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The Indian Family in Transition

2 The Indian Family in Transition

Contents 3

The Indian Family

Reading Literary and Cultural Texts


Sanjukta Dasgupta
Malashri Lal

Copyright Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal, 2007

Copyright Meena Alexander for Hunting for Fish, 2007
Copyright Shashi Deshpande for Looking Back, 2007
Copyright Makarand Paranjpe for Small-Scale Reflections on an Ancestral Home, 2007
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any
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or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing
from the publisher.
First published in 2007 by
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Published by Vivek Mehra for Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, typeset in
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Available
Culture and the making of identity in
ation1947. 2. FeminismIndia. 3. IndiaHistoriography. 4. Science
Study and teachingIndia. I. Ganesh, Kamala. II. Thakkar, Usha. III. Asiatic
Society of Mumbai.
ISBN: 978-0-7619-3568-1 (Hb)

978-81-7829-728-6 (India Hb)

The Sage Team: Sugata Ghosh, Janaki Srinivasan and Sanjeev Sharma

Introduction by Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal



As the Husband, so the Wife
Old Patriarchy, New Patriarchy and Misogyny in
One Late Nineteenth-Century Domestic Science Manual
Judith E. Walsh



Women and Agency
Vignettes from Indian Families
Mukul Mukherjee


Modern Families and Independent Living
Reflections on Contemporary Aging
Sarah Lamb


6 The Indian Family in Transition

Women and the Naga Family Today
Communitarianism in Practice
Bonita Aleaz



Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction
Jayita Sengupta


Imagined Family
Pangs of Transition
Esha Dey


The Politics of Home and Food in
Jhumpa Lahiris Interpreter of Maladies
Irma Maini


Representation of the Family in
Marathi Autobiography Written by Dalit Women
Pushpa Bhave


Real and Imagined Gujarati Families
Shifting Positionalities of Gender in Contemporary
Gujarati Womens Writings
Sutapa Chaudhuri


Contents 7

Hypocrisy and Hollowness in the
Indian Joint Family System
A Study of Mahesh Dattanis Plays
Arpa Ghosh


Reflections of Family and Women
in Telugu Literature
A Look at Womens Fiction
N. Venugopal Rao


Globalization and Diasporic Family Dynamics
Reconciling the Old and the New
Mary Mathew


Food, Family, Widowhood in
Ashapurna Devis Short Fiction
Naina Dey


The Self and the Family in Telugu Womens Poetry
M. Sridhar and Alladi Uma



The Family in Flux
The Decimated Family in Rituparno Ghoshs Films
Shoma A. Chatterji


8 The Indian Family in Transition

The Reel Indian Family
Reflections from Celluloid
Meghna Gulzar


Hunting for Fish
A Poem
Meena Alexander


The Family
As I Saw it, as I See it
Vidya Bal


Thoughts on Home
Nonda Chatterjee


Looking Back
Shashi Deshpande


Small-Scale Reflections on an Ancestral Home
Makarand Paranjape


Indian Families in the World
Forty Years in Manitoba
Uma Parameswaran


Contents 9

A Dialog with Amartya Sen
Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal
About the Editors and Contributors



A number of the essays included here were published in the last four
issues of Families: A Journal of Representations (20022004). However,
on request, most of the contributors meticulously revised their essays.
We also wish to thank those who have written specifically for this
book, despite the constraints of time. We wish to acknowledge our
deep gratitude to all our distinguished contributors and the subject
experts who gave us advice. We must also mention that a Fulbright
Alumni Initiative Award (20012003) made possible the journal,
Families, which eventually led to this book. We thank the Womens
Studies & Development Centre of the University of Delhi for hosting
a seminar on Families in India and the USA, from which two invited
papers emerged. Our thanks are expressed to the Womens Studies
Research Centre, Calcutta University, where the Families project was
inaugurated, and the Department of English, University of Calcutta
for providing the impetus for much of the research. Our own families
have given us ideas and experience in handling the subject. We express
thanks to Anjan Dasgupta and Robey Lal in particular.

Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal
Societies change but there are limits to change. Certain traits which are
the product of centuries of conditioning, do not change, and it is these that
provide the distinctive cultural label to a people. Others can be diluted or
Pavan K. Varma, Being Indian, 2004
If there is one ism that governs Indian society and its institutions, it is
Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar, The Indians, 2007

It is indeed very hard to imagine an individual without a family or
at least a family address. Due to unusual circumstances those who
have been disassociated from their families in childhood and youth
have also tried to identify kinship bonds, often excavating lost roots
in order to re-locate themselves within familial structures. The security
of group identity and the fulfillment of a deep emotional need have
tended to be a source of familial power, trust and interdependence
through historical time. Anderson and Sabatellis definition of the
family is quite unsurpassed in this respect as the definition locates
the crucial roles and responsibilities of family members as a linked
entity, an interdependent group of individuals who have a shared
sense of history, experience, some degree of emotional bonding, and devise strategies for meeting the needs of individual members and the

12 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

group as a whole (1999: 16). It is by now somewhat clichd to even
suggest that readers and researchers of family structures and kinship
studies should regard Frederick Engels The Origin of the Family, Private
Property and the State as a foundational text, despite the fact that the
world has become far more complicated than the 1880s.
The family has inevitably been the site for challenges, changes and
compromises. In recent times the validity of the monolithic concept
of family has been interrogated frequently. Consequently, the problematics of gender, class, religion and culture form an integral part
of any discourse that prioritizes the family as agency. Globally, in all
cultures, the position of the family has been redefined. Yet despite
disturbing statistics of the gradual disintegration of the urban middleclass family and erosion of family values resulting in a paradigm shift,
the need for familial bonding has simultaneously re-emerged, debunking the notion that contemporary times register the death of the family.
Interestingly, the year 1994 was declared by the United Nations to
have been the International Year of the Family and the one-liner slogan
Building the smallest democracy in the heart of society (Desai and
Thakkar, 2000: 85) clearly underscores the ideological interconnections between the family and the state. The approach paper of the Indian
Government regarding the International Year of the Family significantly stated, If the family is facing problems of instability and
disintegration today, it is not because women are asking for their rights.
It is because of the socio-economic changes, market forces, consumerism and environment degradation that contemporary families are
facing a range of challenges for survival (ibid.: 92).
Interestingly, though focusing specifically on the transformations
in the American family, Judith Stacey highlights global changes that
have re-situated and often altered the very definition of the traditional
institution of the family. This perhaps indicates that globally, in the
urban social environment the family system has to be re-defined, for
it is in this re-invention of its status that the family can continue to
provide unconditional support to its members. Referring to the United
Nations definition of the International Year of the Family, 1994,
Stacey dismissed it categorically as false gender neutrality and proposed the re-definition of the family according to the changing social environment of contemporary times, It is time to lay to rest the
ghost of The Family so that we may begin to build a safe world for
living families. The family is dead! Long live our families! (Stacey,
1996: 51). In the context of the contemporary need to re-define the
Indian family system, Bina Agarwal wrote, In general, harmony and

Introduction 13

equality do not appear to be characteristic features of most Indian

families. The ideal Indian family, which people feel will break up
with womens economic independence, is more imagined than real.
Perhaps it is time for us to rethink families more realistically, and to see
if they can be transformed into the families of peoples imagination
(Thapar, 2000: 55).
That conditions in India are culturally coded by class and location
is revealed in a fascinating analysis of short fiction that discusses
Indian attitudes to romance and family structures. Amita Tyagi
Singh and Patricia Uberoi conclude, The sheer volume of stories of
conjugal relation not only affirms the vulnerability of boy-girl romance
encounters outside the context of marriage, but, more positively,
confirms that romance after marriage is a preoccupation for Indian
women. In fact, one is tempted to suggest that stories of post-marital
romance may be a sub-continental contribution to the international
genre of womens romance fiction (Singh and Uberoi, 1994: 100).
The survey shows that the imaginary ideal of an Indian family requires
the wife to be glad to sacrifice personal aspirations for the larger good
and that marital relations are to become cemented between spouses
through mutual understanding over time. By contrast, the western
view of romance is based on premarital courtship.
The significance of the family emerges as an inherent feature of
social and human capital when gender and power relations in both
advanced and developing locations of culture are re-evaluated. This
is the overwhelming perception of the time-tested functioning of the
family within the patriarchal structure, whether it is in India or in
other developing countries, whether it is diasporic Indian families in
new locations, or even families in first world societies, to a large extent,
though the differences are as problematic as the sameness. Vrinda
Nabar asserted that the Indian middle class is representative of the
winds of change and can also be identified as symptomatic of what
may be defined as a collective Indian identity and Indianness and
she observed, The middle class world view may be defined as broadly
Indian. It is one which is defined in terms of family and community.
Commitment and responsibility to both are visualized in context of
tradition (Nabar, 1995: 49).
Our book endeavors to bring together in a single volume, aspects
of the contemporary Indian family in transition, by exploring and
exposing how the Indian family needs to be re-defined. The institution
has undergone a very significant paradigm shift due to the effect of
rapid industrialization, emergence of new technologies with their

14 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

impact on tradition and culture, and, of course, globalization on both
economic and cultural levels. The uniqueness of this anthology lies
in the fact that the chapters included here will focus on precisely those
aspects that Patricia Uberoi acknowledges is not quite represented in
her seminal book of chapters Family, Kinship and Marriage In India:
Very few of the papers in this collection directly address themselves to
the experiential problems of Indian family life and the practical politics
of contemporary Indian kinship and marriage. (1999: 2)

Also, Uberoi makes a very significant observation about the fact

that family studies have often been reduced to being regarded as a soft
area that is more about commonsense rather than a strictly academic
discipline. Uberoi makes a succinct observation about this reluctance
to address familial issues and the lack of empirical data, It is very
hard to pinpoint where commonsense leaves off and academic
sociology begins. In this case one feels that reluctance to address the
subject of the Indian family stems not from the unimportance and
marginality of the field, rather from its importance and sensitivity (ibid.: 1). In another section of the same book of essays, Uberoi
sums up by admitting, as she had done previously, that sociological
documentation of interpersonal relationships within the domestic
space is rare or not quite possible due to finely nuanced differences
characterizing families despite certain overt common socio-economic
Very few of these papers presented in this section give an idea of the
quality of interpersonal relations in the Indian family: this is more likely
to be found in the writings of psychologists and psychoanalysts or, better
still, in creative writings, cinema, the popular and performing arts, and
so on (ibid.: 392).

Similarly, Peterson and Lewis argue that though there is a significant

amount of literature about the social constructions of gender, these
are rarely linked with the economics of the family. They suggest,
One agenda for feminist economics is to identify the sources of
inequality in the family and identify policies which promote more
equal gender relations in families (Peterson and Lewis, 1999: 33435).
The infinite variability of inter-personal relationships within the
family, which is essentially about power relations and emotional
commitment, can be a daunting task for collecting statistical data,

Introduction 15

due to the fact that family members have a dual identity as a member
of the family and as an individual person within the shared space.
Amartya Sen writes, Family arrangements are quintessential examples of such cooperative conflict. The special nature of family
lifeleading joint lives and sharing a homerequires that the
elements of conflict must not be explicitly emphasized. Indeed,
dwelling on conflicts rather than the familys unity tends to be seen
as aberrant behavior (Sen, 2005: 242). Films and fiction among other
literary and cultural genres have been able to delve into these tensions,
dualities and paradoxes that are integral to family dynamics and may
be looked upon as a rich resource for understanding family complexities.
Increasingly, however, it is becoming apparent that family studies
and comparative family studies is emerging as a crucial interdisciplinary field enabling academic cross-fertilization crucial for a
holistic understanding of the local and global shifts, fissures and
changes that re-define the importance of the family in the twenty
first century. As is obvious, our interest is to explore and expose the
modifications that the Indian family structure has undergone through
critiquing literary and cultural representations. The historian Rajat
Kanta Ray in his book Exploring Emotional History has identified that
the study of literature can be the best way to understand the collective
and individual mentality within a particular culture. This can be an
ideal project for the historian who would chart the emotional history
of a culture (Ray, 2001: 7). He further elaborates, A possible guide
for an expedition into the emotional history of a past culture would
be the contemporary writer and critic the poet and novelist must be
the historians companion in the journey ( ibid.: 7). Can we suggest
that literature read in this manner, in order to analyze the relationship
of the gendered personality in terms of the home and the world, the
public and the private and the inherent sexual economies can thus be
defined as interpersonal familial relationship studies?
It is this journey of exploration that we feel is crucial to the understanding of the transformations that are increasingly visible in twentyfirst century India. The paradigm shift in the upper-class, upper-caste
educated communities in the relationship between men and women
both at home and in the world has identifiable transformations in the
family structure of these social groups, and educated women belonging to these groups have enough enabling power to become active
agents of social change. Therefore, from the dependent women being
considered as the essential burden that society has to bear for its
collective self-sustenance, women in families are now able to sustain

16 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

themselves through their professional skills and therefore the educated
women remaining dependent on male members of the family has
now become a matter of choice rather than compulsion. In a way,
female victimhood and male machismo have to some degree become
a matter of specific conditions, not a pattern, at least in the case of
the urban and suburban upper classes.
This shift in the socio-economic structure of the mostly urban and
quite often suburban families, with married heterosexual couples as
earning members, has changed the family set-up and the roles of
the family members, including the children. In the absence of joint
families and obliging relatives or active grandparents, children are
often admitted to day care facilities and crches, which is emerging
as a good option, as professional child care can be more effective
than very outmoded norms that untrained senior family members
may resort to. Though affection is a pre-requisite of child care it cannot
be a substitute for uninformed value systems that may create a culture
shock for the growing children as they negotiate the real world outside
their family homes. However, it is in literary writing, poems, short
stories, novels, plays as well as in films, TV and even commercial
advertisements that the ripples of change are being registered.
Sometimes the literary and cultural representations resist alternatives
and valorize the stereotypes, but we also notice a growing tendency
to engage with innovations in all aspects of family life from shared
domestic responsibilities to microwaved dinners.

The former President of India had addressed a group of Business
Management graduates from Wharton College in September 2004 and
among other observations about Indias growing economy and work
culture had also remarked, One of our strengths is our joint family
system. In this system a problem is no problem. In a nuclear family a
problem can destroy a family. However, this remark can be interpreted
as a metaphor for cultural inclusiveness and extended to the ideal
concept of vasudhaiva kutumbakum, the world as one family, without
supremacy of one over another, but a balance of power and agency
to all. This ideal condition, however, eludes the domestic space where
conflictual relation-ships are the cause of serious imbalances of power
within each family.

Introduction 17

The ancient myths and epics of India, the most well-known being
the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, enshrine a vibrant tradition of
familial relationships, deeply meshed in complicated kinship bonds
between blood relations of a wide span of the extended family that
owes its affiliation to identifiable, and very often, caste, property and
inheritance-specific origins. Indian family trees are like the great
Indian banyan trees with branches, roots and shoots creating a sense
of extraordinary longevity and interdependence. There are gnarled
knots of interests, along with emotions and filial obligations. Since
the Vedic times the joint or extended familial tradition was patriarchal.
Polygamy and polyandry were in prevalence. It was in relatively
modern times that monogamy and the nuclear family became a way
of life in Indian society.
Though anthropological data traces the origin and growth of the
Indian family, it is, however, in literature and other cultural representations that the structural composition and the emotional tensions
that are an integral part of the family are scripted. The grand epics that
are invariably about the much glorified joint family system, are smeared
in fratricidal blood, psychological conflict and physical combat between wives, brothers, uncles, cousins, siblings and other members
of the extended families that revolve like satellites around the principal
patriarchal authorities granted power and prestige. Each family structure is unique while records of births, deaths and marriages create an
infinitely variable structure that can often challenge conforming statistics, though the structure itself is constantly under threat from a volatile
field of unequal power politics.
Social scientists have identified how the four crucial institutions,
the state, the market, the community/civil society and the family/
kinship structures, are implicated in the discourse of understanding
gender positions in India. The dualities and contradictions implied
within the domestic space often come under the scanner resulting in
the rejection of myths: Family and community are metaphors for
the most sacred and most natural of relationshipsbetween children
and parents, wife and husband, sister and brother, devotee and god.
These are the relationships which provide emotional security, material support, care, a sense of belonging, status, legitimacy and social
identity. Simultaneously, the concrete experiences of women, young
and old, reveal that the family, household and community have been,
and are, spheres of inequity, constraint, oppression, even violence, embodying interests and power relations differentiated by gender and
age (Kabeer, 1999: 49).

18 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

Conflict of interests therefore becomes an integral part of a structure with such harsh binaries such as power and powerlessness contesting within a shared domestic space. From the violently opposed
aristocratic joint families of the epics to the bourgeois novels of the
nineteenth century and thereafter, the clash of interests within a family
have most often been about property and the accumulation or
enhancement of material wealth. Woman within a family has been
regarded as the outsider who is expected to conform to the regulations
of the marital home, with very low or non-existent agency. Ray observes, Material claims, accompanied by even stronger claims for
honor and affection generate ruthless battles for control over minds
and for the monopolization of affections. When sexual jealousy is
added to these ingredients the family, usually so tight in its structure,
begins to disintegrate (Ray, 2001: 184).
It is axiomatic therefore that the life of the family, its micro politics
and the spirit of the nation need not necessarily be intertwined, though
merging of national identities, group identities, family interests and
personal ambitions have been routinely enshrined in cultural representations. The role of woman within the family structure has most
often been that of an outsider/insider, acquiring various roles without
power from daughter to wife and mother and perhaps acquiring a
semblance of agency in the role of mother-in-law and grand-mother,
vicious and benign stereotypes respectively. This can be linked to the
feminist historian Geraldine Forbess caveat about following conventional periodization of Indian history for the understanding of
womens history, which is often a subterranean stream buried beneath
the overt national and political mainstream: By accepting conventional periodization, we miss the point that womens lives are not
determined solely by political events and ignore important continuities and discontinuities (Forbes, 2005: 16768).
Amartya Sen labels three broad categories that describe the family
system. These are (a) the glued-together family, which is a family with
no scope for individuality, where every decision is a consensual family
decision with no or low tolerance for individuality; (b) the super-trader
family where marriage is conceptualized as a two person firm and
either member being the entrepreneur who hires the other and receives
residual profit; and (c) the despotic family where the so called
inevitably male head of the family dictates and governs the subjectsmembers (Uberoi, 1999: 45255).
The fall out of the Indian government sponsored report Towards
Equality in 1974 led to interrogating myths and icons about the selfless

Introduction 19

womans role playing in a family: This meant breaking through the

image of the ideal Indian woman as accommodating, self-sacrificing,
and devoted to serving her family (Forbes, 2005: 244). Literature responded with lifting the veil and glancing behind the purdah and
burkha. Patricia Uberoi has rightly pointed out that sociological discourse is mostly indifferent to the micro politics of interpersonal
relationships, which literature and film represent with sensitive fidelity
and insight. Imaginary texts explore the dynamics of conjugal relationship in contemporary middle-class India and accord it legitimate space
in the contemporary urban, social and familial environment. Such
texts document how the conjugal bond is fraught with anxiety and
even conflict as women seek to adjust to their marital partners in
situations that are definitionally asymmetrical, now as in the past. It
is as though the new and hesitant privileging of conjugality has at the
same time constructed the marital bond as a site of conflict between
the sexes (Uberoi, 1999: 392). The eminent social scientist Andre
Beteille has identified a serious lack in sociological approaches
to the study of the contemporary urban middle-class family in India.
He points out that though overwhelmingly attentive to family and
caste and kinship relations, a dispassionate and critical examination
of the middle-class family and its role in the reproduction of
inequality is still wanting. The sociological studies of joint and
extended families do not address contemporary family relations that
literary texts and films do. So Beteille emphasises this lack or
inadequacy in the existing sociological discourse on the family: Not
much can be learnt from them about the interface between the family
and the new institutions of society We need to give a more central place
to the family in the sociology of India the sociological as opposed to the
Indological approach must take its orientation from the lived
experiences of the present rather than the presumed ideas of the past.
There is no better way of finding out what is modern and at the same time
Indian in our contemporary society and culture than by examining the family
(Beteille, 1999: 451). By identifying this vital lack in sociological studies
of the family, Beteille has simultaneously though quite inadvertently
privileged the importance of imaginary writing that aesthetically documents this gap and fosters negotiations and understanding.
In his seminal essay False Documents E.L.Doctorow has pointed
out the serious contribution of fiction, ironically described as false
documents, for exploring, exposing and understanding human life
and the world from an admirably holistic and unbiased position of
objectivity. A fiction writer is both a creator and a rapporteur, and

20 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

discerning readers are aware that facts are the images of history,
just as images are the facts of fiction (Doctorow, 1994: 161). These
false documents may be regarded as the most potent of all resources
that register the myriad stranded, multi-layered, nuanced and subtle
experience of life within the family system, of consenting individuals
sharing a common space.

This book is divided into six parts and twenty three chapters that
mark the evolution of the Indian family system through the colonial
times to the modern period. The British rule in India influenced both
the state apparatus and the cultural developments. As a result we
have positive records of schools being set up for female education,
sartorial sophistication in middle-class women adapting stitched
clothing such as blouses and petticoats, the abolition of the practice
of sati or widow immolation, interrogation of principles of selfeffacement on the part of women, questions about the basis of
domestic harmony and marital bliss. However, we also find negative
actions of the hegemonic state machinery in generating caste, class
and communal divisions. From the legacy of the colonial period,
post-independent India spawned numerous versions of cultural identity, showing up the complex intermixing that results from a protean
definition of nation and selfhood. The process of enquiry continues
till today as evidenced in the self-reflexivity that erupts at points of
communal violence or political rallying. Cultural documents respond
to these ground realities as many of the chapters in this volume illustrate.
The first part, Colonial Families: Re-visiting Tradition, looks into the
status of men and women within the customary Hindu family structure by addressing issues of belief systems and tracking the ripples of
change brought in through education and the nationalist movement.
One of the first texts that comes to the mind is of course the now
very well known first autobiography written by a woman, Amar Jiban
(My Life) by Rashsundari Devi, who lived from 1809 to 1896, and
published the first phase of her autobiography around the age of
sixty. Tanika Sarkar located the existence of about sixty five literary
texts by women writers of Bengal during the nineteenth century.
Rashsundari took great pains in order to become literate, learning

Introduction 21

the art of basic reading and writing through ingenuous strategies and
great secrecy. Her contribution to her marital home seemed to be
ceaseless hard labor in the kitchen, as home-cooked food by the wives
of the joint household was the required norm, in spite of there being
a number of servants to attend to various other menial jobs. Also,
multiple pregnancies and a high rate of infant mortality are all implied
in Rashsundaris statement that she had about ten or twelve children. Rashsundaris lament resonates as a collective lament of intelligent young women who had entered their marital homes as child
brides, and had been systematically denied education and any freedom
of choicesuch misery, only because one was a woman! We were
in any case imprisoned like thieves, and on top of that, reading was
yet another crime We suffered so much just to learn to read (Sarkar,
1999: 17172).
Interestingly, around the same time when Rashsundari had scripted
her autobiography with so much of hardship and inhibition, a younger
Marathi woman born in 1862, married at the age of eleven, lived
apart from her husband in her parental home till at the age of twenty
two when her husband, desirous of asserting his conjugal rights,
moved the Bombay High Court because his wife declined to co-habit
with him. A unique litigation process went on for a period of four
years, from 1884 to 1888. The Dadaji vs Rukhmabai case received overwhelming media attention, with the letters of Rukhmabai being published in The Times of India, in one of which, published on April 7,
1887, she directly addressed Queen Victoria as a colonized subject
and implored the Queens intervention so that the marriageable age
of Indian men and women were raised to 20 and 15, respectively
(Chandra, 1998: 217). Prior to this, Rukhmabai had published two
letters in 1885 using the pseudonym A Hindu Lady, which brought
to the fore the plight of child brides and young widows, who were
denied the advantage of education and freedom on the plea of samskar
and shastras. Rukhmabai was looked upon as an icon for the suffering
Indian women, while others saw personified in her their worst fears
about modernized women subverting family and society (ibid.: 1).
Chandra critiques the role of the British judiciary, which often seemed
to comply with indigenous customs and religious beliefs, it being
assumed that state interference in familial practices could lead to a
loss of faith in the good governance of the Queen on her colonized
subjects. Educated women within the family experienced a sense of
dual colonization, as national subjects and as subjects of the master
at home.

22 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

However, by the beginning of the twentieth century family life in
Bengal and even in other parts of India began to undergo some transition as observed by Dagmar Engels: After the turn of the century
patterns of conjugal life were more varied than they had been fifty
years before. In the late nineteenth century conjugal partnership and
a certain degree of female independence within the family was the
prerogative of Brahmo families who had internalized Victorian values
of partnership. After 1900 the strongest impulses for conjugal change
came from female education and the spread of nationalist consciousness (Engels, 1999: 89). Tagores novels and short stories such as Ghare
Baire, Chokher Bali, Streer Patra, among others, script the slow but steady
waves of reform that were eroding the obscurantist traditions held
sacred within the domestic space.
It is within this perspective of colonial India that we are privileging Judith Walshs very insightful reading of Satyacaran Mitras
manual of advice Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh (A Husbands Advice
to his Wife), where Walsh argues that such advice that encouraged
education and refined social skills in wives, was also a subtle strategic
tool to wean her away from her dedication to the chores of the joint
family. The wife was indirectly encouraged to question her servitude
and her lack of mobility and free thinking. The woman who was illiterate was not romanticized into being nurtured as a companionate
wife. Since our main focus will be post 1947, and postcolonial family
systems in India largely represented in the cultured, educated middle
classes, we decided that a single article on the family system in the
colonial times should suffice.
The second part, Postcolonial Families: Socio-economic Perspectives, explores the position of men and women as agents within the patriarchal
structure addressing issues of empowerment and the problems of
dowry, female feticide, compulsory marriage, domestic violence, child
abuse and inadequate care facilities for the elderly.
In 1884, Frederick Engels had made the historic observation about
the servitude of women within the family, as the man seized the
reins in the house also (Engels, 1985: 57) and Karl Marx had commented, The modern family contains in embryo not only slavery
(servitus) but serfdom also It contains within itself in miniature all
the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale within society and
its state (ibid.: 58). So quite out of keeping with the adage about the
virtue of charity beginning at home, gender inequality and oppression
has the carcinogenic potential to begin from home and spread through
the world. Therefore, it should be deemed quite appropriate that our

Introduction 23

first article in this section is by a Third World feminist economist who

describes the family/household as a gendered structure and explains
how women become victims in a patriarchal family structure. Mukul
Mukherjee argues that it is through education, economic self-reliance
and collective action that gender inequality in the domestic space
can be steadily erased. The anthropologist Sarah Lambs chapter on
aging and families across worlds addresses the growing problem of
providing care to senior citizens as nuclear families and working
couples and their growing children do not seem to have space for a
trigenerational family set-up any longer. She also looks at South Asian
diasporic families and American families, thereby providing a wide
perspective to the topic under discussion. The third chapter, on Naga
families by Bonita Aleaz, introduces a fresh paradigm of the family
in India, highlighting the sense of the communitarian in Naga systems.
As the North-East is still under-represented in our academic engagements and in our information database this essay provides a new
The third part, titled Literary Representations, addresses crucial issues
that register the overwhelming transformations as well as the consolidation of traditional practices within the elusive interior and fiercely
guarded space of the family. There is no normative structure for the
Indian family and the imagined as well as the real are intertwined.
Taking the cue from Patricia Uberoi we strongly feel that literature
more than any other intellectual field has very consistently recorded
the growth and transition of the family system, by incisively revealing its strengths and weaknesses. This has been accomplished meticulously by exposing the double standards, exploitation, hypocrisy and
the simultaneous emotional need for family bonding. The ten chapters
that analyze literary representations of the family in regional Indian
novels, plays and poetry and also in the comparatively global Indian
English writing not only invade a wide range of colonial and postcolonial spaces from the end of the nineteenth century to the present,
but are also able to critique the transformations and the repetition of
the stereotypes of our familial traditions.
As cultural commentators and critics who have been re-visiting
literary texts for decades we have noticed the absence of resource
material that addresses family issues represented in literature, films,
TV serials among others art forms. The reason for this absence is perhaps the sheer familiarity of the family structure. As a Bengali woman
author had once remarked about our journal, Families, All literature
is essentially about families. The remark, however, did not dampen

24 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

our spirits; we found that it was precisely because of the ubiquitous
nature of the family system that we could trace its evolution through
the tensions and triumphs integral to each family in local and global
contexts. We also noticed that local and global middle-class families
seem to experience similar concerns about power and position within
the home, fidelity of spousal partners, sibling rivalry, career of children, peer pressure and institutionalized ideologies. However, we
have decided to focus on Indian families in this book. Certain crossreferences are inevitable and in fact enhance the importance of the
family in all social groups in all cultures and locations.
Jayita Sengupta, in her contribution to this section, asserts that
Indian women were subjected to a triple-fold oppressive system: the
British patriarchal order, the brahmanical patriarchal order and the
hierarchical structure of the household. Sengupta explicates in some
detail several stories that bear out the insensitivity of the male family
members towards the women, thereby contributing to their severe
lack of self-esteem. Going back to the Vedic age and the epics and
coming to links in contemporary regional writing and Indian English
fiction, Sengupta finds a denial of identity and agency to individual
members of a family. Collectively, there exists a dangerous glorification of being glued together.
Naina Dey critically reads a story by Ashapurna Devi, a self-taught
Bengali woman whose prolific output has baffled many others as she
succeeded in writing between her domestic chores and her creativity
flowed out of her pen like a fountain. In the selected short story, Dey
focuses on the very common yet recurrent problem within families
the rivalry between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law about
sharing the son of the family who is also the husband of the bride.
This rivalry and a sense of vendetta seem to operate even when the
son dies and both women are widows. The story is set in rural Bengal.
Susie Tharu had observed, The widow is a figure whose very life is
marked by a specific death. She is vidhavawithout husbandand
consequently in need of sympathy and protection, but also of regulation and governance. Widow stories therefore are invariably also
historical engagements with questions of political order and citizenship (Rajan, 2000: 189).
Vegetarian food, which becomes the compulsory diet for widows,
is used in the short story as a metaphor for repressed desires. In this
case, the rage embedded in the relationship between the two widows
is extended to the mythic icon of the Goddess with the severed head.
Significantly, Martha Alter Chen in her study of widows in rural India

Introduction 25

had summed up, Stories abound of widows of all types, ranging

from passive victims to tyrannical matriarchs. Whether because of
their inherent nature or their particular circumstances, individual
women handle their widowhood differently: some submit passively
to the restrictions placed on widows, some accept the restrictions
having internalized the underlying ideology, some comply with them
to maintain the purity and honor of their family and community,
some protest the conditions under which they live, while others break
the rules to lead an independent life (Chen, 2000: 188). As a matter
of fact, misogyny as Milan Kundera had mentioned is not only malecentric, it is sometimes stronger in women, as women have been conditioned to hate each other and seek support from men. Though
Kunderas overt text is jocular in style, the implications are nonetheless serious. Esha Deys chapter prioritizes her own writing and
places it in the context of Bengali fiction of contemporary times. Such
an approach adds to the understanding of the ideological constructions and compulsions within a literary milieu.
In order to trace the wide ranging variability of family-centric relationships in India we have included a chapter on Gujarati families
in fiction, where Sutapa Chaudhuri focuses on traditional norms
being paradoxically liberating. The agency of women and even men
within the domestic space becomes skewed and a strange blend of
obscurantist, permissive and ethically bewildering value systems
emerge from these reflections. Pushpa Bhaves chapter on Marathi Dalit
autobiography goes beyond the middle-class frame and sensitizes the
reader to other important classes and castes that make up the multiethnic fabric of India. Alladi Uma and Sridhars chapter on family
representations in womens poetry, apart from reiterating the control
that women experience within the family, also highlights the fact that
womens poetry can intensely portray micro familial experiences. They
debunk the clichd notion that poetry is about transcendence and
metaphors that almost defy decoding by lay readers. N. Venugopal
Raos analysis of emergent families in literary texts contributes to
our understanding of South Indian families, primarily among Telegu
speaking people.
Arpa Ghoshs comments on joint families in Mahesh Dattanis
plays illustrate how various literary genres may delve into the now
familiar territory of distraught family relations. Here it is the dramatic mode that brings a piquancy by giving voice and stage presence
to the characters representing material, psychological, social or even
biological conditions.

