I am sitting next to a middle-aged woman on a flight from Vienna to London. We are both returning from a common friend’s wedding and we are both Indian. Admittedly, this is reason enough for us to have a heart to heart exchange and share our family secrets with each other. The fact that Kavita is closer to my mother’s age than mine is by no means an impediment to our conversation, which is heartening.
Kavita’s husband is headed to the US directly from Austria while she intends to spend a few days with her daughter in London. Having arrived at the wedding two days later than scheduled, he left for the US the very next morning. Kavita is visibly upset about this. She tells me that she feels disconnected from him. I am not sure I want her to place such implicit faith in me and share her connubial problems with me, but she does. Kavita tells me that after her kids left for college, she began to leave her husband for long spells at a time when she traveled to see friends and family in distant places. This isn’t expected of a good wife or daughter-in- law from her community and her husband isn’t too pleased by her need for “space” as she puts it. “But I am in my fifties, I do not feel the need to conform. He travels for work and lives his life. I have to live mine,” she says unapologetically.
“Sometimes I don’t want to think about my children or my husband and frankly I don’t even miss them when they are away,” she says.
Kavita has been raised in a traditional Indian community, where from a very young age, women are moulded to submit themselves to their men and find fulfillment in making their family the epicenter of their existence. To a modern woman this is nothing short of a life sentence, one that starts with tending to the needs of in laws and husband and subsequently one’s children at all times, often at the risk of sustained self-denial. This self-renunciation continues further till suitable matches are found for children, by this time, one is often too old to too complacent to be able to recall one’s own dreams and desires and live them out.
“It’s like I am not supposed to want anything except my family’s comfort and happiness in my life,” Kavita says forcing the plastic fork into the penne in our insipid pasta salad. “But what about me, my life and my own needs?” she asks looking at me directly and beckoning me to validate her need to be free.
We belong to different generations, we have been raised in different milieus, but I am familiar with her angst. For generations now women in Indian have been systematically trained to overlook their own desires and individuality for the greater good of the family. It has worked as a system in keeping the family unit together and by that yardstick it is an ingenious and foolproof definition of roles between man and wife.
Another friend Srimoyee, who has recently walked out on her husband of nine years, told me she did so because their marriage “wasn’t working”. She realized that over the years, the couple had lesser and lesser in common and when their love died, it took away her desire to continue being a part of the marriage just for the sake of their children. Srimoyee is a devoted mother to two girls and through her nine years of being married, was also a devoted wife. “But if I am not happy, how can I keep others around me happy?” she asks.
Most men view this as a disturbing trend. A woman wanting more out of life isn’t good for a man’s eco system.
Women who have made their peace with their lives too are somewhat threatened by women who are unapologetically claiming their own happiness.
“He wasn’t a wife beater and he kept her well, your friend is foolish to throw away a marriage just because she is dissatisfied with the relationship. These are typically problems of the bored and the rich,” another friend’s mother had remarked when she first heard of this.
Formal education and an ability to pay their own bills have indeed played a decisive role in the empowerment of women. Being financially dependent does put you at a disadvantage like little else. Last month, Suneeta, a woman who works as a domestic help at my parents’ home threw her perpetually drunk and often violent husband out of her house. Having produced three children in quick succession, not counting the two children she had lost to death over the past ten years, Suneeta had begun to earn her livelihood as soon as her youngest was old enough to attend municipal school. She found the courage to put an end to a lifetime of abuse because she was finally bringing home the bread.
When it comes to gender stereotypes, one realizes that class and education have not helped the patriarchal mindsets of this country as much as they should have. A friend’s husband was recently overheard congratulating himself over allowing his wife the freedom to go out with her friends for ‘a girl’s night out’ once a month. I am not a hyper feminist and am all for adjustment and a little compromise to make a relationship work but I do have a problem with the word ‘allow’.
When you use of the world ‘allow’ you have quite naturally assumed the position of the superior one in the relationship in which your subordinate must live by your mandate.
The male dominated cultures of our planet have had a historic suspicion of empowering women with freedom. The narrative might be slowly changing for urban Indian women today but it is an incontrovertible fact that for generations women have been discouraged from speaking their mind or pursuing their desires and dreams as individuals. This misogyny is not only deep-rooted but is also ratified by our scriptures sadly.
The Bible states that Eve came from Adam’s lung, she therefore did not belong to herself but owed her existence to him and was, at best, his subordinate. Eve was the cause of the Original Sin. Adam had no role to play in it evidently.
Ancient Buddhist texts like the Flower Garland Sutra state clearly that women and demons have scorched all seeds of enlightenment. Certain ancient non-Buddhist Chinese texts too state that women are the cause of downfall of a state.
These texts have worked in keeping women subservient for centuries and apologetic for their general existence.
Against the backdrop of this deep-rooted mindset, men cannot handle the new avatar of the woman. In India, there is a rising tide of women who refuse to be relegated to the position of the second sex anymore or treat the pati as devta.
This baffles the Indian man no end. Women demanding sexual fulfillment, women seeking careers not only to supplement income but to satisfy an intellectual or psychological need, women refusing subservience and women forsaking the role of constant nurturers, it is all too disconcerting to some men.
But this is 2016! We are not hunter-gatherers any longer. The warp and weft of our society has changed. Our patis are our equals, our friends, they are not parmeshwars. Parvati and Sita had patis who were actually parmeshwars, but we are married to normal mortals like ourselves. Besides that is mythology and this is real life.
Women must learn to honour and accept their own needs as much as anybody else’s and shake off the unnecessary guilt that comes from doing that. It’s about time we embraced our inner goddesses without being apologetic. Because if we won’t, no one else will.
Shunali is a published author, a columnist and a blogger. She is the author of the bestselling book Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother, which is a satirical take of parenting in the new millennia. Being an avid traveler Shunali contributes as a columnist to the Conde Nast Traveller. She also writes, off and on, for the Quint and the DailyO and a variety of subjects. Shunali was recently awarded the Rotary Award for Vocational Excellence in Mumbai.