Category Archives: The Sisterhood
The sisterhood of women: How we behave with each other
It’s housekeeping time in the relationships corner of my life. I find myself going through this periodically. I unfriend people on Facebook that I don’t even remember ever interacting with. I withdraw from groups and communities that I do not find myself engaged with. And hardest but most important of all, I draw boundaries with people who have drifted into my life.
I live a very porous life most of the time. For the past seven years, I’ve been sharing so much of life online. My work is inextricably linked to the other things in my life. And I’m an active part of the large creative-intellectual tribe both online and offline. All of these mean that boundaries are constantly being dissolved and frequently, new ground is broken where no structures exist. I hate labels, after all.
But the downside of this is that I find myself frequently sapped by the world around me. People presume too much. People give too little back. Situations spiral out of control. And everything crashes as I scream ENOUGH! I bounce back from these pretty quickly and usually back to a life that has very few of its original inhabitants still standing, the rest swept away in the outburst or shellshocked. I’ve done it enough of times and now I know this is not something I need to be ashamed of. It still is tiring, though. The alternative is to live the kind of cloistered, rigid life that would suffocate me before anyone else.
In the past week, I have exploded at this completely awful person. And that is the only way I am able to think of him. If he had shown just a bit more spine, things would have been different. But maybe I also only got as much as I believed I could get. I was glad he didn’t hit me or abuse me. Those are really low standards to hold a human relationship to and I know better now. I ask more from relationships and people now. If a person needs so much game-playing to acknowledge that they like me, maybe that’s not going to turn out great and I deserve better. Equals do not play games; they have conversations.
We know that men are socialised to take and take and take and never give back. And as women, we have been socialised to give, give, give and never question. We are now learning to identify this earlier, call it out and hopefully start teaching the next generation of men to not be so parasitic in nature. But what makes us think men are the only parasites? There is a new breed of Alpha women who think they have to be like men to succeed and that includes being self-centered, manipulative and toxic. They give their admiration quickly and voluminously. They shout it out from the tops of buildings. And they crash spectacularly. Then they lash out. Viciously.
One of them (who in the past, has woken me up at 2 in the morning to discuss her relationship, in whose support I have judged and turned my back on people who didn’t do a thing to me) told me,
“Oh I didn’t notice what was happening to you (right before her eyes). I have problems. I’m selfish. And I didn’t know we were ghosting each other’s exes.”
Her words sliced through me. Was I being selfish? Was I being needy? Was my problem (getting attacked) that trivial? I realised she was doing exactly what my abusive ex did – gaslighting me.
Another one’s callousness cost me a paying project for no fault of mine. She did not apologise. She sounded annoyed when I called her out on it. She said I should ‘understand’ because I run Alphabet Sambar. When I told her no one had ever lost work because of me, she threw out,
“You’re just so perfect, aren’t you?”
She did the other thing my abusive ex did. Reeked resentment and rage at my successes and tried to make me apologise for her shortcomings. It wasn’t even the first time she had done so and I had forgiven her for it.
I had a sudden realisation. Both these women remind me of this other person I cut out last year. I felt the same vague unease each time they announced to the world that they were ‘such good friends’ with me. I winced each time they parrotted out speeches about my strength, my style, my personality and my writing/poetry. I know now what this is.
I was not their friend. I was a trophy. There is an insidious kind of label that I’ve been unable to avoid because I didn’t recognise it as a label. That’s the ‘I WANT TO BE HER’ label. This label marks me off as a benchmark or trophy but not a human being. This is not normal appreciation I’m talking about. It’s an onslaught of starry-eyed compliments that are being heaped in the hope that I will like the giver. It’s trading flattery for validation. And worst of all, it absolves the other person from the responsibility of being an equal – a friend.
I know this now because of two things. One, I do have actual friends who express their appreciation of me but also treat me as an equal. They call me out when I’m being stupid or weak. They joke with me. They step up when I need them. They do not resent my needs. They do not react violently at my imperfections. And finally, they never throw my achievements back at me. And two, if these women remind me of the abusive men in my life, then what they’re doing is not friendship any more than what those men had for me was love.