26 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

Irma Maini and Mary Mathews chapters situate the cultural shock
and confusion of the migrant middle-class Indians who have voluntarily moved from the country of their origin and settled in a country
that has no apparent socio-cultural links with India. As a result, depression, febrile nostalgia, frustration, hopelessness and a chronic
sense of unease seem to vitiate the psychic terrain of the migrants.
Women often emerge as the silent sufferers in this cultural uprooting
as they generally have accompanied their husbands and experienced
circumstantial coercion in an alien environment. The duality of economic dependence and the liberal lifestyle of the western world have
made the process of acculturation or even accommodation rather
trying for the wives of first generation immigrants, and certain homegrown culture specific details about home, food and religion obsess
Indian families abroad.
The fourth part, titled Cultural Representations, include chapters by
Meghna Gulzar and Shoma A. Chatterji. While Gulzar focuses on the
shifts in the representation of post-colonial families in films, Chatterji
gives us a detailed analysis of the transformations that the Indian
family structure has been undergoing in the last few decades and also
critiques the films of Rituparno Ghosh from this perspective. Cultural
representations through the popular media, new technologies, cyber
space, music videos, newspapers, magazines, films, TV and advertisements have always played a role in constructing imagined ideals of
families. They often consolidate convenient stereotypes that are unconnected with contemporary times. Sometimes the politics of misrepresentation is linked to vested interests and the coercive agenda
of the market economy. As Desai and Thakkar commented, It is
difficult to imagine a social system without the family. Its activities
of production, reproduction and providing residence in an atmosphere of emotional and affectionate care cannot be fulfilled by any
other institution. Such a complex institution is often examined by
social scientists and policy makers, and family dynamics provide rich
material for writers, media and social activists (Desai and Thakkar,
2001: 70).
The penetrating gaze of the camera lens through the doors of
domestic space to give graphic images of gender relations, along with
the numerous advertisements for commercial products on television,
has brought desire, purchasing power and social customs to the realm
of globalization and liberalization. As a result, it has been noticed
that The bourgeois suffusion of intimacy through the domestic sphere

Introduction 27

as a whole would correspond to a somewhat more polymorphous

relationship between the sexes, and a more individualized mode of
interaction, while at the same time the domestic realm is maintained
as the normative space for womens self-definition. Television in India
has to negotiate between the older and newer forms of patriarchy,
heavily marked by caste and class, with its upper-caste, middle-class
form imagined as the more modern and desirable form (Rajan,
2000: 58).
In TV advertisements too, we notice the image of the female body,
which is all about silky hair and smooth and fair skin, awaiting suitors
for a marriage proposal. Post-marriage involvement in detergent
powders, painting of interiors, child care (with the right administration of diapers), health food, prickly heat powder, hair oil, and cooking
oil is said to be rewarded with generous gifts of gold and diamond
jewelry. In a particular advertisement, a housewife is lovingly spoonfed with ice cream by her husband who scrapes the last dollop off
some sparkling floor tiles. A feminist interpretation would read this
advertisement as an aging and fully trusting woman with shut eyes in
play with an aging spouse who cheats in play as well, and she voluntarily keeps her eyes closed and allows the domestic space to open
out to the gaze of scrutiny. The transformations must be noticed too,
though these are rare and often considered frivolous rather than
serious. Instances are given of the husbands or childrens participation
in family chores such as use of the washing machines, microwaves,
making tea or using processed spices for Indian gourmet style home
cooking that baffles mothers-in-law and even wives. We are yet to see
women buying their own cars and houses, signing and sending cheques
to aging parents, or an aging female parent, self-sufficient and refusing
to accept monetary aid from her offspring. Instead we see a woman
accompanying a forgetful husband to an evening bank in order to
send money to the father-in-law residing elsewhere, and as the placid
but super efficient husband points at the evening bank, the woman
nags on and says, Office, office! One day you will forget me too!, the
ultimate loving offensive that seeks reassurance. Or take for instance
a mother calling her son on a mobile, saying that the suitable girl is
educated and has a matching horoscope and her name is Pooja.
Of course no other name can be more appropriate than Pooja for
devotion to family would be her all consuming pastime. So Pooja
responds to her fathers call and their eyes meet at the bus stop where
accidentally both had been waiting. His decision is instant, Yes,

28 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

I approve, ma, says he on the phone, while speechless, silent Pooja
gives him a look of admiring gratitude. The mobile phone advertisement merely re-validates the argument that despite technological
advancement, social and cultural norms are caught in a time-wrap.
The visuals show us a silent and pleasantly surprised young woman
denied any agency as her opinion or consent about her marital partner
does not seem to be a priority in the advertisement. He approves, she
accepts. Appropriately, Pooja is accompanied by an elderly gentleman,
presumably her father. All this happens at the bus stand. Viewers are
informed that Pooja is educated (larki pari likhi hai ) and the horoscopes
match. Her qualifications, if any or potential for a professional career
are of little or no significance. But she is a literate woman. Pooja can
read and write. Advertisements on Indian television as well as primetime serials produce these visual and verbal markers that register the
fact that though in terms of material culture, technology has revolutionized the domestic, such as gas, microwave, washing machine,
fridge, phone, television, personal computer, DVD player, and so on,
the necessary lifestyle changes and ideological shifts are at the subcutaneous level. Conservative customs, practices and beliefs ranging
from zodiac signs and wearing of precious stones to even religious
superstitions, still play a dominant role within the middle-class Indian
domestic space.
Feature films have explored the nuances of familial relationship in
inter-generational conflicts within the domestic space, but the television with its wider penetration into the living rooms of Indian homes
has churned out the stereotypes of the honest, hard working men,
bad business men and corporate bosses, quarreling, jealous, and embellished women readily giving up jobs for marital responsibilities.
The other stereotype of working married women being home breakers
is also very common. In the Bengali soap Nana Ranger Deen Guli we
notice all these aspects, including the scheming stepmother and her
wayward stepson, who must be taught a lesson in life. Certain issues
in the serial remain unresolved as the serial runs into its ninetieth
week, but its broad parameters trace out how domestic conflict is a
common factor in both nuclear and joint families. The happiest person
in the film, despite all her participation in the concerns of her family
members, relations and kin, is the widowed mother who lives alone
and provides much needed counseling to the harassed, battered and
confused, relatively young individuals. However, this is not to suggest
that by rejecting the family system women can acquire identity

Introduction 29

and a positive approach to life. The system itself has to be modified

by those within its ambit. This contentious issue has been addressed
by Amartya Sen, as he reiterates the need for rearrangement that
will be of advantage to all family members:
That is not the issuewomen seeking a better deal within the family are
not proposing, as an alternative, the possibility of living without families.
The bone of contention is whether the sharing of benefits within the family
system is seriously unequal in the existing institutional arrangements,
compared with what alternative arrangements can be made (Sen, 2006:

The next part in our book is called Memoir and captures reminiscences
of contemporary writers, activists, commentators as they negotiate
the times of change. This section represents many voices of many
authors from many locations. All the six authors are of Indian origin,
but while Meena Alexander and Uma Parameswaran write from the
USA and Canada respectively, the reminiscences of Nonda Chatterjee,
Makarand Paranjape and Shashi Deshpande highlight that the cultural
affiliations to ones own family and the familial social environment
leave an indelible impression on each individuals mind and also
influence ideas and lifestyle choices wherever in the world one may
be during the adult years. Alexander chose to send us the poem
Hunting for Fish, which we use as an epigraph to the section, for the
poem sets the mood for the journey down memory lane as five authors
look back to their years of nurturance.
Our prestigious sixth part, Chapter 23, Dialog, in which Professor
Amartya Sen responds to our questions is not only a validation of
our engagement and fitting finale to our endeavor to critique the transitions and transformations within the Indian family system as represented in literary and cultural texts, but it also makes us feel we have
indeed located a turning point in Indian culture in the twenty first
century. The contemporary family space of co-operative conflict
can be a space of dialog and arguments that will allow each member
to evolve without severance of familial bonds. This paradigmatic shift
in the definition of the middle-class Indian families is observed in
contemporary literature, popular culture, films and TV serials as never
before. The purpose of the book has been to register how traditional
familial structures are constantly being re-configured and in the process re-vitalized through the negotiation of the emerging dynamics.
Kinship bonds are strengthened, there is greater dignity about shared

30 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

domestic labor, and there is better participation in decision-making.
We notice how literary and cultural texts address economic and emotional interdependence within families, and the micro unit of the
functional family nurtures the concept of harmony. From the ideological standpoint, gender equality and gender justice like charity
should begin at home, before traversing the macro issues of racial,
national and transnational identities implicit within the broader
picture. We are deeply grateful to Professor Amartya Sen for his support to our book and, needless to say, Professor Sens response to our
queries illuminates our decade long project and also gives us directions
for further research. Familial portrayals in literature and culture provide a ready field for several critically informed studies of which we
present a first example. Our hope of attaining vasudhaiva kutumbakum
does not seem to be a pipe dream at all, for with this book, the spirit
of the family and familial bonds acquires corporeality.

Agarwal, Bina. (2000). The Idea of Gender Equality: From Legislative
Vision to Everyday Family Practice, in Romila Thapar (ed.), IndiaAnother
Millennium. New Delhi: Viking.
Anderson, A. Stephen and Ronald M. Sabatelli. (1999). Family Interaction:
A Multigenerational Developmental Perspective. USA: Allyn & Bacon.
Beteille, Andre. (1999). The Family and the Reproduction of Inequality,
in Patricia Uberoi (ed.), Family, Kinship and Marriage in India. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press.
Chandra, Sudhir. (1998). Enslaved Daughters. New Delhi: Oxford University
Chen, Martha Alter. (2000). Widowhood in Rural India. New Delhi: Oxford
University Press.
Dasgupta, Sanjukta (ed.). (20022004). Families: A Journal of Representations,
Vols 14.
Desai, N. and U. Thakkar. (2001). Women in Indian Society. Delhi: National
Book Trust.
Drze Jean and Amartya Sen. (1997). India Economic Development and Social
Opportunity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Doctorow, E.L. (1994). False Documents, in Jack London, Hemingway, and
the Constitution. Selected Essays, 19771992. USA: HarperCollins.
Engels, Dagmar. (1999). Beyond Purdah? Women in Bengal 18901930. New
Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Introduction 31
Engels, Frederick. (1985). The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the
State. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Forbes, Geraldine. (1996). Women in India. Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University Press.
. (2005).Women in Colonial India. New Delhi: Chronicle Books.
Kabeer, Naila and Ramya Subrahmanian. (1999). Institutions, Relations and
Outcomes. New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Kundera, Milan. (1998). Farewell Waltz. UK: Faber & Faber.
Nabar, Vrinda. (1995). Caste as Woman. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
Peterson, Janice and Margaret Lewis. (1999). The Elgar Companion to Feminist
Economics. USA: Edward Elgar.
Rajan, Rajeshwari Sunder. (2000). Signposts: Gender Issues in Post-Independence
India. New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Ray, Rajat Kanta. (2001). Exploring Emotional History. New Delhi: Oxford
University Press.
Sarkar, Tanika. (1999). Words to Win. New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Thapar, Romila (ed.). (2000). IndiaAnother Millennium. New Delhi: Viking.
Stacey, Judith. (1996). In the Name of the Family. USA: Beacon Press.
Sen, Amartya. (2005). The Argumentative Indian. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
. (2006). Identity and Violence. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
Singh, Amita Tyagi and Patricia Uberoi. (1994). Learning to Adjust:
Conjugal Relations in Indian Popular Fiction, Indian Journal of Gender
Studies, Vol 1, Number 1, JanuaryJune.
Uberoi, Patricia. (1999). Family, Kinship and Marriage in India. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press.

32 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal



34 Judith E. Walsh

As the Husband, so the Wife 35

Chapter 1

As the Husband,
so the Wife
Old Patriarchy, New Patriarchy
and Misogyny in One Late
Nineteenth-Century Domestic
Science Manual
Judith E. Walsh

If it doesnt happen that as the husband, so the wife there can be

no happiness, writes Brahmo author Satyacaran Mitra in Strir Prati
Svamir Upadesh [A Husbands Advice to His Wife].
The husband is learned; the wife is ignorant. The husband is truthful; the
wife tells lies. The husband is mild mannered; the wife is hot tempered
and loves to quarrel. The husband follows the one God; the wife worships
33 crores of gods. We can see this in home after home in our country. And
the cause is simply that women are not being educated (Mitra, 1884: 140;
one crore equals ten million).

Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh is one of a number of advice manuals for

women written in Bengali in the last thirty years of the nineteenth

36 Judith E. Walsh
century. Here I want to discuss the mixture of old and new patriarchal
discourse in this text, a mixture common to the genre of womens
advice manuals in this period. And I want to outline the texts misogyny, a defining difference between it and other works in this genre.
This differenceand the absence from this text of imagined intimacy
and friendship between husband and wifecan help us understand
an important aspect of this genre as a whole.

Contested Ground
In the nineteenth century, the dominance of British power in India
imposed an alien culture on indigenous life ways. By the last decades
of the century, the penetration of that foreign culture was so profound
in urban centers like Calcutta, that the entire world of Hindu domestic
life and its most intimate relationships had become contested ground.
What relationship should exist between a husband and a wife, how a
mother should raise her children, even how kitchen spices should be
arranged on a storeroom wallall had become issues for debate and
contestation. In the reformulation of Hindu women and their worlds
that took place in this period, there was no area of domestic life so
trivial that it was not addressed, no family relationship so intimate or
spontaneous that its interactions were not the subject of rethinking
and reformulation.
It is within this context that Satyacaran Mitras book of advice for
women and at least twenty others came to be written. These texts were
how to do it booksguides to relations within extended families,
the rearing of children and the management of households. Addressed
to women, but written by men, they were often constructedas was
Strir Prati Svamir Upadeshin the form of a dialog between husband
and wife in which the husband instructed the wife on proper conduct.
They had titles like The Bengali Wife, A Husbands Advice to His
Wife, Lakshmi of the House and Conversations with the Wife.
The authors of these books were Western-educatedSatyacaran
Mitra himself wrote at least one book in Englishand the stated
purpose of their books was to provide materials through which women
might be taught to read and write. An additional (sometimes unstated)
purpose was to provide for the re-education of Bengali women in

As the Husband, so the Wife 37

ways which would help them adapt their lives to the changed conditions of life in British-ruled India. By 1884, the year in which Strir
Prati Svamir Upadesh was written, these manuals were sufficiently
numerous for one author to note: There is no lack of books for
women full of moral instructions (Raychaudhuri, 1887: 1). My own
list of these books numbers about twenty to twenty-five, most of them
published in the decade of the 1880s.

The Author
We know little about the life of the author of this text, Satyacaran
Mitra. Although he wrote at least eight books in his lifetime (eight
are listed in the catalogs of Kolkatas National Library) of which
four were works of fiction, his biography is not included in twentiethcentury biographical dictionaries. Of his seven Bengali works, four
focused on women. Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh was his earliest book.
It was followed by three works of fiction: Abala Bala in 1887 and two
others in 1892, Sahamarana and Bara Bau Ba Sudha Brksa.1 This last
book was Satyacarans most popular. It was issued five times, the last
in 1924.2

A Brahmo Text
Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh openly identifies itself with the leadership
and ideas of the religious reform society, the Brahmo Samaj.3 The
book begins with a short preface by Keshub Chunder Sen, a prominent
Brahmo leader, and contains exchanges such as the following (in a
chapter on literacy):
You know my friend Lavender, dont you? Shes
learned to read and write quite well. She writes her
husband a letter every day. And she says shell go with
her husband to the Brahmo Samaj.
Husband: Just look at that! You learn to read and write and youll
be like that too.4

38 Judith E. Walsh
More than any other nineteenth-century group, Brahmos tended
to be identified with the social reform of womens conditions. Issues
like child marriage, widow remarriage, breaking of purdah, the education of womenall were associated with various sects of the
Brahmo Samaj and any writer advocating some or all of these ideas
was likely to be accused of being a Brahmo. While it is probable
that many, if not all, the authors of womens advice manuals were, in
fact, Brahmos, not all of them wished to acknowledge this identification. Authors such as Dhirendranath Pal (who wrote the most
popular and long-lived of all these manuals) or Girijaprasanna
Raychaudhuri (author of a manual called Griha Lakshmi) were at some
pains to obscureor even denythe reformist tendencies of their
books. In their books, references to Western sources or authors are
rare and reforms are more likely to be attributed to ancient indigenous customs than to foreign sources. Fine, says the wife in the midst
of one discussion in Griha Lakshmi, all your ideas are English. No,
go, no, replies the husband, this is our own native countrys view
(Raychaudhuri, 1887: 32).

Western Sources
In Satyacarans book, on the other hand, foreign, Western sources are
the preferred authorities, cited on all matters ranging from the virtue
of compassion [doya], to the definitions of various physical phenomena like electricity, earthquakes and rainbows. Thus, stories about
Sir Philip Sidney and Catherine the Great of Russia are told to illustrate
the virtue of compassion; events in England and Berlin are cited to
prove there is no such thing as ghosts and Aristotle is paraphrased
to teach the proper manner for sexual intercourse (Mitra, 1884: 2022;
2627; 96).
A special characteristic of this book are its chapters on scientific
subjects: What is a ghost?, About Sneezing and Lizards,
Rainbows, Lightning and Thunder, The Astonishing Creations
of God, among others. These chapters are meant to counter current superstitions with scientific explanations. The only indigenous
author regularly cited here is Akshay Kumar Dutt; excerpts from his
rationalist writings are frequent (ibid.: 6; 67; 87; 123). Otherwise, for
Satyacaran, Western sources are, by definition, scientific and rational;
indigenous sources (especially current customs) are superstitious and

As the Husband, so the Wife 39

deleterious. Thus, in this book, Plato and Pliny become authorities

for the proper age of marriage (in a passage quoted from Akshay
Kumar Dutt, Mitra 1884: 8889). And we find examples such as the
following from a chapter on sexual intercourse entitled Union with
the Wife presented under the rubric of Science:
The imaginative powers of the wife at the time of sexual intercourse have
many effects on the future offspring. At such a time if the wife thinks about
the image of some beast, in that case the offspring can possess the body
of that imagined beast. In many cases it can be seen that the adulterous
wife gives birth to an offspring resembling [her] own husband. The reason
for this is [that] at the time when the wife has union with [her] lover, at
that time she thinks she should be cohabiting with her husband.

To this the author adds the following footnote: Telling a pregnant

woman stories of strange animals or creatures or talking [to her] about
any strange subject is forbidden. This practice is customary among
our native womenfolk (ibid.: 95).

Redefining the Wife

The central purpose of Satyacarans text is the redefinition of the
wife. Her character, her thoughts, her behavior, accomplishments
and activities, all are to be reshaped by the husbands advice. To
this end, Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh has chapters on Lying, Telling
the Truth, Compassion and Eavesdropping dedicated to reshaping
womans moral character. It has chapters on Education and scientific
subjects like gravity, electricity and The Astonishing Creations of
God to educate her and rid her mind of superstitions; chapters on
Marriage, Union with the Wife and Widow Marriage to bring
her up to date on modern [Brahmo] opinions; poetry writing for accomplishment; and chapters on Labor and The Daily Duties of
Women to direct her everyday activities.
Little in this enterprise is left to the imagination. The chapter on
daily duties, for instance begins:
You will get up from bed before sunrise. Having gotten up you will urinate
[and] move your bowels, after that you will wash [your] face well. You
will clean your teeth with coal powder. If you use a twig from a neem or
ashsheora tree, this is very good (ibid.: 40).

40 Judith E. Walsh
The chapter goes on to define the rest of the days activities: cleaning
the house, smearing on oil and bathing, exercising in the garden, cooking and eating (Having chewed the food very slowly, you will swallow,
says the book), then rest, attentive studying and finally house cleaning
and cooking again (Mitra, 1884: 4046).
The chapters on moral conduct are simple and direct. Have you
ever eavesdropped on the room of anyone? the husband asks at the
beginning of a chapter on that topic. Yes, says the wife, a few
times, why? Very bad, says the husband. Dont do that kind of
thing again. Eavesdropping is very hateful behavior (ibid.: 36).
Similarly, lying is bad and telling the truth is good. Giving to
the poor is good as long as they deserve the help, but you should
never give alms to those who have the ability to preserve [their] health
by their labor (ibid.: 15). There is little equivocation in this book and
little subtlety. The author is as certain of the correctness of his moral
postures as he is of his scientific explanations.5
The most controversial topics are easily resolved. Within the compass of a single chapter, no matter what the subject, the wifes enthusiastic agreement is always achieved.
Husband: Did you listen? Will you tell any more lies?
No, I will not tell any more lies (Mitra, 1884: 9).
Husband: Do you understand why the book fell from the hand
to the floor?
Yes. I understand (ibid.: 133).
Even on a topic as controversial as widow marriage, the wifes
initial protestations rapidly disappear. In the face of her husbands
suggestion that her just widowed sister be remarried, she says indignantly, Go, go, go from here! I dont like this. Making a joke at a
time of such sorrow? (ibid.: 120). A mere nine pages later she is completely convinced. Let it be, she says,
You dont have to say any more. I have understood quite well that widows
should be married. You will have to try for my sisters marriage (ibid.: 129).

In a more subtle book in this genre, like Dhirendranath Pals Strir

Sahit Kathopakathan [Conversations with the Wife], a sensitive or

As the Husband, so the Wife 41

controversial subject may be repeatedly raised over the course of

several chapters, never forcing the fictive wifes acquiescence, but suggesting in different ways, in different contexts, to what she might agree.
Thus, in Strir Sahit Kathopakathan, the subject of whether the wife
should use her husbands name (traditionally forbidden to women
unless they wished their husbands to die) appears first at the end of
the books first chapter. Tomorrow I will explain to you very well
what the relation of husband and wife is, says the husband. Then
you will understand that if the wife calls the husband by name, there
is no fault [dos] (Pal, 1880: 9). Several chapters later in the book, in
a letter to the wife, the husband is still trying: What should I say
about what you should call me when you write to me! he writes,
You should write whatever you wish. Or, why not write using my
name? (ibid.: 30).
But the wife in Satyacarans book presents no such difficulties to
her husband (or author). Virtually every chapter ends with her complete agreement with her husband.

Old Patriarchy, New Patriarchy

The purpose of womens redefinition is to make it easier for them to
accomplish the central purpose of their lives: to wit, the happiness
and pleasure of their husband. This idea is by no means original to
this text and, indeed, Satyacaran uses much of the older patriarchal
language of indigenous (Hindu) traditions to articulate it. My dearest!
says the husband of Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh,
If the minds of a husband and wife are in accord, who on earth is happier
than they? The wife is half the husbands body; she is the husbands
sahadharmini, his partner in the practice of dharma. Is there any more
priceless treasure than a wife?by resting your head on her soft chest,
you are able to forget the worlds frowns, on hearing her nectar-sweet
voice the lake of your heart is completely filled with peaceful water, when
you take care to give her a place in the most secret part of your heart, the
whole world seems full of bliss to you (Pal, 1880: 90).

The devoted wife [sati stri] recognizes that there is nothing else for
her in life but her husband.

42 Judith E. Walsh
the true wife [sati stri] places her life, youth, wealth [and] honor all in
the hands of her beloved husband. She knows her husband is her only
shelter, her husband is her only friend, her husband is the destroyer, creator
and preserver of her lifes good fortune (Pal, 1880: 91).

Her sole wish in life is the pleasure of her husband.

How happy she considers herself in complying with her husbands command. If she can make her husbands heart content, she feels herself to
be praiseworthy and lucky (ibid.: 9192).

When the wife achieves her husbands happiness, she becomes every
woman to himand he loves her in return:
In the true wife [sati stri ] a mother can be seena sister can be seena
friend can be seenthe incomparable beautiful sight of Gods heaven
can be seen. For this reason I love the wife so much, for this reason, if a
wifes face seems to be a little sad, ones heart and soul become agitated
(ibid.: 92).

Simultaneously, however, the concepts and language of older

patriarchal ideas are wedded to those of the new patriarchy of late
nineteenth-century nationalism.6 The idea of the husband as the sole
object of a womans life is restated in several different contexts in
Satyacarans book; but in his book this idea is used to justify several
reform positions on womens social conditions. It is, for instance,
because the wife is devoted to her husband for her whole life, that the
husband should prefer her to prostitutes (who will be devoted to him
only for as many days as he is prosperous) (Chatterjee, 1993: 91).
It is also because the husband is everything for a woman that widows
should remarrywhen the husband has gone, then all happiness has gone [from] this life, writes the author. The husband is a
womans only boat on the ocean of her life:
When that boat sinks under the water, she has no escapeshell have to
endure endless suffering her whole life. But if she is allowed another vessel
in place of that sunken boat, dont her troubles disappear? (ibid.: 12021).

