“Aanchal mein hain doodh, aankhon mein hai paani. Aurat teri yahi kahaani.” (bosom filled with milk, eyes filled with tears. Woman this is your story!) This quote by the poet Madan Mohan Malviya was a standard line used in most Hindi debates in our school. I studied in an all girls school, a convent school where empowerment of girls and women was the common motto and yet the sacrificing woman was the ideal. This was in the 80’s when the sacrificing mother was a common trope across most Hindi movies. She was always contrasted with the rich, westernised, selfish heroine who either had to die or had to be tamed and put in a conservative saree and bindi by the last shot.
I was reminded of those days when I read “that Long Silence” by Shashi Deshpande.The novel, first published in 1988, is about Jaya, an upper middle-class housewife who is also a writer and her relationship with her husband Mohan, who is under interrogation for business malpractices when the novel begins. Yet what fascinated me in the novel were all these sacrificing, suffering women she portrays. A recurring quote in the novel by the protagonist Jaya’s aunt is that “a husband is like a sheltering tree,” and the fate the various women undergo when they lose that shelter. Jaya’s paternal grandmother spends her widowhood in an isolated room in the house where she sleeps on the bare floor and is obsessive about purity. She wears no jewellery, all her jewels are placed in a trunk and her head is tonsured. In no major culture around the world was a woman punished for losing her husband as Hindu women, especially of the upper caste, were for centuries and yet we considered this normal.
Jaya’s neighbour is also a widow but as a sign of the times, works as a teacher in a local school and doesn’t observe the same harsh rituals of an older generation. Yet she punishes herself with her obsessive fasts and the taunts of her mother-in-law with whom she still lives. She does this for the “happiness” of her daughter so that she has a “family” despite the fact that her mother-in-law despises and taunts her daughter every day for being dark skinned. Shashi Deshpande also chronicles the harsh life of the poor women who work for Jaya, women who are the family breadwinners working in the harshest circumstances and pay their no-good drunkard husbands protection money to call themselves married and to keep them safe from predators.
In the novel both Jaya and her husband Mohan, consider themselves victims. He, for finding less than legal methods to succeed because his family wants a better life never admitting that that’s what he wants too. Jaya for sacrificing her honest writing and taking care of the family to support his ambitions. Mohan thinks of himself as the ideal husband and father who treats his wife well unlike his own father who was abusive to his mother. Yet he cannot emotionally connect with his wife at all and cannot handle her emotional outbursts, he expects her to suffer in silence like his abused mother.
Later on, in the novel Jaya realises that a lot of what she feels she sacrificed because of her husband are things that she gave up on her own, while seeking the comfort of her own worm hole as she calls it. What the novel really highlights is that, where education and financial security may have changed for women, centuries of social conditioning haven’t changed the essential mindset of women silently sacrificing for the family.
Three decades later, a similar theme is explored in Neeraj Ghaywan’s short movie “Juice.” Shefali Shah plays a regular housewife who slaves away in a hot kitchen making food for a party as her husband and friends enjoy the cool comfort of a cooler in the living room. As the men talk about the politics of the day while making sexist jokes, their wives are with Shefali’s character in the hot kitchen. I felt like I was watching a retro movie where a scene like that would be common in the 80s and 90s. I thought that today in most urban settings the genders would not be segregated in a party and yet when I read the comments about how common this situation was, I realised that I was living in my own bubble. The movie was released a few years back, but I caught it recently through a reaction channel “Our Stupid Reactions.” Watching it with the two American actors who were appalled by the casual sexism and misogyny depicted in the movie really brought the point home.
Shefali plays an educated woman who gives up her career for the sake of taking care of her children but regrets her decision as she advises a pregnant friend who is planning to quit her job. The movie further depicts how the social conditioning works as the young girl is expected to help with laying the plates for dinner while the young boys continue to play video games.
The movie ends with Shefali’s character switching off the gas, getting a glass of cold juice and sitting in the living room in front of the cooler with the other men while her husband stares at her, appalled at her audacity. Even in her defiance, she is silent.
Sacrifice is a core concept of Indian civilisation, the very saffron in our flag represents it. Yet it is problematic when one half of the population is conditioned to silently sacrifice themselves at the altar of families that dismiss them with contempt.
Things may be changing a bit as can be seen in a recent Facebook post doing the rounds: