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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 rebellion. That’s basically what her life has been about. Rebellion.

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 founder of Connecting souls, a social media platform for people dealing with heartbreak to come forward and tell their stories and talk about how they have overcame emotional trauma.

Then there’s 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)

What? Really?

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.

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 have bad-boy issues. I tend to go for the wrong men. The last relationship I was in lasted for about two years and it ended overnight. He was an ‘artist’ or at least that’s what they say they are and….. you know those types of guys right? insecure, needy, selfish, immature, attention-seeking, unfaithful, allegedly ‘creative’ types. He’d be travelling most of the time doing shows and I never really got him all to myself. He was always tired and lately, he’d become uncommunicative and even more withdrawn. I tried my best but in the end it was like, I was a giver, which is how I am by my nature and he was a taker. It took me a while to see how incompatible we were, what an odd couple we made. You do so much for someone, you go everywhere with them, you support them, you take care of them, you literally put them on a pedestal and then there’s that moment where they walk away from you and you realise that they were never really deserving of all that love. I’m a loving person but even I know now, that not everyone will be worthy of your love. So you have to choose and choose well.

This is like a textbook definition of a bad break up. How did you get through that?

I went into depression and started taking sleeping pills. I stopped going to work and just gave up on everything. I remember the days when my room mate would not leave me alone for a single second. She used to hold me in her arms like I was a little child. Three months went by and he never even checked in on me. I couldn’t go to my family because I knew if they saw me in this condition it would just break their spirit because they’d raised me better than this. There were three people who stood by me like guardian angels: Harsha, Sagarika and Santy. Without them, I think I would have ended my life. They tried to keep me as busy as possible but at that point of time, you’re like a train-wreck. Nothing makes the pain go away.

How did you get over this? Because I know that you actually did came out of this experience a stronger person.

After almost two months a mutual friend of ours called me to tell me that he saw my ex with another girl and I was really shattered but it was that push I needed to get on with my life. I mean you’re bursting into tears at the thought of this guy with another woman and he’s moved on. He doesn’t care. He’s treated you like a dirty napkin and discarded you. So why are you still mourning him? I started with meditation and I used to spend up to 5 hours of my day meditating, contemplating the laws of attraction and I did something called a heart-to-heart module for about 3 weeks. I still practice this lifestyle, I believe deeply in Karma and I am doing my best now to forgive and heal.

So how did Connecting Souls happen? Where did you get the inspiration for that?

Yeah I think I just got tired of crying. And one day I was sitting and thinking about my own losses when I realised there must be so many other people who have gone through something similar. So Connecting Souls is a medium for people who have suffered any kind of heartbreak, be it with family, friends, life partners, pets etc etc. They send in their stories which are narrated by complete strangers to our audience while maintaining the privacy of the writers. It’s all about release and closure. I want to cultivate a culture where we respect everyone’s story and understand what space they’re coming from. That they might be going through something that they can’t even talk about. But they can share it with Connecting Souls.

Tell me about your older sister, because she’s had a pretty hard life.

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, it just happened. 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 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. Then there’s the whole relationship track record about essentially being treated like a doormat by your boyfriend. But the anger came from just not being allowed to be myself. I couldn’t be myself; not with the parents I loved or the man I cared about. I had to break free.

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?

Yes, it has a lot to do with that. I loved someone and right when things were getting serious and we were starting to plan our future together, he reneged on his end of the bargain. He dishonoured our commitment to one another. To stand by each other no matter what. I had this very elaborate revenge plan for him but when I started working on myself I had a revelation that he is the one who is unhealed, not me. He’s broken, not I. Why am I trying so hard to fix myself? I sincerely wish that he finds the love he truly deserves, because I’m definitely out of his league. Even my parents in a way, let me down when I was young but then we worked it out and found a way to be a family. Your parents have to see who you are and not who they want you to be.

That’s what being a parent is about.

Yeah. (Pauses) See my Dad’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.

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 inspires me now.

Who’s been your greatest source of strength in life?

This sounds so corny when I say it out loud but honestly, it’s me. I own up to my strength now. I can be as strong as I want to be- I don’t have to be weak to please someone anymore.

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.

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