It is because girls need to be old enough to know how to please their

husbands (and because boys need to know what their duties are to
the wife) that child marriage should not take place (ibid.: 83). Since
husband and wife must be compatiblemeaning in this book
that the wife must be able to make herself like the husbandboys

As the Husband, so the Wife 43

and girls should be especially informed about each other before

If I have a girl and you have a boy, lets arrange their marriagesuch
talk can be often be heard from the mouths of women. What a shameful
business! What a shameful business! It is essential that the mind of the
groom and the bride be one. If their mental state is not the same, theyll
both have to burn their whole lives long in the fires of intolerable pain
(Chatterjee, 1993: 8384).

The mixture of old and new patriarchy in this book is at its most
curious where it allows the author to simultaneously argue for the
remarriage of widows (an important Brahmo principle) while still
glorifying, as a sati, the wife so devoted to her husband that she would
never remarry.
I am not saying that all widows should be married. I am speaking about
the marriage of widows who may possibly become adulteresses if their
marriages are not arranged and of widows who wish in their hearts to be
married (ibid.: 121).

The widow who does not wish to be remarried is the object of

Satyacarans admiration:
The one who has no desire to marry, she is a true wife, a devoted wife
[sati] like Savitri. Her devotion to her dead husband is enduring; her love
for him endless. Even to speak of marriage to such a sati would be no less
than to throw a thunderbolt at her head. Would a real sati really wish to
marry again? For her, her dead husband alone is the subject of her meditations; he alone is the subject of her feelings; he alone is the god worthy of
her worship. I am not talking about the marriage of such a sati.7

Dyads and Dominance

To us in the twentieth century, the mixture of old and new patriarchal
ideas in such discussions seems inherently contradictory. There is a
curious resonance in the appearance in this reformist Brahmo text of
this emphasis on the devoted wife and its use in an approving way
of a term used for women who burned themselves to death on their

44 Judith E. Walsh
husbands funeral pyre. The reform of womens social conditions
the education of women, the movement of women out of purdah,
the end of child marriage, the beginning of widow remarriageall
seem (to us in the twentieth century) to carry with them implications
of great equality with men, greater freedom for women within
society. Yet in this book the reform of womens conditions, the education of women, the breaking of superstitions, meeting with husbands before marriageall these social reforms are inextricably bound
to the greater development of womens ability to please their husbands.
Womens conditions will be reformed so that they may become more
truly satis, so that they can please their husbands hearts in ways more
appropriate to conditions in nineteenth-century, British-ruled Bengal.
The idea that the reform of womens conditions would provide the
foundation for the future happiness of husbands and families was
central to the manuals containing advice to women in this period.
We have seen in the quote with which this chapter opened that
Satyacaran believed that differences between husbands and wives were
attributable to womens lack of education. Other authors thought
the same. Husbands, wrote Dhirendranath Pal, should begin to educate their wives from the first day of marriage.
We will show gradually how the husband should behave and how he
should educate the wife [so that] she, being well educated can make the
husband and family members happy (Pal, 1880: 68).

Home education guaranteed compatibility, suggests another author,

for if women acquire education while under the subjugation of their
husbands, then there can never be any difference of opinion between
them (Gupta, 1885: 9).
The belief that the wife can be claimed and her education, conduct
and morality cut to suit her husbands fancy is shared by Satyacaran
with authors of other advice manuals. The fantasy of the young
husband as the authority in his wifes life is a powerful theme in this
literature.8 Authors of these manuals were eager to imagine themselves (as husbands) coming into more dyadic relations with their
wivesor at least establishing a firmer authority over these wives
within the confines of the extended family. Implicit in the dialog
structure of many books is the idea of the husband as the wifes tutor,
reshaping her character, replacing the authority of the extended family
in her life. Up to now, wrote one author,

As the Husband, so the Wife 45

the women of our country used to perform their duties the way women
of older generations did. They did not care much for the advice of men.
Nowadays, by taking the burden of giving advice to modern women, we
are taking a new type of responsibility on our shoulders (Basu, 1884:

In the imagined world of the advice manuals, husbands reigned

supreme. It was their advice the fictive wives followed; their authority
they heeded. Family elders, if not entirely superseded, were certainly
diminished in importance.9 Thus, in the chapter on Daily Duties
in Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh, the wife is told to ignore the criticism of
others if she is doing something approved by her husband. Swimming,
the husband is explaining, is excellent exercise. Do you know how
to swim? he asks the wife.
Wife: I know how but I dont swim here. If you swim here, people
criticize you. I swim at my fathers house.
Swimming is very necessary, says the husband,
you should swim when you take your daily bath, If there is criticism
because of that, what can you do. If you are criticized for doing something
good, let it be; theres no harm in that (Gupta, 1885: 42).

Frequent criticisms of the superstitions of our native women and

stories about the ignorance or duplicity of older women in families
add to the impression that family elders should be ignored if their
advice conflicts with that of the husband.

The mixing of old and new patriarchal language and images in this
text and its eagerness to imagine husbands and wives in contexts freed
from some degree of extended family control are qualities shared by
this book with the genre as a whole. More problematic are this books
persistently misogynistic turns. At the heart of Satyacarans book is
an extremely negative image of women, what they are and what they
do. Women are ignorant, superstitious and uneducated; they are given

46 Judith E. Walsh
to bad habits such as lying and eavesdropping and are prone to uncontrollable vile appetites or sexual desires. Their foolish, ignorant
or uncontrolled actions can result in damage to their families or even
the deaths of their own children. As ignorant country women, they
raise their own children to believe in ghosts and support ignorant
customs like child marriage and the ban on widow remarriage. As
educated city women, they turn all housework over to servants and
sit around gossiping, doing wool work and reading novels (Gupta,
1884: 39).
Negativism towards women finds expression here not only in the
faults attributed to them or the bad things they do, but also as an
emotional tone which gives a surprisingly harsh quality to stories
used to illustrate didactic points. For instance, in discussing the need
for literacy, many authors make the same points: that women should
learn to read to learn about the world, to write letters to husbands
away from home or to become better mothers. Satyacarans book makes
all these points, but gives the last a particularly hard edge by telling
the following story. Do you want to hear, the husband asks, a
story about the level of understanding of one Auntie [khurima]?
Auntie had a little boy. His name was Hari. When Hari fell ill, the doctor
said to give him medicine one dose each hour from the medicine vial. But
each time Hari had to take the medicine, he made a huge fuss, so Auntie
had him take all the medicine at once. Because of that the boy died....
Later when I heard the news of Haris death, I wondered why womenfolk
dont learn to read and write (ibid.: 5).

While some womens practicessuch as lying, eavesdropping and

superstitious beliefsmay be correctable through education, others
are made worse by the attitudes of their husbands. Here Satyacaran
joins the almost universal chorus of manual writers decrying modern
womens refusal to do housework. Wealthy city women, the author
notes, have come to hate housework
instead among their work is sitting, lying down, sleeping, from time to
time doing wool work, gossiping and criticizing others; perhaps occasionally reading 1 or 2 novels of Bankim Babu (ibid.: 60).

Some fault in this, however, must be attributed to their husbands, who

do not insist that these women do the housework themselves. The
author writes:

As the Husband, so the Wife 47

Baprey! If she sweeps the floor, a splinter of the broom will pierce her
beloved soft hand!! Her little hands, as lovely as the shirish flower, were
not made for holding a broom!!! If such hands held a broom, how could
a husband bear such an injury to the honor of his jewel of a wife!!!!10

Finally, there are some faults of women that can not be cured but must
be either controlled or lived with. In the later category is lack of beauty,
which in this book is also a quality for which women must accept
responsibility. In a chapter on Marriage the wife suggests that if a
woman is virtuous, then beauty is irrelevant. No one, the husband
disagrees, will ever be able to say I dont want beautytheres no
need for beauty.... (Gupta, 1885: 80).
Women are naturally the source of beauty.... Therefore it is very necessary
for women to be beautiful. If a woman is ugly, then she has fallen outside
of natural law to some degree. If one of your legs is lame, then necessarily
one has to agree that that lame leg has happened as a result of some sin
[dos]. Just so, if the nose is snub-nosed, if the eyes are two hollowsif the
forehead is high, in that case necessarily one has to agree that all those
faults [dos] have occurred as the result of some sin [dos] (ibid.: 81).

Finally, the single most important characteristic of women that cannot

be altered, but must be controlled, is their vile sexual appetite. All
sexual impulses in this bookmens or womensare qualified by
the adjective vile and womens impulses are not necessarily worse
than mens, but the conduct that results from their uncontrolled desires
is seen as more dangerous. For men, sexual promiscuity is more acceptable. The case of one man who spends all his time with prostitutes
is condemned, but the discussion focuses on the unfortunate fate
of his wife that he should behave this way (ibid.: 91).
Womens unsatisfied sexuality, however, can lead them into adultery
or even worse. One justification for widow remarriage is that otherwise
the young widow might become a prostitute (ibid.: 122). Young girls
unsatisfied by elderly husbands are equally at risk:
An old man can not become the husband of a young wifes dreams and
for this reason it can be seen that the young wife of an old man is usually
an adulteress (ibid.: 85).

The sexual impulses of women, Satyacaran warns, if aroused and

not satisfied, can lead to disaster. In a chapter called Eavesdropping
it quickly becomes apparent that the eavesdropping at issue is the
spying upon other family members in intimate conversation or in the

48 Judith E. Walsh
act of making love. This is a bad practice, says the husband, for two
reasons: first, because people cannot speak privately with each other
and second, because in many women the act of eavesdropping may
arouse vulgar tendencies.
Perhaps a wife is engaged in amorous conversation with her husband
or shes already quite maddened by passionate love makingmeanwhile
you, in your hiding place, are watching everything. The sight of all these
vulgar acts might strengthen your own sexual appetite and leave you
besides yourself with desire.

Do you want to hear, asks the husband, what disaster can occur
through eavesdropping? And then follows this story:
Husband: A sister was eavesdropping at her elder brothers door.
Inside the room, the brother and his wife were talking
amorously; the brother was beside himself with love,
embracing his wife and kissing her. Just as husband and
wife had progressed to making love, that wretched sister,
outside their door, was suddenly overwhelmed by her
desire for love. She did not remember that he was her
brotherand at such a time who, indeed, could think
clearly? The door to the brothers room was not locked
that day. Crazed and half naked, the sister rushed in
and embraced her brother, her own mothers child.
Under the bed there was a sword. The brother, blind with
rage at his sisters behavior, destroyed that sex maddened
creatures life with the sword (Gupta, 1885: 3738).
Oh! says the wife, I am getting very scared. I will never again
eavesdrop. You have seen, replies the husband, what the consequences of eavesdropping are.

Romantic Intimacy
Satyacarans misogynistic turns mark his book out from the others
of this genre. For although other authors believed along with him that
the lives and worlds of Bengali women needed reform and adaptation, nevertheless, the prevailing mood in other books is not at all

As the Husband, so the Wife 49

misogynistic. Rather it is romantic and sweet. In Dhirendranath Pals

Strir Sahit Kathopakathan, for instance, the author explains that Bengali
women are taught from childhood that they must love their husbands
no matter what they are like. So if a husband makes only a little
effort, suggests this author, he can easily win the wifes love (Pal,
1880: 3). At the end of a chapter in another book, Griha Lakshmi, the
husband says: Now sleep, much of the night has gone. To which
the wife is made to reply, I dont know. When I stay with you, I dont
get much sleep. I wish only to hear you talk (Raychaudhuri, 1887: 18).
Certainly the fictional husbands of these other books are didactic
as they lecture their wives; they are a bit pompous, even condescending. Yet in a book like Griha Lakshmi the husbands lectures are
accompanied by a certain wistfulness. He tells his wife:
Saroj, dont you see how wrong it is not to learn how to read and write?...
When I come, I say the same things over and overyou dont pay any
attention (ibid.: 13).

The fictional husband knows (or, at least, the author knows) that
however much he may talk, a wife can still choose not to hear.
In Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh such sweetness, romance and uncertainty are almost entirely absent. Instead we are given a robot-like
wife, parroting back her agreement with her husband. Even exchanges intended to be affectionate seem stiff and attenuated. I will
tell you one thing, says this wife after a lecture from her husband on
lying, tell me that you wont tell anyone else.
Husband: If its a subject to be discussed with others then I will,
otherwise why would I?
Then let me say that ever since you started giving me
advice, I have developed such a feeling of devotion for
Husband: Naturally, that would happen.... (Mitra, 1884: 11).
And he continues with his lecture.
That a sense of friendship or intimacy between husband and wife
are missing from this book might seem only natural given its didactic
purpose and its use of a dialog structure. But it is important to realize
that while authors in this genre use the dialog form for its enlarged
opportunities for delivering lectures, there is also another issue at
work here. In many advice manuals dialogs provide a space which

50 Judith E. Walsh
authors use to imagine and portray a relationship between husband
and wife that is defined by intimacy and friendship. We know from
many sources that foreign ideas of companionate marriages and
foreign images of the wife as a husbands helpmeetnot to mention
foreign ideas of romantic loveare immensely interesting and
attractive to Western educated Bengali men in this period. The dialog
structure gives advice manuals the space in which to imagine such
relationships. It opens up an imaginative space, occupied only by
husband and wife, which authors can then fill with fantasies of romance,
intimacy and friendship.

GopaAs the Husband, so the Wife

As the Husband, so the Wife is the title of a chapter in Satyacarans
book. Here we find his ideas on women apotheosized in the figure of
Gopa, the wife of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the
Gopa, as presented here, has all the qualities to be desired in a
wife. Gopa was intelligent, writes the author, Gopa was educated.
She knew quite well how dharma had to be preserved. But Gopa
was no slave to tradition; nor was she an obedient lackey of the family
elders. She refused to veil herselfeven in front of her father and
mother-in-law, she did not put on the veil. When everyone criticized
her behaviorsaying Gopa is very shameless, Gopa is very shamelessshe made a speech that silenced them all. Religious people,
she said, are a beautiful sight in whatever state they present themselves.
Let people of virtue put on kusha grass, let them wear clothes with a hundred
holes, let them be dark-complexioned, they look beautiful, by themselves,
by their own splendor. With this kind of vigorous talk Gopa proclaimed
her own opinion against the custom of wearing a veil (Mitra, 1884: 16061).

Gopa may have been outspoken towards family eldersshe was

totally obedient and devoted to her husband. She wanted only what
would please him. When Siddhartha told her in tears that he was
leaving to become a sannyasi, Gopa also cried out of sympathy for
his pain. She thought, She would put no thorns in her husbands path,
she would do whatever made her husband happy (ibid.: 153).

As the Husband, so the Wife 51

In the final description of Gopas conduct after her husbands

departurea description, incidentally, which is made to come from
the books fictive wifewe get a fusion of the central image of a wife
who will become whatever her husband wishes and the widow/sati
who abandons everything out of devotion to her husband.
Wife: The man who has such a virtuous wife, has endless happiness,
his heart is an abode of peace. Gopa always used to follow
her husband like a shadow. Whatever the husband said, the
wife did it with pleasure. Their two hearts were inseparable;
they had the same hopes, the same purpose. Each was always
eager to make the other happy.... What a companion! Who
gets such a companion? Whenever any wish came into her
husbands heart, this wife tried to the best of her abilities to
fulfill that wish. If her husband wished to abandon the
worldeven that wish was shared by his wife.... The husband
became a sannyasi and went to the forest; his wife in the dress
of a female sannyasi remained at home. The moment she
heard that her husband had left home, the wife instantly cut
off her hair, flung off her body ornaments, threw off her
royal clothing and at once put on the clothes of simple people.
From that day forth Gopa made the earth her bed; she gave
up eating delicious foods and began to spend her days sometimes eating only one meal a day and sometimes going the
whole day without eating. From that moment she abandoned
food and began to smear ashes on her beautiful body. Even
though she was a woman whose husband was alive, Gopa
began to live like a widow. Her husband gave up everything
and became a sannyasi. His charming wife, devoted to her
husband, became a female sannyasi in her youth.
As the husband, just so the wife (ibid.: 16263).

Nineteenth-century Bengali Hindu society had within it a hierarchy
based on age that affected young Bengali mens relations with their

52 Judith E. Walsh
wives. Young men in extended families suffered from this hierarchy
and sought to mitigate its effect on their lives through the creation of
more exclusive relations with their wives. Satyacarans book shares
this impulse with the authors of other manuals, and in this respect
his book helps us to understand an important aspect of this genre as
a whole.
That the motivations of men involved with the reform of womens
social conditions was not entirely, or perhaps even at all, altruistic is
not surprising. Men like Satyacaran wanted reform, not for the liberation of their wives, but in order to gain more control and influence
over them. Reform, for such men, meant the moving of wives away
from the controls of the extended family and the creation of women
who (at least in fantasy) would be almost entirely the creatures of
their husbands: their morality, conduct, attitudes and ideas adjusted to
their husbands; their aim in life, the satisfaction and pleasure of their
husband. The degree to which this dyadic relationship is to be totally dominated by the husband may be somewhat exaggerated in
Satyacarans book, but the impulse towards such a relationship is not
unique to it.
But where, in other advice manuals, the urge towards more dyadic
relationships is fused with an impulse towards more intimate conjugal
relationships, in Satyacarans book only the first is present. Satyacarans
misogyny keeps him from using the imaginative space of the dialog format to develop images of conjugal intimacy and friendship.
Their absence in his book is a defining difference between his work
and the genre of womens advice manuals in general. This difference
can help us to understand how profoundly this literature is being
shaped by two impulses: one, a desire for new patriarchal controls
over women in a context marked out from the extended familys
domain; and the second, a wish for friendship and intimacy (and
romantic love) within marriage relations. For while both old and new
patriarchal concepts shaped a substantial part of late nineteenthcentury discourse on Bengali women and their worlds, an equally
powerful theme in that discourse was the newly imagined (or perhaps
newly reimagined) idea of intimacy and friendship between husbands
and wives, men and women, in their shared domestic world.

As the Husband, so the Wife 53

1. Satyacaran Mitra, Abala Bala. [The Powerless Girl] (Calcutta, 1887).
A Tale of Fidelity and Love, says the Bengali Catalog.
Sahamarana [Self Immolation on the Husbands Funeral Pyre]
(Calcutta: Karttik Chandra Datta, 1892). Tale of a Sati burning herself
in the funeral pyre of her husband, says the Catalog editor.
Bara Bau Ba Sudha Brksa [The Eldest Daughter-in-law or the Sheltering
Tree] 2nd ed. (Calcutta: Manomohan Library, 1892); 4th edition, 1917;
5th edition 1924. A Sketch of Hindu Domestic Life, Bengali Catalog.
National Library. Author Catalog of Printed Books in Bengali Language,
Volume IV SZ. Calcutta: Government of India Press, 1963. 9091.
2. Satyacarans other works included a book of stories, Upanyasa Mala (Calcutta: Amritabal Ghosh, 1892) and three books on religion: Ramakrishna
Paramahamsa (Calcutta: Great Indian Press, 1897); Sree Sree Sanatan
Dharma or the Eternal Religion (Calcutta, Self-published: 1907); Brahmananda
Prasasti (Calcutta, Baranagar: Bhagavad-tattva Parisad, 1923).
3. The Brahmo Samaj was founded early in the nineteenth century as a religious reform society, initially aimed at the redefinition of Hindu theology.
As the society developed, Brahmos became known for their opposition
to many orthodox Hindu social and religious practices. Young Westerneducated Brahmos opposed what they considered idolatry in Hinduism
and as a result often refused to perform orthodox ceremonies, like the
shradh, or death ceremonies. The result was the ostracism of many
Brahmos from their caste communities and often their separation and
disinheritance from their families. The social ostracism of Brahmos in
the early years of the society was so severe, one historian has noted, that
not even servants would work for Brahmo families. As a result, during
the mid to late nineteenth-century Brahmos social and religious life
focused mostly on their own community; they had their own religious
beliefs and practices, their own social rituals and childrens marriages
tended to be arranged within the Brahmo community.
4. Mitra, Strir Prati, p. 4. Satyacaran shared with other Brahmos (including
Keshub Sen) an interest in the religious practices and experience of the
Hindu saint Ramakrishna and at the turn of the century he wrote, in
English, a book called Sree Sree Sanatan Dharma or the Eternal Religion
(Calcutta: 1907). In the 1920s he wrote in Bengali a biography of one of
Ramakrishnas disciplesBrahmananda Prasasti (Calcutta, Baranagar:
Bhagavad-tattva Parisad, 1923).
5. See, for instance, Mitras ideas on conception cited above or his belief
that if you cover your body with a blanket or silk cover at the time of a
thunderstorm you will have nothing to fear from electricity. Ibid., p. 74.

54 Judith E. Walsh
6. In the context of his continuing exploration of late nineteenth century
nationalist discourse, Partha Chatterjee has argued that the anti-colonial
nationalists replaced older indigenous (Hindu) patriarchal traditions with
a new patriarchy in this period.
The need to adjust to the new conditions had forced upon men a whole
series of changes in their dress, food habits, religious observances and
social relations. Each of these capitulations now had to be compensated for by an assertion of spiritual purity on the part of women.
They must not eat, drink or smoke in the same way as men; they must
continue the observance of religious rituals that men were finding
difficult to carry out; they must maintain the cohesiveness of family
life and solidarity with the kin to which men could not now devote
much attention.
This new patriarchy defined women as essentially different from men;
yet the difference still allowed for womens reform through education
and self-education as long as it was possible for women to do this without
jeopardizing her place at home. Reform of womens conditions and
the re-imagining of the domestic world, then, becomes part and parcel
of the new patriarchy. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments,
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993): 12830.
7. Ibid., pp. 12122. Satyacaran is not the only Brahmo author to believe a
wifes love for her husband ought to make remarriage an impossibility.
Dhirendranath Pal, in a manual that lasted through nine editions, makes
essentially the same argument. Widow marriage, he has the wife of his
book explain to a friend, is a bad practice because it increases the number
of women who want to get married at a time when the number of eligible
husbands is already scarce. Dont I feel sorry for the plight of the child
widow? the wife asks rhetorically, I do. But consider, dear, whether
she who has once known a husband would even be able to marry again?
If she would, it would be better for her marriage not to take place at
all. Rather, she should have recourse to the vows of a sannyasi, take up
the observance of dharma and do penance for her sins. Pal, Strir Sahit
Kathopakathan: 68.
8. The story of young Western educated boys tutoring (or failing to tutor)
their wives is one that appears in many contexts and in many regions in
India from the nineteenth century down to modern times. Gandhi himself
remembered his failure to teach his wife to read. Borthwick, Changing
Roles, p. 69; G. Morris Carstairs, The Twice Born (Bloomington, Indiana:
Indiana Press, 1967), p. 296; M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, tr. M. Desai
(Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1957), p. 13.
9. How threatening this impulse towards more dyadic relationships was to
nineteenth century sensibilities may be judged from the frequency with

As the Husband, so the Wife 55

which manuals condemned it. The author of Bangali Bau might well
having been criticizing Satyacarans bookand he was certainly echoing
the ideas of other authors such as Dhirendranath Pal and Girijaprasanna
Raychaudhuriwhen he criticized some advice manuals for only
educating [women] about the love affairs of husband and wife. In
fact, there are hardly any lines in all those books that educate a woman
so that she can get along in her family life.
Gupta, Bangali Bau, preface.
10. (Gupta, Bangali Bau: 60). Husbands are also to blame when as old men,
they marry young girls. An old husband and a young wife, this sight is
very distressing, says the husband. And then the wife is made to say:
In our village there is one Brahmin, Noshi Ram. He at 60 years of age
has married one girl of 14 years. The girls name is Ram Moni. What
Ram Moni says, Noshi Ram does just that. Ram Moni has made such
a fool of Noshi Ram.
Ram Moni did not have to make a big fool of Noshi Ram, says the
husband, Noshi Ram has made himself a fool. An old husband is
willingly the fool of a young wife. Ibid., p. 85.

Advice Manuals
Anonymous. (1900). Ramani Aisarya. [The Glory of Woman] Vol. 2.
Calcutta: Navakumar Dutt.
Bandyopadhyaya, Candicaran. (1887). Ma O Chele. [Mother and Son].
Calcutta: Sahitya Sangsad.
Bandyopadhyaya, Harinarayan. (1887). Sisu Palan Sambandhe Pita Matar Prati
Upades [Advice to Parents Concerning the Rearing of Children].
Calcutta: G.P. Ray.
Bandyopadhyaya, K.C. (1897). Stri Siksha. [The Education of Woman].
Dacca: Bhanucandra Das.
Basu, Isancandra. (1885) [1291 (Bengali Date)]. Nari Niti. [Rules for
Women]. Calcutta: Gurudas Chattopadhyay.
. (1884). Stridiger Prati Upadesh. [Advice to Women] 3rd ed. Calcutta:
Victoria Press.
Biswas, Taraknath. (1887). Bangiya Mahila. [The Bengali Woman] 2nd ed.
Calcutta: Rajendralal Biswas.

56 Judith E. Walsh
Das, Benimadhab. (1889). Amader Jatiya Vigyan: Sahadharmini O Svami. [The
Science of Our Community: The Wife and the Husband]. Calcutta: B.C.
Dasi, Nagendrabala Mustaphi. (1900). Nari Dharma. [Womans Dharma].
Calcutta: Self-published.
Dasi, Navinkali. (1883). Kumari Siksha. [The Education of a Girl].
Calcutta: Self-published.
Dutt, Umeshchandra. (1884). Nari Siksha. [Womans Education] 2nd ed.
Calcutta: A. Ghosh.
Gupta, Purnacandra. (1885). Bangali Bau. [The Bengali Wife]. Calcutta:
A.K. Banerji.
Majumdar, Jagachandra. (1871). Niti Garbha Prasuti Prasanga. [A Discussion
of the Rules for Women Who have Just Given Birth] 2nd ed. Calcutta:
Majumdar, Mohinimohan. (1890). Parinay Samskara. [The Reform of
Marriage]. Calcutta: Self-published.
Majumdar, Pratapcandra. (1898). Stri Caritra. [Womans Charater] 2nd
ed. Calcutta: Self-published.
Mitra, Jayakrishna. (1890). Ramanir Kartavya. [The Duties of Women].
Calcutta: Giribala Mitra.
Mitra, Satyacaran. (1884). Strir Prati Svamir Upadesh. [A Husbands Advice
to His Wife]. Calcutta: Victoria Printing Works.
Mukhopadhyaya, Vipradas. (1891). Yubaka Yubati. [Young Men and Young
Women]. Calcutta: Manomohan Library.
Pal, Dhirendranath. (1880). Strir Sahit Kathopakathan. [Conversations with
the Wife]. Calcutta: Vaishnav Charan Vasak.
. (1884). Songini. [Companion]. Calcutta: Bengal Publishing
. (1909). The Hindu Science of Marriage. Calcutta: Jatin Pal.
. (1911). The Hindu Wife. Calcutta: Phanindra Nath Pal.
Raychaudhuri, Girijaprasanna. (1887). Griha Lakshmi. [The Lakshmi of
the House] 2nd ed. Calcutta: Gurudas Chatterji.
Sastri, Shivnath. (1885). Griha Dharma. [The Dharma of the Family].
Calcutta: Girish Chandra Ghosh.

Other Works
Basu, Isancandra. (1887). The English Works of Raja Rammohan Roy. Calcutta:
Jogendra Chandra.
Bengal Library. (18671914). Catalogue of Printed Books: Appendix to the
Calcutta Gazette. Calcutta: Bengal Government.

