There is an unforgettable scene in Vasanth S Sai's Tamil anthology film Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum (2021, SonyLIV), where Parvathy Thiruvothu’s Devaki rips out the pages of her personal diary and burns them to ashes in the flame of a lamp, when her husband and his family pressure her to reveal its contents. What is the need for a good family woman to write things in secret and then hide it, they ask. Unable to stand the indignity, Devaki breaks the marriage and moves into a hostel to live life on her own terms. The film effectively portrays the lack of room for women’s independent thought in many Indian households.
Life is hard as it is, and especially in societies as deeply patriarchal as ours, women battle major and minor traumas, abuses and injustices on a daily basis. This is often irrespective of social standing. It is common for us to feel alone in our struggles and when we do, we put pen to paper to vent our feelings and find catharsis. It costs nothing and lets us open a portal through which we can connect with our own inner strength and resources, understand ourselves and our stories as they unfold. It’s a practice that can sometimes literally save lives.
And yet, for some inexplicable reason, a woman writing her thoughts down in a notebook seems to deeply threaten the patriarchy. Our boundaries are broken, private thoughts read, examined and tracked—all for our own good, we’re assured.
Take Meenakshi* (30) for example. Having returned to her hometown a few months ago to take a break from her taxing software job in Mumbai, she continued her journaling practice that she had made a daily routine. The third wave of the pandemic led to her having to extend her stay indefinitely, and this brought back all the emotional problems she had with her parents growing up. “Writing in my diary is the only way I know to cope with all the ways in which I feel restricted and hurt in this house. But I’m aware that my diary is being read all the time. There are no latches on the doors here and I don’t have a storage space I can lock up. I feel powerless once again, like I used to when I was a teenager. It’s like having a CCTV camera inside my head,” she shares.
In most Indian households, privacy is either not granted or simply not possible at all. Even those of us who have our own rooms have to leave the house from time to time, which opens up our personal belongings to scrutiny. Anisha* (32), a Chennai–based architect, has been carrying her diary with her everywhere she goes for the past five years to avoid just that. “I have a long history of emotional abuse at home and it is only in recent years that I have even been able to come to terms with it. Alongside talk therapy and medication, I also use journaling to work through my trauma. It is a precarious situation. The possibility that someone might read my journal and in doing that, take away my newfound control over my narrative is really scary for me,” she says.
A whole other kind of damage is done when family members read someone’s account of trauma and do nothing to protect them, choosing instead to resort to shaming. Monica Moghe (38), a Berlin-based brand consultant, was sexually abused by a family member when she was a child and started processing it by journaling intensively in her teen years. “I wrote down my thoughts, recounted events and even drew sketches when I struggled with dark thoughts—it was my only safe outlet,” says Moghe. “But no matter where I hid it, my mother always found it and read everything, only to tell me to stop and scold me in turn for ‘making things up’.”
Being subject to shame and punishment in this manner causes great pain, and may even lead some people to shutting off altogether. Arunima Bose (32), a Goa-based artist and creative facilitator, recalls having briefly kept a journal as a teenager. “I remember I wrote about a boy I liked once and another time, I wrote that I thought my friend’s mom was very cool while my mom wasn’t—it was so silly. But my mother read it, took it seriously and started using information like that to needle me during our fights. That is when I stopped writing for myself completely,” she says. This is a very common story, perhaps because parents feel the most need to police their daughters during the teen years.
Bose restarted the habit of journaling during the pandemic—by which time she was living on her own—and says the self-reflection that it enabled helped her exit a toxic relationship of seven years. Today, she finds that the insights she gains while journaling feed her art and enrich every interaction and relationship she takes part in. She even encourages people who take her art classes to develop a journaling practice for themselves. “Although, I do wonder how life would have been different if I had continued writing,” she says. “We go through years on auto-pilot and fail to register so much.”
For those who manage to keep writing despite the many forces that attempt to stifle our self-expression, there are a lot of benefits to reap. A sustained journaling practice can help one build a deeper relationship with oneself and make self-reflection a habit. In combination with other therapeutic practices, it can bring about deep healing and an improved ability to deal with the ups and downs of life. Moghe, who has continued journaling through some of the roughest phases of her life—including a physically abusive marriage and an 11-year-long toxic relationship—can attest to this. She says, “Over time, I have been able to forgive my mother and see that she did the best that she could given her position in the family. And I am grateful that she worked hard to help me access the opportunities I have today.” Moghe currently owns a small business in Berlin, while pursuing an MBA degree alongside.
With healing comes the ability to do better and pave a healthier path for the future generations. Revati* (42) started journaling in 2016 to vent her anger and helplessness as her husband’s cancer came back. She kept at it through the years as she grieved his death and strived to pick up the pieces of her life. Today, she journals to count her blessings and stay in the moment as she pours into her teaching job and raising her teenage son. As the head of the household, she is working on maintaining a culture of respect and kindness at home.
“I bought my son a pocket journal when my husband passed and told him to write in it anytime he felt emotions he couldn’t handle. I have assured him I would never read it without his permission, and he knows that he cannot read mine. If we have anything to ask each other, we are free to start an open conversation at any time,” she says.
(*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)
Indumathy Sukanya is an artist and independent journalist based in Bengaluru