In a world, where the status of women stands in stark contrast to each other, a constant paradox awaits us almost every moment of our lives. The author recalls some of the journeys of women, whom life has thrown her in touch with.
The sham that binds us together
I met Swapna (name changed) at a friend’s house around four years ago; each visit to the friend’s throws me in an avid conversation with her - the ‘house manager’; though illiterate, has a knack for generation of food-for-thought, on the snap of fingers. Swapna* is a mother of two, one of which suffers from a brain disease, involving expensive treatment, which is why she works, she says, while her husband spends his life being gainfully unemployed. In a country where almost every application form asks for the husband’s or father’s name, it is an irony that some men choose to deem their fatherhood complete with just the donation of their sperm. In her late forties, Swapna* manages the friend’s household, but also hers, in addition to the lives of her husband and children. As for her life, it has become a ‘swapna’ or dream in itself. The mid-partition of the hair, which still sees vermilion or sindoor, a mark of marriage, makes me question her about its true meaning. Her answer is simple: “This is just a part of shringaar or beautification.” “I am sure,” I think to myself, as the institution of a marriage is nothing but a sham for her.
My daughter, my mom
I met Rita (name changed) some three years ago. Though a spirally creature, her body did not betray the beatings of a drunk husband; her soul? That must have been a different matter altogether. Her better half did not provide in any way for the lack of being able to stay in his senses. Being the sole bread winner, thanks to unsupportive in-laws, annual pregnancy was a curse. With hundreds of things on her mind, remembering taking precautions, or even her cycle dates were challenges. She would ask me time and again, how she could end her life. Daily quarrels in a residential area compelled her to leave for her village, leaving behind her eldest daughter – in the care of her own mother. Soundarya*, as her daughter is called, is being sent to school, provided tuitions and basic amenities. The subjugation to the male is, however, always in process – be it the father or the brother or male students at school. “Do not look up, while walking to school”; “Do not retaliate, even if your brother hits you”; “Do as your father says, even you think it is not right”; and the list goes on. But, somewhere I see that will to rebel for a cause and choose to stand up – something her mom had never learnt. Yes, Soundarya* will go far, provided her spirit remains unbroken despite the tests of time, and unfair human dominance.
Last I heard about Rita* was that she is now a mother to four children – two daughters and two sons. And, the cycle continues. Soundaraya* calls her mom often: “Maa, drink a lot of milk and have curd. It is good for the bones. You work hard. You need the strength.” She is seven years old.
Love, life, and everything in between
Norma (name changed) is a woman, who has it all; or so her acquaintances, friends and family would vouch for. She knows best though. “I never find love!” says she; but, isn’t she surrounded by it, everywhere, all the time? “I look at couples, and wonder where I go wrong? I guess it is just the choice of the ‘right’ partner. Perhaps. “Every relationship leaves me heart-broken, and damaged for a long time to come. They always choose the family. And, I am always the bad one, who deserves the distress and abandonment. My question is always the same: one can’t clap with one hand. Can one?” So, why does she not learn from experiences? Perhaps, because that thing called ‘karma’ has still to play out. It is easy to say goodbye to a mistress, when you have a family waiting to take you back. Whatever said and done, what happens to the human on the other side? Well, she deserved it; but did she really? When both are players in a game, why should just one pay? Norma* takes it stoically. “I am much closer to spirituality than I ever was. I seek happiness in anything but humans.” A paradox, indeed!
The attitude of gratitude
The twinkle in Laxmi’s (name changed) eyes is unmistakable. Her weather-beaten face is beautiful, despite the wrinkles of hardship. She does not know her age. For her, it does not even matter. According to her, what matters is that she can work. Dressed in a pale pink saree, she has been a construction worker ever since she can remember. She proudly states that making a house with her own bare hands is not a challenge at all. What is a challenge though are funds. A hand-to-mouth sustenance does not leave room for any dreams whatsoever. However, her boys are growing up and she proudly narrates their academic achievements. A decent job, ensuring a good future, is all she wants for them. Although she lives in a makeshift tent, susceptible to all forces of nature, her only current concern is the draft of wind which makes cooking food such a harrowing experience. What about health, hygiene and sanitation? Health comprises of regular exercise ensured through back-breaking work, sparse meals and hardly any hydration. However, the mind conquers the body. As far as sanitation goes, the near-by metro station in the heart of Delhi provides for safety when nature calls, or rather when convenience exists. She stores the bangles given to her quickly in a trunk. Why, one asks? For her future daughter-in-law, she replies. Is there anything she wishes for herself too, or anything she keeps for herself? A silence follows. I get my answer.
Marriage brought Megan (name changed) to India some 50 years ago; she has never returned since. “For what?” she asks me. “I have no one back there to call my own. Here is all I have,” says she, accepting life as it is. Being a foreigner, married into a conservative upper caste family was no fun ride. Even being a vegetarian could not help the kitchen doors stay open for her; meals were at the grace of the neighbours. Time with the husband was scanty thanks to a hovering joint family and constant quarrels with the head of the house – Megan’s father-in-law. “He held the family together – but was it out of fear, respect or love, no one ever knew, but when he passed away, everything dispersed like Autumn leaves blown away by the wind.” Financial crisis due to lack of job opportunities for the foreign-educated and returned husband, difference in opinions with his father, ailments like cancer and a young child to look after, made for desperate times. “I never lost hope. I simply could not afford to. I had too many responsibilities. Having no kith and kin did not leave me with many options but to decide to continue staying here. Making ends meet through tuitions was one solution till my husband’s business kicked-off, but then he was never much of a business mind; an intelligent mind, yes. There were times when I missed my country so much that I wished I could end my life, especially during festivals; but then I had a young child to look after. When I came here, everything was new to me, just about everything. I learnt, the hard way, to accommodate, but through all these trials and tribulations, I survived. My husband survived, but the essence of our marriage? I do not think so. It was never the same again.”
Leaving everything behind and beginning a new life in a foreign land needs courage. Perhaps, the lack of it would have seen two lives be spared the agony of life, but then destiny always has other plans.
The author is a writer, consultant-communications/media outreach and soft skills trainer