Neda Ganji does’t quite understand the word “No“. Since she was a little girl and she started dreaming of being an air hostess one day, the one resounding word she got from her mother was “No“. She noticed that the boys in her family didn’t get to hear that word very often; in fact, they were hardly ever told not to do something. So she asked her mother about it. Her mother said something that would foreshadow the running theme of her life. “They are boys. They can do whatever they want. You are a girl.”
Since then, Neda has loathed the word “No“. She wasn’t a trouble-maker as a kid, but as she grew up her she started revolting against the norm. Neda’s family is quite a large one; her mother is Iranian, while her father is an Indian Muslim. The family line runs high to boys and there are barely 8 girls out of nearly 20 cousins. Only Neda’s father has three daughters and no sons. Girls are not exactly welcome in this family and are considered more of a burden than a blessing. They’ve never been ill-treated outright, they’re just denied their rightful position in the world. While the boys lead a privileged life, the girls must obey the rules. Like wearing a Burqa at all times. No make-up. No boyfriends. No short skirts. No staying out late. No partying. No alcohol. No bringing friends around to the house. No choosing your own life partner. And the dictum that violates a basic fundamental right? No education. No job. No identity.
Oppression leads to anger. Anger leads to mutiny. That’s basically what her life has been about. Mutiny.
Neda was the first girl in her entire family to go to college but she never completed her degree. At the age of 22, Neda left home and went to Mumbai where she sought refuge at a friend’s place. She became estranged from her loved ones and started working to support herself.
Today Neda Ganji is the manager of an Indian Rock band called Malang. Malang plays Sufi rock and has a gamut of talented musicians including a vocalist, two guitarists, a bassist, a percussionist and a drummer. It isn’t easy as a woman to manage an all-male rock band, but Neda is up to it. She loves their music and she’s been able to get them the best gigs.
Perhaps this is because of her vast experience and extensive network. She’s worked in customer services for a long time, starting with the ground staff of an airline at the Pune Airport, moving up to WNS Global Services and ending up as a business development manager at Satguru Travel and Tourism Services. Neda’s a professional. She’s successful, hardworking and confident. She’s a self-made woman. She also has three tattoos which I think is pretty cool.
I should probably mention at this point that Neda and I have never actually met. She and I have a common friend who I interviewed for the Happy Place Series and Neda personally got in touch with me afterwards to congratulate me on the article. She also wondered if I would feature her on the blog.
“I talk about Mental Health.” I warned her. “Trauma and Mental Health. What would you like to talk about?” I asked her cautiously. The Happy Place Series’s popularity has come as a surprise. As it turns out, many ordinary people have lead extraordinary lives. But Neda has a special story to tell.
“I want to talk about struggle” She admitted and then gave it to me in a nutshell, “I’m Muslim and my family is orthodox. If I hadn’t been ready to fight it out, I’d be hidden behind a veil, shackled to someone I didn’t love, with five kids and no life of my own.” It was enough to pique my interest.
I decided to take a chance; I’ve never met her but it wasn’t a problem when I talked to her. Neda is open and honest, be it about her family, her religion, her love life or her career. We set a date for a Skype call and that’s when I actually talked to her for the first time. Her voice is soothing; calm, deep and reassuring. She’s older to me by a few years, so it’s hard to imagine what she was like at 22: intractable, alone and probably terrified. There’s no sign of that as we begin the interview. Instead what I see is a woman whose life reads like an eternal baptism by fire.
So I believe you know Akshita! We went to the same college, I hear. I’m sorry, were we in the same class or something? Because that would be so incredibly embarrassing if I didn’t recognise you now.
No no no, I’m your Senior. I was in college in 2000-2001. Akshita and I knew each other through common friends and then recently I ran into her at a bar where she was doing an event. I didn’t even really know her at the time but that’s when we sort of connected.
I’m a little confused; you’ve got a degree in law but your CV seems more apt for a business administration graduate. How did you get into management?
Um actually…. I never completed my education. I’m not even a graduate. (Laughs self-consciously)
Yeah I never really got my degree.
OK. But- so did you do a long-distance course or a diploma of some sort-?
So basically I joined the Air Hostess Academy (AHA) because I wanted to be an air hostess. But my height went against me, I’m only 4’11”.
That would’ve been an issue.
Yeah. So I decided to go ahead with the training anyway and I got my diploma at the Academy. Then I joined Kingfisher, but I was working as a member of the ground staff.
That’s so interesting because my Dad’s in Aviation so I have some idea. A lot of my friends would keep telling me to become an air hostess, but it’s not an easy life. You’re in the air longer than you are on the ground.