As the Husband, so the Wife 57

Borthwick, Meredith. (1984). Changing Role of Women in Bengal 18491905.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chakraborty, Usha. (1963). Conditions of Bengali Women around the 2nd Half
of the 19th Century. Calcutta: Self-published.
Chatterjee, Partha. (1990). The Nationalist Resolution of the Womens
Question, in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (ed.), Recasting Women,
pp. 23353. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
. (1990). Their Own Words: Womens Autobiographies from Nineteenth
Century Bengal. Unpublished manuscript. New York.
. (1993). The Nation and Its Fragments. Princeton: Princeton University
Gandhi, M.K. (1957). An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with
Truth. Translated by Desai, Mahadev. Boston: Beacon Press.
Jacobsen, Doranne and Susan Wadley. (1977). Women in India: Two
Perspectives. New Delhi: Manohar.
Kakar, Sudhir. (1978). The Inner World. New Delhi: Oxford University
Kopf, David. (1979). The Brahmo Samaj. Princeton: Princeton University
Mukherjee, Meenakshi. (1988). The Unperceived Self: A Study of Nineteenth
Century Biographies, in Karuna Chanana (ed.), Socialisation, Education
and Women: Explorations in Gender Identity, pp. 24972. New Delhi: Orient
Murshid, Ghulam. (1983). Reluctant Debutant. Rajshahi: Rajshahi University
Nanda, B.R. (ed.) (1976). Indian Women from Purdah to Modernity. New Delhi:
Roland, Alan. (1988). In Search of Self in India and Japan. Princeton: Princeton
University Press.
Roy, Monisha. (1972). Bengali Women. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Sengupta, Subodhcandra. (ed.) (1976). Sangsad Bangali Caritabhidan. Calcutta.
Vidyalankar, Sashibhusana. (1938). Jivani Kosa. Calcutta: Debabrata
Walsh, Judith E. (1983). Growing Up in British India. New York: Holmes &
. (1997). What Women Learned When Men Gave Them Advice:
Rewriting Patriarchy in Late-Nineteenth Century Bengal. The Journal
of Asian Studies 56, No. 3: 64177.
. (2003). English Education and Indian Childhood during the Raj,
18501947. Education Dialogue 1, No. 1.

58 Judith E. Walsh
Walsh, Judith E. (2003). Whats Love Got to Do with It: Choosing Love or
Family in Late 19th Century India [online journal]. Project South Asia
(forthcoming January) [cited]. Available from
. (2004). Domesticity in Colonial India: What Women Learned When Men
Gave Them Advice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, New Delhi:
Oxford University Press.
. (2005). How to be a Goddess of Your Home: An Anthology of Bengali
Domestic Manuals. New Delhi: Yoda Press.
. (2005). A Brief History of India. New York: Facts on File.



60 Mukul Mukherjee

Women and Agency 61

Chapter 2

Women and Agency

Vignettes from Indian
Mukul Mukherjee

An enhancement of womens active agency can, in many circumstances,

contribute to the lives of all peoplemen as well as women, children as
well as adults (Sen, 2001: 4).

For a long time the family/household has tended to be treated as a

homogeneous and impervious entity: virtually a black box that has
been immune to critical gaze. Family here refers to any group of
people related by blood, or by legal ties such as marriage, adoption
etc., who usually stay together. Quite often family and household are
used synonymously, though the term household has more to do with
co-residence and is more commonly used by economists and statisticians. There is no doubt that it is not very realistic to talk about the
An earlier version of this chapter was presented at the Fulbright AIA
Conference on Family Matters: Textual Representations, held in Kolkata
on January 2325, 2003 and subsequently published in Families: A Journal of
Representations, Vol. 2 (1), August 2003.

62 Mukul Mukherjee
family; for its manifestation has been in a state of flux, particularly in
the last few decades. The size, composition, living arrangements and
inherent values giving shape to human families continue to evolve, as
apparent in families based on consensual unions or same sex unions,
single parent units, female-headed households, etc., extending even
to alternative living arrangements such as the kibbutz. However, much
of the theorization centers around nuclear, co-resident families of
heterosexual couples where the family head is male, with dependent
wife and children.
Despite the profound changes brought in by industrialization and
urbanization in the past century, the family survives as the primary
institution of human society. This is because

it meets basic survival needs, facilitating adequate biological

functioning of its members;
it maintains the cycles of reproduction and socialization of new
it creates a socially sanctioned space for enduring inter-personal
relationships; and
it promotes social cohesion and for many, it is a haven in a
heartless world.

In the context of the social sciences, the familys engagement in

production and consumption has been a familiar concept; so has been
the concept of the typically male head of the family acting as an
altruistic decision-maker, under whose benign dispensation there is
no scope for inter-personal conflict. However, this complacent overview ignores the role of the family as an allocational unit that distributes benefits and hardships among its members and it fails to take
into account the subterranean pulls and pressures of domination and
subjugation that are incessantly played out among the members of
the family at many levels: between the head of the family and the rest
of the members; between generations as between adults and children;
between kinship positions as between a mother-in-law and her
daughter-in-law; and, significantly, between its men and women members, with their differential and gender-based sharing of the resource
pool of the family and disparate participation in domestic work and
in exercise of agency and authority.

Women and Agency 63

Feminist critiques of the institution of the family have unfolded

disturbing aspects of vulnerability and violence that seem part of the
everyday lives of women across time and space. From this perspective,
certain groups seem particularly vulnerable: women who are widowed/
separated/deserted; female heads of households who have to sustain
their families under difficult circumstances; elderly women leading
lonely and powerless lives even though they live with families and
the multitude of faceless women who suffer violence within the walls
of the family home. It would appear that there is a close consonance
between images of female vulnerability produced in the world of
literature and the realities of the quotidian lives of women as garnered
from the empirical world. This chapter will try to look at some of
these facets of family life and womens agency in India, with the help
of pointers from socio-economic studies.
The chapter is organized into four sections. The first section immediately following provides a brief backdrop, recapitulating some important theoretical approaches towards understanding the functioning
of the family as a social institution. The next three sections provide
perspectives on womens agency in the Indian familial context. As
we all know, this is a very wide and complex arena and this chapter
concerns itself with only three dimensions of family life that have a
profound bearing on womens agency and autonomy. Accordingly,
the second section explores how women face limitations in exercising
decision-making power within the household; the third section looks
at the deficient quality of life of a particular category of women
those who have crossed the age of 60 years; and the fourth section
considers the almost endemic phenomenon of domestic violence that
threatens womens agency in diverse ways.
It must be emphasized at this point that though there is much preoccupation with constraints that curb womens existence as autonomous beings, in textual representations as well as in empirical research,
we must recognize that women may have their own agendas of protest
and may devise their own modes of resistance towards an oppressive
and iniquitous environment. For, as James C. Scott eloquently reminds
us, there are also weapons of the weak and hidden transcripts of
resistance to domination (Scott, 1985; 1990: 37).

64 Mukul Mukherjee

The Family/Household as a
Gendered Structure
Friedrich Engels was one of the earliest writers to draw attention to
womens status within the family, based upon Marxist concepts of
the material processes of production and reproduction (Engels, 1945).
In Engels view, marriage and children constituted the family as a set
of relationships. In this family a functional division of labor prevailed
between men and womenwhich Engels designated as a pure and
simple outgrowth of natureand in his words, each was master
of his or her own field of activity: the man in the forest, the woman
in the house. Gradually, as communities settled down and small
groups accumulated various types of wealth, the pre-existing egalitarian relations between men and women began to change and
womens rights as well as their domestic work in the household lost
significance: The administration in the household lost its public
character it became a private service. The wife became the first
domestic servant. Engels describes this transformation of womens
role and the disappearance of mother-right as the world-historical
defeat of the female sex. He also provides a praxis: The emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are enabled to
take part in production on a large, social scale, and when domestic
duties require their attention only to a minor degree. Scholars have
critiqued Engels approach, but his exposition served the important
purpose of highlighting the subordinate position of women within
the framework of the family (Geetha, 2002; Sacks, 1974).
In recent years the internal dynamics of the family have featured
significantly in the writings of Gary Becker, associated with the new
household economics and in the work of Amartya Sen (Becker, 1981;
Sen, 1990). While Becker almost wishes away uncomfortable issues
relating to gender equity by assuming an altruistic (male) household
head who maximizes family welfare through benevolent dictatorship (and thereby presumably protects womens interests), Sen
looks upon the household/family as a potentially turbulent site
where membersin their individual capacities as women and men
bargain for access to advantages (Kabeer, 1996: chapter 5). The family,

Women and Agency 65

as viewed by Sen, is marked by a certain duality, for it combines the

processes of cooperation as well as contestation. He writes: There
has to be a closer analysis of the existence of both cooperative and
conflicting elements in family relations. The essence of the problem
is that there are many cooperative outcomesbeneficial to all the
parties concerned compared with non-cooperationbut the different parties have strictly conflicting interests in the choice among the
sets of efficient cooperative arrangements (Sen, 1983). Here, unlike
Beckers model, womens relative position within the household does
become a significant problem.
Let us now turn our attention to family studies in the Indian context.
As scholars have noted, a common feature of family studies in India
has been its preoccupation with forms or types of families and their
descriptive accounts rather than analyzes of their internal dynamics
(Desai, 1995). The position of women or issues of gender hardly entered
the arena of such discussions, though it is generally accepted that an
important determinant of womens status is her affiliation to the family.
Interventions made by womens studies scholars have gone a long
way in bridging this gap. Essentially their contribution lies in unfolding the various dimensions of the family as a basic social institution
from the perspective of womens agency and empowerment (Ganesh
and Risseeuw, 1993). They have pointed out that:


The family is sustained in a major way by the multiple roles

played by its female constituents; but their contribution in terms
of paid work, unpaid work and care activities do not receive
the recognition due from society.
The family gives rise to relationships based on various forms of
power within which womens lives are enmeshed.
It serves as an arena for absorption of patriarchal values such
as female seclusion, female docility and chastity, son preference
and devaluation of daughters. According to one observers pithy
comment: it is where gender gets done; that is, the family is
typically the first place where norms and practices are differentiated according to gender and internalized by its members,
being eventually diffused over the wider community (Morgan,

Traditionally, the family is perceived to be located in the private

sphere, beyond the scope of public scrutiny or public intervention by

66 Mukul Mukherjee
way of state policy. However, it can also be looked upon as an artifact
of state: though people associate and live together in many different
ways, which of these associations will be given the epithet of family
is not decided only by the parties concerned. The state plays an important role in constituting the family by defining which groups of
people can count as families, by sanctioning marriage, divorce and
legitimacy, etc., as also rights and privileges of family members
(Nussbaum, 2000: 262).
So far as Indian households are concerned, we may note that
(a) the family continued to be the mainstay of the elderly right up to
the 1990snational-level surveys reveal that only about 2 percent
among aged men and 4 percent among aged women were found to
live alone or with people who were not relatives (Rajan and Kumar,
2003); (b) though different forms of nuclear family accounted for more
than half of the Indian households recorded in the 1991 census, there
was also a marked presence of joint families, accounting for about
one-fifth of the total (Gulati and Rajan, 1999); and (c) the patriarchal
nature of Indian society is reflected in the National Sample Survey
(NSS) finding that over 80 percent of 60plus men were reported as
heads of households in the 1990s, while the corresponding figure for
women was about 15 percent.1

Womens Agency in Decision-making
Keeping in mind these aspects of the family, then, we first consider
an important aspect of womens agency: her existence as an autonomous being and her capability of influencing the parameters of her
own life and the environment within which she functions. In other
words, agency is taken to represent a certain degree of power and as
such, womens autonomy becomes intertwined with their empowerment. As posited by Gita Sen and Srilatha Batliwala, empowerment
is the process by which the powerless gain greater control over the
circumstances of their lives and implies both control over resources
(physical, human, intellectual, financial) and over ideology (beliefs,
values, attitudes). They stress that it means not only greater extrinsic
control but also a growing intrinsic capabilitygreater self-confidence,
and an inner transformation of ones consciousness that enables one

Women and Agency 67

to overcome external barriers to accessing resources or changing

traditional ideology (Sen and Batliwala, 2000: 17). Sometimes a
distinction is made between power and authority: while decisions
enacted through publicly recognized institutions have been called
authority, power is seen as influence exerted through informal channels. Though there is a great deal of variation in the extent of power
and authority that women enjoy in their respective societies, there is
general agreement that it is less than that of men in the same position
(Leacock, 1986: 107).
What constitutes womens agency and autonomy in the Indian
context is not easy to answer. Within the family women often strategize, persuade, negotiate and often formulate their own means for
coping with oppressive situations; in certain contexts they may even
wield considerable control, for example vis--vis daughters-in-law.
Yet they are usually unable to exercise much choice in significant
decision-making processes both within and outside the household.
Though it is not possible to make very precise assessments of autonomy, certain indicators have been proposed for exploring womens
power within the family or household. These include:


Womens ability to control decisions about their productive and

economic activities, including freedom of movement and control
over the resulting wages or income.
Womens ability to control the type of household structure in
terms of composition (for example, extended or not, femaleheaded or not), size or duration.
Degree of discrepancy between mens and womens ratios of
time spent in income earnings to that in leisure time.
Womens membership in economic and social collectives, and
formal or informal groups (credit or loan associations, cooperatives etc.).
Womens ability to have an important say (if not to make the
actual decision) in decisions which affect their lives, such as
major purchases, building a house, family size (including having
a child at a particular time of life and work), moving or not
moving to another town, etc. (Rothschild, 1982: 128).

Researchers have tried to design studies for addressing some of

the above issues and so to devise a method for assessing decisionmaking powers of women in the Indian milieu (see Pant, 2000). We
may here refer to Shireen J. Jejeebhoys study of rural women in

68 Mukul Mukherjee
Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which considers five sets of numerical
indices for measuring womens autonomy and power within the household. These relate to economic decision-making authority (purchase
of food, household goods and jewelry; having a say in spending
household income); child-related decision-making authority (dealing
with childrens health and education); mobility (freedom to go unescorted beyond the village, to health centers, homes of relatives and
friends) and freedom from threat (fear of husband, being beaten by
husband). The study concludes that in particular contexts, tight controls are exerted on women in every sphere of their lives: their free
movement, their voice in family matters, their economic independence
and their relations with their husbands (Jejeebhoy, 2000). This is
in accord with the growing body of literature, both from within India
and abroad, that suggests that the extent to which women enjoy autonomy is powerfully shaped by social institutions of gender within a
It is only with the publication of the report of the second National
Family Health Survey of India (NFHS 2, 199899) that we have access
to reliable information on at least certain aspects of decision-making
in Indian families, both at national and state levels (IIPS and ORC,
2000: Sections 3.6 and 3.8). This important survey was mainly devoted
to enquiry about womens health, fertility and family planning practices and covered about one lakh ever-married women aged 15 to 49,
spread over the length and breadth of India. An innovation introduced
in this survey is the module on womens autonomy, which explores
and presents data collected on decision-making as reported by women
Table 1 Ever-married women who are involved in household decision-making (%)
(All-India Figures)


Percentage who are involved in decisions regarding:

What to cook
Own health care
Purchasing jewelry, etc.





Percentage who do not need permission for :

Going to the market
Visiting friends and relatives





Percentage who have access to money





Sources: NFHS 2, India 199899, Table 3.11.

Notes: U = urban; R = rural; I = illiterate; HS+ = education level high school and above.

Women and Agency 69

respondents at the household level. Some pertinent findings of this

module are compiled in Table 1. Interestingly, these findings make it
quite clear that for women of all ages and all types of background,
the greatest degree of autonomy is associated with respect to decisions
about what to cook for the family: a stereotypical feminine concern
the world over. As our Table shows, while 85 percent of the women
respondents reported that they freely took decisions about cooking, a
much lower percentage (about half ) had the freedom to take decisions
regarding their own health care or purchase of valuables such as jewelry.
Among rural women, only about one-fifth reported that they did not
require permission (from the authority figures in the household) to
go to the local market or to visit parents and siblings. Rather unexpectedly, about 60 percent reported that they had access to money,
though it is not clear whether they were indeed free to spend money
according to their own wishes.
There are two other points to note: urban womens decision-making
appears to be more robust as compared to their rural sisters and the
scope for decision-making appears to improve steadily with improvement in the respondents literacy and education levels. As an example
of the liberating influence of education, among women who had
completed high school, more than 80 percent had access to money
and 60 percent were free to attend to their own health care; with
respect to illiterate women, these proportions were much lower
(53 and 49 percent respectively). The report points out that womens
autonomy is likely to have a significant impact on the demographic
and health-seeking behavior of couples by altering a womans relative
control over fertility and contraceptive use, and by influencing their
attitudes (for example, attitudes towards the sex composition of
children) and abilities (for example, the ability to obtain health services
for them-selves and their children).

Age and Erosion of Agency
A remarkable trend since Indias independence has been the increase
in life expectancy at birth (LEB)both for women and men. In 1951
the LEB of Indian women was only 32.5 years. Now both male and
female LEB have crossed 60 yearsestimated at 64 and 65 years

70 Mukul Mukherjee
respectively in the 2001 censusand these are expected to show a
steady rise in the coming decades. The elderly, that is, persons aged
60 years and above, now constitute about 7 percent each of the total
male and female population and this proportion too is expected to
rise in the not too distant future. According to the 1991 census, elderly
women outnumbered men belonging to the same age group, the
femalemale ratio of this segment being 1,075 as against the overall femalemale ratio (FMR) of 933 (Visaria, 2001). But as we shall
see presently, for women at least, a long lifespan has hardly been an
unmixed blessing; for aging seems to go hand in hand with loss of
agency and well-being.
Those who have read Dahan, the much acclaimed story written
by Suchitra Bhattacharya and recently made into a film, will recall
the grandmother Mrinalini, an aged and unusual widow. She is unusual because she has control over fixed deposits and can afford to
live a dignified and independent life on her own. Yet she tells her
granddaughter, For us, the whole of life is a prison. Only the jailor
changes. Sometimes father, at other times husband, or son. Or this
enclosed place. The stamp of love seals and imprisons us within the
home and family. Once the seal loosens and falls, this prison becomes
more fearful than the other (Sarbadhikari, 1999). Our regional literatures abound in moving images of women of advancing age, who
are lonely, oppressed, denigrated and victimized. With the growing
availability of demographic data in India, these facets of fiction are
gradually turning into grim realities. Much valuable information about
the elderly in India can be found in the reports of our recent population
censuses and the country-wide National Sample Surveys and National
Family Health Surveys carried out in the 1990s. The findings presented
in these reports help us to learn how, particularly for women, advancing age serves to compound vulnerability.
First, women face greater hardship on account of economic insecurity. The results of recent Rounds of National Sample Surveys
reveal that more than 70 percent of older women were totally dependent on others in the mid-1990s as compared to about 30 percent
of older men in the same situation. Only about one-fifth of older
women were found to be owning and managing property while
the comparable figure for their male compatriots was more than
60 percent. Among urban women in this age-group who had been employed, only a small percentage (15 percent ) received pension and
other post-retirement benefits. And finally, despite their advanced

Women and Agency 71

age, about one-third of rural women were found to be still working

for economic sustenance in addition to their continuous engagement
in domestic work.2
Second, older womens options and capabilities are compromised
because of a very high prevalence of illiteracy and a higher incidence of
chronic diseases as well as physical infirmities such as impairment
of vision or hearing or movement. According to the same set of NSS
data again, more than 90 percent of aged women living in rural areas
were illiteratea much higher figure as compared to 66 percent among
men. In urban areas too, older womens illiteracy rate of 66 percent
was more than three times the rate for urban men.
This brings us to the third predicament faced by older women: the
burdens associated with widowhood. Once past the age of 60 years,
women not only have lower risks of death as compared to men in the
same age group, but also a much smaller proportion among them
remarry, so that the percentage of widows among aged women is
considerably higher than that of widowers among aged men. In rural
India, for example, NSS data of the 1990s showed that more than
60 percent of the 60-plus female population and more than 80 percent
of the 70-plus female population were widows; but the proportion
of widowers in the elderly male population was much lowerfor
instance, only 20 percent among 60-plus men. We learn from the
same source that over 90 percent of female heads of households
were also widows, the corresponding percentage for male heads being
far lower at 12 percent. Anthropological studies highlight the fact
that women who have lost their spouses tend to suffer prominently
from social marginalization and psychological stress, in addition to
being particularly vulnerable to poverty (Drze and Sen, 1995: 172).
Indeed a distinct correlate of advancing age is the loneliness and the
disappearance of a supportive family structure that is associated with
the loss of kin.
The observations of the Committee of the Status of Women in
India on widowhood, recorded a quarter of a century ago, still seems
to be largely and sadly true: A change in the lifestyle of women after
they are widowed is characteristic of Indian society with the conception of the man as the breadwinner and the women as his dependant, the married state for women is considered fortunate societys
attitude to this unfortunate group has not registered any appreciable
change in all these decades (Govt. of India, 1974: 80). Further,
The sensational circumstances of small numbers of widows receive

72 Mukul Mukherjee
more attention than the less visible and quiet deprivation of millions.
These deprivations do not show up in economic and social statistics,
the standard household-level analysis tells very little about widows
and their well-being (Chen, 2000: 30). Jean Drze and Amartya Sen
remind us that the experience of losing ones spouse is, overwhelmingly, a womans experience. A widower not only has greater freedom
to remarry than his female counterpart, he also has more extensive
property rights, wider opportunities for remunerative employment,
and a more authoritative claim on economic support from children.
Had the living conditions of widowers been as precarious as those of
widows, it is likely that widowed persons would have attracted far
more attention (Drze and Sen, 1995: 173).

Domestic Violence: Negation of
Womens Human Rights
We now come to our third chosen perspective: the family/household
as a site of violence perpetrated against women.
Perhaps the most painful devaluation of womens lives is reflected
in the physical and psychological violence that stalks them from cradle
to gravein situations of both war and peace:

Violence against women can begin even before life begins. We

know of the violence wreaked on the unborn female fetus
through the rampant misuse of medical technology. And we
know that even after half a century of Indias independence, it
has not been possible to wipe out female infanticide. Indeed
certain progressive districts of Tamil Nadu, such as Salem,
have become notorious for the killing of girl babies (see
Krishnakumar, 2002).
Violence scars the early life of women, whether in the shape of
child abuse and incest, child prostitution, and exploitative child
Violence also tends to become part of marriage and family life.
Only the tip of this iceberg is slowly emerging, as increasing
numbers of women approach NGOs or seek the help of law.

Women and Agency 73


Violence becomes manifest in the proliferation of crimes against

women such as rape, assault, abduction and sexual harassment,
and, finally, it can culminate in murder or suicide, as starkly
portrayed in dowry deaths and brutal honor killings to which
women are subjected.

As a result of strong feminist advocacy, worldwide concern for

preventing violence against women led to the UN Declaration on
Elimination of Violence Against Women in December 1993. According to this Declaration, violence against women includes any act of
gender-based violence that results or is likely to result in physical,
sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of
such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. Within this broad context, we have
chosen to focus on domestic violence because it is the most ubiquitous
form of abuse for women, yet the most covert. Day in and day out, it
negates for women the basic human right to life, liberty and security
of person.
The term domestic violence can be given different meanings but it
is most often used to refer to violence against a woman by an intimate
partner, which can be physical, sexual or emotional. It is also referred
to as wife abuse and wife battering and the battered wife is a very
familiar figure not only in developing countries like India but also in
the advanced western world. Quite often, a woman battered by her husband is likely to have been raped by him, psychologically traumatized
and financially exploited. As recorded in a survey by the Tata Institute
of Social Sciences in collaboration with the Mumbai Police, the aftermath of domestic violence can be complex and devastating, sometimes lasting a womans lifetime (Dave and Solanki, 2001).
Till 1983 there were no specific legal provisions in India that pertained to violence within the home. Though women could take
recourse to general laws with respect to crimes such as murder, abetment to suicide, grievous injury or wrongful confinement, etc., specific
provisions were urgently needed for dealing with an offence committed in the privacy of the home by a person on whom a woman is
economically and emotionally dependent. In 1983 a new section,
498A,was added to the Indian Penal Code which subsumes and penalizes domestic violence under the term cruelty. (Cruelty is defined
under this section as: (a) any wilful conduct which is of such a nature
as likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or death, whether mental or physical of

74 Mukul Mukherjee
the woman; or (b) harassment of the woman when such harassment
is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet
any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on
account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such a
demand.) Though recognized as a significant development in confronting domestic violence, this legislation had its own limitations.
(For example, it did not ensure the aggrieved womans right to shelter
in her matrimonial home; nor did it provide for any compensation
for the injuries suffered by her.) After prolonged debates and mainly
on the basis of substantive suggestions advocated by womens organizations, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act came
into being in 2005. This new civil law focusing more on securing
womens rights considerably expands the ambit of relief and protection for victims of domestic violence. As such the Act covers not
only married women but also those who are in a live-in relationship
or are related by consanguinity and adoption; gives an aggrieved
woman the right to residence in her matrimonial home even if she
may not have property rights and provides for compensation for injuries (including emotional distress) caused by acts of domestic
violence. However, its actual efficacy is yet to be tested.
When we try to unravel the roots of this gender-based familial violence, we realize that violence has always been a tool for exercising
domination and appropriating control in different spheres of life. In
the domestic sphere too, violence becomes a means for domination
and controlof womens bodies, their labor, their assets and their
mobility, and on another plane, their emotions, ideas and attitudes.
According to one perceptive view, Far from being abnormal behavior,
the violence of men towards the women they live with should rather
be seen as an extreme form of normality, an exaggeration of how society expects men to behave it is concerned with wider issues to
do with power and equity and to do with how we perceive manhood
(Wilson, 2000: 26). An additional factor that fuels aggressive male
behavior within the home is the violence-prone environment prevailing in the wider society, aided and abetted by the consumerist
culture associated with globalization.
At least in the Indian context, several points have to be noted in
regard to domestic violence inflicted on women. First, statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau show that during the
last few years, cruelty/torture of women by their husband and his relatives account for about one-thirdthat is, the highest proportion
of total crimes committed against women in India as a whole, rape

Women and Agency 75

and abduction accounting for about one-tenth each and dowry death
for about 5 percent.3 Next is the tendency to justify and condone the
occurrence of such violence and thus mitigate criticism and punishment. To this end, while the battered women might be projected as
mentally ill or morally depraved, the men involved might be looked
upon as victims of poverty or an abusive environment or as driven by
drug abuse or alcoholism. There is also the tendency to exonerate
male offenders by taking advantage of legal loopholes. There are instances where the known perpetrators of violence against women
could not be punished because the case could not be proved beyond
reasonable doubt. (For example, in the well-known case of a Pune
housewife, where the husband was accused of murdering her, even
though he was convicted in the lower courts, it was decided that the
husbands guilt could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt as
the woman may well have committed suicide out of depression!
[Agnes, 1992].) It is not difficult to surmise that consciously or unconsciously, a certain philosophy is at work behind such lenient
approaches to this particular category of offence: that of protecting
the privacy of the home and protecting family honor.
Accounts of domestic violence in India mostly came from court
cases or anecdotal evidence and more recently, from small-scale
surveys/studies (Jejeebhoy, 1998; Visaria, 2000). For the first time, a
large body of national-level and state-level data related to domestic
violence against women has been compiled by the second National
Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 199698. Some of these data are
reproduced in Table 2. Several features stand out here. First, the survey
reports that at least one in five of all ever-married women above the
age of 15 years experienced physical violence and at least one in
nine experienced it in the 12 months preceding the survey. Second,
the beatings were typically inflicted by their husbands. Third, domestic
violence appears to be democraticin that it cuts across religion,
community, ruralurban divide, even womens employment status.
These findings, then, serve to expose the fallacies inherent in certain
commonly held beliefs:

that wife battering affects only small groups of population;

that only poor women get battered;
tha battered women are uneducated women; and
that battered women are free to leave home.

These revelations bring to mind the poignant words of a women

protagonist in David Davidars novel: a woman must be prepared

76 Mukul Mukherjee
Table 2 Married womens experience of beatings/physical mistreatment
(All-India Figures)
Beaten Since Age 15 years

Beaten by Husband







Social Group










Wifes education
Literate, not completed
Middle School
Middle School completed
High School and above

Source: NFHS 2, India 199899, Table 3.15

to be beaten by her husband. Its the way things are. When you are
newly married, you are beaten for not bringing enough dowry; when
you give birth to your children, you are beaten for not producing a
male heir, or if you have already given him a son, for not producing
only sons. And then, when you have produced enough children, you
are beaten for losing your looks and youth (Davidar, 2002: 32).
The NFHS survey data, however, also indicate two other trends:
the incidence of domestic violence seems to fall appreciably if women
are educated beyond High School and it also tends to fall with a rise
in the standard of living. These findings have obvious implications
for strengthening womens agency and autonomy.

