India is a conundrum. A land of spirituality – where people go to find themselves and learn about inner peace. A land of amazing beauty and architecture. Mountains, lakes, rivers, temples, noise, light, colour, songs. However, it is also a land of huge corruption at the highest levels. If you need something doing, you’d better be ready to grease the palms of all involved. It is a land of nepotism – not what you know, but who you know that matters. A land where the rich and wealthy live the most luxurious, extravagant lifestyles and where the poor – well it’s unimaginable the poverty and conditions in which they live.
Women in India? That is another conundrum. It is a land where females are worshipped as Goddesses, family honour is tied up with the virtue of women – and by the same token – women are no more than whores – there to be attacked and assaulted if she dares to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – the blame for assaults are still firmly placed on the shoulders of women. Families are intimidated into not reporting assaults with threats of further violence and defamation.
The current population of India is 1.37 billion (2016). It is criminal to tar all men with the same brush. There are men, who throughout the centuries have fought for the plight of women in India – and I’m going to focus today on some of these people.
My family roots are in Bengal, so my knowledge of India is based on this part of the world. Kolkatta, to be precise. My maiden name was Choudhury – which was a title that my great, great-grandfather bought many years ago. My dad always told me that the word Choudhury actually came from the Bengali words ‘Chotur dhoreen’ – which means owning or holding land in all 4 directions. It essentially meant that you were a landowner. Originally our surname was Mukherjee – the landowner title was taken to show off the new status and acquired wealth of my ancestors. The wealth and status that had been acquired was attributed to Gobardhan Mukherjee, who had become a notorious barrister in Bengal. A highly intelligent, sharp and ambitious man. A self made man, who knew the law inside out, never lost a case and invested money wisely. My dad used to tell me that there was still a bed, bought in the days that Gobardhan had first built his house, that was so strong that all the children of the house, years later would jump and down on the wooden frame to see if they could break it – they never could.
My dad and Grandfather would tell me tales of Gobardhan – and my mum…she introduced me to authors such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (BCC), Sarat Chandra Chatterjee…and Rabindranath Tagore.
All three of these authors would write novels, short stories and poems in both Bengali and English. What fascinated me about these authors was that more often than not, the protagonists would be female and the narrative would revolve around the struggles that ordinary women were going through at the time – and how they would fight society to overcome adversity.
One of the issues that particularly BCC and Tagore highlighted was the plight of widows in India at that time. Unfortunately, in India at that time, young girls were often married at puberty to men a lot older than they were. Puberty in some girls could start as young as 9, 10 or 11. Young wives, older men – the older husbands would often die by the time that their wives were in their 20’s or early 30’s. So how would these young widows fare? Some were sent back to their families and lived a life of a monk, isolated from everyone because it was of course her fault and her shame that her husband had passed away. Some widows were sent to live with other widows in ashrams, to spend the rest of their days contemplating their sins and praying – after all, it was their fault that their husbands had passed away. Living the life of a monk meant that these women could only wear white for the rest of their lives, never again were they to eat meat or fish, or onions or garlic (in case they inspired impure thoughts), they were never to indulge in any kind of sexual activity ever again, and just to make sure, some women would have to have their heads shaved to ensure that they did not attract or seek male attention of any sort. These were the lucky ones. The unlucky women were the ‘satis’. These widows were forced to sit on their husband’s funeral pyre and were given the privilege of being burnt alive – after all, why would they want to live a moment longer if their husband was no longer living in the world?
The afore mentioned authors, and other activists (male and female), highlighted the cruelty of these practices and some of these practices ended – ‘sati’ in particular. Some of the other archaic practices and attitudes still exist to this day.
When my father passed away, my mother was viewed as a pariah by many segments of the community. On his death-bed, my father told my mother that she should re-marry, she should wear and eat whatever she wanted and told her to live her life going forward…he knew what people were like. My mother never re-married. She was forbidden from eating meat and fish – something that her own parents found absolutely ridiculous and cruel, and ensured that was overturned as soon as they found out. She now wears whatever colours that she likes – egged on by me and my siblings – let anyone say anything to you about what you have chosen to wear, bought by your own money that you have earned – they’ll have us to answer to. It’s 2017 – and she still feels self conscious about wearing the colour red – the colour reserved for brides and married women. Well, rules are there to be broken. Especially, stupid, nonsensical, archaic ones.
The revolutionary in me, the freedom figher, the fighter against oppression, the refusal to bow down to what is wrong, began through reading, through knowing my own self worth. People may have looked down on me because I was a female, because I was not wealthy, because of my colour or religion or heritage…but it was the authors that I was exposed to from a young age, and the pride that my own family had in their roots and cultural heritage that made me walk around as though I was ten foot tall. One of my favourite books whilst growing up was a graphic novel based on BCC’s classic, ‘Devi Choudhurani’. In it, the eponymous heroine is abandoned by her spineless husband and circumstances mean that she becomes a notorious and feared dacoit in order to survive – a female Robin Hood, trained by another dacoit. Their goal was to rob from the cruel rich, to redistribute the wealth to the poor and needy. I don’t like the ending of the story, because she gives everything up to go back to her worthless husband (who, it transpires, loved her all along – but wasn’t able to be with her). This doesn’t ring true to me. But I’m guessing BCC wrote this story in the 1800’s and ended with something that was acceptable for the time that it was written in – I remain dissatisfied.
Meanwhile, it never fails to amuse me, that although so many people expect women with an Indian heritage to be meek and mild and easily subjugated – how we are indeed the complete opposite. I realise as I write this, that this is true for all women. Even now, we do not have equal pay, equal opportunities to progress in our careers, equal say in so many issues…but we won’t give up. There is a wind of change. Progress may be slow – but we will get there. Meanwhile, women need to support each other in the battles that we face. We need to help one another to move forward. Regardless of heritage, colour, religion, age – the battles that women face – are the same.