The other day, we accidentally chanced upon a movie on Amazon Prime titled “Saina.” I felt both shock and embarrassment that I had not heard of Saina Nehwal, a professional badminton player who once ranked number one in the sport. That India had representation on a global stage in badminton — well, I had no idea.
There is a lot of criticism about Bollywood actress Parineeti Chopra, who played Nehwal in the biopic. I have read controversies around Nehwal’s relationships with her mentor and coach. But I walked away with something else. As the wise say, art is open to interpretation.
Nehwal’s parents support her through highs and lows. They move cities and states to be able to realize their daughter’s dreams. The mother is tough but devoted. The father is kind and devoted. There is pressure to do well, but they also provided space for Nehwal to fail and fight back.
I have often heard younger GenXers make excuses for their parents, saying they did the best they could for their desi kids. I have heard older millennials criticize their desi parents and their obsession to have their children grow up to become doctors and engineers. In the movie, I did not see conflicts around patriarchy or misogyny. Nehwal is originally from Haryana, which has a high female infanticide rate. She has an older sister, and her parents are overjoyed they have two daughters. I will call that a win. Her parents are focused on what Nehwal is good at rather than expecting her to excel at something she has no interest in.
So many kids (including my husband and myself) made career choices that would make the elderly at home happy. Sure, we have parents who did not do engage in emotional drama about either of us becoming doctors. But I was not encouraged to study journalism and follow my heart … even though writing is what I have always done. If anything, because a cousin of mine (who studied abroad and for whom her family couldn’t find a suitable boy when she returned to India), I was told that it might be better to stay in India for higher education.
Don’t get me wrong; I am very grateful for everything my parents have done for me. My brother and I were given similar opportunities. Great education, lots of travel, introduction to international cuisines made me a curious, global citizen at a very young age. But I am talking about something else here. Not holding you back versus rooting for you every day are two different emotions. What did it take for Nehwal’s parents to believe in her daily? If they could do it, why can’t the others? Why can’t a culture that is so effusive about criticizing children turn the same energy into something positive?
When you know someone is with you every step of the way, you are not afraid to make mistakes. When you are fearless, you try new things. When you know that you will not be judged or ridiculed for your mistakes, you don’t give up. After all, growth, failure, and success are all part of the same cycle.
I have a new book, “A Piece of Peace,” coming out on September 21st, 2021, which you can pre-order. A Piece of Peace is a collection of essays about mindfulness, productivity, the impact of finding and owning your voice on your well-being and much more. I was talking to one of my best friends, Jaya, the other day about the book and everything about it. Jaya is one of those people who knows how to be there for you unconditionally, which I don’t take for granted. She was congratulating me when I said to her, “I am grateful for where I am at, but I wonder if I could have been at a different level.”
What I meant by that could be seen in the example of Nehwal playing badminton. She had a family, a boyfriend, a coach, and a circle of friends. But her goal was to excel in the sport and take India to new heights. That is a lot of pressure. But she has unconditional support from her tribe. Whether she wins, loses, gets negative publicity, suffers heartaches, or is celebrating, people have her back.
How many desis can say they have unconditional love at home? How many desis can honestly admit that they were allowed to make mistakes growing up? There is a reason a large majority of South Asians struggle with speaking up, speaking out, public speaking, and expressing themselves. What cripples their voice is the lack of unconditional love.
Was it not Indra Nooyi — Indian business executive and former chairperson and chief executive officer of PepsiCo — who once shared in an interview that once she got home late from work and her mom asked if she had bought milk? At the end of the day, Ms. Nooyi wasn’t “allowed” to focus on just one thing or make an error in her familial duties, which is also something the society assigns.
American musician, Marty Stuart, once said, “Unconditional love goes a long way.” I couldn’t agree more!