Women and Agency 77

In addition to gauging the incidence of domestic violence in India,

NFHS 2 has also collected information on womens perceptions about
the legitimacy of husbands beating their wives. As Table 3 shows, a
substantial proportion of women surveyed (between 33 to 40 percent)
felt that a husband would be justified in beating his wife if there is a
particular lapse on her part, such as neglecting the home or the
children, going out without informing the husband, being unfaithful,
showing disrespect to in-laws, and not cooking properly. Overall,
almost three out of every five women surveyed (56 percent) justified
domestic violence on one or the other ground mentioned above. The
NFHS report comments: The experience of violence and the silent
acceptance of violence by women undermines attempts to empower
women and will continue to be a barrier to the achievement of demographic, health and socioeconomic development goals (NFHS 2,
199899: 79 in IIPS and ORC, 2000). This silent acceptance perhaps reflects an aspect of the power structure operative in society as
explicated by S. Lukes. In his view, The most insidious exercise of
power (is) by shaping perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such
a way that they (i.e., the subjugated) accept their role in the existing
order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative
to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because it
is divinely ordained and beneficial (Lukes, 1974).
Having looked at the constraints women face in terms of exclusion in decision-making, and the travails of ageing, widowhood and
domestic violence, we are now faced with the inevitable question:
how are womens agency and autonomy to be restored and sustained?
Agency, autonomy and empowermentall essential attributes for
Table 3 Percentage of ever-married women who agree with specific reasons for
justifying a husband beating his wife
(All-India Figures)
Reasons for Beating
Husband suspects wife is unfaithful
Wife shows disrespect to in-laws
Wife goes out without telling husband
Wife neglects house or children
Wife does not cook food properly
Wifes natal family does not give money or other items
Source: NFHS 2, India, 199899, Table 3.14

Percentage Agreeing with

Specific Reason

78 Mukul Mukherjee
enriching human lifebasically relate to expansion of peoples capacities and choices; their ability to exercise choice based on freedom
from hunger, want and deprivation; and the opportunity to participate in, or endorse, decision-making that affects their lives (UNDP,
1997: 33). An elaboration of these themes is beyond the scope of
this chapter; here we can only spell out certain priorities.
Obviously, we need greater involvement on the part of the state
and the civil society in working towards womens development, security and autonomy. We need more extensive and more effective gendersensitization on the part of those who make laws, those who interpret
them and those who enforce them. NGOs concerned with womens
issues have a very significant role in this regard. We also need a more
comprehensive database for reaching out to women who are trapped
in violence and elderly women and widowed women who are resourceless, so that due importance is accorded to them in public policy
and programs.
But ultimately, women themselves must learn to strengthen their
own capabilities in pursuit of agency and autonomy. Experience tells
us that capacity building for women begins from three crucial planks.
First and foremost is education, for education brings awareness of
ones surroundings and a better understanding of ones rights and
duties. The second is skill-building and economic self-reliance. For
women specially, freedom to act is linked vitally to their capacity to
be self-reliant with the help of their own knowledge, experience and
practical skills. The third imperative for agency is organization: getting
together and forging bonds so that their experiences can be shared,
their capabilities can be expanded and their wholesome influence
can be felt within the home and outside. Hopefully, this new millennium will see a new vigor in their journey towards agency and

1. National Sample Survey , 199394, as cited in Pravin Visaria, Demographics
of Ageing in India, EPW, 2001: 1971.
2. NSS 42nd Round (198687) and NSS 52nd Round (199596), as cited in
Visaria (2001).
3. See relevant Tables in Crime in India, 2002 and 2003, National Crime
Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India.

Women and Agency 79

Agnes, Flavia. (1992). Protecting Women Against Violence? Review of a
Decade of Legislation, 198089, EPW, April 25.
Becker, Gary. (1981). A Treatise on the Family. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press.
Chen, Martha A. (2000). Perpetual Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India, as
cited in UN, The Worlds Women 2000, p. 30. New York.
Dave, Anjali and Gopika Solanki. (2001). Journey from Violence to Crime: A
Study of Domestic Violence in the City of Mumbai, Mumbai: TISS.
Davidar, David. (2002). The House of Blue Mangoes, p. 32. New Delhi: Viking
(Penguin Books).
Desai, Neera. (1995). Perceiving Family: Myth and Reality, paper presented at Workshop on Re-examining the Indian Family, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, July 79.
Drze, Jean and Amartya Sen. (1995). India: Economic Development and Social
Opportunity, p. 172. New Delhi: OUP.
Engels, Friedrich. (1945) (first published in 1884). Origin of the Family, Private
Property and the State. Moscow: Progressive Publishers.
Ganesh, Kamala and Carla Risseeuw. (1993). Gender: Between the Family
and the State, EPW, October 23.
Geetha, V. (2002). Gender. Calcutta: Stree.
Govt. of India. (1974). Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status
of Women in India, p. 80. Delhi.
. (20022003). Crime in India. National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry
of Home Affairs, New Delhi.
Gulati, Leela and S. Irudaya Rajan. (1999). The Added Years: Elderly in
India and Kerala, EPW, October 30, Table 9.
Indian Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS) Bombay and ORC Macro
(USA). (2000). National Family Health Survey: 199899India, (sections
3.6 and 3.8).
Jejeebhoy, Shireen J. (1998). Wife-beating in Rural India: A Husbands
Right?, EPW, April 11, pp. 85562.
. (2000). Womens Autonomy in Rural India: Its Dimensions, Determinants and the Influence of Context in Harriet B. Presser and Gita
Sen (eds), Womens Empowerment and Demographic Processes: Moving Beyond
Cairo. New Delhi: OUP.
Kabeer, Naila. (1996). Reversed Realities: Women and Development. New Delhi:
Kali for Women (chapter 5).
Krishnakumar, Asha. (2002). Life and Death in Salem, Frontline, March 1.
Leacock, Eleanor. (1986). Women, Power and Authority, in Leela Dube,
Eleanor Leacock and Shirley Ardner (eds), Visibility and Power: Essays on
Women in Society and Development, p. 107 ff. New York: OUP.

80 Mukul Mukherjee
Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A Radical View. London: Macmillan.
Morgan, David. (1999). Gendering the Household, in Linda Mckee and
others (eds), Gender, Power and the Household. London: Macmillan.
Nussbaum, Martha. (2000). Women and Development: The Capabilities Approach,
p. 262. New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Pant, Mandakini. (2000). Intra-household Allocation Patterns: A Study in
Female Autonomy, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, JanuaryJune.
Rajan S. Irudaya and Sanjay Kumar. (2003). Living Arrangements among
the Elderly in India, EPW, January 4, Table 7.
Rothschild, Constantina. (1982). Female Power, Autonomy and Demographic Change, in R. Anker and others (eds), Womens Role and Population
Trends in the Third World, p. 128. London: Croom Helm.
Sacks, Karen. (1974). Engels Revisited: Women, the Organisation of Production and Private Property in M. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds),
Women, Culture and Society, Stanford University Press.
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EPW, October 30.
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New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
. (1990). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, p. 37.
New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Sen, Amartya. (1983) Economics and the Family, Asian Development Review,
Vol. 1 (2).
. (1990). Cooperative Conflicts, in Irene Tinker (ed.), Persistent Inequalities: Women and Development. New York: OUP.
. (2001). Seven Faces of Gender Inequality, Frontline, November 9: 4.
Sen, Gita and Srilatha Batliwala (2000). Empowering Women for Reproductive Rights, in Harriet B. Presser and Gita Sen (eds), Womens Empowerment and Demographic Processes: Moving Beyond Cairo, p. 17. New Delhi:
United Nations Development Programme. (1997). Governance for Sustainable
Human Development, p. 33. January.
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EPW, May 13.
Visaria, Pravin. (2001). Demographics of Ageing in India, EPW, June 2,
p. 1971.
Wilson, Elizabeth. (2000). What is to be Done about Violence against Women?
Crisis of the Eighties, 1983, as cited in Shoma A. Chatterjee, Indian Women:
From Darkness to Light, Stories of Oppression, Exploitation, Reaction, Resistance and Choice, p. 26. Calcutta.

Chapter 3

Modern Families and

Independent Living
Reflections on
Contemporary Aging
Sarah Lamb

Old age homes are not a concept of our country. These days, we are
throwing away our culture. The U.S. is the richest nation in the world and
therefore has won us over. Now we, too, are only after material wealth as
a nation and have become very unhappy.
Ranjan Banerjee, old-age-home resident and retired psychiatrist,
Kolkata (Calcutta), India
In Europe, it may be normal that children leave home. But in our society,
we have roots, and suddenly, all these families have started sending their
children abroad; the children lose contact with their past; they forget to
come home.
Jayaraj, director of Karunam (Pathos), a film depicting an elderly couples
vain wait for the return of their son, who has settled in the U.S.; Kerala, India
Old age is a gift from God when spent in dignity, as in this country. I
prefer an independent life. I like to live on my own instead of living with
relatives. I am happy now.
Gopal Singh, aged 72, immigrant from the Punjab; Fremont, California

82 Sarah Lamb
These quotations speak to some of the potent meanings centered on
aging for contemporary cosmopolitan Indians.1 Over recent years,
Indians among the middle and upper classes have been participating
in profound shifts in the ways they are structuring family life and its
generational and gendered relationships. In some respects, these shifts
are similar to others occurring around the globe in cosmopolitan circles, in which dual-career nuclear families are becoming increasingly
prevalent, and kin pursuing global professional markets are widely
scattered across nations and the world. Amidst such broad social and
economic processes, aging itself takes on profoundly new forms and
This chapter explores the ways many in India and among the Indian
diaspora are crafting and experiencing new forms of aging, as they
confrontboth embracing and critiquingprocesses they associate
with modern and global living. The central social transformation
examined here is a shift away from the intergenerational family as
the key site of aging and elder care, to an increasing reliance on individual selves, private institutions and the state. Such emerging novel
modes of aging and family are taken by Indians, at home and abroad,
to represent a profound transformationa transformation involving
not only aging per se, but also core cultural and moral visions surrounding family, gender, personhood, and the very identity of India
as a nation and culture.
As an anthropologist, I spent my first years studying aging in
what many urban Indians consider a traditional context, among
familiesmany of them joint and multigenerationalin a village
setting in the Birbhum District of West Bengal (Lamb, 1993: 2000).
I next began researching aging, gender and families among the rapidly
growing South Asian Indian population in the United States (Lamb,
2002; 2007). I was struck that although senior Indian parents are
migrating to the United States with the express purpose of being with
their U.S.-settled children, many end up turning to non-family institutionssuch as community senior centers and state welfare programs
for the agedfor much material and social support, not infrequently
even setting up their own independent households. When returning
to India to do fieldwork in 2003, 2004 and 2006, I was struck, too, by
the burgeoning of non-family modes of practicing aging in urban
India, most notably the surge of old age homes along with private
organizations devoted to providing services to elderly living alone.

Modern Families and Independent Living 83

What do Indians make of these processes of aging outside the

family, and how do these new modes of aging speak to the ways
Indians are striving to work out personhood, family, society and nation
in the contemporary era? Everyone has something to say on the matter,
as daily conversations, newspaper editorials, television serials and
films abound with tales and reflections on the merits and demerits of
modern aging. I focus here on the richly varied perspectives I gleaned
through fieldwork in India and the United States,2 concentrating on
the narratives of elders, while also heeding the stories of junior kin,
proprietors of elder-focused institutions, and public and popular

The Breakdown of the Joint Family

Peoples reflections about contemporary aging and families take place
firmly against the backdrop of comparisons with a traditional Indian
past. Family is the key here. More than almost anything else, the joint,
multigenerational, intimate family represents a traditional Indian past
in contrast to an emerging modernity. In prevailing discourses (which
many of my informants acknowledge are at least partly idealized,
nostalgic representations), old age is essentially a family matter, and
adult childrenmost notably sons and daughters-in-lawlive with
and care for their aging parents. They do so out of love, a deep respect
for elders, and a profound sense of moral, even spiritual, duty to attempt to repay the inerasable debts they owe their parents for all the
effort, expense and affection their parents extended to produce and
raise them. In such discourses, multigenerational joint family living
is associated not only with traditional aging but with a complex range
of values, including fellow-feeling, supportive interdependence, patriarchy, crowded hearths, plentiful time, and moral-spiritual order.
Senior persons receive material and social support, as well as their
sense of identity, as vital members of enduring, intimate families.
At the same time, discourses in Indias urban centers widely proclaim that the joint family system is fast breaking down. In peoples
narrativesoffered by both young and old men and women, those
living in joint families and withoutseveral forces come up again

84 Sarah Lamb
and again as at the root of changes in the joint family. One is that
women now, compared to those a generation earlier, are much more
likely to be older at marriage, to be more highly educated, and to be
workingmeaning that, in general, daughters-in-law today have more
voice, authority, and agency than their mothers-in-law did, and are
often not as disposed as their predecessors were to serve, defer to and
live with their husbands parents. A second phenomenon is that many,
even most (according to prevailing estimations), parents among
the elite classes in India have children living and pursuing professions
in distant cities, across India and abroad. Third, the general milieu
of globalization, Westernization and the modern has intensified over recent years in India, bringing with it a whole host of related
ideologies and social forms, such as (according to widespread discourses): individualism, materialism, consumerism, self-centredness,
a freedom from traditional rules and mores, gendered and aged
egalitarianism, nuclear families, small flats, a pervasive lack of time,
and old age homes. Such forces and discourses are particularly salient
within middle- and upper-class urban families and much less so for
the rural and urban poor. Old age homes, for instance, are still almost
non-existent within both rural and urban poor communities. Further,
the elderly urban poor tend to blame any lack of care from their
children on long-standing poverty rather than on anything to do with
Now, it must be noted that discourses of the breakdown of the
joint family are not radically new. For instance, Lawrence Cohens
No Aging in India: Alzheimers, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things
found that in the 1980s and 1990s, the dominant narrative used by
Indian gerontologists and others to explain the contemporary predicaments of aging was that of the decline of the joint family under the
force of the four zationsmodernization, industrialization, urbanization, and Westernization. Ethnographies of social-cultural life in
India have also long portrayed tales of generational conflicts, small
households, and the like.3
What do seem to be new are the markedly unique forms that certain non-traditional-joint-family-based modes of aging are taking
in contemporary India, especially the surge of formal institutions of
extra-family aging, such as old age homes and organizations offering
surrogate sons for hire. Also important, I suggest, is the fact that
not all tales of extra-family aging center on the bad family (Cohen,
1998) or, that is, on modern degeneration. Rather, many of those I have

Modern Families and Independent Living 85

met living in old age homes and independent households quite extol
their circumstances and were the ones purposefully to craft their extrafamily late lives. Others are indeed more miserable, as they deplore
their conditions and tell of a profound shockproclaiming that they
never in earlier years could have even imagined living apart from children and family in old age. It is to these emerging forms of family
and aging, and the richly complex and varied perspectives of those
experiencing them that I now turn.

Old Age Homes

Perhaps the single most striking dimension of the emergence of a
new mode of modern aging and family is the near flood of old age
homes that have risen in Indias major urban centers. Until the past
two decades, old age homes basically did not exist in India, save for a
handful established by Christian missionaries largely catering to the
Anglo-Indian community. Now there are over 70 in the Kolkata environs alone and hundreds more across Indias urban centers, the
vast majority having been founded within the last fifteen years.4
These newer old age homes are almost entirely a middle-class phenomenon, possible only for those with retirement pensions, professional
children and/or considerable savings.5 Run by both non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) and also private entrepreneurs, the rates range
from about 1,000 to 5,000 Indian Rupees per month (a little over 20
to 100 US$), and often require a sizable joining fee or security deposit
of up to Rs 70,000 (or about $ 1,500). Accommodations can come in
the form of single, double or dormitory-style rooms; and in some a
husband and wife can opt to live together. The homes range in size
from about five to fifty residents, who are commonly referred to as
inmates (though without explicitly intending to convey the negative prisoner connotations the term carries in American English),
boarders, or more familiarly in Bengali as masima (mothers
sister), thakurma (grandmother), or mesomosae (mothers sisters
husband). The residents come from a wide range of family situations: some are childless, others have only daughters, others children
are all abroad, and others (of those I interviewed, the largest number)
have sons and daughters-in-law living right nearby.6

86 Sarah Lamb
All meals are provided, including morning and afternoon tea,
served either in common dining rooms or at bedside for those less
mobile and in homes lacking space. Numerous institutions offer a
choice between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets, appealing especially to many upper-caste widows who, in Bengal, are widely expected to observe strict vegetarianism (avoiding not only meat, fish
and eggs, but also garlic and onions). However, not all homes prepare
separate vegetarian meals, so quite a few widowed residents tell (some
complaining, other accepting, still others seemingly pleased) of how
they have had to forego all such order and rules. In some of the fancier
homes, residents have set up small kitchenettes in their rooms, with
refrigerator, hot plate, and a few supplies for making tea and snacks
for themselves and guests.
Residents clothes are washed, rooms cleaned, and tea punctually
brought; and in fact one of the distinct advantages of old-age-home
living, many say, is that older people no longer have to manage their
own servants. Even most ordinary middle-class households in India
maintain servants to help with household chores, something that
requires money, just as residing in an old age home does (for instance,
in Kolkata in 2006 a full-time cook, house-cleaner and attendant
might be paid about Rs 2,0003,000 a month, and a full-time driver
Rs 3,000 a month). Peppering Indian newspapers over recent years
are also stories of aged persons being tricked, robbed and even murdered by domestic workers, contributing to a widespread sense that it
is inappropriate and even dangerous for elders to live on their own
(e.g., Times News Network, 2005). Some old-age-home residents also
tell of how bored and irritated they had become listening to their
servants monotonous stories over and over again, as they had become
increasingly homebound in their older years.
Weekly or bi-weekly doctor visits are provided, although if one
becomes very ill or disabled, the family or individual must generally
pay additionally for a private nurses care, or else the old person is
sent to a hospital or back to his or her kin. (But, for some of these
residents, where are close and willing kin?) Minimal formal activities are planned, and residents spend their time reading, chatting,
simply sitting, playing cards, knitting, writing journals and letters,
having tea, watching television, going on morning walks, taking a
stroll to a nearby market, and (in the fancier ones) attending occasional
cultural programs and functions. Female residents might also help

Modern Families and Independent Living 87

with some light cooking, such as peeling vegetables or tasting a dish

to see if it has turned out right. The larger homes generally house a
mandir or temple, where residents can pray, make offerings to deities
and sing hymns. Most women boarders also maintain their own small
shrines in their rooms, where they perform daily pujas, serving and
honoring both deities and deceased kin such as husbands and parents.
Residents, directors and the public speak of old age home living as
a distinctly modern and Western mode of managing aging, and the
institutions are referred to most commonly using the English designation old age home. Bengali alternatives are also gradually becoming more prevalent: beginning about 2004, a regular column
has appeared in the Sunday classified sections of major Bengali
newspapers under briddhabas (abode for elders). A second term,
briddhasramshelter or ashram for the increased or senior
(briddha)carries distinct connotations of both spirituality (where
elders can purposefully cultivate freedom from worldly ties) and refuge
(for those who have no place else to go). One of the most sophisticated
elder institutions in Kolkata calls itself a Home for Senior Citizens,
and the cosmopolitan residents there (who also partake in cocktail
parties and jaunts to the neighborhood espresso caf and movie
theater) explicitly rejected (in keeping with current American trends)
what they felt to be the rather pejorative and pitying label of old.
Although viewed predominantly as a product of the West, there
are important ways that Indian old age homes are emerging as intriguingly local materializations of this now globally ubiquitous institution. There is a widespread perception among many residents, for
instance, that these homes are a contemporary version of the classical
Hindu third or forest-dweller (vanaprastha) life phase, in which persons purposefully leave their households of reproduction to embark
on a path of late-life spiritual cultivation.7 Founders of the institutions
also tend to see their core mission as offering seva or respectful service
to elderswhich they describe as a fundamental element of traditional
Indian ways of treating the aged. Further, residents, staff and directors
almost always come to employ kin terms when referring to each other,
and many speak of the institutions as in certain ways not unlike the
large joint families or ekannabarti paribar of the pastin which numerous people were linked together under one roof sharing food from
the same hearth. Nonetheless, at the same time, most involved with
the institutionsincluding the wider Indian publicview them as

88 Sarah Lamb
part of a radical transformation of fundamental Indian values, the
family and aging; because in these homes, aging takes place outside
of the family.

Solitary Living
A second trend in Indian cosmopolitan aging is that many seniors
are now living alone (in Bengali, ekala or eka), with just a spouse,
or as a widowed single with a live-in servant, or entirely on their
own. This is an arrangement that some say they enjoy and is working
just fine for them. However, both elders and the public widely tell of
living alone as unthinkable earlier, unnatural, very Western,
and distinctly modern.
Saptaparni, a middle-class apartment complex in South Kolkata,
began several decades ago largely as a residence for whole families
who had migrated from East Bengal at the time of Partition. The
flats felt small compared to the spaciousness of ancestral homes and
village lands, but families were comfortably crowded together, perhaps
three brothers, their wives and children in a 3 bedroom flat. Now,
elder Saptaparni residents say, brothers found material success and
left, and the children grew up and moved on, very often abroad. Describing her building in the complex, Jethima commented, 14 flats
14 people. Saptaparni itself is now an old age home! Sitting and
speaking with her, I am struck by the quietness. I can hear clearly the
hum of the refrigerator, a clock ticking, the lonely call of a kokil bird
near sunset, distant honking cars.
A new industry of extra-family aging is emergingNGOs, clubs
and small businessesto offer social, emotional and practical support
for such cosmopolitan elderly who live alone. One private couple in
the Delhi suburbs, Mr and Mrs Saksena, have for instance started a
business to look in on the senior parents of NRI (non-resident Indian)
children. It is the children who are the paying clients (at $5 or about
Rs 225 an hour); for Mr and Mrs Saksena follow a policy where we
recover our charges from our clients [the NRI children] and never
from the elderly. They visit the senior parents as friends of their
son/daughter overseas. Their motto is to do whatever we are asked

Modern Families and Independent Living 89

to do, provided it is not illegal, including: routine visits to chat over

tea; escorting to doctors appointments, government offices, railway
stations, airports, and late night wedding receptions; taking out on
special occasionsto dinner, the movies, concerts, religious festivals;
arranging cakes, flowers, etc., for birthdays or anniversaries; and
finally, being present at the time of death. Mr Saksena explained,
Typically, it takes anywhere between 2448 hours for our nonresident clients to arrive in India. As such, we have to be present with
the [dying] elderly to provide emotional support and make arrangements for the funeral. Not a very pleasant task, but it has to be done.
The Agewell Foundation is an NGO launched in 1999 in New
Delhi offering similar services: home visits, a telephone help line,
escorting, assistance filling out tax forms, platforms to socialize with
fellow seniors, and the like. NRI children can sponsor their parents,
paying Rs 5,000 for a lifetime membership. Himanshu Rath, director
and founder of Agewell, compares the hired counselors to surrogate
sons, explaining: Imagine the counselor to be like a son who
takes the place of the natural child and performs the same duties for
his elderly charge as a son would do. The presence of a younger person
in the house gives these old people something to look forward to.
Rath adds that the response from children who cannot spend time
with their parents has been tremendous. Agewell allows children to
gift the membership to their parents. A sad situation indeed where
children cannot gift their parents time. But this is a contemporary
reality that has to be faced.8
Other similar organizations include Aastha in Kolkata (offering
an around-the-clock emergency help line for seniors living alone),
and the Dignity Foundation (with branches in Mumbai, Kolkata,
Pune, Navi Numbai and Chennai), whose senior volunteer members
visit the more home-bound to provide companionship, advice, and
assistance with simple chores and errands. Bengalis speaking about
such arrangements often use with some critical irony the term bhara
or rented to refer to the hired children and grandchildren offered
up for service.
Many who live alone have become very creative working purposefully to construct a sense of self, life, social relations and activity
outside of the family, largely by socializing with peers and developing
hobbies. Senior peer organizations have long existed quite informally
in India (such as older mens neighborhood gatherings and womens

90 Sarah Lamb
meetings in temples), but more formal senior citizens clubs have
recently been fast springing uppromoting things like active/productive aging; independence; peer-socializing; volunteerism; hobbies;
age-specific magazines, health and beauty products; spiritual education; and political awareness (of having distinct rights as a group).
Significantly, most single elders with children do spend a great
deal of time and emotional energy thinking of and maintaining ties
with their dearly loved descendantsfor instance, by displaying their
photos proudly and extolling their careers; setting up e-mail and video
conferencing; and traveling regularly to childrens homes. One retired
Bengali gentleman, who lives alone with his wife in a modern Kolkata
apartment complex while their only son works as a professor in the
United States, articulated ardently to me, speaking here in English of
parents emotional ties with children living abroad: For Bengalis,
out of sight is not out of mind! Out of sight is very much in mind!
Nonetheless, the myriad processes of forging ahead late in life apart
from children, end up entailing the cultivation of a profoundly new
and much more individualistic way of being.

Making Lives Abroad

A third trend in cosmopolitan aging involves the transnational
movement of senior Indians to join children settled abroad in places
like the United States, where much of my research has focused. Older
Indian parents move abroad primarily for the purpose of being close
to their children, sharing with their children the hope that they may
both sustain the long-term bonds of intergenerational reciprocity and
affection that so many still view as central to an Indian and good
family and old age. Juniors in addition welcome the cooking and
childcare they imagine their parents can provide while they are so
busy at work. But many end up finding that intergenerational intimacy
and family-centered aging are hard to achieve in the United States.
In America, my informants reflect, children have no time; they are
separated from their parents by generational-cultural divides; and they
all exist in a general cultural milieu where aging is viewed as a matter
of the state and of independent selves more than of families.

Modern Families and Independent Living 91

To illustrate some of the intergenerational-intercultural tensions

Indian parents face in the United States, Matilal Majmundar told me
a story of a newer immigrant friend. Matilal Majmundar himself, a
Gujarati man in his seventies, had come with his wife to the United
States to be with his children about twelve years earlier. He found
himself gradually adjusting quite well to American life, having learned
to live fairly independently, maintaining a separate cottage (partially
funded by government welfare payments for the elderly) adjoining
his daughters spacious Palo Alto home. But many other Indian
seniors, whom he informally counsels, are not so happy. Matilal
Majmundar narrated:
One gentleman came from India, old man, just to find out whether he
would be comfortable here with his children. I met him. I said, How are
you? Oh, Im not happy.... He gets up at six oclock, he requires a cup
of tea, he is moving here and there, waiting for a cup of tea. The children,
they get up at 8:00, or 7:30, busy with all their activities.... At 9:00 or at
8:008:30 there will be a breakfast table, so many cups of tea and all
these things. But what is the use of all this? Early in the morning I dont
get it. I told him, Its very bad of your children, huh? to lock up, huh?
the tea and the sugar material. He said, No, no, theyre not locking. I
said, Then why dont you prepare? He said, No, I dont like. Then I
said, You better go to India. You better go back to India. In India, if you
take a second cup, or a third cup of tea, they will object, they will object.
Here, you can take even ten cups of tea, prepare yourself, any material
you use, your children will never object. But, if you want their time, they
will object. They will object if you want their time. So, better go to India.
Here is not the place for you.

In America, this and other narratives tell that much of what elders
imagine they would have received from their children, in terms of
both material and emotional support, gets displaced onto individual
selves (e.g., preparing ones own tea) and the state. True, most adult
children in Indian American families do provide a substantial degree
of material and social support for the elderly parents they bring over
from India. Of the thirty-two immigrant seniors I have researched
most closely, for instance, twenty-one (or about two-thirds) live in
the homes of their adult children, where they are provided shelter
and food (or at least food supplies), and generally some spending
money. Those who do not live with their children tend at least to
receive quite a lot of material support from them, such as money

92 Sarah Lamb
deposited regularly in a bank account, the gift of a car, medical expenses paid, and air tickets to and from India purchased. Children
further almost always provide forms of social supportescorting their
parents to doctors appointments, cooking at least occasional meals,
and taking them on weekend excursions to Indian friends homes,
Hindu temples or restaurants.
However, seniors end up taking on things like cooking, scrounging for leftovers in the refrigerator, making their own cups of tea,
vacuuming. All this can be particularly difficult, especially for senior
men. And, of course, not only are children short of time and unavailable, but there are no servants in America.
Further, the U.S. government ends up taking over much of the
responsibility of providing material and social support for these senior
immigrantsin the form of Supplemental Security Income (SSI)aged welfare benefits,9 Medicare (health care for the aged), statesubsidized senior apartments (which some move into), senior bus
passes and escort services, discounted lunches and gatherings at senior
centers, and the likeresulting in a whole new configuration of the
social-moral relationship between old people, families, and the state.
At first many find perplexing American expectations that the state,
rather than the family, will support the elderly. Vitalbhai Gujar, a
Gujarati immigrant in his seventies who had come to the U.S. about
ten years earlier to join his only son and daughter-in-law, queried,
Why is [the government] defining me as indigent [and thus eligible
for welfare?], when I live in my sons home? Gujar went on, though:
If the American government defines things this way, and if we are
living in America, then why not accept? He, in fact, did receive aged
welfare benefits monthly, which he used mainly for pocket money.
Still, he maintained some misgivings:
Have you heard of the buro ashram? old age home? Seniors from India
are using the U.S. government like an old age home. They come here,
and the U.S. government takes care of all medical expenses, food. [I asked,
Do you think thats wrong?] Yes! And its bad for families, too. My son
is not taking on his responsibility of caring for me! And then their children
are not learning from themthey think just that the government should
do it. Theyre forgetting the Indian system.