No it isn’t an easy life at all. But honestly I would have loved being up in the air. Like, that was something I had dreamed of for a long time. I worked with Kingfisher for a while. I think maybe my sixth sense told me all was not going to be well with Kingfisher so I got out in time and joined Jet Airways.
Now you told me you come from a typical Muslim family. Where are your parents from? Are they very conservative?
So my Dad is an Indian and my mother is an Iranian. Some mutual family connections arranged the marriage. This is a pretty common Islamic custom, getting married within the family. My father has a lot of brothers and sisters and most of them have sons. My father is the only one to have three daughters. It’s a typical patriarchal family and the sons have all the freedom. Once the girls are married off that’s pretty much it for them.
And this patriarchal system that you come from, was this the main reason why you couldn’t complete your education?
I don’t even know how I made it to college. My elder sister was married after completing 10th grade. And then her education stopped. There is barely a 2-year age gap between us and I could see how desperately she wanted to finish school. So I knew what she’d been through. Then I decided I really wanted to have an education. I had to convince my parents about going to college. So when they finally agreed, there were various conditions that were laid down. We weren’t allowed to step outside of the house without wearing a Burqa. You won’t believe it, but I’d actually wear a Burqa right up to college and then pull it off and put it on again before I went home. I wasn’t allowed to go to any parties and college trips. The weird thing is, I would try and sneak off to these little outings and I would always get caught.
Oh god. What luck?!
Yeah! It was like my father’s friends were all over Pune. Whenever I’d get back home my parents would be like “We know where you were. So-and-so saw you“. And I was like “How can this happen every single time? Are all my father’s friends just like, stalking me?“
What’s so surprising is that your mother was more difficult to convince about all of this?
Yes and that had a lot to do with where she came from, because that was the culture. Also I think because she only bore daughters there was a lot of pressure on her to keep the girls under strict control. My elder sister was married to my uncle’s son, again this is a custom. So a lot was expected from my mother because in a Muslim family if there’s any trouble in the marriage, it’s usually the girl’s fault. In our culture it’s understood that the father is the sole breadwinner and the mother is in charge of the upbringing. So if anything goes wrong with the girl, it’s the mother’s responsibility.
So obviously you’ve grown up in a family that does not believe that women are entitled to the same rights as men. So tell me, how was it for you and your sister to fight for an identity of your own?
My sister gave up actually. She never did anything after that. She got married and that was the end of the story for her.
So what made you so different? What made you so determined to fight for yourself?
You know Abha, ever since I’ve been a little girl I’ve noticed there is this sense of disappointment in our family about having only girls. My father has never openly said that he regrets having daughters, but my parents talk a lot about how great it is to have sons. But I’ve always wanted to stand by my father. I felt that if we all got married and left, there would be no one to take care of them. I wanted to share my father’s burden.
What about your youngest sister? What has her life been like?
My younger sister, she’s 10 years younger to me. So she’s from an entirely new generation. She has no idea what we went through when we were her age because she has had a much better life. She’s a teacher right now. She goes out every weekend with her friends and whatever she earns she decides how she’s going to spend it. She’s hung out in places which even I wouldn’t have the guts to go to.
That’s amazing! It’s got a lot to do with everything you’ve done hasn’t it?
Yeah. You know I actually left home when I was quite young?
What? How old were you?
22 maybe 23. I went to Mumbai and started living with a friend. And I quit Jet Airways and joined Lakme’s training academy. I was working as a personality development trainer there.
Did you ever go back home?
Yeah my family tracked me down while I was in Mumbai. My father was the one who said he wanted me to come back. It was my aunt who convinced him to come and see me. When he did visit me, he saw what I’d achieved and he felt really proud. I was doing night shifts. Imagine, someone who couldn’t step outside of the house alone was pulling night shifts to make a living. My father went back and told everyone how I was doing so well.
I can’t imagine the kind of chutzpah it must have taken to do something like that.
Yeah I’ve done some crazy stuff when I was young. I know I’ve hurt my parents. They didn’t want this life for me and I know when left I broke their hearts. But it was one of those things I just had to do. If I wanted to be myself, I had to make that decision.
I hope seeing you do so well for yourself has brought about some change in their attitude?
It has! Just the other night we were having a family dinner. My mother turned to me and said “Now I feel so confident that I could leave Neda amongst 10 men and I know she will come back safe.”
Wow. That’s a big thing for her to admit.
She said that to the guy I’m currently dating as well. She said “You know my daughter is not really like a daughter. She’s like a son” That was one of those moments in life you know you’re never going to forget. I’ve been away from my family for 13 years now. They’ve never told me to come back home, and I’ve never asked them if I can. It’s not because I don’t get along with them or anything but I’ve made my own space now. I want my independence.