I finally realised I enable all of these. I allow people to seep in. I allow people to call me friend (what a hateful term it has become, to cover all manner of sins) without thinking about whether our bond is that strong or that equal. I have not yet learnt how to gently put deflect such forced labels. I do not want to hurt the people who attempt to hang it on me; they do it from a deep hungry need and a misguided sense that I can satiate that need. But I cannot allow myself to be preyed on by the endless, one-sided neediness. I want to be able to give boundlessly but only to people who do the same back. I want fulfiling two-way relationships, not a fan club. Maybe I can learn how to deal with these women the way I learnt to deal with those men.
Once again, equals do not play games; they have conversations. Whether those games start with trading insults or excessive compliments, I guess they’re still games.
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Of the many wars a woman fights, body image issues are some of the hardest to tackle. Because they’re always fought by an army of one against the whole world inside the dark battlefield of one’s mind.
I have a form that fits a few popular beauty standards, enough for me to grasp onto them and fight against the attacks on the parts of me that don’t fit. Do I believe it’s harder because of this? After all, I’m not large, I’m not small, I’m not visibly asymmetrical. Well, we all find our pains hard to bear, don’t we?
I speak often about being a dark-skinned person in a country with a colonial hangover in the form of a fairness fetish. But I never really talk about my stomach. Add a layer of shame and another of silence to deep-seated complexes. Imagine a perfect well-shaped pot with a tiny hole in one side. That’s what body image is like. All the compliments, all the validation leaks out of that one part of one’s body that doesn’t fit. And that one part of you that feels imperfect becomes a clogged drain, lined with shame, resentment, fear and sadness. In my case, that place is right in the centre of me, in my stomach.
I have never had a flat stomach. Not as a toddler, an adolescent or an adult. It has stayed un-flat through swimming, crunches, aerobics and gymming. I’ve been advised to give up eating rice, cold water, dairy products after sunset, fried foods. Nothing works.
I do want to say that nobody has ever shamed me for my stomach. Among all the insults and attacks that came my way, the stomach never featured. If anything a boy long ago called it ‘cute’, another one said it could make a guy feel better about himself knowing that I wasn’t a perfect marble statue and recently a friend called it ‘Madhuri Dixit chic’. While these compliments made me laugh and glow with pleasure, at some level I did not really buy into them. I just shrugged them off as affection for me/crab mentality/funny kink. My relationship with my body is tightly locked away inside my cells. It’s hard to see yourself the way others see you.
11 years ago, I won a few battles when I got myself a tattoo. My dragon, emblazoned across the left side of my waist, breathing flames all the way to my navel was my victory flag. I used to wear short tops and croptops often then. The dragon tattoo was also the very first symbol of IdeaSmith, my online alter ego.
Somewhere in the last few years I stopped. I succumbed to the easy shortcuts that smart styling offers to ‘hide my flaws’. I experiment a lot more with clothes now but I instinctively gravitate to looks that emphasize the things about my appearance, that are permitted to be called beautiful. Most days now, I don’t even remember my dragon tattoo.
But this Monday, I took out this top that’s been lying unused for nearly three years. It’s short and because it ties at the back, it (in my head) emphasises how rounded my stomach is. The words that form in my mind when I usually see myself this way are PODGY, UNHEALTHY, CHUBBY, FLABBY and that dreaded euphemism – MUFFIN TOP. Truly, I do understand what body image issues sound like inside one’s head.
I draped on a trenchcoat over as a security blanket and travelled, my head held high, the body language I assume when I’m faking it till I make it. Then I met Neha and we stopped for a bathroom detour before proceeding. I ruefully and reluctantly stared at my stomach in the mirror in the ladies’ toilet and said,
“It’s not umm….flat.”
Neha didn’t laugh at me (like people often do when I admit to feeling uncomfortable). She didn’t tell me I didn’t have the right to feel diffident about my looks (again, like a LOT of people like to tell me). She just said,
“You know, most women don’t have flat stomachs.”
We spoke briefly about adolescent fears and things that we battled growing up. I mean really briefly, because it was just the time it took to climb one staircase. Maybe it was because it came from a woman as glamorous as she is. Maybe because she didn’t look at me any differently for having an unflat stomach. Maybe because she didn’t judge me for worrying about something as stupid as that. Maybe it was just because she was kind. But I felt a surge of courage go through me. Sometimes you need people to believe that it’s okay for you to be scared, to stop being scared. My dragon awoke again.
And when my name was announced, I left my coat behind and went up on stage. Just me, my ideas, my dragon tattoo and yes, my stomach.
