Maybe all of go through this at some point in their life. Except that I used to pride myself in not being one of these people. I thought that if I listened and read enough, without changing my actual physical co-ordinates, it would mean I was still taking journeys. Well, maybe when I was younger, and less wedded to my actual physicality. Not anymore.
The older I get, the further I get from being a free radical. Free, objective thought. In whatever relative form. But still ‘free’. Now I am a shell of that scepticism. Bloated with my personal ego and pegged down by the relationships I have built with the city of my choice, I am a true armchair intellectual; picking up the lenses I am comfortable wearing. Sometimes rose tinted, sometimes far-sighted, sometimes just plain lazy.
Blinded by a work ethic & culture that emulates Western ones, I have begun to think that Bombay is India. Or at the very worst that Bombay is what the rest of India is moving towards, some parts faster, some slower. I rage and rant about the North East. I croon about Goa and Bandra. I relish my exotic coffee beans, my little corners of South Indian cuisine, my lanes of cobbled streets lined with gulmohars and copper pods, my salt-air drives down the length of the Metropolis after midnight. I walk crowded streets with my Springsteen plugged in, and I am in Jersey heaven.
So when I walked into that nameless ‘house’ in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, I started breaking down inside. I found it impossible to assimilate. All day, I yearned for the calm of clattering keys to pour out my emotions, but by night-time, I was too tired to even attempt anything. What kept assaulting me was that I was a domicile of North India. I grew up with the front door opening into squalour, poverty and hunger. I grew up with cows littering roads and alleys. I grew up knowing that cow-dung was India’s version of water-puddles. I grew up playing near the same areas where women who were too poor to clothe themselves decently lived. I grew up knowing I could never hit a woman, while almost daily, a few walls away a drunk, unemployed husband would threaten and abuse & throw around his wife, the only earning member of a large, hungry family. The duality was supposed to be ingrained.
But, even then, it was hard to handle. It was hard to accept how far removed I had become from the true condition of my own country. The physical aspects were just a fraction of my discomfort. I adapted to it almost naturally, like shedding a skin and slipping back into an old one. I could handle the open drains running into houses, vehicles and beds co-abiding, ‘load-shedding’, an invasion of flies and mosquitoes. What I could not handle was the callousness of the oppression that everyday women in that town faced. I could not handle the Stockholm Syndrome that almost all of them seemed to suffer from. At how main-stream and self-feeding this creature was. The more I heard, the more I wanted to throw up.
Humen toh…allow nahin hai.
Young women, much younger than me – with children and in-laws to feed, clothe, pick-up after, abide and appease. Young women after women, who flash on a ghoonghat the minute a man enters, who look at everything in life via just 2 filters, and 2 filters alone – permissible and impermissable. Women with wit, verve and M.A’s, who do not step out of the house, unless accompanied by the husband or the mother-in-law. Their pets have more freedom. Live lives far more whole and sane.
Each one had back-stories of education cut short, of being married off, unloaded. The demonised ‘sasural’ is all-too-often far more humane than her own ‘maika’. Any woman who tried to break loose was just that – loose, immoral.
Woh toh…, yeh sab toh…
The rhetoric of the patriarchs enforced to a point where the price of deviation is costly enough to mean you go from being a nameless unpaid resource to ‘trouble’, your children possibly singled out, whispers everywhere you go.
A world where she is either un-married – being bred for the slaughter, or kept – either with social sanction, oftentimes without; she dreams of bringing her daughter up as an equal to the man, and then smiles wistfully at the pipe-ness of that dream. And all the time, she talks of how much times have changed, how her mother was married at 14, how she at least continued her studies after marriage, how she is almost certain her daughter will be allowed to work.
During each interview, I would often lose my entire chain of questioning because she would agree to the importance of ‘staying within limits’, or about the importance of ‘upholding Bharatiya sanskriti’ with such earnestness and conviction, that my inner anger and frustration would overwhelm me completely.
The solution is not more education. The solution is not better education. The problem goes too deep. Education, economic development, these things are fucking placebos. In fact, so many of them were allowed to work only when economic conditions were bad enough that she just had to compromise ‘family duties’ and was allowed to work. Anecdotal and circumstantial, you say? Visit Eastern UP sometime. The disease was just naked and open there. It thrives here in Bombay too.