So now, moving on to your love life. You told me that your relationships had gone very wrong. What happened there?
So I was talking about two guys. One was someone my parents chose for me, one was someone I chose for myself. Both didn’t work out. The former isn’t someone I want to slag off here, but he was a disgusting man. He just wanted my father’s money and he didn’t really feel anything for me. The latter, there was nothing wrong with him as such. It was one of those relationships where you just decide to move on. When you think about it, my parents’ choice is not that great. My sister, she was trapped in a bad marriage for 15 years and when she saw how I broke off with the guy that our parents had selected for me, it gave her the push to leave her husband.
It must’ve been really hard for her to do that.
See she got married when she was barely 16 or 17, so at that time you don’t have the maturity to know what’s going to make you happy. But later when she separated from her husband she actually found someone she genuinely loved. I think they met online and they started going out. I didn’t speak to her for three years after that.
Why did that happen?
Everyone was totally against her decision to leave her husband. Nobody knew what had gone wrong. She had two children with him. But she wasn’t the type to tell anyone what had happened so her husband just turned up one day with the divorce papers. My mother was the one who forbade the rest of the family from talking to her. She basically gave me an ultimatum and told me if I ever talked to my sister again, I would never be allowed to see my mother’s grave. So there was a lot of pressure on me to abide by her. But we were so close, just two years apart, that eventually I cracked. Then we ended up meeting at this mall and it was very emotional for both of us.
Was this reunion planned?
No, so the guy I’m dating right now? He’s been my best friend for a really long time and he arranged the meeting. She’d had a baby and everything with her new husband and I still hadn’t talked to her or responded to any of her texts. I’d never spoken to her husband but later on when we got to know each other he told me that at the time of the delivery, there had been some complications. The doctors felt they might be able to save only the baby or the mother. And my sister told them if anything happened to her, the child should go to me.
That must’ve hit you hard. Because she trusted you even then.
Yeah that was when I realised I’d made a big mistake. I’ve made a couple but this was probably the biggest one. We made up after that and I’m really happy for her because her life is all sorted out now.
So how many relationships have you been in?
Two I think. My current boyfriend is someone I was best friends with for about 8 years. And then we started going out.
Can that happen? Can two people be really good friends for a long time and then fall in love?
(Exhales) This was the thing with us Abha, we were always so open with each other. When we were going out with other people, we’d meet each other’s partners and we all worked in the same office for a while. And we told each other everything, even the relationship stuff. We would joke about how we could never date each other because we were so similar. He and I are both very headstrong people, very independent. But it’s only later I realised that the reason it was going to work out was because of what we had in common. That’s actually the best thing when you know each other so well. Whenever I ask him, why me? Why didn’t you go out with someone else? He always tells me, why someone else?
I know! He’s already invested so much in you, why will he go looking for someone else?
That’s exactly what he said. That I’ve invested in you and I don’t have any interest in doing that again with anybody else. Dating is all about adjusting to a new person whereas here we’re already well adjusted. So when they say oh I’m looking for a talk, dark, handsome man, like I’ve already found mine. Thankfully.
Great, that’s so good to hear! So you’ve talked about how you struggled with anger issues for a while. What were you so angry about? Who were you mad at?
I don’t know who I was angry at or what I was angry about but…..maybe because I just wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted. All my life. When I was in college my parents told me not to talk to any boys and I did that. If they wanted me to be home before curfew I did that. But I think after a certain point of time you realise how much you’re being controlled. Like they were choosing my friends for me. And there’s nothing wrong with that but ultimately you need to trust your kids. I think that’s very important. But essentially the anger came from just not being allowed to do anything I wanted to.
These rules and restrictions that were imposed on you, a lot of them come from your religion. So how do you relate to Islam, given the way you were treated as a woman?
I think Islam is a beautiful religion. Everyone thinks Islam doesn’t allow women to work, but who said that? Islam doesn’t prohibit a woman from getting educated or working or choosing a husband for herself or wearing clothes that she likes or deciding how to express herself! That’s society. That’s how people have interpreted it and made it- misogynistic. Everyone has a different definition of Islam. There are so many Muslim families that are open-minded and liberal and modern. I’d go as far as to say Islam gives even more rights to women than men.
It’s just that society doesn’t want that.
Yeah. That’s how Patriarchy works.
You’ve clearly lived a life full of opposition. From the moment you were born you’ve been denied your basic rights. Your own loved ones have gone against you. Most people in your position, like your sister, would have given up. So what has been your strategy to cope? What has kept you going?
