Engrossed in my thoughts on women empowerment, I mechanically stared outside my window. A huge serpentine queue of women had formed to do darshans of Goddess Mahalaxmi on the auspicious seventh day of Navratri (the nine holy days before Dashera, the day good won over evil). Amidst the flurry of traffic I could spot yellow, pink, orange and purple sarees; giving the serpent a definite soul and character. But why was I seeing only women in that queue? Maybe because my mind was tuned into a station that continuously repeated that women pray a lot more?
As I stepped out into the humid evening, on my weekly visit to the smaller temple just before Mahalaxmi, I realised that I would have to navigate alongside the slow moving reptile line. Awesome! Would give me a glimpse into reality; and that it did! Lo and behold, what I saw from my window was part truth. There were actually two queues, one for men and the other for women. The reason I saw only women was because of the vibrant saree colours and the fact that their queue was on the outside towards the road; while the men in their whites, creams and browns stood on the inside, awaiting equally patiently to reach the temple. How perceptions and preconceived notions can condition the human mind, and colour the thinking of even the educated and aware!
Today we fervently believe that predominantly in the Indian society women have no voice and little choice. We are made to be the gravely oppressed, who have to pick up arms and fight for all the wrongs that the world has committed against us for decades together now. But when I look closer to home, I see examples of some exemplary women who have lived through their struggles, worked against all odds and created happy lives for all those who are in their inner circle. They could do this, in my view, only because they did not feel like the victims that society makes women out to be. They are the happiest of the people I know only because they lived life making their choices. They could make their selection only because they understood that everything can easily be seen to be ugly, but the search for beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. I want to tell you three stories, of three such women who I have come to respect and admire. After that it is up to the more evolved readers to decide whether to agree with, disagree with or be indifferent to my view point.
Pride without Prejudice
It was the late 1960s. She was the pretty and educated daughter of an Indian Revenue Services officer stationed in the small town of Kota, in the desert state of Rajasthan. Her family hailed from Uttar Pradesh and wanted her to get married into a nice family from their part of the country. Soon she was of a marriageable age and her father sought out a groom. Of course her consent was taken, the future life comforts considered; and with great pomp and show the wedding was concluded. The new bride, with her dreams and hopes, made way to the small town of Lakhimpur; 800 kilometres away from her parents. She was told that she should call if there was anything that she was uncomfortable with and not resort to a letter, the most common communication medium of the times.
Like most women moving into a new way of life post marriage, she was nervous. But she trusted the man she was to spend the rest of her life with and so she was ready adapt. After all, adaptability comes more naturally to women who are even able to mould their bodies to bring another life into this world. But what she came face to face with, no woman, including today’s empowered lot could have dealt with. The man she called husband was already married, not only that, he had two children from the first wife. Why did he get married a second time, I have never asked and do not know. What I do know is that when they got married the first wife had been sent back to her parents, never to return.
There was turmoil and there was devastation that seemed to be all around her. This was not the new life she had dreamed of. This is not what she had left her loving and protected home for. At the tender age of 19 or 20, she did not know what had hit her and what should she do. Before she made up her mind, she decided to think. And in her words, there was no fun in being considered a victim. Her choices were to stay in or call off the marriage. But before she could decide which road to traverse, she wanted to restore the rights and honour of the first wife. A brave and bold move, one that I do not think I would have considered being mine for the undertaking.
So the first wife and the two children were met, got back home, and the husband given an ultimatum that if they were to be sent back or discriminated against then a police complaint would be a certainty. There was no support system at her disposal as she contemplated and executed her actions. The in-laws were enraged, the husband hostile and her own mind undecided. Yet she followed her heart, no self pity in mind and no feeling of loss enveloping her aura.
Having gotten to understand the first wife, another conversation with the husband ensued. Now she would want to make use of her education and start to teach in a school. While she would be earning, the first wife would take care of the home and the children. The husband was not allowed to object. That was her condition. She would only concede in trying to understand him if this was acceptable. And so it was. Against all his wishes he allowed her to start working. She started to understand him and he began to see her strength.
It was when there was some peace returning, that her family found out. The father rushed from Kota to take his innocent and wronged daughter back, use his influence in the services to punish the man and his family and to find another loving and more deserving man for his daughter. But she refused. What if the second man turned out to be a lazy non-achiever? What if the next man was one who believed in extramarital affairs? What if the other chance she wanted would mean she would need to be stuck at home and not be able to teach, a dream she had harboured forever? Against all assurances, parents’ pleading and world view of justice and rights; she decided to play the hand she was dealt with, with confidence and equanimity.
Her career progressed and she graduated from being a school teacher to being a college principal. She had two children who were looked after by the first wife while she worked. All four children knew her story and for them she was the anchor of their lives. The first wife loved her more than God and the husband died in her debt. After her husband and the first wife died, one of the four children succumbed to some sudden illness. Now there are three children and more than half a dozen grandchildren who vie for her love and attention. Now she is retired and spends time in an old people’s home not wanting to be a burden on any child. Now she tells her story with a smile and a belief that all the love, satisfaction and glory she found; was because she knew that no one could hurt her unless she let them.
Truly empowered, she has led an inspirational life; but her empowerment did not come from any enablers from the society or from a support system that righted her wrong. Her confidence and ability to choose for herself are what have let her lead a fulfilling life, a story every time I recount gives me goose bumps. No outsider can sanction such self belief and strength. And so I go back to saying that the fight for women empowerment needs to be a movement to build a more confident, compassionate and capable next generation.
The next two stories will follow over the next few days.