There came a moment of clarity for Asha Singh one day in New Delhi that she remembers as an inner milestone. It was in the late '70s and she was in the backyard of the house where she rented rooms from the busybody landlord who maligned her to her children. The neighbors were having a wedding and the woman of the house stepped into the adjoining backyard with the bride. At the sight of Asha she stopped. A divorced mother of three, struggling to survive and living beneath her former station, Asha Singh was a living scandal and a social outcast.
"Oh! There's that woman," the neighbor said. "Let's go inside. She'll bring us bad luck."
The bride, Asha knew, could not afford bad luck. She was her new husband's second wife. The first had died under mysterious circumstances. She had burned to death, and while it would never be proven and the husband and his family would never be questioned, it was widely assumed to be a "dowry burning"--a murder motivated by the bride's lack of wealth.
"It made me question the whole system," she said recently. "I asked myself, 'What kind of society can let people get away with that and not even question it, and condemn me?' What was my crime? Here I had taken myself and my children out of an unhappy situation. I had tried for 10 years to make my marriage work, to please my in-laws. I was trying to raise my kids, working. . . . I hadn't walked out on my responsibilities. Yet I was looked down on.
"It was very liberating for me. I stopped trying to fit in and started to be me."
She had been reading of the feminist movement. Increasingly, America was looking good to her.
"It seemed America would be a very supportive place. . . . I was right. It's been even better than I hoped for."
Another milestone for Asha Singh in her continuing journey toward being herself will be marked Sunday. At 42, she will graduate from Scripps College in Claremont.
Apparently, being Asha Singh is a movable feast. A full tuition and room and board scholarship recipient since her second semester, a Phi Beta Kappa member since her junior year, a volunteer at a mental health center and on a hot line for battered wives, a campus journalist, jogger, weight lifter, yoga practitioner and drummer, she has done well at Scripps. She graduates with a 3.94 grade average, and in September she will start a five-year Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at UCLA.
All that not only sounds impressive, it sounds tiresome. Here comes one more frantic overachiever who has chucked her identity for a fragmented personality. Look out, world!
Peace and Strength
What a relief, then, to meet Asha Singh, a serene, mature woman who is taking a kid's delight in being alive. Instead of frenzy within there seems to be peace and strength.
A tall, slender woman with long curly hair that is just beginning to gray, she was wearing jeans, a sweater and Indian silver jewelry: "I dress like a student because that's what I am, but I have my little things," she said, fingering her necklace. "I'm an Indian."
Exams behind her and graduation ahead, she is having a relaxed week. She was happy to spend a quiet day on campus earlier this week, away from the clutter at home. Her three children (two sons, Vikram, 23, and Deepak, 18, and a daughter, Rena, 21) are still taking exams at Pomona College and the apartment that is home base for the family has a finals week disarray about it.
She is ready to leave Scripps, she said, but she was going over the campus lovingly. Undergraduates were studying at tables in the orange courtyard of Dennison Library and she looked on, whispering that it was her favorite place. It looks like a medieval cloister garden and the silence was monastic. She loves the peacefulness of it. Upstairs in the library, there was her carrel, her shelved study table with her name lettered on the edge, overlooking the courtyard.
"I love being surrounded by books," she said in a hush, looking around the room. "You know, this is a safe place to study."
Back outside, she caught sight of a young woman whizzing by on a bike, yellow backpack strapped in place. "That could be my daughter," she nodded in the biker's direction, then realized that it was her daughter. "When I see my kids around here on this campus, it's pretty neat," she said, grinning.
She is full of self-conscious comparative references that begin with "when" and "to think." There is a tone of wonder to them, and they all have to do with then and now.