It’s that ‘never give up‘ thing that I’ve always possessed. Look, I’ll be honest, even now I have issues. There are things I want to do but I think about how my family is going to feel about it and I end up not doing it. Everything I’ve done in life has been to be someone. I’m not saying I’ve got a big name or something but whatever I am is because of me. So I’ve got only myself to hold up, you know. Even my boyfriend tells me that he could never have been through what I have. Because, shit happens, and somehow I still wake up the next day and I’m ready to face whatever comes my way. I just have this faith that whatever is happening to me, there has to be something good in that.
And have you always managed to be this positive throughout? Or are there periods when you also feel negative?
No there are times when I feel really terrible. I still have serious anger issues. You know that moment when something happens and you’re thinking “Why me God? Why me? Don’t you have anyone else to pick on?”. You will not believe it but there are times when I’ve slept at night praying that I will not wake up in the morning. I’ve even been suicidal at times. In those phases of life, I’ve actually thought about how I’m going to kill myself, should I just pick up a knife and do it right now? Then I calm down and think what’s my fault in this? Why do I need to punish myself? I always come back to the philosophy that something good lies ahead for me.
Do you feel the anger comes from this sense of being let down? Like someone you loved hasn’t backed you or betrayed your trust?
No you know what, I’ve never had anybody’s support. I knew that fully from the moment I started planning my life. Things have only changed over time. My father and I have a very special bond now. I know him even better than my mother does. So today if I tell him I want do something I know he won’t stop me. He may not like it, but he won’t stop me.
That’s what being a parent is about.
Yeah. (Pauses) See he’s calling me right now. (Laughs)
Gosh, I’ll have to keep this short then. Just two more questions I promise.
No no! Go ahead. He’s very chill now. I can go out in a dress down to my thighs and they don’t say anything anymore. They’re very cool with everything. Even when I bring my boyfriend over, they’re like “You let us know when you want to get married OK? It’s all good” And I have to tell them I’m not even thinking of that right now guys!
What I find most commendable about you Neda is that you’re a typical career woman, in a committed relationship and you don’t feel any pressure to settle down?
No not at all. If I have to live my whole life like this I’d be totally fine with that. I could adopt a kid and be really happy. I don’t need a husband to survive.
That concept of happiness is changing. Women have realised that you don’t have to have a kid and you don’t have to have a husband. So now they’re free to be the architects of their own lives.
Yeah and deep down I’m a feminist. I feel very strongly about women having their own voice. Maybe because I’ve faced so much discrimination and inequality- it’s my passion now.
Who’s been your greatest source of strength in life?
I think in the last few years it would have to be my boyfriend. He was the one who actually got me out of my last relationship because I wasn’t happy and he was the one who helped me reconcile with my sister. And he didn’t do any of those things just to get off with me. He genuinely cared.
He seems like a really cool guy.
(Laughs) No he isn’t cool. He has his own hang-ups. He comes from a pretty conservative family himself so he has laid down a few rules for me. I don’t have a problem with it. I like the fact that he’s honest about what he expects from me. Like he was nervous about this interview because he’s very protective and he wants my privacy respected. He didn’t like one of my tattoos so I’m getting it off now. Probably wasn’t a very good idea when I got that one.
So Neda, as we’re wrapping up this interview, tell me about your happy place.
My nephew. He’s almost 2 now and the hugs he gives- they’re the best thing in the world. Also a place that I go to is Mahabaleshwar. I could very happily spend the rest of my life there.
So at this point in your life, no regrets?
No regrets. I know I’ve done some stuff that doesn’t exactly fit in with the conventional concept of an ideal woman. I get that. But if I hadn’t made those decisions, broken those barriers, I wouldn’t really be the person I am today. So I owe it to that young girl who ran away from home and tried to make a go of it on her own. I never look back and question why I did what I did. That was me. This is me.
As I conclude this session, I’d like to tell you about my impression of Neda. The first thing that you’ll notice about her, is her eyes. They’re honey-coloured, heavily kohl-ed and mascara-ed. She’s fair, petite and very stylish. Her voice is what really carries the weight of her personality. Neda wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth and had her family had their way, she would have never had a voice. It isn’t easy to grow up in an oppressive household and it isn’t easy to find freedom. Neda’s trademark is her open defiance of anything that takes away her freedom. She has some baggage I’ll admit; some unresolved issues, maybe some Gile Shikwe as one would say in Urdu. And she doesn’t expect you to know that she’s special. That’s not what makes the difference.
The difference is that she knows it.
Check out Malang