Some ten years ago, a very bright and pretty niece of mine wrote to me by e-mail : “I do not want to marry. But there is a lot of pressure from home to marry one of the boys who come to the ritual of ‘seeing the girl.’ What should I do?”
I wrote back to her that she was trapped in the wrong generation. “Twenty-five years from now”, I wrote, “Your wouldn’t need to worry about marrying off your daughter. The institution of marriage wouldn’t last that long. You wouldn’t feel the social pressures that your parents now feel to coerce you into an unwilling marriage.”
Twenty five years, I now feel, is too short a time.
My niece went on to marry a young and handsome interventional cardiologist. She herself is a qualified anesthetist, and they work in the same hospital. Last time I met her, her spirit of revolution was replaced by pride in her husband’s achievements. Despite her professional skills, she had withdrawn into the background. He is a nice guy – I am happy that she found what appears to be a perfect match. Yet I am hoping she doesn’t live in her reflected glory but finds a space for herself as well.
A woman’s spirit is broken the day she is born. In Tamil Nadu, Haryana and Punjab, and many other parts of India, even her body is destroyed. In Kerala, where I come from, girls are seldom killed off. In fact, Kerala’s economy is dependent more on the girls who go out, find jobs as nurses, secretaries, ayahs and maids and then get jobs for their husbands whom they acquire thanks to their overseas jobs and gold biscuits that they manage to smuggle in from Dubai. Men wait for a hefty dowry to come along to marry off their sisters (if the sisters weren’t fortunate enough to get a job overseas or bright enough to get into a recognized nursing course) and then be called up for a job care of their wives. Yet , the hard-working, hard earning woman is a second-rate citizen in that ‘highly educated’ state.
KPAC Lalita is a prolific actor (it is no longer fashionable to say actress because any word that has a feminine flavour to it is demeaning) who rose to her present status from a “progressive’ theatre. One of the movies that she acts in comes to an end when she announces, “in future I promise to obey what men tell me”. Flat and neat. What men tell me.
Jagathy Sreekumar is a character actor-cum-comedian who has a role in virtually every Malayalam movie. He is the new face of Malayalam comedy after the conservative types like SP Pillai, Bahadur and Adoor Bhasi left the scene. Jagathi produced a very popular serial for the wellknown television channel Asianet. “My motto”, said the progressive actor-producer explaining the direction of the story,” is that a woman, no matter how better paid and higher-ranked in profession, should be her man’s slave at home.” The serial lost none of its popularity among women because of that motto.
‘Munshi’ is a well-researched short video clip that appears in the same Asianet channel every day. The clip concludes with the Munshi, the wizened old man, paraphrasing an old proverb that suits the occasion. In a recent piece, Munshi closed the discussion with this adage: “Even if IAS, a woman should stay below man.”
In another Malayalam movie, Balchandra Menon, a ‘progressive’ actor-producer, in the role of a lawyer argues in court : “A woman has two choices if she is raped. Either keep quiet or commit suicide. This woman stands in this court and announces without shame that she has been raped. That alone shows that she is a prostitute.” That particular dialogue might have been a negative depiction for a specific purpose, but the film shows no shock among the audience, nor on the face of the judge. At that moment, the judge and those present in the court accepts it as proof enough. That argument reflects the thinking of most thinking men of India – I take up Kerala because that happens to be a state I know better. In fact, most women who are raped in movies anywhere in India are made to commit suicide by their directors to pamper to this general opinion.
In Malayalam films, you don’t hear a single word spoken against Dowry. It is extolled as the best way to marry off your sister. Scenes after scenes you find a brother working hard and making sacrifices to pay dowry. Not a word against the demanders, who appear from time to time, just sympathy for the guy who can’t get the whole amount yet. Ever noticed a Malayali matrimonial ad? “Share 25 lacs’ forms the most important part of that ad, give or take a couple of lacs. Share is dowry. ‘Employed girl, Share 25 lakhs with three-bedroom house and 3 cents land’ lands a sure-fire catch. Add fair complexion to that line, a thousand proposals land up at the girl’s doorstep. If you think education is the solution to dowry menace, take a look at the suicide statistics of Kerala. Unmarried girls (who couldn’t land a nurse’s job in Dubai or London or wherever outside India) commit suicide because they couldn’t pay dowry; married men kill their wives and children and hang themselves because they couldn’t get enough money. Multiple suicides teach a terrific lesson that aged parents-in-law would never forget.