Older Indians also tend to find the American suburbs where their
children live to be terribly quiet and empty, lacking all the thronging

Modern Families and Independent Living 93

signs of life and sociality of Indian streets and neighborhoods

vendors calling out their wares, neighbors leaning over balconies,
senior men gathering daily at park benches to chat about politics and
life. There is nowhere one can go without a car, and so one must wait
at home all day until the children return from work. They also complain of feeling like perpetual guests in, rather than as full members
of, their childrens homes. Perceived cultural-generational divides
interfere, too, with intergenerational intimacy. Elders wince, for instance, seeing their kids and grandkids eat ready-made cold food on
the golike sandwiches or protein drinks in the car for lunch
without stopping for a real face-to-face meal. Rajata, of the younger
generation, was planning a casual party one Friday evening for several
friends. She came home from work carrying bags of ready-made
appetizers, snacks and drinks to find that her mother-in-law had
already prepared an elaborate, multi-course Indian meal. Its not
that kind of party, Rajata exclaimed in irritation, dismayed at her
mother-in-laws interference.
Some Indian seniors, however, gradually come to value dimensions
of what they see as American modes of aging and family. A good
proportion of Indian immigrants, especially those who are still
married, end up using their SSI-aged welfare benefits to seek out their
own apartments, some in state-subsidized senior complexes. When
Manubhai Daiya and his wife first migrated from Gujarat in 1986,
they came to be with their daughter (a naturalized citizen) and help
care for her children while she and her husband worked. Then six
years later, he explained: After we became senior in American
parlancethat is, of age sixty-fivewe received SSI. So we thought
we might as well launch out on our own, and accustom ourselves to
American life. So saying, he and his wife moved into a separate
apartment, where they are supported almost entirely by SSI, although
they continue to visit their children every week. He describes with
enthusiasm the independence and freedom, and the reduction
in family conflict, they have enjoyed since moving into their own
home. Gopal Singh, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, spoke to
me eagerly about how one doesnt even need to depend on children
in the U.S., since the state provides for so muchSSI, Medicare, senior
centers. Why, we can even call 911 [government-funded emergency
services] if something goes wrong. We tried it once, he said with
delight. Why would we have to live with our children?

94 Sarah Lamb

So, what do people make of these new modes of agingthis shifting
of aging from the realm of the family to institutions and independent
selves? This is a topic that is prominent in the public dialog among
cosmopolitan Indians right now. Everyone has something to say on
the subject, and the Sunday papers and magazines are filled with editorials, stories, and poems about old age homes, and the plight of
elderly parents with NRI or otherwise absent kids. No one uniform
picture emerges; one witnesses in this complex, richly layered dialog
the highly ambivalent, multivocal project of working out a meaningful
Indian gerontologists frequently advocate in recent writings such a
development of individual self-sufficiency and institutional (nonfamily) means of elder support, often presenting traditional familycentered modes of aging as backward. The recent book Indias
Elderly: Burden or Challenge? recommends, for instance, that the Indian
government should support old age homes and pension plans, and
that aging individuals should cultivate a dependence on the self
through savings, exercise, and an open-mindedness about living in
old age homesas one can no longer count on (and should no longer
count on, if one is modern and educated) children in old age. Gerontologist Shovana Narayana comments: The self-sufficiency of the
elderly is a very healthy trend.... The problem lies in the rural mindset
where people consider their children as a support system for their old
age (in Gupta, 2001, italics added).
Media representations, though, tend to be less sanguine, portraying
todays modern Indian elders as pathetic victims, powerlessly trapped
in old age homes and isolated apartments as if in jail, their stories
peppered with what sound like urban legends. For example, one newspaper article reads: The old couple is even forced [by their children]
to go without food, unless they do odd jobs in the house (Ghosh,
1999). Or another: Delhis seniors have come to dread their own
children, who in their greed for money and ancestral property are
terrorizing their aged parents (Shakeel, 1999). One common story
line is that of old persons suicide due to loneliness, such as this
one titled Death from loneliness at 80. One mans only sonan
Indian Institute of Technology graduatehas settled in the United

Modern Families and Independent Living 95

States. The old father jumped off the landing between the 8th and
9th floors, ending a solitary existence.... Neighbors said the loneliness
was probably too much for the octogenarian to bear, a condition not
uncommon in a city from which the young who will take care of the
old are increasingly [going abroad for better] opportunities (The
Telegraph, 2003).
Another, from a cover story for The Hindu Sunday magazine titled
Homes of the Future?, reads:
Shunned by those whom they breastfed, whose midnight tantrums they
endured, whose mess they cleaned without ever covering the nose with
eau de cologne-swabbed towel, whom they perched on their shoulders
and with whom they played and sang, ... the ignored aged have no choice
now but to exist in the cages of old age homes. The decision of their children or kin to dump them in an old age home is replayed again and again
in their head, like a squealing track on a damaged disk.... The homes
across the nation, where the aged are dumped, are often worse than a sty
where overcrowding and grunts are common (Ghosh, 1998).

We are confronted here with chaos, disarray, a terrible failed reciprocity, a sinking into an amoral animalistic stateone that implicates
not only the family but the nation as a whole.
A few positive media representations of contemporary old age can
nonetheless be found. In a special issue of the magazine Sananda, for
instance, an article on old age homes, briddhashram, opens cheerfully:
Does your son or daughter live abroad? Does your son live separately after marriage or is he forced to stay separately under pressure
of employment? Hence do you feel yourself lonely? Just forget
about this thought. Homes for the aged are senior citizen friendly
(Bandyopadhyay and Hajari, 2003: 44).
Most of the directors and founders of aging institutions whom I
have had contact with likewise present their projects with pride and a
sense of altruism. They see themselves as stepping in to serve the
elderly (when others do not), and/or as helping to bring Indian society
to a practical, realistic, modern planewhere there are other options besides family (which often no longer really works best, they
argue) as a site for aging.
In making such arguments, most proprietors speak respectfully and
very often affectionately of the elders they serve. I came across, however, one highly disgruntled director of an old age home nestled in a
peripheral suburban village region outside Kolkatawho seemed

96 Sarah Lamb
terribly annoyed by his job, and who poured forth a diatribe against
the irritating seniors of his home (while continually ordering more
cups of tea for us both, so enjoying the opportunity finally to have an
interested, listening ear for his complaints). To this director, Dr Roy,
true, old age homes are a valuable tool or solution in modern society.
But, this is not because modern children are flawed. It is because
Bengali society has finally come to a more enlightened place where
elder respect is no longer compulsory when the elders are not deserving of respect. Why old age homes now? he responded to my
query. Because before, no matter how much quarreling and inconvenience ( jhogra, asubiddha) there was at home, the kids could not
kick their parents out. He told a story of one mother who had three
sons. She told everyone, Oh, my sons are all bad, and thats why I
have to come to the home. Now, the director said, One son could
be bad; maybe two sons could be bad; but how could three sons be
bad? So, who is badtell me?... These old people are so irritating (eto
biraktakar, na?); you wouldnt be able to understand! These days old
age homes are necessary, he went on, because if we didnt have
them, where else could they [the old people] go? Theres nowhere
else.... We have to put up with them, but the families no longer do.
On their part, some seniors do deplore such contemporary modes
of aging. Many in old age homes speak nostalgically of missing their
kin terribly, and tell of how in earlier times old people always lived
and died right with their families. Ranjan Banerjee, a retired psychiatrist living in one of the more exclusive Kolkata old age homes, reflected thoughtfully about how old age homes are not at all only about
a new form of aging, but also about much broaderregrettable
social, cultural and national transformations. He told me:
Old age homes are not a concept of our country. These days, we are
throwing away our culture. The U.S. is the richest nation in the world and
therefore has won us over. Now we, too, are only after material wealth as
a nation and have become very unhappy. Some are here [in the old age
home] because their families dumped them here, and there are others
whose children are living abroad and can easily afford the money. But
old age homes are not our way of life. My parents died right with us.... I
have a granddaughter and my world revolves around her. I miss her so
much when I dont see her for a few days [he paused, with glistening
eyes]. Here [in the old age home], there is a little hardship regarding food
and all, but thats OK. I have time to read and such. The real hardship
comes from missing loved family, like my granddaughter.... We as a nation

Modern Families and Independent Living 97

have become very unhappy. Material wealth (artha) used not to be the
prime value in life; rather, family and social closeness were. But now it
has become so. I myself am against the old age home conceptbut, old
age homes will stay and increase in India.

Other elder residents of old age homes and solitary apartments, however, present themselves as quite resourceful and even optimistic in
dealing with modern social changes. My sense is that many would
have liked to have retained much of the past; but since the past is
gone, they work creatively to carve out a new life and mode of aging
in the present. Quite a few living in old age homes were themselves
the ones to decide firmly on their own that they would be moving
inclipping out newspaper advertisements (which some still carefully
save and pull out with pride), making enquiries on their own, and
then moving in (often while their families protested, they almost uniformly feel obliged to saybecause it is painful, and stigmatizing, to
admit that ones family doesnt want one). And then they tell of getting
adjusted to the new way of life, making friends among peers, playing
cards, sewing, chatting as they fall asleep (for those who live dormitory
style), speaking of each other as their new families.
Let them [i.e., ones sons and daughters-in-law] live happily; let
us live happily. Let them live in peace, let us live in peace, is a common
refrain. Small disagreements with co-residents and staff of an old
age home do not hurt nearly as much as those with kin. Contrary to
earlier times when young women entered their in-laws homes as
submissive boumas, this is now the era of the daughter-in-law
with daughters-in-law older and less pliable at marriage, and often
earning their own authority-bestowing incomes. Rather than struggle
with such independent daughters-in-law or live under their rule, many
older women say they find it more comfortable, for both themselves
and their juniors, to live on their own. When Bengalis live together,
there is much jhamela [hassle, trouble], you know, one resident remarked, after she and some of her dormitory-mates had been chatting
in a lightly critical yet not fully revealing manner about their daughtersin-law. Its because of this old age home that we are surviving,
added her roommate.
Those without sons are also often very relieved and delighted to
find an alternative way to live. For instance, Dipti Mitra told me compellingly, with enthusiasm:

98 Sarah Lamb
How am I doing? Ill tell you. I am very happy here. Im very much at
peace; very happy.... You see, I have only daughters, no sons; and, you
know, we cant live with our daughters. If I were with my daughter, in
someone elses house, I couldnt hold my head up high. If I needed
something, I couldnt ask. I would just have to lie in bed and wait. Here,
I can live independently (svadhin-bhabe), and I can ask for whatever I need
with my head held high. I dont have to feel uncomfortable speaking up
and asking for anything. They are here to serve me. And I have
companions here at all times, so I never feel lonely.... I am very happy
here, very happy and at peace.10

Renuka-di, widowed mother of three married sons, is delighted as

well to be in control of her own pension, which she receives as widow
of her former-government-employee husband. For the first time in
her life, she has money that she can spend as she wishes, and she
maintains that she could never have such freedom if living at home
with her sons.
Some also highly value the potential spiritual benefits of the leaving
behind of family and worldly life when moving into an old age home.
Shoma Chowdhury, widowed with an only son since her early forties,
had decided years earlier that upon retirement from her life-long career
as an engineer, she would shift to a spiritual ashram, leaving the
familys two-bedroom flat to her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. But when she heard of old age ashrams, she decided to
try one, and used her own funds to pay for the construction of a
lovely temple within the grounds of the home she selected. She reflected, If I were to remain in samsar [family, worldly life], then they
[my kin] would remain very much my own/part of me (nije), and I
would stay accustomed to that and would never be able to attain this
independence to pursue my spiritual goals. She peppered her conversations thoughtfully with philosophical aphorisms: No one is your
own, I came into this world alone, and I will have to leave alone,
Except for God there is no one, Without abandoning (tyag),
nothing can be received.
In my experience, those who are happiest in old age homes seem
to be: (1) those with no sons [so their expectations for intimate family
care in old age were comparatively less]; (2) those who had previously
lived quite cosmopolitan lives [developing successful professional
careers and a sort of independent identity]; (3) those whose children
are all abroad [because then there is a manifest reason that they are
not living with their kids, and they are proud of their childrens foreign

Modern Families and Independent Living 99

success]; and (4) women who live dormitory style [often thriving on
the constant companionship, speaking of each other as like sisters or
childhood girlfriends].
Some elders who praise old age homes or the dividing of the generations into separate apartments acknowledge, as well, that the past
itself was not all as rosy as many people now make it out to be; and
that of course generational tensions existed then, too; and that joint
families used particularly to be difficult for young women and
daughters-in-law, who had subserviently to serve their elders while
foregoing the pursuit of higher education and rewarding work.

We see here that the working out of aging in cosmopolitan India entails not only new ways of thinking about old age per se. It also involves
profound reconfigurations of the proper social-moral relationship
between individuals, genders, families, and the state; and the very
shape and aims of the human life course.
In closing, I would like to suggest that we are witnessing here emerging forms of family and aging that are not tied specifically to India or
diasporic Indians, or to any single national-cultural place (although
regarded by many as originally emanating from the West). Such
forms of aging and family are in significant respects developing globally across the worlds cosmopolitan centers, characterized broadly
by features such as urban and transnational migration, ideologies of
gendered and aged egalitarianism, nuclear families, 24 7 work lives,
individual self-sufficiency, dependence (when necessary) on private
institutions and on the state rather than on kin, and a consumerism
that stresses the pursuit of personal value through commodities and
modern technologies.
Yet, as Indians grapple with such forms of aging, family, gender
and society, they do so in ways that engage intimately both with these
more globally dispersed social forms, and with their own complex
and diverse traditions, lifeways, values, and interpretive lenses. In
their richly multivalent narratives, emerging modes of aging and
family work in some ways as fundamental signs of social degeneracy,
and in others as intrinsic parts of a valuedrational, cosmopolitan,
and, in significant part, uniquely Indianmodernity.

100 Sarah Lamb

1. The research on which this article was based was generously supported
by a postdoctoral fellowship in Sociocultural Gerontology at the University of California, San Francisco, a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research
Abroad Fellowship, and by two Mazer Awards and one Norman Fund
Award for Faculty Research at Brandeis University.
2. Fieldwork in the U.S. among Indian Americans took place intensely during
19931995 and when possible (primarily over summers) since that time.
For this current project, fieldwork in India took place over a total of six
months, largely in Kolkata, in 2003, 2004 and 2006. Most conversations
with those in West Bengal, India were in Bengali; translations are my
own. In the U.S., I spoke with most people in English. To protect privacy,
the names used are pseudonyms, except for those in the public eye (such
as directors of major organizations), when they have requested that I use
their real names.
3. For instance, see Wadley (1994, 2002) for discussions of family types in
Karimpur, North India from 1925 through 1998. Over this period, nuclear
families were consistently the largest group (2002: 19).
4. From 20042006, I was able to locate 71 old age homes in the Kolkata
area (visiting 27 of these personally and contacting the others by phone
and letters). HelpAge Indias (soon-to-be-updated) 2002 guide to old age
homes lists 800 across Indias urban centers (HelpAge India 2002; see
also Sawhney 2003).
5. In the Kolkata region, few among the very wealthy are at this point turning
to old age homes, for they have more other options open to them, such as
the financial capacity to maintain their own private homes with plentiful
servants, even in the absence of children. There are just a few old age
homes run by charitable organizations that offer accommodations to the
poor. Some of these receive some partial funding from the Government
of India.
6. From 20032006, I interviewed 90 old-age-home residents in the Kolkata
environs. Of these, 32 had sons and daughters-in-law living right in the
Kolkata region, 27 had no children at all (18 of these had never married),
18 had children all living abroad, 12 had only daughters, and one had
just a single unmarried son. It is significant to note that most Indians feel
it strongly inappropriate to live in a married daughters home (although
such attitudes are changing somewhat due to various factors, probably
the most significant being that more daughters are earning their own
7. Classical Hindu texts divide the life course into four major stages: that of
student, householder, forest-dweller and renunciant. During the forestdweller (vanaprastha) and renunciant (sannyasi) life phases, the older person

Modern Families and Independent Living 101

purposefully loosens family and worldly ties, departing from home to
live as a hermit, or remaining in the household but with a mind focused
on God.
8. This discussion was published in Sokhal 2000, one of about 20
newspaper clippings Himanshu Rath offered me when I met with him
in March 2003 to discuss Agewell Foundation and his general views
about aging in contemporary Indian society.
9. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is a U.S. federal
program established in 1974 to provide a nationally uniform guaranteed
minimum income for the aged, blind and disabled. Until 1996, both
citizens and legal immigrants could receive benefits under this program,
provided they met other eligibility requirements pertaining to age,
blindness or disability, and financial resources. Since the passing of a
new bill (Welfare Reform Bill #H.R.3507, now Public Law 104193),
immigrants arriving after 1996 are not eligible for the program until or
unless they become citizens. Nonetheless, about 75 percents of my senior
Indian American informants receive SSI.
10. Significantly, Bengalis only generally speak of the daughters but not
their sons homes as someone elses house.

Altman, Dennis. (2001). Rupture or Continuity? The Internationalization
of Gay Identities, in John C. Hawley, (ed.), Post-Colonial, Queer: Theoretical
Intersections, pp. 1941. New York: State University of New York Press.
. (2002). Global Sex. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Bandyopadhyay, Kinsuk and Dipanwita Hajari. (2003). Briddha Baba Mayer
Samasya (The Problem of Aging Parents). Sananda, February 1, 3946.
Cohen, Lawrence. (1998). No Aging in India: Alzheimers, the Bad Family, and
Other Modern Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ghosh, Deepshikha. (1999). Search for New Horizons after 60. The
Statesman, April 22.
Ghosh, Gautam. (1998). Homes of the Future? The Hindu, October 18.
Gupta, Aparna. (2001). To Light Up that Wrinkled Face. The Asian Age,
October 2.
HelpAge India. (2002). Directory of Old Age Homes in India 2002. (First edition
published in 1995.) New Delhi: HelpAge India.
Lamb, Sarah. (1993). Growing in the Net of Maya: Persons, Gender and Life Processes in a Bengali Society. Ph.D. dissertation, Anthropology Department,
University of Chicago.
. (2000). White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender and Body in North
India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

102 Sarah Lamb

Lamb, Sarah. (2002). Intimacy in a Transnational Era: The Remaking of
Aging among Indian Americans. Diaspora 11(3): 299330.
. (2007). Aging Across Worlds: Modern Seniors in an Indian Diaspora,
in Jennifer Cole and Deborah Durham (eds), Generations and Globalization:
Family, Youth, and Age in the New World Economy, pp. 13263, Indiana University Press.
Sawhney, M. (2003). The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations for
the Welfare of the Elderly: The Case of HelpAge India, in P.S. Liebig
and S.I. Rajan (eds), An Aging India: Perspectives, Prospects and Policies,
pp. 17991. New York: Haworth.
Shakeel, Sujata B. (1999). Like Father, Unlike Son. The Hindustan Times,
June 5, no. 152.
Sokhal, Sonali. (2000). Bright Twilight. Cardmembers EXPRESSION India.
June: 5455.
The Telegraph. (2003). Death from Loneliness at Eighty, The Telegraph,
July 22.
Times News Network. (2005). Aged Couple Battered to Death in Posh Flat,
Times of India, April 19: 3.
Wadley, Susan Snow. (1994). Struggling with Destiny in Karimpur, 19251984.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
. (2002). One Straw from a Broom Cannot Sweep, in Diane P. Mines
and Sarah Lamb (eds), Everyday Life in South Asia, pp. 1122. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press.

Chapter 4

Women and the Naga

Family Today
Communitarianism in Practice
Bonita Aleaz

Society in the North-Eastern part of India is experiencing the throes

of change at a faster rate than the rest of India; this is perhaps because
their tryst with modernity occurred at a much later period. Dissensions
rip parts of the region today and the socio-political and religious bonds
among the tribes are severely affected. The state administration and
the constitutional set-up time and again fall short of providing lasting
solutions to the ensuing crisis, since they fail to take into consideration
the traditional ties of the family, the community and the clan. It is
these ties that are the determining factors; yet, the mechanics of state
administration take no account of their impact. In this context, the
chapter discusses the situation faced by one particular state of the NorthEast today, Nagaland, and shows how its women counter-balance
the unsettling effects of the clash among the confusing multifarious
value-systems. While the youthprimarily the young malesengage
in issues that rupture both self, tribe1 and the state, their mothers, the
women, exhibit Amazonian strength to reconstruct and to heal, by
The author wishes to thank Anshely Sumi and Amenla Aier for their
contributions to the chapter.

104 Bonita Aleaz

extending familial ties into wider society. The womens work reflects
communitarianism in practice; the familial space is extended into
the wider society and the same norms are sought to be applied in
both. The trajectory of the family is replicated in the society, allowing
motherhood and its attendant bonds to be reflected in the wider
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru best described the role of women in Naga
society: To awaken the people, it is the women who must be awakened. Once she is on the move the family moves, the village moves,
the nation moves (Madan, 1966: 131). At present there is an imperative need to shed light on the multifarious roles played by these women
who live almost vicariously, subordinating their needs and desires
to those of others. But breaking out of the stereotype was and is never
easy. The chapter first looks at the theoretical connotation of communitarianism to show how it becomes the guiding principle used
by the women in the projection of familial motherhood attributes into wider Naga society. It next enters into a brief description of
the problems afflicting the society today and the methods used by the
state administration to control the same. The third section specifically
highlights the role of the Naga Mothers Association, as an exemplary
familial organization and presents the case of Neidonuo Angami (the
mother of peace). In the final section, a birds eye view of the family
structure is provided revealing the re-creation of traditionality in
modernity by the women, again exemplifying the modern-day practice
of communitarianism.

Communitarianism in Practice
Tribal/indigenous social life is organized around communitarian
precepts. In order to understand the implications of communitarian
influences one must go back to the earlier term collectivism. The
most common usage of collectivism refers to any political or socioeconomic theory or practice that encourages communal or state
ownership and control of the means of production and distribution.
The collectivist principle, particularly its economic form, relates very
well to the precepts that guide community life in indigenous communities. The principle emphasizes that market relationships are

Women and the Naga Family Today 105

competitive and also tend to be divisive; they also undermine the communal bonds that are necessary between individuals if they are to
cope with misfortunes to which all are in principle vulnerable. The
indigenous view of welfare matches the communitarian view; that is,
an expression of common values that bind individuals in contrast to
the individualist notions of welfare derived from the theory of citizenship. In other words, claims to welfare resources are simply an extension of the legal and political rights that are consistent with the theory
of citizenship. So the deprivation-alleviating institutions and policies
rest on the individualistic principles of reciprocal obligations attendant
on citizenship. Communitarian principles, on the other hand, have
since the 1960s propagated a vision of a social order that foster intimate communal bonds. It was the communitarian exponent Amitai
Etzioni who linked the rampant moral disorder of western societies
to the excessive freedom given to individuals and the moral decline
of the family. Broadly, communitarian principles favor a social order
in which the community defines the social order or the common good
and persuades its members to act towards it (Etzioni, 1998).
Indigenous communities in India, in this case the Nagas, have embedded in them the principles defined above. The governing idea is
that human beings are by nature social beings. Human persons in
society, made up of strangers with a common interest, are different
from human persons in community, which is made up of persons
related through a common life. Diversity may exist among the community but unity or a feeling of oneness prevails in the long run.
M. Rongsen, defining the tribal attributes in general, rightly says that
the tribal members are a well-knit unit with strong social cohesion,
holding fast to the values of their community and solidarity and are
capable of strong corporate actions (Rongsen, 1999: 36).
Shimray defines the communitarian context of the Nagas further:
Naga individuals know no other life except that of community life.
They work in groups, eat in groups, and sleep in groups. There is neither
individual house nor building, no individual cultivation or harvest, nor
feast of merit, by individual alone all things are done in groups in the
full presence of the community. The individual has no place apart from
the community. There was no place for idle men in Naga community.
The communist principle, i.e., he/she who does no work, neither shall
he/she eat, is a Naga principle too. All must work and participate in
community work. (1985: 121)

106 Bonita Aleaz

Thus building together, laboring in the jhum, mourning their dead
or celebrating their feaststhese are all collective enterprises. In such
a situation the security network extends to all, whether the widow or
the illegitimate waif (Thanzauva, 1997: 106). Sanjay Basu Mallick
provides some further elaborations (1991: 85). The communitarian
feeling is strongly projected because of the overall prevailing egalitarianism. It respects individuality but abhors individualism. Thus
decision-making, in principle is perpetually collective; individual
decisions are invariably regarded as aberrations.
The community has certain guiding institutions, two of these are
to be found in almost all the North-Eastern states. The Nagas, as well
as the Mizos, have specific names for the altruistic spirit that pervades
their community life. In Poumai Naga terminology this spirit is referred to as zhai and in Ao Naga it is known as sobaliba, while
the Sumi Nagas refer to it as akhuaye. Among the Mizos it is known
as tlawmgainha. This spirit of altruism may very well be described
as the philosophical and ethical foundations of a communitarian
society where the welfare of all takes precedence. A second is the
institution of bachelors quarters. Young boys from the age of seven
till the time of marriage are given specific training in all future walks
of life in such dormitories. Some communities have such dormitories
for girls as well, where the girls receive training in practical aspects of
daily life. Contemporary Naga society may not have exact replicas
of these institutions but the spirit of such training grounds is still
visible. This communitarian spirit came face to face with the unsettling
effects of continuing socio-political strife, and it is here that the ingenuity of the women, when confronted with dissensions in society, was
sharply brought into focus.

