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.
You know what I find most burdensome, about being a woman? It’s the black-and-white nature of options available to me. It’s true that women’s liberation has brought reprieve to all my gender. We are not anymore constricted to the stifling role of a ‘little woman’. But this doesn’t mean that we’ve been liberated. We’ve just been given a choice of cages to live in, not all of them golden.
I attended the launch of ‘A Bad Boy’s Guide To The Good Indian Girl‘ by Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra recently. I finished the book in one night and it served to crystallize what I’ve felt for many years. There is the most common box of ‘Good Girl’ that every Indian girl is typecast in, at birth, with family & society doing their darndest to keep her there for the rest of her life.
But here’s what. Even if she does break out of that restricting definition, she simply falls headlong into another one. I’ve broken a few of the ‘Good Girl’ rules myself, opting to not mask my natural assertiveness and my ambition. Thus I’ve gotten slotted in another mold of ‘Career Woman’ (or occasionally ‘Pushy Bitch’). Now I find I’m constantly battling notions that I:
- should be an overachiever, in a meaningful job that pays well
- always be 100% sure, confident and in control
- be intelligent, sparkling, entertaining and ‘with it’
- do not like or care about family
- do not like kids or feel maternal
- do not feel sentimental or feel ashamed when I do
Would one attribute such notions to a man who was gregarious and ambitious? It is possible to see a man who throws himself into life as it comes along and loves hard, works hard, isn’t it? Why is it so hard to do that with me, then? Then, has women empowerment actually given us wings or has it just substituted one cage for another?
There is a certain attitude I sense in people when they learn about my relationship, a certain, ‘You are so lucky!’ followed by the assumption that I must be thrilled since my life’s ambition has been fulfilled. It is not I don’t feel lucky or happy; both of us do. But I resent the implicit assumption that my life is about bagging the right guy and feeling triumphant for having landed one. That’s insulting both to me and to my relationship.
How about the automatic understanding that comes the way of men when they feel ‘not ready for a marriage right now’? These are laughed off with a wink and even a subtle impression that it’s the normal man thing to feel. But I say it’s not. Apprehension before a major step is a human thing, not a male thing. It’s our bodies’ internal signals alerting us to the possibility of a situation that we need to be prepared for. Why then, does everyone assume that always know my mind and that my life proceeds smoothly without glitch? Why is my confusion always attributed to my ‘just being difficult’?
I don’t feel like I’m treated equal to men when I’m given no room for mistakes, no leeway for confusion, no space for undefinable emotions, ideas and actions. I struggle with many roles, even the ones that fit me well such as the CareerWoman or the EarthMother. I struggle when they conflict. I struggle when they all come together. But most of all, I struggle with the fact that they exist, these neat little boxes into which I’m supposed to package my personality, my dreams, my emotions, my identity and indeed, my life. When did life ever let itself be organized so neatly?
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