A Tamil movie that caught the imagination of all South Indians decades ago was titled “Husband is the visible God.’. Hundreds of Hindi movies pander to this sentiment. Asked why Sita was made to touch the feet of Ram every morning, Ramanand Sagar, God bless his departed soul, said : “In my family, women touch men’s feet. That is the Indian tradition.” In an old Hindi movie, a woman who recognizes her long-lost husband but does not want to be recognized (because he was already married while she was wilting away), picks up the dust that fell from his feet after he departed and puts it in the parting of her hair. “That must be your husband,” announces a Pathan who spies the scene with great admiration: “I know Hindu women do that.” Audience claps.
Taming of the shrew didn’t end with Shakespeare. It is a constant theme in Indian films – whatever the language. Show me a movie or a serial where the man doesn’t hit his wife or girlfriend at least once in its full length. I will show you ten where he does.
Not just in India, but nearly the whole world where marriage was the norm for reproduction, marriage evolved as an unequal economic partnership with little or no ingredient of love. In India, that ingredient was not just absent, but shunned. Mutual love, which is natural selection between a male and female challenged the right of the society to pick and mate individuals. Individuals themselves deciding their mates or even choosing the time for mating was not in society’s economic and ego-centric interest. Historically, man had the role to join tribal skirmishes and wars, and the woman had the responsibility to produce more members to join the next war. Many men died in wars – which upset the gender equilibrium. In the Middle East, where wars were a way of life promoted by religion, they solved the equilibrium problem with polygamy. In the Indian subcontinent they found three solutions: Sati, where a woman is simply killed off when her economic partner is dead; Female infanticide to offset the future economic losses, and polyandry to keep the family’s assets from splitting and losing strength . In some parts of Northern India as well as among Jews in the Middle East, there was a more humane solution – the widow became the mistress of the dead man’s brother. She lost her economic status and standing in the family (and the keys to the family’s warehouse) but the arrangement made sure that she didn’t have to go looking outside to satisfy her reproductory urges.
Where tribal wars were a common event in daily lives, such as in Rajasthan, Sati was preferred. It was a simple and quick solution. You tied up the widow and pushed her into the funeral pyre with a large pole so that your hands weren’t seared. To encourage other women to follow suit, you built a temple in her name and put a large piggy bank called Hundi at the temple’s door. That’s how prosperity came to the doors of the dead woman’s in –laws. Her own parents and blood relations too found the arrangement convenient (and probably put a coin or two in the hunti by way of atonement) – at least she didn’t come back home to overburden the economies of the household..
The biggest advantage of a formal and socially approved marriage came to the children who were born from the wedlock. There was the woman to clothe and feed the child while the man came home with the grains. All religious scriptures say that man sows the seed, and the woman is a mere soil for feeding it to grow. Modern science tells us that a woman’s egg is the seed – man merely fertilizes it with a single chromosome to avoid the world being populated with clones. You knock out a single DNA from the egg and put in a foreign DNA of the same kind – a child is born. Nature just makes sure that that seed comes from outside to add variety to the population. Man happens to be a woman equipped with the ammunition that could carry the DNA and the gun that can shoot a million of them so that at least one manages to get in – mostly in several attempts. Believe me, the time is not far when women would find other ways of fertilizing the eggs with less messy procedures. A pity, it could probably be men who would find those ways for them.
I once overheard a young married aunt say this to her gossip-group : “I don’t like sex. But when the man who brings home the bread demands it, you can’t deny him.” I knew, from personal experience, that the aunt was not averse to sexual experiments. She was merely expressing a false sentiment that a woman was expected to express in public. Marriage was, to that group as for many others, was a single-client prostitution. You give sexual pleasure to the one – but only the approved one – who brings you the money whether in cash or kind. You also cook for him and tend to his children in the hope that all that gives him pleasure. If, now and then (if he is the sober kind) or often (if he isn’t) he beats you up, thank him or accept it as part of a woman’s lot.
“If you do something wrong who would punish you if not your husband?” Asked the same aunt the morning after she was beaten black and blue by her husband, who also happened to be the local communist party leader. “If he does something wrong would you beat him?” I asked her. Aunt pretended to be shocked at the very suggestion.
The trouble with women is that too many of them like taking it lying down.