Of the many wars I fight, body image issues are among the hardest to tackle. Because they're always fought by an army of one against the whole world inside the dark battlefield of my mind. I have a form that fits a few popular beauty standards, enough for me to grasp onto them and fight against the attacks on the parts of me that don't fit. Do I believe it's harder because of this? After all, I'm not large, I'm not small, I'm not visibly asymmetrical. Well, we all find our pains hard to bear, don't we? I speak often about being a dark-skinned person in a country with a colonial hangover in the form of a fairness fetish. But I never really talk about my stomach. I've never had a flat stomach. Not as a toddler, an adolescent or an adult. It's stayed un-flat through swimming, crunches, aerobics and gymming. Eventually, I gave up. 11 years ago, I won a few battles when I got myself a tattoo. My dragon, emblazoned across the left side of my waist, breathing flames all the way to my navel was my victory flag. I used to wear short tops and croptops often then. The dragon tattoo was also the very first symbol of IdeaSmith, my online alter ego. Somewhere in the last few years I stopped. I succumbed to the easy shortcuts that smart styling offers to 'hide my flaws'. Most days now, I don't even remember my dragon tattoo. But this Monday, I took out this top that's been lying unused for nearly three years. I draped on a coat over it for a security blanket. But @pwneha said something that gave me courage. And when my name was announced, I left my coat behind and went up on stage. Just me, my ideas, my dragon tattoo and yes, my stomach. So this then is me. Just as I am. Complete. Thanks, @tuningforkstudios for the picture! #body #selfesteem #bodyimage #bodyissues #bodylove
So this then is me. Just as I am. Complete.
Thanks, @tuningforkstudios for the pictures! And thank you, Neha.
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Let me start with this bromance joke that absolutely cracked me up:
Do guys in a bromance get each other flower
“Dude, here I got you some broses”
“Oh man bro, you read my mind I got you some daffodudes”
I’m in a bromance. It’s with another woman. No, we are not BFFs. We are not almost-sisters. I loathe these terms and I’m pretty certain she does too. I don’t need to ask her that. I assume, reasonably confident that my assumption is right and also that I don’t overstep when I assume.
We are not lesbians. She’s happily married (to a man) and I’m actively single. We’ve each been these things long before we even knew each other. We haven’t known each other that long so no, this isn’t one of those chaddi-buddy things either. We do not talk everyday or fill each other in on every last detail of our full lives.
We took an instant liking to each other at our first meeting. We ‘get’ each other and we also get that the other one gets us without the explanations, caveats and defenses that need to come up with other people. This is true whether we’re talking about digital marketing, lipstick, books, astrology or family.
Each of us has dozens of friends, shared and otherwise. We’ve hung out in groups and we don’t stick to each other on those occasions. But yes, most other people realise we’re closer to each other than we are to most of the others — that knowing nod or nanosecond eyecontact that signals ‘this is bullshit’ passes easily between us.
So what makes this a bromance rather than a regular friendship between women? Well, for starters, there is no such thing as a ‘regular’ friendship. Especially not between women who are the more emotionally expressive and collaborative, relationship-building gender. Yet, associations between women are laden with as many labels as there are for women. The bitchy besties, the babe and the ugly friend, the two peas in a pod, the ‘married to each other on Facebook’ types, the Veronica and the Betty, the girlfriends, the list goes on. I’ve been in some of these relationships and I know she’s not any of them.
What’s a bromance? It’s a close association between two men, much closer than their usual friendships. It also acquires the pseudo-romantic tag since this is a pair that is comfortable being public about their closeness to each other. Notably bromances are usually between straight men who are not otherwise known to be very expressive in their sentiments, especially to other men.
Other than the fact that neither of us is male, we fit all those criteria. She’s more my ‘bro’ than any of the other labels. We’re both macho girls in some way, turning our noses up at the princessy kinds of women. It’s not quite kosher for us to be sappy. Yet, it feels totally okay to get her an impromptu gift or to receive an unexpected ‘Random hug because I miss you!’ from her.
Women frequently ‘explain’ their relationship with other women in conversation. It’s usually, “You know my best friend was telling me” and “Rita, my office buddy was saying” or “I borrowed my younger sister’s dress. I notice myself dropping her name in conversations with other people without bothering to explain. It’s not really easy to explain and to be honest, I haven’t really thought about it till now. Isn’t that rather bromantic too, a closeness that just happens without your planning it and that you can take for granted (without taking the other person for granted)? This is something traditional female friendships rarely do. Ergo, we have a bromance.
