May 25, 2020
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Home Alone

Stereotypes can't confine her anymore as the urban woman redefines her place in the family

Home Alone
Satayaki Ghosh
Home Alone
She's feeling at home with her choices; the new choices she's making at home. "Just because I can't find the right man to marry doesn't mean I can't be mom," says Chandigarh-based journalist Nanki Hans, 41, a single mother who conceived her son through artificial insemination eight years ago. Just as unwilling to accept marriage as synonymous with "settling down" for women, Srabasti Banerjee, 36, teacher at Calcutta's Haryana Vidyamandir school, savours her singledom: "Why should I have to identify myself in relation to someone else? I don't want my life dictated by a husband."

As averse to being ruled unquestioningly by family mores prescribed for women, married Rashida Bi, 48, insists that her mother stays with her and not with her brothers. "It's a bold decision, given that women are considered paraya dhan (someone else's property), but I won't have it any other way." Like Pushpa Bhagat at 73, seven years since her husband's death, has been living life on her own terms, and on her own, in Mumbai: "I am emotionally close to my children but I like my own space and I like to be independent."

Much younger at 33, J. Seema Varma's reasons for deciding to work and stay alone in Pune are similar: "It is absolute peace of mind to live by yourself. I have the priceless freedom to make my own choices."

No, these women aren't members of some banner-brandishing sorority hailing in Feminist Family Politics in Latter-Day Hindoostan. They are ordinary women, unknown to each other, who are reshaping and redefining their families, to make the family that was always theirs, now more about them and their needs. Rewriting the rules that neatly divide a woman's life between her paternal and matrimonial homes—being married or unmarried, mother, single mother, or remaining childless, living away from spouse, having their parents living with them, or living alone away from parents—are all to be their choices now. They are realigning relationships, forging new bonds and creating novel coalitions within the domestic space; a domain where, traditionally, Indian women have mostly had no other choice but to be inmates to their fathers, husbands and then sons. But not much longer, if these women—young and old, from small towns and big metros—have their way. Separately and yet together, quietly and yet assertively, they are challenging and changing the patriarchal order in their families, their microcosms, and in turn, altering their macrocosm bit by bit.

For, a gender-equal family is a prerequisite to the making of a gender-equal world. Or is it the other way round? "The women's struggle for the right to choices in the public sphere has now percolated down to the most private space of all, the family," observes Gargi Sen, documentary filmmaker and teacher of mass communication theory at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University. Sen, 41, has been "happily married" to Lucknow-based political activist Sujit Ghosh, 48, for the past eight years now and the couple has a two-year-old daughter who stays with her mother: "I've thought out all the choices I have made—to work, to marry, to live life separated from my spouse, to have and raise a child almost single-handedly. It's simple: marriage, for me, won't work if it is only about me prioritising being with my husband over everything else."

Fired by a similar instinct, lawyer and municipal councillor Rupa Sriwastawa, 38, works and lives with her 14-year-old son in Madhya Pradesh's Narsinghpur. Her bank employee husband is posted 300 km away from her, in Balaghat district. "Everyone suggested I should shift in with him when he was transferred three years ago," she recalls, "But I decided to stay back for the sake of my career. I often have to decide between wanting to drop everything to rush to him, and not leaving my cases, my clients in the lurch".

Always conscious of her duties and responsibilities within the family, a sense of her entitlements within it is increasingly dawning upon the Indian woman today, diagnoses Neeru Kanwar, Delhi-based clinical psychologist and senior member of the Indian Association of Family Therapists. "Women are articulating their needs in their families more than ever before. Ranging from 'I don't feel you touch me enough' to 'I feel the need for private space'—wants that were not only unvoiced earlier, but perhaps not even felt or recognised by women themselves."

That's because the woman's role, and place, in the Indian family drama has always been so severely scripted. As sociologist Imtiaz Ahmad notes in his work, Between the Ideal and the Real: Gender Relations within the Indian Joint Family: "Elders bless young girls and women by wishing them a large number of sons. The notion of the greater value of sons is further strengthened by the existence of special worships, fasts, and observances that are performed by women to have sons and to ensure the long life for sons already born. A baby girl who precedes the birth of a son comes in for special praise as auspicious. In brief, the process of socialisation through rituals and ceremonies, and the use of language (proverbs, blessings, songs, modes of chastisement, among several others) is geared towards dramatising the woman's inherently temporary membership in her natal home and her non-functionality from the point of view of continuing a family."

Added to that, internalised images of the idealised family, glorified and mythologised in Indian life and culture, censor all the violence that plays itself out against women in the domestic arena. Only over the recent past, in fact, has feminist scholarship produced new descriptions of family experiences that show up the horrors unleashed upon many girl children and women within the walls of their homes. Neglect, discrimination, child sexual abuse, incest, harassment for dowry, physical battering, verbal and emotional abuse, psychological torture, marital rape.... The home and family, many women argue, have hardly ever even been safe spaces for them. Forget being nurturing grounds that enable and empower their decision-making processes.

"It's sad to see employed women consulting their husbands before even buying saris for themselves," shares Chennai-based Dr Prithika Chary, 57, the country's only woman neurologist-cum-neurosurgeon, "Women in traditional roles try to be so many things to so many people that they disappear in the process." Standing tall by the personal choices she has made for herself, Prithika has never felt her life's less complete because she's preferred to remain single. "Younger women today, who're making similar decisions, are faring much better though. For instance, today's girls can have relationships with men that are asexual. That wasn't the case when I was young," she recalls, "With two married sisters, I took care of my parents till their death, but my father always griped about not having birthed a son."

