I grew up in a more or less traditional home in south India, dysfunctional as most homes all over the planet inevitably are, whether on the surface or deep in the bowels of core relationships. The tacit understanding that men ruled the roost certainly permeated our domestic atmosphere.
Despite his liberal attitude towards educating all his children, my father was the undisputed patriarch. None of us—least of all my dutiful and submissive mother—dared challenge even his most ridiculous orders. A brilliant and charismatic man who could enthrall a roomful of guests with his easy raconteuring, my father’s rage could incinerate, while his scathing tongue could eviscerate—and so we obeyed him without demur, at least on the shifting surface of things.
Our society was studded with double-standards that applied to every aspect of our lives. And yet most women in our community, and outside of it, it seemed to me, had accepted their lot. Some were born docile and did not see anything wrong with playing second, third or nth fiddle; others were born under a lucky star—their men were sympathetic and pliable and life appeared to be pretty damn good; still others toed the line simply because they had no option—since women were not encouraged to enter the mainstream and to fend for themselves, existence could be pure hell if they incurred the ire of their menfolk.
The Indian patriarchy, like all virulent cancers, has a gazillion ways of perpetuating itself. One major trap: every married woman was urged to have children as soon as possible. The pressure to be the mother of many sons was so enormous that many sank into deep depression when this did not happen. (Read: May You Be The Mother Of A Hundred Sons, by Elisabeth Bumiller). And once children came, so did slavery; burdened by hungry mouths to feed, at the mercy of menfolk who held firmly on to the family purse-strings, mothers had even less time to think about, let alone challenge, the patriarchy.
And God forbid a woman should complain about an abusive husband! Often she would be ostracized, by her own mother-in-law, sisters-in-law and other female elders, who would waste no time putting her “in her place”. That rare woman with the guts to fight back was attacked as a “shrew”, a hard-nosed bitch, or even a “ghodi”, meaning a horse—a fast , and therefore a bad, woman. (Naturally there were exceptions to this generalization.)
While my own father made no bones about his desire to transform his children into a troop of professors, doctors and diplomats, his liberal attitude did not extend to dissolving the norm of arranged marriage—a hated prospect that hung over my little rebel head like a cruel sword of Damocles. I would grumble to my mother that there was little point in educating us if we were going to be shoved into marriage and forced to have one kid after another. What’s going to happen to my fabulous brain? I’d demand. “And how can you decide who I should live with, sleep with, cook for—for the rest of my life?” (My mother would point to a gray hair or two on her head and cite me as the sole cause of her rapid aging.)
“Be a good girl now,” she would warn. “If you’re lucky, your husband will let you do whatever you want. Love comes after, not before marriage.” The word “good” was thrown at us so often that I cringed to hear it. What about being an original, excellent, humane, exciting, creative, and liberal human being?
As for bad girls—those who brought shame to the family mainly by misbehaving with boys—they were reminded that the entire family would suffer on their account. After all, which decent family would permit their children to marry into a family of bad seeds?
So poisonous doses of emotional blackmail were thrown into the simmering witches cauldron, and I for one felt more and more trapped as I moved into my teenage years.
I sought out other girls who equally dreaded the time when we would be thrust into the marriage market—to have our values assessed in terms of dowry, the fairness of our complexions, culinary and other domestic skills, and most critical of all, our ability to please husband and in-laws. (While the practice of giving dowry has been declared illegal for decades now, it continues to flourish; women are harassed, even burned to death, if their families are unable to satiate greedy in-laws. In some truly hideous cases, a man marries, gets a good dowry, kills his bride in collusion with his mother, gets away with it, either by bribing the cops or by faking a credible accident, and then goes bride-hunting again….tra la la la la).