Yes, let me be the first to admit that I’m the kind of feminist that enjoys yanking things away from the traditionally male bastion and going “ME TOO! NOW I’M GONNA HAVE ONE TOO!”
Now I’m off to get her some of those broses.
I picked out a book by one of my favorite authors. I have all her other books and each of them has been lovingly thumbed through at least 5 or 6 times each. Every single one except this one. It usually gets missed because it’s a bigger size than the others, an unwieldy hardbound edition size but with a paperback cover. So, it has to get jammed against the side of the bookshelf, away from its natural place along with the others by the author. Why do publishers like torturing us?
The first time time I read the book though, I didn’t like what it did to me. Which is not to say that I didn’t like it. One of the main characters spends a long part of the story being tormented by an abusive, manipulative man. It was torturous to read because it relived my own nightmare of 2002. The lies, the subtle put-downs, the unwillingness to acknowledge the relationship to friends, the indirect questions to friends about other boyfriends when the back was turned, the withholding of approval, the taunts, the backhanded compliments, the jealousy. Everything was so familiar it made me want to throw up several times through the book. Such is the power of a good story, when it forces you to face things in your own life.
I picked up the book around three years later again, knowing that I had been avoiding it for this reason and determined to make my peace with it. It wasn’t any easier the second time round. I decided that it really wasn’t a great book anyway. After that however, I chanced upon another book by the same author and devoured it. And then I was hooked and in quick succession I went through all her other books, discovering my favorites and setting aside the one that I didn’t like all that much. This last one gave me an uncomfortable twinge because it made it clear to me what a book I didn’t really like was like and it reminded me that I was avoiding the first book for other reasons altogether.
I’ve managed to ignore that feeling for good while. Life has brought its share of dramatic highs and lows and I have managed to keep myself sane without tipping over into any vices like alcohol, smoking, drugs, random sex or overspending. Some of it comes from not trying to escape but some of it also comes from not deliberately picking at old wounds.
And now, ten years after the book came to me, I find myself in need of comfort reading again. Marian Keyes features prominently on this list, along with JK Rowling, Kamila Shamsie, PG Wodehouse, Neil Gaiman (only The Sandman!) and Fables (the graphic novels). I sift through my book collection and rearrange them for the order that I’ll want to read them in the next few days. I only notice Last Chance Saloon when I am putting it back. The neat pile of Marian Keyes’ books – the entire Walsh family series as well as standalones looked like something was missing. Last Chance Saloon with its larger-than-normal size, its slightly browner page edges and lavender cover – you can imagine the extent of my escapism that I didn’t even notice it as it was lying on my table a few minutes ago.
I frown, considering. I was really looking forward to Anybody Out There? which is one of my two favourite Marian Keyes books except I know by now that it needs an appetiser before starting. Rachel’s Holiday which is my other favourite, has just been devoured and is being put away at the bottom until my next comfort-reading need. But this time was a bit different. Rachel’s Holiday is the book that showed me the inside of an escapist’s head. It stayed with me when I went through the difficult relationship, whispering what I knew about addiction as I lived through betrayal, neglect, lies and fights over excessive gaming. It gave me some balance even if it didn’t ease the heartache when it helped me realise that I was in relationship with someone who was refusing to deal with adult realities. This was the first time I was reading Rachel’s Holiday since then. In all my readings so far, I’ve only related to Rachel even if I never fell into addictive substance abuse. I could relate to the fear, the confusion and the desperate chasing after anything that would make the pain go away. Maybe a lot of my bad relationships came from the same place that addicts addiction does. But this time round, I could relate to Luke, to Brigit and even Mammy Walsh. There’s only one thing worse than living the damaged life of an addict and that’s living the life of someone who loves one. Needless to say, reading the book was an intense experience this time round, in a different way.
I look back to the large book on my table. I’ve not even wanted to touch it since I realised which book it is. My abusive relationship of 2002 is an old festering wound that comes back to haunt me in dark times even now. My more recent bad relationship of 2011 – I can’t say that that is worse or better. Two different men, both damaged and flawed, both hurt me intensely in very different ways. But with the second, I was older and more aware of my need to heal and how I could. I have been. Still, my hand stays clear of the book.
Then I take a deep breath and let myself open up to the memory of this book. It was a gift from her. She always loved reading what I thought of as trashy romances. One day, she handed me this book and said,
“Read this. I think you’ll like it.”
I did read it. I am nothing if not dutiful and obedient to the people I love. And she was my best friend. I felt sucker-punched by the book when I read it, like it left gaping holes inside me. When I handed it back to her a few days later, she said,
“It’s for you. Keep it.”
She must have known. Of course she did. She was always perceptive. And she’s the only one who knew the extent of my abusive relationship.
This makes it harder for me to even look at the book. I cut her out of my life in January this year. I still haven’t had a chance to process everything I feel about that though my reasons are crystal clear. It feels too soon. My way of dealing with things is usually to go numb when stuff happens and only pick up the terrible memories much later to deal with them emotionally. That’s why my poetry, my breakdowns and my terrible choices happen much after something awful has happened. But, maybe that’s my way of escaping and it’s not doing me any favors. Besides, I’m not as young as I once was and maybe I don’t have the luxury of prolonging my problems as I once used to.
Surprisingly, my hands don’t even shake as I shut my bookshelf and pick up Last Chance Saloon. Wish me luck. A storm is coming.
I’ve been thinking about girlfriends a lot recently. Men have comprised a major part of my life in these past ten years. They have been my primary references and the biggest influences on my identity and my relationship with the world. I’m not talking only about boyfriends. There still are more men in the professional world than women. And in the group of people for whom career and what they do shapes identity more than relationships, it’s almost exclusively been a boys’ club. Since my friendships are with people I respect, admire and like, most of them have been men. I haven’t been able to relate to most women. Our differences have come through in the form of competition, judgement and other hostlities that don’t leave room for friendships.
Yet, I have had girlfriends at various points of time. They’ve been really special, possibly because of how rare each of them was, by her gender in my life. Female friendships are different from my friendships with men. This is not devaluing the very many wonderful people in my life who are men. But given the life experience is so gendered in our world today, it becomes more than just (as I like to put it), body plumbing.
*Image courtesy photostock on FreeDigitalImages.
J was probably my first ever real girlfriend. We were buddies in school but at that time I wasn’t really conscious of the differences between boys and girls. It wasn’t till seventeen, when we ran into each other again, that I discovered what it was like to have a girlfriend. I was a precocious, over serious teenager, burdened with intellect expectations, heavy books and heavier conversations. J brought out the adolescent in me. She opened my life up to frivolity. Yes, that’s how I saw it even then, and yet it was an important part of life that was missing for me. She’s the one who taught me about make-up and deodorants and clothes (“It’s not lean-ge-ree, Ramya, it’s lingerie!”). My teenage years would not have been truly magical in that way only adolescence is, if there hadn’t been room for crushes, for dressing up, for agonizing over looks and words and strangers.
J left my life around the start of our twenties. I know now that we were always very different people and it was just our common age that brought us and kept us together. Well, also perhaps the fact that we shared some common problems that are huge for a teenager — bad teeth & braces, unrequited crushes and a delayed sense of coolness. I was angry with her for the way things ended, for a long time. But I know it was inevitable. We were both too young to be gentler about it.
There’s P who also goes by the title of Best Friend. This is a difficult relationship to explain. We were friends in junior college (for the exact period of time that J and I spent apart between school and collage). And then we weren’t friends for a span (when J and I were close). And automatically, almost the very minute J and I parted ways, P returned to my life. We were both older, had grown into our individualities and were young women, not awkward teenagers.
P and I don’t really have much in common. Not shared interests, not personalities, not even common friends. Yet, she is the only one who was there, really there when I was in a bad relationship that I couldn’t think straight enough to get out of. Years later, I was the one who met her at the airport to tell her that her father had died. Once you’ve shared trauma or death with a person, you are bound to them in a way that makes it impossible to walk away completely. This about more than gratitude. In the unlikeliest of ways, P really gets what it feels to be me. And yet, she makes different choices, lives a different life. It’s really quite mind-boggling.
This year has been one of reckoning for a number of reasons. For one, it has been two years since the BIG relationship ended. It made me rethink my priorities, my values and indeed, myself. Marriage and a romantic relationship with a man became less relevant in the recipe for a happy life. And it allowed me to think of my relationships with other people and other aspects of the world (including work, health, money, home and my hobbies).
