I grew up in a traditional Hindu family and had many influences from Hindu religious beliefs and mythological stories in my early life. As I got older, I began to question many of the norms, rituals and traditions, especially the ones that I believed were unfair to women.

As a young girl, being independent and rational enabled me to live the way I wanted to, and my family helped nurture and foster those values. Today, having had exposure to many countries and cultures, I have built a new relationship with my own culture and traditions, embracing what I like and discarding what I don’t care for.

Before I started training as a counsellor in Bangalore, I had worked for several years in the technology industry. I was feeling listless and disengaged with my work and was looking for direction. I felt convinced that training as a counsellor would bring me closer to myself and enable me to help others. What I was not quite prepared for was that, before I began to learn anything, there was much unlearning to do.

When I started out as a trainee counsellor, I realised that counselling is really at a very nascent stage in India. In urban areas there is a relatively better awareness but it is still not very prevalent. It is largely seen as a measure to take only when in a crisis.

And when my very first client walked into the counselling room, it was like being caught in a storm. She spoke relentlessly. A 40-year-old single mother, she had been living with her own mother, who had died a few days before. She came seeking help with her career and refused to talk about her mother. Her life, in a large extended family, was full of upheaval: abuse, financial hardship, job instability, ill health and homelessness. I felt swamped by her story, but gradually I saw I had to hold the storm and give room to her torrent of words. This was her space. When she came in for the third session, she looked calm and fresh in a traditional sari and had jasmine flowers in her hair. She spoke gently of her mother; she had given herself permission to grieve. And I was face to face with my own grief as well.

Then there was the young woman of 25 who had found her way from her rural village, where she had lived all her life, to a shelter in the city after being banished from her home by her husband and his parents. She was working in one of the burgeoning city malls to provide for her children back home. She spoke of the incidents that led to this, her struggles to make a living, and her husband’s HIV, which was a closely guarded secret. She quoted eloquently from the epic Ramayana,* about ‘Sita’ and her struggles, and drew a parallel with her own life. I was overwhelmed, shaken and enraged all at the same time. She came from a religious faith, culture, language, socio-economic and educational background that were different to mine, and I wanted to help her change her life and empower her. But I had to fight my views and stay with her current ‘here and now’ crisis. It was a hard battle; I had to learn to honour her need first.

My supervisors helped me see what I was doing well, where I was stumbling, and how much of my ‘self’ could be playing out. It helped me take those issues back to my personal counselling, which was mandatory throughout my entire training. When I sat as a client, I recognised what it might feel like for anyone to be in that chair. I was opening up to my vulnerabilities and it became my space to talk. This became the birthplace of my personal journey.

My clients have offered me many glimpses of their lives, struggles, hopes and dreams. I have had poignant moments of fulfilment, and doubtful moments of fumbling and failing. Each one of these experiences has raised questions for me about how I view my own cultural identity. I have felt the need to educate myself at times and also to confront my assumptions and prejudices. It is an ongoing journey to learn and adapt my skills to the unique cultural identity of my clients. Yet there is always the mirror that clients have held up to me when they leave the room, and I catch a glimpse of myself. It makes me believe that I can touch their lives as they have touched mine.

* The Ramayana is one of two great epics of India and depicts the duties in relationships, such as the ideal wife or father.

Archana Ramanathan is a trainee on the Advanced Training Module on Basic Skills in Couple and Family Counselling course at Parivarthan Counselling, Training and Research Centre, Bangalore.