The existing value paradigm refuses to acknowledge, let alone appreciate, the changes in family that are being sought by many of today's women. Sacrifice, unconditional giving, male notions of fidelity, loyalty and compliance have counted for womanly virtues in the family so long. Follows then that any personal choices she makes contrary to these qualities are seen as misconduct, and find her at the receiving end of societal backlash.

Not only did no one understand why a management trainee at Airtel, Bulbul Jaidka, 23, would want to stay separately in a flat in Mohali, so close to her parents' house in Chandigarh, but "I know that some of my father's friends even called me names for living alone". What "people would say or think" about a young unmarried daughter living alone in the same town as them had been a concern with Bulbul's parents anyway.But they supported her when she explained herself: "This flat is my own. Here, I can be myself. I know that three or four years down the line I'll get married and that will bring with it its own shackles."

Even after seeing Gargi Sen thriving in her long-distance marriage for so many years, many an acquaintance still views her case as a failed wedlock: "I have been asked why I can't hold him, make him a family man!" In small-town Narsinghpur, when lawyer Rupa insisted on staying separately from her husband for her career, disapproving people plied her with unsolicited advice on the need to observe wifely duties. Her in-laws had anyway objected to the choices she'd made even earlier: "They didn't want me to put my llb to use, they insisted I be a good housewife. My husband helped me stand my ground."

Likewise, Nanki draws support and strength from her father to deal with "snide remarks and sniggers" for being a single, artificially-inseminated mom: "Initially, my neighbours were hostile towards me, but my father's acceptance of me changed that somewhat. Then, when my son grew up, they wouldn't talk to him or let their children play with him. During his admission into school, the clerk wouldn't accept my form because my son had no father. Finally I had to undergo a special interview with the principal who wanted to be assured that I was the right kind of parent."

Ergo the need to enact legislation, form new mediation structures and support networks to deal with the many new choices that women today are making to rewrite the rubric of the family, advocates Vibhuti Patel of Mumbai University's Centre for Women's Studies. "For instance, with such large numbers of women opting to be single mothers now, a procedural infrastructure to accommodate and facilitate their choice must be created," the activist-academic argues. "Too many women are making these choices for them to be treated as just personal decisions, these choices must start reflecting in policy and legislation."

But do even existing laws and rights find gender-sensitive interpreters? Sample this Delhi High Court ruling (Harvinder Kaur versus Harmander Singh, 1984): "Introduction of constitutional law in the home is most inappropriate. It is like introducing a bull in a china shop. It will prove to be a ruthless destroyer of the marriage institution and all that it stands for. In the privacy of the home and the married life, neither Article 21 (Right to Life and Liberty) nor Article 14 (Right to Equality) have any place."

So, till appropriate laws and their apt interpreters are in place, women who are redesigning their families to fit their dreams and desires will have to invent their own coping mechanisms. And many of them seem to be doing it by simply deciding to enjoy their new set-ups.

Bangalore-based sisters Gauri and Kavita Lankesh not only preclude, they sometimes even pre-empt society's reactions to their forty-something singlehood. Editor of Lankesh Patrike, a popular Kannada weekly tabloid, Gauri has been divorced for nearly two decades now; her sister Kavita, an award-winning filmmaker, is also divorced. Kavita recently became a single mom. She chose to mark the event not by reticence, withdrawal, or explanations, but a celebration of the birth of her new family: Kavita spoke to the national and regional press about her single motherhood, even posed with her baby for the media. Say the sisters: "We've found our rhythm in life."

So has Calcutta's Binapani Ghosh at 76. Sixteen years ago, after her husband's death, each of her three children wanted her to live with them, but she refused them all. "It's great to have my children live close by, but this is my home.I don't want to trade it for staying cooped up in a room in someone else's house." Instead of being an appendage to her children, in fact, Binapani has her granddaughter Atreyee, a management student, staying with her.Well, whenever the girl's at home, that is. Life is a happy story for Binapani, punctuated by cleaning, cooking, shopping, Uttam Kumar matinees on TV, film rags, her morning-walk friends. Just as Mumbai's Pushpa Bhagat, about Binapani's age, and also staying by herself, says: "How times have changed, women can choose to be so much more today." Because Pushpa doesn't have to play the bhajan-singing granny today, she has her friends coming over, serves them drinks and sometimes even goes to the bar with them.

"Of course, more and more women are restructuring their families around their own needs today. And not just upper-middle-class urban women, but even women living in our small towns. But we shouldn't just stop at recognising this as a trend, we have to work at further energising this trend," says Ranjana Kumari of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Sciences, "because the family, in its conventional mould, has often been an oppressive institution for the woman, battering her, subsuming her." But not much longer. Because her quest to find the New Family has begun. And she's discovering Herself on the way. And the Togetherness she is in search of.

Inputs by Chander Suta Dogra in Chandigarh, Labonita Ghosh in Calcutta, K.S. Shaini in Bhopal, Sugata Srinivasaraju in Bangalore, Harsh Kabra in Pune, S. Anand in Chennai and Saumya Roy in Mumbai
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