How I relate to men has shifted. In romantic situations, I’m both more cautious as well as less afraid of risk. That is to say, I’m willing to try a lot more with less fear because I am not as scared that mistakes will break me. And at the same time, I’m also less willing to commit because, really, I don’t even know if that’s what I want anymore. But also in other non-romantic relationships, the way I see and relate to men has changed. I do not idealise men anymore. This means I don’t rever virtues in men as much (because now I know believing passionately in something and being able to act on it when the situation demands, are two different things). Oddly, it also means I expect less and am a little kinder on their failings.
So where do girlfriends come into this? Because men don’t form the rocks, the pillars of my life anymore — how could they? The best of them are struggling to cope with being an overcoddled sex and also hold on to their sense of what is fair. The idols have melted. It has left a lot of space in my world to deal with life’s stuff on my own. I’ve been learning to make less of big deal of things, fewer snap decisions based on momentary emotion. So much space has opened up. And in this space, women have popped up.
There is of course, my wonderful Reema. Time, maturity and life were just right for her to happen as she did. We are both intelligent, independent women who don’t anymore need to prove ourselves with heavy conversation. We are also both pleasure-loving, light-hearted human beings who don’t have to live flashy lives of friovolity either. Reema and I talk about books, lipstick, the future of digital media, stupid people, the cities we’ve known, philosophy, family and life. We are different people, with different lives. And we have some similarities. I love the fact that this friendship allows us both to revel in the similarities (it’s always nice to have company) as well as explore our differences in a safe manner free of judgement.
A number of other women have appeared in my life this year too. They’ve come to this place in their lives through differnet journeys from mine. But like me, they are open to the experience of being with another human being who is respectful and fun, not just similar to them in some way.
It’s only now that I have it that I realise what my life has been missing all these years in not having enough female friendships. With men, there are agendas looming over every interaction. There is romantic/sexual interest in some cases. If that isn’t possible, then boundaries have to be constantly drawn and adhered to so that the rest of our lives are not destroyed. These boundaries don’t have to exist in relationships with women. I say don’t have to, because there are still a lot of women like J who value rules over experiences. But there are other women like me who are willing to risk saying or doing things that aren’t socially usual, in the hope of a bigger life.
What’s especially intriguing is how different these women are from me. Two of them are happily married, one of them is a mother. Several of them are making interesting decisions with their careers — one of them juggles an MNC job with sabbaticals to go travelling, two others have diversified from their traditional fields to include more creative elements (like me), two have businesses of their own and are dealing with the ramifications of this level of independence on their family lives. They are making courageous decisions in their personal lives — living-in, deciding to not have kids, going in for fertility treatment to have kids after a certain age, breaking free from family and living on their own, choosing to be part of a joint family, divorce and remarriage.
It occurred to me recently that female friendships are not celebrated. In fact, they are presumed to not exist. After all, it is in patriarchy’s best interest to keep women subservient, stupid and apart, isn’t it? What logic can there possibly be for statements like ‘Two women can never be friends’? When two women become friends, something big opens up for both of them — they are able to articulate things about their lives and worlds that feel incomplete, they are able to gain strength from each other and support each other in challenging these norms and if they are lucky, they go on to live fuller, richer, freer lives. All because of a meaningful friendship.
I feel like I went through the 20s feeling and believing that I was fighting a solitary battle to be me, to be more than the relationships and gender stereotypes imposed on me. But the 30s are bringing me into contact with several other women who are doing these too. It’s inspiring, it’s validation in a way that male friendships can’t provide and it keeps me from giving up. Truly, my life is a richer place because of my girlfriends.
Take a bow, Reema, Jinal, Rochelle, Reena, Meeta, Paromita, Aruna, Kiran, Sveccha, Fairy, Ankita, Samradha, Netra, Aditi, Shweta, Tupur, Avantika, Lopamudra, Prachee, Niyati. Each of you is an inspiration.
*Image (without text) via audfriday13 on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I love him. I love her. He loves her. She loves him. They both adore me. We’re not a threesome or anything as radical as that. We’re three people who know each other from different times and places. There’s love and loyalty and warmth and sparks, some romantic, some platonic.
She’s the newest entrant into this nexus, new to him as well as to me. But oddly, I think she actually balances us. Not balances each of us individually (that’s so ‘You complete me’) but balances the entire structure. We’re like a three-legged stool in that sense, teetering uncertainly with the first two but perfectly solid and steady as three.
