I had to go anywhere in India?
My marriage was also crumbling; it had started crumbling even before we took that long plane ride to get here. With no family support, a husband who didn't believe in my dreams and no financial resources of my own, I finally realized that my part-time job as a sales associate in K-Mart wouldn't take me very far.
The dream jobs that I applied for turned me down because I didn't have a degree from in college in the U.S. So what if I had a Masters Degree from India? It sadly wasn't considered a degree. So until I got an education here, my dreams of an advertising job were on a far horizon.
And somewhere between K-Mart and me turning 30, I was stuck. Stuck in a dead end job, in a dead marriage and in a dead soul.
But then how did my dream die? I realized it's the mind which conquers all, not the body. I might be standing in the middle of a six-lane highway but my mind is as narrow and closed as the little lanes back home.
The lanes back home clearly told you, every time you walked through them, that a marriage was forever. However unhappy you were, you didn't say you were unhappy; you soldiered on. And if you had a child, you soldiered on for the "child's sake."
And soldier on I did. Without my dreams. Without my dreams of a beautiful, happy home and without a job that brought out the best in me. It turned me into a person that I never thought I would be. A person who lived on the surface, a person who went through life motionless, and a person who couldn't be the real person she was.
With my clothes, my car, my house and my child, I might be the embodiment of the American Dream, but what about my mind? Why did I leave it behind?
Every dream that I had woven had died. Nothing that I had hoped to achieve held any meaning any more. My mind, which I thought was mine, was twelve thousand miles away from me, where at an altar at 19, I was left standing, with a pile of ashes for dreams.
The joy had faded from my life.
Today, at 55, I'm finally reclaiming my life. I stayed in my marriage 25 long years, leaving a couple of times but always coming back for my son's sake, for the sake of finances, for the whole world's sake — for every sake except my own.
My words, my essays, my memoir in progress are all helping me heal the deep wounds. Therapy was a word that was taboo when I needed it. Indians didn't need therapy. I only wish they had looked a little deeper so they would have seen the ashes strewn all over my soul and heart.