Psychosomatic Problems Among
Children, Drugs, Aids and
Political Strife
The regrettable offshoots of the socio-political upheavals in Naga
society have been brought to light lately. Family structure has been

Women and the Naga Family Today 107

affected in several ways. However, the most severe effects have come
upon the very young, that is, the pre-primary and primary school
children. The effects on the adolescents and young adults, though
severe, are the result of conscious choice, but in the case of the younger
children an unconscious absorption of attributes negating healthy
growth is observable. We discuss the psychosomatic behavioral aberrations in the case of the very young children and conscious drug
abuse in the case of adolescents. Both symptoms are alarmingly on
the rise and has become a cause for concern.
The growth and development of the child in a proper environment
is a major concern to Naga families in the current context. The prolonged political instability resulting from insurgency has deeply
affected family lives. A survey work done among school children of
the Ao tribe shows behavioral disorders afflicting many children. It
is common knowledge that all children display degrees of aggressive
as well as defiant behavior. Yet, the study shows, at least three out of
five Ao Naga children increasingly are showing such behavioral traits.
This might be the result of socio-political instability in the region.
The parents of such children feel that the reasons for such disorders
are environmental, both external and internal; that is, the psychological stress visible among the adults undergoing prolonged sociopolitical strife affects the home and the children in various ways
(Moakala, 1995: 58).
Among the findings are that greater involvement of the family
and to a large extent the church ( since 98 percent of the Nagas are
Christians) might bring stability in the lives of the young. The problem
is quite serious in certain areas, particularly when behavioral deviance
is accompanied by substance abuse. Surveys reveal the vastness of the
problems in setting up the right infrastructure with the church in
the lead and in molding the children in a proper upbringing. The feeling
strongly expressed is that the role of the church in child-development
has a great potential not only for the development of children but
also in contributing to a richer and fuller development of the society
in general.
Teenagers and young adults, on the other hand, are consciously
becoming victims of another menace, drug abuse. Findings from various surveys reveal the shocking truth that boys and girls aged 1225
have increasingly become victims of drug abuse in North-East India.
While the problem is rampant throughout this area, Nagaland till
date seems to have the largest number of addicts. Rough estimates of

108 Bonita Aleaz

the problem in the other states are: Mizoram, approximately 9,000
youngsters; and Imphal, the capital of Manipur, about 10,000 addicts.
In Nagaland slightly dated estimates put the figure of youth addicts
at about 16,000. The state has only 3 percent of the countrys population but is estimated to have more than 30 percent of the countrys
intravenous drug users (IDUs). The figures for the other North-Eastern
states are also on the rise (The Meghalaya Guardian, May 28, 1994 and
The Telegraph, July 28, 1998).
Apart from the proximity of the region to the golden triangle of
Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, other reasons can be cited for the rise
in drug abuse among the youth in Nagaland. A survey implicates depression, easy availability, peer pressure, curiosity and boredom, and
flow of easy money due to central government subsidies in the state
(Jamir, 1995). A more important reason is the inability to cope with
the fast pace of change from the traditional community-based
solidarity to individualist approach to life. Use of drugs is not a new
phenomenon among indigenous communities; opium and ganja
(a local intoxicant) have age-old usage in India. The large-scale affliction of the young is recent and more significantly the deadly effects
of the same are also just being highlighted. Nagaland, apart from
being the state with the highest number of drug abusers, also has the
largest number of HIV-infected patients in India. A civil doctor at
Mokukchong Civil Hospital, Nagaland gave the information that out
of the 5,000 intravenous drug users 50 percent are estimated to have
HIV (Jamir, Interview of Dr Yangerla, May 31, 1994). The problem
has deeply permeated the societal fabric and the governmental infrastructure alone has proved incapable of handling a problem of such
mammoth proportions.
With over 1 percent of its population estimated to be HIV positive,
Nagaland is now bracketed with the other high prevalence states of
Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Manipur and Karnataka
(The Telegraph, November 24, 2004). The first HIV/AIDS case in
Nagaland was detected in 1992 among the intravenous drug users
(IDUs). According to a medical survey carried out from December
1994 to August 2004, out of 38,623 people screened for blood, there
were 742 people found to be living with AIDS and more than 2,301
people were infected with HIV. Moreover there were 235 AIDS related
deaths in Nagaland, making the prevalence percentage as high as
1.19 percent. (Nagaland State Aids Control Society, 2004). However, it
is quite possible that the figures quoted are far from real because the

Women and the Naga Family Today 109

virus is still dreaded on account of the stigma and discrimination

attached to it. So the odds are that the real picture can be much larger
than the figures reveal. In Nagaland the high rate of transmission
of the virus is believed to be through drug injections, but the route of
transmission seems to be changing from IDU to the sexual route
(Suhuto, 2005).
AIDS is no longer only a medical issue, as it touches and pervades
all aspects of human life: the social, economic, political, and religious.
It has destabilized the society to such an extent that not only families,
but neighborhoods, work places, schools and even places of worship
are subject to fear, blame and stigma. The epidemic has changed the
whole scenario in Nagaland leaving the younger generation without vision and hope. There is a sense of urgency associated with the
epidemic, to find effective, sustainable and compassionate ways of
responding to the same.
A birds eye view of the efforts of the administrative infrastructure
to combat the menace of drugs and HIV/AIDS in the state may be
given. The approach initially was more at the level of propaganda
and punitive action rather than in the form of practical corrective
measures. The law enforcement agencies, the social welfare department and other agencies associated with the government organized
seminars and symposia from time to time to acquaint local populations with the evil effects of drug abuse. The borders were strictly
patrolled to check the passage of smugglers. Imprisoned perpetrators
of such crime could not be bailed out easily on account of enhanced
stringency of such procedures. The overall attitude of the police however, was: Let all addicts come to jail, let them eat, fix and die
(Jamir, 1995: 61). This tactic was applied to all the seven districts of
the state. The police were sadly ill-equipped to deal with the mammoth dimensions of the problem. The perception that the drug abuser
was not a petty criminal but a person in dire need of sympathy was
totally absent. The underground movement tried to control the situation as well through public denouncement of drug abusers,2 but the
very harshness of their approach pushed the abusers to greater stealth.
The chastisement methods took place within church premises, but
despite their effectiveness, the public did not support them as it meant
disruption of the church services.
The State Department of Health Services has also given due significance to the escalating problem and a widespread campaign
to generate awareness among localities, schools, colleges and other

110 Bonita Aleaz

institutions has been launched. Detoxification centers have also been
opened at a number of places by the special wing created for the purpose called Information, Education and Communication (IEC). This
special wing was used extensively to build awareness. Yet all these
efforts fell short of building up a comprehensive constructive approach
aimed at rooting out the problem itself in place of mere piece-meal
correctives. It was not the government alone but other organs of civil
society, a number of NGOs and the church that took up the initiative.
It was believed that the church as an influential and powerful institution had the potential to bring about change by responding to the
issue. This is where the womens wing of the Nagaland Baptist Church
Council (NBCC) comes into the picture. They were instrumental in
linking the efforts of several non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
to those of the church to combat the crisis. Since the womens wing
of the NBCC is located in every locality it is not difficult to monitor
the movements of the youth and to curb probable addiction, besides
imparting needed compassionate care for the already afflicted. Today,
the Nagaland State AIDS Control Society (NSACS), which is the
state government agency of HIV/AIDS control programs, has been
goaded into taking the lead and the women initiate several targeted
Intervention Projects under NSACS, such as Prodigals Home, Care
Counseling, Eleutheros Christian Society, Peoples Welfare Organization, Child & Women Welfare Society, and the Mothers Association.
As the names indicate, the NGOs adopt care as their primary approachreconstruction of the mental and physical being of the
wayward youth rather than mere chastisement. To bring them back
into the family was the objective of the markedly different approach
when the women stepped forward.
One prominent reason for this state of affairs is the continuing
political strife that has plagued the state since its formation. Deep
dissensions regarding the borders, coupled with forceful projections
of identity, led to prolonged strife between the region and the Indian
national government. The ensuing feuds and counter-insurgency
methods led to gross violation of human rights in the region. The
Armed Forces Special Powers Act, for instance, gave the armed forces
authoritative extra-judicial powers, leading to human rights abuse
and widespread alienation from the state. Moreover, internecine conflict among the indigenous elites led to rampant groupism and yet
more feuds. These frozen wars have distorted the local economy, brutalized men and women, and militarized society. They have impacted

Women and the Naga Family Today 111

on the children and youth, who take to drugs and alcoholism, and
resort to violence as a method of empowerment.
The prolonged state of unrest has created a disposition of depression, sarcasm and gloom that has spread throughout the Naga society,
as people lose confidence and faith in leadership in the political,
ecclesiastical, civic, and bureaucratic arenas.
It is in such a scenario that the women have taken over the attempts
at reconstructing society. Surprisingly, the Naga women who were
traditionally type-cast either as passive victims or as active collaborators in conflict, have revealed greater strength and acumen than
the men in facing the crises afflicting their society, whether in the
religious, administrative or political spheres.

Naga Womens Organizations and the
NMA as Extended Familial Set-Ups
After years of intervention in issues that confront their society today,
the women are in the forefront. Over the years, they formed associations
to voice concerns and to mobilise their community. The traditional
intervention of Naga women in cases of inter-tribal violence gradually
evolved into social activism manifest in the Naga Mothers Association
(NMA), which was formed in 1984. NMAs major contribution has
been in keeping open the channels of communication between warring factions and across communities, in defusing tensions and in
paving the way for reconciliation. Taking up issues such as alcohol
and drug abuse, NMA initiated campaigns for peace and opposition
to violence, and intervened between the Armed Forces and the militants.
While these women also aspire for Naga nationalism, along with the
men, they look for alternate methods of negotiation that would not
involve bloodshed and societal misery. Womens innovative campaigns
have gradually found acceptability and has become indispensable in
Naga civil society, especially after the ceasefire of 1997.
The Naga women have used the language (or concept) of motherhood to acquire the status necessary for intervention. This method
has its strengths since it evokes emotions linked to life and birth, and

112 Bonita Aleaz

images of peace and caring. At the same time, the motherhood concept has empowered women because, being based on relationships
within the family, the women have access to the private and public
sphere of life. Nothing can undermine the role of the Naga womens
groups. Their role as effective communicators between conflicting
sides, their unique methods of mediation, and their ability to mobilise
civil society are exemplary.
Naga women, with their emphasis upon the precepts of motherhood, have been able to promote an inclusive politics, validating the
contribution of all workers, emphasising the need for a peace that is
in the interest of all Nagas as well as their neighbors. Sections among
the Naga women are now seeking to challenge existing paradigms
and get involved in the larger issues of the womens movement (Sumi,
2003: 7481).
Interventions for peace have not only redefined gender stereotypes but have transformed definitions of democracy, nationalism
and peace as well as the diversity of womens interventions for peace.
Naga women intervene in the areas of employment generation, higher
education for women, financial support for womens development,
and social and health problems of women arising out of HIV/AIDS
and substance abuse.

The Naga Mothers Association (NMA)

The head office of the NMA is in Kohima, Nagaland. It came into
existence on February 14, 1984, with a preamble that stated: Naga
mothers of Nagaland shall express the need for sensitizing citizens
toward more responsible living and human development through the
voluntary organization of the Naga Mothers Association (NMA,
1992). Initially they took up societal issues specific to women, such
as divorce, and inheritance rights. A shift in focus, which can almost
be termed a turning point, is visible since 1994, which was a particularly turbulent year in the Naga region. Bloodshed resumed with ferocity, which had not been visible before. It was at this juncture that the
NMA, finding in total disarry the two prime political factions, the
National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muviah) (NSCN-IM)
and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) (NSCN-K),
stepped in.

Women and the Naga Family Today 113

The NMAs concern thereafter (after their declared resolve at their

5th General Assembly 1994) was to directly engage in awakening social
conscience and to make all out efforts for prevention of bloodshed.
A Peace Team was formed that was entrusted with the task of negotiation. Alongside this declared objective one finds the NMA plunging
headlong into overall social transformation by adopting multiple
approaches (vide Resolution, August 5, 1994).
The Mothers Association understood the political handicaps of
the clan-based factions in reaching any understanding. What was
needed was the mothers style of political intervention. They launched
their political campaign by setting aside a day of mourning in memory
of all those killed due to political turmoil in Nagaland, irrespective
of Naga or non-Naga (August 5, 1994). Members of various families
had been killed so they had to be mourned: this was a mothers
response during the period of intense strife. Banners proclaiming the
message to forgive and unite were placed all over the state, along
with Mothers anguished over tragic killings and death. The day
was dedicated to the spirit of reconciliation and reestablishment of
brotherhood and fraternity. The Kohima Chamber of Commerce was
the first to respond by downing its shutters that day. The association
further resolved to set up a peace team under the theme shed no
more blood(NMA, n.d, Shed No More Blood).
The NMA spoke against killings not only by the army but also by
the insurgency factions. In a pamphlet released on May 25, 1995 the
representatives of NMA wrote that the way in which our society is
being run whether by the over-ground government or the underground government, has become simply intolerable ( Naga Mothers
Association, Pamphlet, May, 1992).
Apart from peace initiatives, as stated earlier, the NMA has worked
for social regeneration where there is rampant abuse of alcohol and
drug. The NMA provides facilities for de-addiction. They collaborate
with the Kripa foundation of Mumbai for rehabilitation of drug doers.
The NMA has also started anonymous HIV testing. They are probably
the first womens organization in the North-East to test pregnant
women for HIV virus. They are providing pioneering service in care
of patients afflicted with AIDS in Nagaland.
NMAs greatest achievement is that almost all Naga womens
organizations, cutting across the different tribes, are its collaborators.
Thus their rallies are always attended by other Naga womens organizations. The political significance of the NMA can be gauged from

114 Bonita Aleaz

the fact that today it is the only womens group in South Asia that has
participated in a ceasefire negotiation till date. This role has given it
enormous clout and it is recognized by the Naga Hohos (the apex
body of all the organizations in Nagaland) as an important and necessary component of the apex body. The state machinery also considers
the mothers role as imperative to the continuance of peace in the
region. Despite such recognition, the NMA has not lost its independent stance and functions quite autonomously.
There are a number of reasons for the success achieved by the
Naga women. They have been able to situate their political maneuverings within their traditional roles. Peace to them is not just a political
phenomenon; it is also economic and social. They believe that without development there cannot be peace. They call for a just peace
that will result in equity and they equate it with progress. The Naga
women also successfully mix social work with their political actions.
The initial engagements with wider societal issues such as health,
de-addiction and rights of women, womens rehabilitation, and counseling, remain priority areas. Their involvement in developmental
activities has increased their effectiveness and their acceptance in
Naga society. For instance, the Aloino Center and Mothers Hope in
Dimapur, founded by women, functions as a Christian NGO involved
with the spiritual, political, economic and social upliftment of the
Naga society, spearheading the campaign of awakening conscience
among the common people.

Padmashree Neidonuo Angami,

the Mother of Peace
Sustaining the ceasefire between underground groups in Nagaland
and New Delhi has never been easy. But this uphill task was led by
award winner Padmashree Neidonuo Angami. At the age of six her
father, an interpreter with the state administration, was captured and
killed on duty. Her mother looked after Neidonuo and her four siblings. She started her schooling only at the age of eight and could
graduate in 1968. After college, Angami joined the first batch of the
womens police force in Nagaland as a sub-inspector but eventually
gave up that job. She got married and had three daughters. The years

Women and the Naga Family Today 115

1972 to 1974 saw her working as a teacher in Kohima. N. Angami

formed the Nagaland Weavers Association and facilitated the participation of several groups in international trade fairs during these years.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, violence and social disorder was
rampantly growing in the region. N. Angami and a few women (mostly
mothers) met a number of times to discuss how to cope with the
challenges facing their families and Naga society. They felt very
strongly that it is the mother at home who suffers the most and that
only a mother understands the extent of damage that these situations
cause to the social fabric. They decided, therefore, that there ought to
be a common platform for mothers to come together and combat
violence and the resultant social evils. Thus the NMA was formed in
1984 as a state-level voluntary organization with the objective of
fighting social evils confronting society at that time. Every Naga tribe
sent its representative to the NMA. N. Angami served as its generalsecretary from 1984 to 1992 and later went on to become its president
for two consecutive terms.
It was N. Angami who launched the Shed No More Blood campaign, which led to a meeting between various Naga underground
groups and the NMA, giving the former an opportunity to meet and
share the pain and grief of Naga mothers. In many situations, she
led the NMA virtually into an interventionist position between warring
factions and risked becoming victims of the senseless killings.
However, it was because of these trust-building meetings that the
government and the underground were able to keep extending the
The Journey of Conscience, a people-to-people dialog held in
2000, is another remarkable initiative of the NMA through N. Angamis
efforts. About 70 Nagas traveled to New Delhi by train to meet civil
society groups, officials and other people in Delhi. They felt that negotiations must go beyond negotiating rooms and that the people on
both sides must get fully involved in the peace process.
In her association with the NMA, she has also been instrumental
in the emergence of several other establishments: the NMA Youth
and Womens Welfare Organization (1986) to fight drug abuse and
trafficking, alcoholism, and HIV/AIDS; Mt Gilead Home (1989), a
rehabilitation center for drug addicts and alcoholics, started by NMA
and the first of its kind in India; the NMA HIV/AIDS Care Hospice
(2001); and a paper recycling project with the Mt Gilead Home to
assist in income generation. She realized the necessity of joining

116 Bonita Aleaz

with other organizations, such as the Naga Students Federation and
Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights to help nurture and
sustain the ceasefire between the Naga underground groups and the
The NMA also took the initiative to collectively honor those who
died in the conflict and whose bodies could not be identified. They
worked alongside government agencies to prepare coffins and burial
grounds. They collected Naga shawls from various churches and
Womens Organizations to cover the dead with full Naga honor and
organized funerals with local pastors. This act of honoring human
life even in the face of death gave NMA the space to appeal for peace.
The most active member of the NMA Peace Team, Angami, along
with her colleagues made several visits to underground camps under
very difficult situations to listen to the non-State armies and plead
with them to come to the negotiating table. The NMA made personal
visits to all the North-Eastern states to meet civil societies and government leaders. Under N. Angamis guidance the NMA women have
played vital roles in trust building and conflict prevention.

Naga Women and the Family,
Traditional and Modern
As is apparent from the above, Naga women play crucial roles in
reconstructing the social system on the basis of human values and
participation. We need to understand the passion behind these
womens interventions in the society. This passion and commitment
is that of the mother confronting disarray in her family.
Naga society traditionally has followed a patriarchal system and
the father is the acknowledged head of the household. However, the
mother has no lesser role to play in the family. In fact, the Naga social
ethos is always based on community participation irrespective of
gender and the traditional tribal notions of equality prevail. Even
though the Naga mother occupies an important place in the society,
the traditional culture and customs expect women to be obedient
and humble and to perform the role of wife, mother, child bearer,

Women and the Naga Family Today 117

food producer and household manager. The children are their sole
responsibility. They have also to provide care to the sick, cook, store
food, and look after the domestic cattle. Weaving and knitting of
Naga traditional clothes are one of their important activities. Besides
all this, they have to earn. The young girls usually work collectively
in cloth workers guilds. In the olden days Illiki (Morung or
Dormitory) was the place where such weaving knowledge and skills
were imparted to each and every individual. Such spirit of collectiveness helped to develop new skills essential to face future life.
The mothers role and their contributions in society are oriented
towards sustenance. This is because the mothers association with
the social ethos begins in the family. Through her maintenance of the
family, the Naga society believes it can sustain its customs and values.
Through the mother of the household the children imbibe the social
etiquette and moral conduct of the society, which keeps it in continuity. Her life, however, remains a juggling act as she tries to fit in a
range of tasks and responsibilities in the changing scenario.
Under the impact of Christianity, penetration of education, and
urbanization, considerable changes have occurred, yet traditional
norms prevail in the family. For instance, in the bygone days intervillage head hunting expeditions were very common. When men
departed to wage wars, women took the responsibility of giving provision and supplies to the warriors. The successful warriors who were
able to bring back the enemys head earned honor and received high
social status in the village. Even though this honor was an exclusive
male preserve, yet women had their own share of honor, acting as
peace-makers. During the head hunting days, the women played a
vital role in saving the lives of their men. They acted as ambassadors
who would volunteer to act as a mediator between the warring villages. These women enjoyed full diplomatic immunity. Nobody could
lay hands on them. They were called the peace-makers, the torch
bearers of peace, of the Naga inter-village head hunting wars. They
boldly entered the battlefields, intervened, and stopped the fight between two warring villages. The contemporary womens role and intervention in conflict resolution is a continuation of this traditional role.
Among most of the Nagas, marriage occurs by mutual consent of
the boy and the girl after they reach adulthood. The newly wed couple
is helped by the boys family to settle down, the father gives the son
his share of inheritance, and this is how from the very beginning of
their life a couple lives independently. The husband is the head of

118 Bonita Aleaz

the family but in all the decisions in family matters the wife exercises
a great deal of control. A more or less egalitarian balance is found
among most of the Naga families. A couple is expected to respect
mutual wishes and have faith in each other.
Children are considered as gifts of God. There is no stated preference for children of any sex, although there is a general preference
toward having a male issue, dominated by the sense of having a succession in the patrilineal society as well as the paramount desire of
increasing the strength of the clan. But a girl child is equally important;
she is treated as an asset in the family (Mehrotra, 1992: 153). Parents
ideally receive due respect from their children, who are, however,
generally closer to the mother. After marriage their relationship
becomes different as the children have their own families and so the
parents do not interfere in their affairs. If the parents are ailing they
receive support from the children, failing which they are subject to
societal chastisement.
The couples have to stand on their own resources and hard work,
which in turn provides them a new situation demanding cooperative management. This they do commendably well although the
womenfolk gladly and voluntarily take over a large share of the daily
routine labor needed for the familys upkeep. The Ao Naga women,
according to tradition, are hard-working and give undivided devotion
to family welfare. The wives are to be treated well by the husbands
family or else he has to face the angry remonstration of her clans
people, who invariably side with her. The nature of support received
from the relatives of her family of birth is such that it makes her
position in her husbands family and kin group safe (Talitemjen, 1999:
Both the husband and the wife are co-partners in the family enterprise to make themselves and their children as happy and comfortable
as possible. In all spheres of activities, they respect and consult each
other. In fact, the husband always consults the wife in decision-making
regarding household affairs, agricultural works, childrens welfare,
and property. Even for marriage proposals the brides consent is sought
by her parents and in most cases, it is the women who function as
negotiators. The material possessions of a family are held by the husband, who can dispose off the property at his will; yet he can do so
only with the consent of his wife. For example, in the Angami Naga
village there are two kinds of land holdings. Thino is a large area,

Women and the Naga Family Today 119

commonly held, in which each male member has his share; customarily, there is prohibition on selling this land. However, each individual
also has his own earned land, which he can sell or purchase. In
this exchange the male is expected to consult his wife. Although the
wife is traditionally debarred from being a member of the putu menden
(village council), yet, for any important issue where the husband
has to make a public statement in the putu menden, the wife is always
behind the husband to help mold his public stance so that the decisions
are ultimately in favor of the Naga people as a whole and not the
family alone. The vital role played by the women behind successful
men is more than ever exemplified in Naga society (Mehrotra, 1992).
Men are totally dependent on their womenfolk for the household
work but for fieldwork the wife works alongside her husband, and in
their journeys to and from the field, she walks in front of the man as
this ensures her safety. Women enjoy certain unique privileges and
rights in Naga society. For instance, one of the privileges accorded to
a woman is the right to retain her own title after marriage; this means
that her fathers title can be used even after the marriage. This is one
of the distinct characteristics of the culture prevalent especially among
the Ao Nagas (Talitemjen and Lanunungsang , 2005: 217).
Women were given equal opportunity for basic non-formal education; they were particularly trained in the arts and culture as well
as in history. Except for certain sacred rites and rituals performed by
priests alone, womens full participation was essential in all public
functions. During the rendering of traditional songs and dances
womens presence was indispensable (p. 218). For instance, the traditional tug-of-war held by the Ao Nagas during the Moats festival
(festival of thanksgiving and prayers for a bountiful harvest) even
today is impossible without womens participation. No responsive
song between men and women can be sung without women, since
men cannot play the roles of women. Only a woman responding to
her counterpart can sing the Ao love songs. Moreover, women folk
normally initiate the farm songs and the men folk follow them. The
institutions like Tski (womens dormitory) and Elangtsr are absolutely meant for women and the men folk have no role in them.
Besides these, there are other organizations meant exclusively for
women, such as the Wats Rogo Mungdang, and the Ao Baptist Tetsr
Mungdang (ibid.: 222).
These details emphasize the specific womens role in Naga familial
set-up. Motherhood becomes an essential duty, and more value is

120 Bonita Aleaz

placed on this function of women, than on any other female role. It
is through her children that a woman makes her most vital contribution to society and fulfills the primary obligation as a wife by
providing continuity to her husbands lineage. Through the training
imparted to her daughter the woman fulfills another obligation to the
community by creating another potential mother (Mehrotra, 1992:
154). Weaving, agricultural pursuits, the making of rice beer for home
consumption and commercial purposes were some of the means
employed traditionally to supplement the home income. Any girl untrained in these pursuits was unlikely to get a suitor. Despite the
profusion of alternate professions today, these traditional means of
supplementing the family income are still prevalent today. The womans
income is an important supplement to the total income of the family.
Even though mechanical looms have supplanted home weaving, the
traditional shawls, and bags are very much in demand.
Christianity brought a radical transformation into the lives of
women. Their home-based visage changed with the onset of modern
educational opportunities provided by the missionaries. The contemporary womens visibility might be regarded as an after-effect of
the same. Christian missions were given complete responsibility for
education in the hill areas, and it always included female education.
Women missionaries, married and unmarried, were entrusted with
this task. From the very beginning these women taught the girls reading, writing, home and childcare, and the Bible. As education proliferated the women were no longer considered mere housewives and
child bearers as in the past (Talitemjen, 1999: 97).
In due course, women themselves became evangelists and teachers.
The attitude of parents today has significantly changed towards the
education of their daughters. More girls are now being sent to school
and the 2001 census shows that the female literacy rate has reached
61.92 percent as compared with 54.75 percent in 1991. Today female
teachers outnumber male teachers in school. In the field of business
as well, the rural womens co-operatives and small scale industries,
run with government help, are a significant example of womens enterprise. Women also run shops in the market with efficiency. These trends
indicate economic independence of Naga women, which makes possible their greater contribution towards family and society (Mehrotra,
1992: 176).
Naga society and its primary unit the family, notwithstanding the
tortuous road towards modernity, has successfully thwarted the

Women and the Naga Family Today 121

negating and disruptive influences of individualism. Despite their

growing confrontation with values and ideals that tax the traditional
ties, they remain rooted in the communitarian spirit. Regardless of
all odds, the women of the community, through the projection of
their motherhood beyond the borders of the physical family, contribute
the most towards the shaping and molding of this process.

1. The 16 major tribes in Nagaland today are: Angami, Ao, Chakhesang,
Chang, Khiamniungan, Kachari, Konyak, Kuki, Lotha, Phom, Pochury,
Rengma, Sangtam, Sumi, Yimchungru and Zeliang.
2. Warnings were issued at first, but if the offenders persisted in drug abuse,
their ears were pierced and a lock hung from the same as an earring.
These were unlocked in the presence of others within church premises.

Angami, Neichu. (1994). Flame of Love, in The Scribe, March.
Basu Mallick, Sanjay. (1991). The Integrity of the Variegated Creation: A
Tribal Point of View, in Religion and Society, Vol. XXXVI.
Etzioni, Amitai. (1998). The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a
Democratic Society. New York: Basic Books.
Hnuni, R.L. (1997). Vision for Women in North East India, in Journal of
Tribal Studies, Vol. I, No. 1, December.
Jamir, Limatila. (1995). A Christian Response to the Problem of Drug Abuse among
the Ao Naga Youth: A Study in Social Analysis. Kolkata: Bishops College.
Madan, Gurmukh Ram. (1966). Indian Social Problems: Social Disorganization
and Reconstruction. New Delhi: Allied India.
Moakala. (1995). The Role of the Church in Child Development Among the Ao
Tribes of Nagaland. Kolkata: Bishops College.
Mehrotra, Nilika. (1992). Angami Naga Women: Some Reflections on Their
Status, in Subhadra Mitra Channa (ed.), Nagaland: A Contemporary Ethnography. New Delhi: Cosmo.
Nagaland State Aids Control Society. (2004). Surveillance Report, August.
NMA. (1992). Naga Mothers Association, pamphlet.
. (1994) August 24, NMA Circular, to all Mothers/Women Leaders.
. (1998). 6th General Assembly, September 1516, Dimapur, Nagaland.

122 Bonita Aleaz

Rongsen, M. (1999). Tribal Culture and Spirituality, in A.Wati Longchar
(ed.), Encounter between Gospel and Tribal Culture. Jorhat: Tribal Study
Shimray, R.R. (1985). Origin and Culture of Naga. New Delhi: Somsok
Suhuto Chishi. (2005). Introduction, in The Churchs Response to the Problems
of HIV/AIDS among the Nagas in Dimapur District. Unpublished B.D. Thesis,
Bishops College, Kolkata.
Sumi, Anshely. (2003). A Sumi Naga Womanist Reading of the Book of Ruth:
Relevance and Challenge. Unpublished M.Phil. Thesis Gurukul Lutheran
Theological College & Research Institute Chennai.
Talitemjen, N. (1991). Position of Women in Ao Naga Society, in A. Wati
Longchar (ed.), Encounter between Gospel and Tribal Culture. Jorhat: Tribal
Study Centre.
. (1999). Position of Women in Ao Naga Society, in A. Wati Longchar
(ed.), Encounter between Gospel and Tribal Culture. Jorhat: Tribal Study
Talitemjen N. and Lanunungsang A. (2005). Naga Society and Culture.
Mokokchung: Tribal Research Centre, Nagaland University.
Thanzauva, K. (1997). Theology of Community: Tribal Theology in the Making,
Aizwal: Mizo Theological Conference.