It’s not because we have that much in common, I think. Well, there is stuff but it’s what started our conversations, not what’s keeping them going. He and I are more similar than it appears. And we drive each other nuts when things are imperfect as they usually are. Something about her presence has a way of running our respective electrifying natures to ground and earthing them. And there’s light instead of short circuiting.
Of course it’s more complex than our current natures, being that human nature is constantly shifting. He and I have a history, a long, long time ago, a complex one where attraction charred into hurt, froze into loyalty and solidified into friendship. We also have a history of anger, of heated words, of dramatic declarations and of intense closeness. She’s not part of that history. Maybe because of that, she clears the space of its high voltage intensity and makes it possible for him and me to be regular human beings again.
It hasn’t always been that way. It only got this way after the two of them became a couple. I would never do anything to hurt her. He wouldn’t either. And because inflicting wounds on each other would mean bloodying the space that she is now a part of, we sheath our poisonous words and put away our tears. Then we all go out to dinner together and laugh about mundane things, like regular people do.
Three is company indeed.
I should probably re-word the title of this post. For an average Indian male at least, she’s the First Woman. Technically so for every single man, actually.
Mama, Earth Mother, Ma Goddess.
I saw the appalling Devdas (with SRK, Ashen-faced Rai and la Dixit) with someone who had read the original Saratchandra masterpiece. Mental thank you to him while I reflect on his explanation. Devdas indeed was the least important character in the book. It was a story of power play between 5 women – Devdas’ mother, his sister-in-law, Paro’s mother, Paro herself and Chandramukhi of course.
If we consider that structure, it would seem like a man is really nothing. The actual dealings happen between women while men and their emotions are merely status symbols, currency…to be hard-worn or snatched, nurtured or manipulated and generally ‘managed’ the way one manages other valuable resources. How disappointing…and here I always thought men were intelligent, fully conscious and responsible human beings. There they go out of the reckoning then. Pop.
So of course we find ourselves landing smack-dab back into the age-old power struggle between a man’s mother and his partner. ‘Mother-in-law’, the Indian one is a hallowed notion. If the Grimms’ brothers’ fairytales had originated in India then Snow White, Rose Red and Cinderella would have had evil moms-in-law instead of step-mothers.
The average Indian woman is deeply wise and practical, I think. Since respect, attention and even love are so difficult to glean from her spouse who is busy paying homage to the sainted mother, she in turn creates a devotee of her own – her son. And the mama’s boy tradition continues. Of course for new bahus, girlfriends and partners, this is a mighty uncomfortable situation.
Then again, we find ourselves in the modern day situation of young women who are far more openly ambitious and in too much of a hurry to wait 20 years to create another son-devotee. Is it possible then, that the two women could share the spoils of the relationship war? I don’t know. It’s a power-game inherently and I guess it depends on the control-quotient of both women in the situation.
A friend who recently got married was moaning about her weekend spent watching a bad movie with cheesy songs and a terribly regressive plotline. “But why ever on earth??” I questioned her till she pronounced in a low drone, “Mom-in-law wanted to see it” I patted her arm soothingly and reminded her that at least ma-in-law kept it to bad movies and the occasional gift of garish dresses and OTT jewellery…which really wasn’t that bad. Annoying but not really bad.
While on the other hand I have friends who’ve gone from ‘that lovely girl our son is going to be marrying next month’ to ‘the evil witch…god knows how she trapped my son’. I shudder….the ma-in-law chronicles can get pretty nasty and invariably it is the newcomer who is starting off at a disadvantage. I tell my friends not to expect any support from man in question, from what I’ve seen, men either don’t want to get involved or will take momma’s side. Fine then, it’s all out war, woman-to-woman.
An obvious way to start off on the right note may be to strike just the right chord with the big lady herself. This is easier said than done, I suppose. I’m not entirely sympathetic to the role of ma-in-law that I’ve never played…but I wonder whether a lady who has contrived to make her son a mindless minion will relinquish her control that easily.
Ah, women are such complex creatures, they don’t like to be managed. It is a delicate situation when two women have to share the management of a man’s life, which is precisely why the saans-bahu story lends itself to such drama. I realise of course that this entire post smacks of one-sidedness. For who knows after all, how the tables will turn once we are on the other side? Kyon ki saans bhi kabhi bahu thi, indeed.