124 Jayita Sengupta

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 125

Chapter 5

Society, Family and the

Self in Indian Fiction
Jayita Sengupta

The progress of any civilization can be seen in its continuous effort

to expand its awareness of the subtler and more institutionalized forms
of inequity and the agonies associated with it. T.N. Madan, in his essay
The Hindu Family and Development (1993: 416), states that it has been
an established point of view of the Western scholars as well as some
Indian critics under the Western influence, that Hindu social institutions have had a blighting effect on Indias social and economic
development. These critics, T.N. Madan elaborates, are of the contention that India never had a true history and was almost completely
a stagnant country till she came into a life-giving contact with the
Western civilization in the eighteenth century. While it is difficult to
accept that India has no true history, it is rather an over-simplification
to suggest that the social institutions had frozen the Indian society
for two thousand years till the British as harbingers of emancipation
brought about dynamism in the native Indian society. The first segment of this chapter will give a brief overview of Indian cultural history
to reveal how it determined the womans status in the changing patterns of the Indian society. The second and the third sections will
concentrate on womans role and predicament in the Indian family

126 Jayita Sengupta

and their urge for self-expression, with representations from selective
books in the present times.

Women in Changing Patterns

of Indian Society
Unlike Western/Christian society, which is monotheistic and adopts
a proselytizing role for men and women, in societies like India, diversity and difference and cultural preferences are a way of our life and
existence. The concept of bisexuality is deeply embedded in Indian
mythological thought and is closely related with the cherished image
of conjugality and creativity. The traditional psycho-biological concept
of ardhanarishwara or the bisexual image of the ShivaParvati transcends the barriers of sexual selfhood in creation. In the early Indian
society or the Vedic Age (1500600 BC), the conception of duality
based on the malefemale divinity held sway and each god was closely
linked with his Shakti or the female principle. The god was energy
and the goddess the form through which alone he could pour himself
out and find expression. Aum is the mystic logos and voice or speech
is the goddess, the wife of the creator. It is she who sounds throughout the universe and whose vibration has created all things. The
Rigveda hence speaks of a life of freedom and strength lived by men
and women as equal partners in the great task of home and nationbuilding. The earliest sagas of India declared: then only is a man
perfect when he consists of three persons unitedhis wife, himself
and his son (Thomas, 1964: 20). Within it the universally admitted
teacher was the woman. She was considered pre-eminently fit to impart religious instruction to her children. The Vedas give us further
revealing glimpses; nowhere in all these hymns is there the suggestion
of the seclusion of women or child marriage. Monogamy was the
prevailing condition of the married state. Swayamvara or free choice
of husband by a grown-up maiden was the accepted rule. Though
there is no direct reference to the property rights of women to be
found in the Vedas, there is a clear indication that marriage in no sense
entailed irksome dependence or abject subjection to a husband.
The restrictions on womens freedom are imposed with the Laws
of Manu (c. 200 BC200 AD), which articulates the womans position

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 127

in relation to her male relatives: first her father, then her husband,
and finally her sons. Manu groups women with Shudras (lower castes),
to whom education was denied. Women as wives were not allowed
access to education and fine arts. They were only to be slaves to men,
and had the sole purpose of procreation and catering to the needs of
the husband and his family. Sudhir Kakar in Feminine Identity discusses this prevalent idea of wifehood or Sati Sabitri Parampara or the
patibrata image as he writes that the notion of a good wife was closely
bound up with the concept of a good woman. He explains by
quoting Manu:
Though destitute of virtue or seeking pleasure elsewhere or devoid of
good qualities, yet a husband be constantly worshipped as a god by a
faithful wife and by violating her duty towards her husband, a wife is
disgraced in this world, after death she enters the womb of a jackal and is
tormented by the punishment of her sin (Kakar, 1988: 62).

Such law texts and social texts like the Grihashutras along with the
scriptures in the Atharva Veda (c. 600 BC), the Brahmanas (c. 1500
1300 BC) and the Upanishads (c. 13001000 BC) begin to view women
as the inferior gender whose only true value lay in being vehicles fit
for bearing sons. It is from this time onwards that women were beginning to be considered generally impure and hence were debarred from
all religious activities. From the male gaze, women continued to be
romanticized as a submissive Sita or an exploited Draupadi to
fit into the patibrata image in society. The resistance to the laws and
patriarchal dominance has been voiced through religious movements
like the Buddhism, Jainism and Bhakti movements. In literature such
resistance to patriarchal control has been manifest in the songs and
poems sung by women in the early ages.1 But the revolt against the
power structures was not commensurate with the repressive pressures
and women continued to be exploited through child marriage, Sati,
widowhood and Devdasi.
With British colonization in India gradually taking its firm foothold
in the eighteenth century, the socio-economic structure of the country
suffered a severe setback. The Permanent Settlement Act of 1793
empowered the zamindars, who were initially tax collectors, with
the right to evict the peasants for not paying revenues. This led to
rapid evictions of peasants, who were unable to pay taxes and were
compelled to accede to the sexploitation of women of their household

128 Jayita Sengupta

by the zamindars. The living condition of the farmers worsened
further due to the shortage of food and there was slow fading out of
the indigenous earnings by the weavers and artisans. The textile industry of which India was so proud was shattered. While this was
devastating for the Indian population in general, it had some special
implications for women. Women, who played a major role in textile
industry and in sowing, reaping and preservation of food grains found
themselves jobless. With their vitality shriveling up under such an
oppressive system, their songs and stories also dried up. They were
constantly shunted back to their household grind and were subject to
the triple-fold oppressive systemthe British patriarchal order, the
Brahmanical patriarchal order and the oppressive patriarchal structure
of the household. As women began to be absorbed into the domestic
grind they were also deprived of rights to education and articulation.
The legal system under the Permanent Settlement Act provided
for two more laws apart from the property law. The public law was
designed to encourage and safeguard the freedom of the individual
in the market place and the personal law intended to limit the extent
of this freedom by prescribing the social and ethical obligations to
which the individual was traditionally subject. There followed debates
on immutable religious principles and theological functions were
related to the concept of the family. The result was the standard
Brahmanical version of the rigid Hindu law. A similar reversion to
tradition took place with the Muslim personal law. Al Hidayah was
to be principal normative text. As a result of all this, womens individuality, her subjectivity and her freedom were to be defined within
the confines of the personal law. The personal domain newly constituted in exclusively religious terms had complex and Victorian norms
of feminine propriety.
To reconstruct the patriarchy and curb the rigidity of the Brahmins
and to recast gender, the social reform movement began. There was
the abolition of the long prevailing Sati custom by Raja Rammohan
Roy in 1820s. The widow remarriage system along with the spread
of education among the common masses irrespective of gender, on
account of the efforts of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, did much to
recover the condition of women in repressive social molds. The
Bramho Samaj promoted the emancipation of women. But the new
religion had space only for the upper and well-to-do middle classes.
Hence its efforts to curb the rigidity of the Brahmanical order were
not wholly successful.

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 129

The social reform for women was actually a double-edged process.

It recast the feminine gender by taking its clue from the possessive
individualism of the personal law and by attempting to break the
unregimented indecorous mixing of the upper classes with the lower
classes. Again, it discredited the popular culture of the Vaishnava
cult, which embraced women of all classes. The folk singers or artisans
faced with such condescension and subjected to extreme poverty were
driven to prostitution. The respectable middle-class or the upper-class
lady, the Bhadramahila, was shaped due to such class-consciousness.
The values of this class were aligned with the Victorian lady or the
f emme covert in the west.
Uma Chakravartis essay on Recasting Women (Chakravarti, 1981)
is an in-depth study of the changing face of Indian womanhood in
the nineteenth century. She historicizes that the surge of nationalism under imperialistic rule in the nineteenth century inspired the
elitist masses to reconstruct the image of Indian womanhood by reinterpreting the Hindu past. Uma Chakravarti cites the example of
Peary Chand Mitra of the young Bengal group in 1842, who took up
different aspects of womens status, focusing on education and female
seclusion as key contemporary issues. He used quotes from Mahanirban
Tantra to advocate his view that the daughter should be nursed and
educated with care and married to a learned man. He also cited the
examples of women characters in Kalidasas plays, Tamil literature
and accounts of well-known philosophical debates to highlight women
like Leelavati and Avaiyar who were learned. Women of the past in
general were valorized by the emerging Indian intelligentsia in separate
ways: for their roles in spiritual life, their roles as sahadharminis
(companion to husband) in ancient times and as heroic resisters to
alien rulers, choosing death rather than dishonor. From these elements
of history and folklore, the images of the glorious women were recast
to shape the new identity for women in the nationalist struggle for freedom. Uma Chakravarti points to Shantis character in Bankimchandra
Chatterjees Anandamath (1882) as the prototype of the womanhood
required by a nation in crisis. According to her, Shantis characterization justified the de-linking of wifehood from the enclosed space
of domesticity and embodied the Vedic principles of sahadharmini.
Shanti, by joining her husband in the mission for independence,
transcends both her sexuality and her domesticity and allows her
husband to do the same. As Uma Chakravartis analysis makes it evident, such a desirable model of national feminine identity in the

130 Jayita Sengupta

countrys struggle for freedom during the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries points to the psychic constraints of Indian manhood. A close analysis of Bankimchandra Chatterjees work will reveal
that such a model of national feminine identity can be possible only
with the husbands co-operation, without which it may not be desirable
even. Uma Chakravartis essay does not question the characterization
of Prafulla in Bankimchandra Chatterjees Devi Chaudhurani (1880).
Prafulla, after proving her capabilities for leadership and after playing
a dynamic role in the countrys struggle for freedom, has to accept
the domestic space once again as the cherished dream of her life.
Though emancipation of women coincided with the national consciousness, the regressive tendencies implicit in the Hindu patriarchy
constrained womens urge for self-identity. Prafullas case serves to
justify this observation. In fact Uma Chakravartis historicization of
the ideals of the social reformers like Dayananda Saraswati later in
the essay, goes on to reveal further the limitations incipient in the
ideologies of the time, which grudged the Indian womens quest for
Dayananda Saraswati too in a different way reinterpreted the role
of the Indian women in the light of the Vedic past and rewrote history (Satyarth Prakash, 1915). His references to the women of the
past were part of his wider concern for a reformed Hindu society
dominated by the Aryan institutions. Motherhood for Dayananda
Saraswati was the sole rationale of a womans existence but what
was crucial in his concept of motherhood was its specific role in the
procreation and rearing of a special breed of men. Dayananda
Saraswatis concern for a healthy and pure stock of Aryans even led
him to advocate the appointment of a wet nurse for the child rather
than that the mother should feed it. According to Dayananda
Saraswati the childs body is made up of elements derived from the
body of the mother, which accounts for the mother getting weaker
after each confinement. Thus he says:
It is best therefore, for the mother not to suckle her child. Plasters should
be applied to the breast that will soon dry up the milk. By following this
system the woman becomes strong again in about two months (Saraswati,
1915: 32).

What really marks Dayananda Saraswatis conceptualization of

womanhood is the way he deals with the sexuality of women. The
general concern for the propagation of race implied that both men

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 131

and women were equally the objects of his attention. However, so

deep-seated was his anxiety to control sexuality that it is revealing
even in his conceptualization of the school system. Both boys and
girls in this regenerated Hinduism were entitled to education but they
had to be physically segregated. Again, the management of sexuality
was the key to the thorny problem of widow remarrying. He also
advocated niyoga (which made allowances for the wife to be impregnated by a stranger with her husbands permission if the husband
was impotent) to minimize the chances of illicit relationships and for
begetting healthy and strong children. Ironically, all the reformers in
some way or the other thus attempted at reconstructing the image of
Indian womanhood to suit the purposes of the patriarchal society.
Women, themselves had very little scope to speak for their roles in
With the change of times at the close of the twentieth century and
the beginning of a new millennium, women now have the urge to
seek self-identity and independence. While such search for freedom
from male oppression is desirable, this can also lead to social ostracism
and expose them to extreme humiliation. Jyotirmoy Debi (1898
1988), analyzes very dauntingly the condition of women in Indian
society in her essay Meyeder Moner Katha. She tries to create awareness
about the societys insensitivity towards women over generations:
Possibly, its too early to speak or even discuss about what goes on in a
womans mind, but the times are surely appropriate to voice and consider
the womans condition in society. And in considering her condition, it is
necessary to search for the reality beyond her social status
Everybody knows about the condition of the unmarried, married,
widowed women in the Indian middle-class homes. But no one is willing
to admit the reality as it is. Even if one is sensitive enough, one merely
discusses about women pitifully and offers half-hearted solutions to their
problem. That there is deep frustration at all levels and that the lacunae
could be traced to the very roots of the social system, are issues which are
often carelessly or deliberately ignored (RoyChoudhuri and Sen, 2001:

It is not difficult to understand what Jyotirmoy Debi indicates here.

Indian society has continued to thrive on the ideals of Sati Sabitri
Parampara, which has denied woman her status as a human being
and made severe demands on her chastity, code of conduct, etc. There
were no parameters for the Satyabans, but the Sati has always been
extolled for her devotion to her husband in life or death. The challenge

132 Jayita Sengupta

for the Indian woman in family or society, however, does not lie in
adopting Western measures or isms to bring about transformation
in the psychic and social processes in society. The position of an
educated and emancipated woman in the Indian society continues to
be oxymoronic. She has to preserve her quest for identity and at the
same time she has to fulfill the needs of motherhood and that of
family life. As Ashis Nandy analyzes in the conclusion to his essay
on Woman Versus Womanliness in India:
For the more sensitive woman, the challenge is nothing less than refining
of herself. The first task that faces her is to devise means of de-emphasizing
some aspects of her role in her family and society and emphasizing others,
so that she may widen her identity without breaking totally from its cultural
definition or becoming disjunctive with its psycho-biological distinctiveness. In the West that may mean defying the limits of conjugality and
giving a new dignity to the maternal role of woman; in India it may involve
transcending the partial identity imposed on motherhood and winning a
new respect for conjugality. Indian women have paid terribly for Indian
insensitivity, but they have also extracted a heavy toll from a society which
has not yet learned to live with all aspects of womanhood (Nandy, 1998: 42).

Bearing in mind Ashis Nandys and Jyotirmoy Debis observation

on Indian insensitivity towards women, a few texts may be analyzed
to study the representation of the social realities in Indian literature.

Women in Family
A family could be patriarchal, matriarchal and egalitarian. While the
former two categories could be the case for joint families or households, egalitarianism is a possibility in nuclear families or among the
members of the joint family sharing common interests and status
under a common leadership. The point of view of some Western
scholars like Louis Wirth (1938) has been that joint families in India
have retarded the countrys economic growth. And with rapid urbanization the joint family households have paved way for nuclear
families. As T.N. Madan argues, the structural fallacy that nuclear
families promote modernization and joint families backwardness is
typically a Westerners short-sightedness (Madan, 1993: 41718). The
nature of changes in Indian family structures could be due to a host

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 133

of complex reasons and no hasty conclusions should be drawn. A short

story which controverts the Western view and reveals the complex
network of families of orientation and procreation in one household
and its relationship with a nuclear household based on socio-economic
transactions is Mahasweta Devis (b. 1926) Stanodayini (The Breast
In this story, the Halder household in Amartya Sens terms is the
glued together family (Sen, 1993: 452), or as Kapadia states, it is that
household and members of which are related to one another by property, income and mutual rights and obligations (Kapadia, 1955).
While Halder is alive, it is patriarchal rule that caters to the common
interests and family welfare and controls behavioral patterns within
the household. After his demise, his wife takes over control. But on her
demise the household becomes headless as well as footloose and
breaks apart. As the social theory views the structure of inequality in
terms of property and wealth (Beteille, 1993: 43551). Jashodas story
of life is entwined with the Halder household primarily for economic
reasons. Jashoda is a Brahmin, so it is not caste distinction but class
that subordinates her to the Halder household. Jashoda as her name
suggests seems to be the eternal mother in her fecundity. Motherhood
was always her way of living and keeping alive her world of countless
beings. She cannot recall when there was no child in her womb, and
when her ever sex-starved husband, Kangalicharan, did not grill her
body for reaping further harvest. Jashoda is not only her husbands
feast, but the Halder household depends on her for bringing up its
offspring. Kangalicharan loses his shins in an accident caused by a
Halder son, and Jashoda is on the look out for a job to feed her family.
Jashoda is asked to wean the Halder child when she goes to the big
house to hunt for a job. The mistress of the Halder house looks in
charmed envy at Jashodas mammal projections and says, The
good lord sent you down as the legendary Cow of Fulfillment. Pull
the teat and milk flows! The ones Ive brought to my house havent a
quarter of this milk in their nipples!
So Jashoda becomes a professional mother and Kangalicharan has
to become a professional father. He reminds Jashoda, Youll have
milk in your breasts only if you have a child in your belly. Jashoda
can only give a tearful and obedient consent: You are husband, you
are guru, if I forget and say no, correct me. She is treated as the
scapegoat by her husband and sons who do not care for her and by
the Halder household. When the milk dries up finally one day, and
Kangalicharan finds a younger girl to turn his attention to, Jashoda

134 Jayita Sengupta

loses her ground. On hearing her illness of the breast he comes to
visit her and there is a momentary feeling of sympathy. But when
Kangalicharan learns that she will not survive he tries to wipe her
off his mind completely. None of Jashodas own sons or the ones
she weaned come to her death bed. In her delirium and pain, the
Stanodayini hunts for her sons and craves for the recognition of her
motherhood that no one cares to give. She dies unknown, uncared
for, of breast cancer. Such a story of the dehumanization of women
is no fiction. It brings to the fore the worst effects of the Sati Sabitri
Parampara on the lower class, where to be the provider for her family
and to be an obedient wife, a woman is continually used and abused
in the private as well as the public domains of her life.
A short story which creates a beautiful picture of conjugal harmony is Pautraboron, by Ashapurna Debi (b. 1909). The story begins
like this:
Saturday is the day of rejoicing. On this day you could see the smoke
winding its way up the kitchen roof-tiles. Pitu, while playing in the garden
of abandoned Gosaibari, notices the swirling fumes and stops short.

Saturday is the day when Pitus father comes from the town to spend
the weekend with his family. The smoke from the kitchen roof indicates the preparation to receive the bread-earner. The food ingredients
are stocked and stored throughout the week for the days festivity.
The family, which consists of the widowed mother, wife and daughter
Pitu, does everything possible to cheer up the atmosphere, notwithstanding their poverty. They attempt to reassure Pankaj that what he
provides for the family meets their requirements perfectly. Pankaj too
lies to them about his well-being in the town in order to appease their
anxiety about him. The child is puzzled in this adult game of happy
lies. So she puts a question to her father, Baba, are you a poor man?
In spite of Pankajs strained endeavors to maintain a clean shirt and
trousers and to hide his worn out boots in a dark corner, he is not able
to fool his daughters eyes. So he is compelled to take resort to lies
again, which the child finds difficult to believe.
You ask me about my torn shoes? Where is the time to get a new pair? Do
I have time to visit shops? Every Sunday, I am with you. The Saturdays
Sundays are spent here and rest of the week in the office. When to buy?
Though the fact is, I always have money on me with the intentions of
getting a new pair.

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 135

As the family gather close together in the evening, their faces are lit
up with a strange sense of joy and peace. Pitu looks from her father
to mother to fathom the mystery of such happiness. Her mother
assures her that her father is not a poor man. He is a Samrat. Pitus
friends taunts about their poverty and her mother having no gold on
her body seem to be washed away by a sudden rush of emotions
which sweep over her. She tries to grasp and treasure the beauty of
the moment with her child-mind.
As the earliest comprehensive analysis of marital adjustment by
Burgess and Cotrell revealed (Burgess, 1979), good adjustment between
the couples depended on social background and personality factors.
In spite of the economic constraints, the family behavior reveals their
mutual respect and sensitive understanding of their predicament. The
economic condition may trouble Pitu and create awareness about
her parents and their sacrifice, but it does not make her insecure in the
affection she receives from her parents or in their affection for one
another. The cultural background of the family is evident from their
sensitive dealings with their economic problems and it promises for
Pitu a better understanding and handling of her future. Poverty usually
tears families apart and destroys the emotive capacity in the couples
for responding to one another with finer feelings. The reader of Pautraboron and Stanodayini will immediately understand the cultural
difference between the two households. Pankajs family may be poor,
but it has a cultural background and has been able to retain its values
in the face of adverse times. In Mahasweta Devis story, the values
are subject to convenience. So Kangalicharan can happily thrive on
Jashodas profession and yet be suspicious about his wifes attentions
to Nabin. Class distinctions, in the case of these two stories, are not
merely based on economic conditions and caste differences. The difference depends on the more complicated processes involved in the evolution
of a culture and in determining the family and social behavior.

Behind the Veil

It is the task of the novelist always to look for the real theme behind
the curtain of the apparent reality. Much of contemporary fiction
unravels the reality of middle-class womans life beyond her social

136 Jayita Sengupta

respectability, to reveal her inner torment, desires, and her awareness
of her womanhood and her personality. Bani Basus (b. 1939)
Gandharbi, is such a novel that explores in depth the story of Apala,
who is god-gifted with a celestial voice, and her understanding of
music. Apala gets her talim for North Indian Classical music from
a very early age. Music is in her veins. It is her life, her love and her
being. Bani Basu beautifully describes her emotional state as she
hurriedly returns from a music competition to her middle-class home,
which does not usually permit any young woman to be out of doors
after dark. Apala is caught in a Kalbaishakhi and the first April shower
drenches her completely. The madness in nature along with the music
echoing in her mind bewilders her.
The rhythm of malhar beats in her veins. It drums in her blood. She is
drenched completely in the music of the rain. Surdasi malhar, Ramdasi
malhar, Nato malhar, Gaur malhar, Mia Ki malhar the notes coalesce
with the dark cloud in the horizon, which seems to take the shape of
towering man, his body emanating the strong scent of the Keya, and he is
adorned by a string of neepo flowers round his neck. Apala finds herself
swaying like a doll in his expansive cradle of sensuousness.

A song from Tagore, gives words to this emotion: Dolao amar hriday,
tomar aapan hater dole. This subtle touch by the writer, where the
classical tunes weave into words from a Rabindrasangeet based on
malhar moods, beautifully depicts Apalas fine musical sensibility
which shapes her personality and her sensitive being. Unlike, Sunanda,
in the writers shorter fiction Ashon, Apala has no musician father
who is unable to find an adequate suitor for his sensitive daughter.
Apala is married off like another woman to a respectable middleclass family. Her husband appreciates her music, but is unable to reach
her soul. Apala is a dutiful wife, mothers children and abides by all
the norms of family respectability without grudge. She loses her
scholarship to Soham, her childhood friend, as she cannot avail of it
because of her marriage to Shibnath at a crucial juncture in her career.
No one in her own family, including her Jethamoshai or her brother,
understands how much that scholarship must have meant to her. But
the society allocates different status to men and women. So Soham
avails of the scholarship with much guilt and pain, for he is Apalas
friend and perhaps her soul mate in music. Apala, who is definitely
not a feminist by any standards, does not think twice about coming
to Sohams aid in times of his acute psychological and economic

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 137

crisis, right before her marriage. The norms of the middle class respectability do not in this context create confusion in her mind, for her
relationship with Soham is above such considerations. She cures
Soham of his mental illness through her music and her understanding.
Her marriage does not trouble Soham, for he is certain that Shibnath
will never know Apala as he can. Mere chemistry is not the binding
factor for these two personalities. For when Soham mistakes Apala
for Mitul, the woman who attracted him much, in one of his frenzied
moments, Apala can discern that it is the body which he has mistaken,
not her surely. Soham too rationalizes later:
He has never seen Apu differently as a woman. Apu is his most precious,
his closest friend. This is about Apu, the person. But her music unsettles
him somewhere. If he cannot contribute his music to Apus he suffers
from the torment of eternal separation from her.

Shibnath does not understand the subtleties of the ApalaSoham

relationship and his ego is badly hurt. Gradually, her family forgets
her talent and is content in seeing her in her roles as wife, mother,
daughter-in-law, etc. Thus, her own son taunts her when after many
years Soham calls her up:

Who rang you up? Soham Chakrabarty? Ghazal?

Oh fanta! But Ma, why should Soham Chakrabarty ring you up?
He is my friend!
Your boyfriend! I cant really think of it!

Apala tries to explain, but Ranojoy continues with his sarcasm.

Nowadays, you make me feel that youve become a magician. Like producing a rabbit from under a hat, youre so full of surprise how many
more rabbits do you have on the sly?

After a long gap, Mitali, Apalas Mastermoshais daughter, comes into

her life with an invitation to sing for the title song of a film. The song
is a success and it brings in more invitations. No one stops Apala
from her recitals. She has her freedom, yet something is missing
somewhere, which probably her daughter Tito tries to understand. In
one such recital Soham surprises her with his presence and they sing
a jugalbandi together after a long time. The synchronization of
their music brings them close together in their ecstasy of creation.

138 Jayita Sengupta

Shibnath that night does not spare her. She is subject to marital rape
after so many long years of their married life. Apala never had a
mother. But in her agony and pain she cries out to her for help. Or
probably as the writer tells us, the utterance, for time immemorial,
has specified acute agony and torment in the face of helplessness.
Whom can she look to for understanding? Her daughter in the next
room freezes in fear for her, overhearing the suffocating sounds of
her weeping. Besides, the distance created by her in-laws between
her and her first born torments her. Apala, unable to voice her pain,
loses her voice. She chooses the medium of paints for self-expression.
No doctors can cure her of her illness. Not even Sohams efforts, her
daughters efforts, her husbands efforts, can restore her voice ever
again. The accursed Gandharbi finally returns to her heavenly realm,
her actual abode. The confession by Apalas daughter in the epilog to
the fiction troubles the reader even more. Apalas daughter understands her only when she is no more. The family grows rich from the
royalties received from her records and from her paintings. Apalas
story appears to be no mere fiction, but the stark reality of a wasted
talent. It is the true story of an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering
thing, who secures her family at the price of her talent.
Such inadequacies in conjugal relationship and womans constant
effort to configure herself within the molds of her family and yet
maintain her identity abound in modern Indian fiction. The short
story Mazha (The Rain) by Sara Joseph (b. 1948), translated by
Anitha Devasia from Malayalam and in third person participant
narrative, in a different way unravels the complexities between a husband and wife in a particular incident. The story opens with excitement over a sudden downpour in an afternoon when the family is
relaxing. The children are eager to float paper boats, the husband reclines with his newspaper, and the wife the narrator of the story feels
a sudden release from otherwise oppressive emotions on the event of
the rain. As she watches the heavy downpour, she suddenly notices a
nestling which had dropped from its branch in the swirling currents
of the rain water. She wants to save the nestling and moves out in the
rain much to her husbands annoyance and irritation. The nestling,
and the frantic birds with their soaked feathers and their flesh showing,
repel her and yet they appeal to her mother instinct. Her son too
joins her in the rain and her husband yells at her. In her extreme frustration over her husbands calling her a whore for walking out of
doors and getting wet, she spanks her son and crumples the nestling
which she had desired to save. The cracking of the bones and the kill

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 139

make her mad and she feels like a murderer harming her own offspring
in his vulnerability. The story is steeped in Indian cultural tradition.
The wife by willfully getting herself wet flouts the norms of respectability. The husband cannot or does not attempt to understand her
action on a humanitarian plane. He can only see her as a woman, his
wife and his possession, which he can command, insult and treat her
as he wants to.
Among Indian English fictions there are quite a few instances of
Susan Gubars mad women in the attic, like, Maya in Anita Desais
Cry, the Peacock (1963). The story explores the deranged consciousness
of a wife in her loneliness. In Desais Voices in the City (1965), Monisha,
the wife, chooses suicide in her isolation, unable to cope with her
situation. In her third novel, where the husband in not as authoritarian
as in Mazha, the wife still suffers from emotional incompatibility. But
instead of choosing suicide or madness, like in Desais earlier two
fictions, Sita, in Where Shall we go this Summer? (1975) tries to come to
terms with life. One could contrast Shashi Deshpandes The Dark Holds
No Terrors (1980) or The Binding Vine (1993) with Desais women characters to point out that Desais women are actually a generation behind
and that times have changed. Sarita in Deshpandes The Dark Holds
No Terrors is a career woman who has the courage to fight the mental
battle to secure her own identity and space beyond the constraints of
a painfully oppressive marital relationship. The other novel, The
Binding Vine, takes up the issue of marital rape and rape otherwise to
highlight womens torture and sexual exploitation in the interior space
as well as in the outer space. The physical torture leaves a gaping psychic wound that could be healed with womens understanding of
womens miseries. The women in Deshpandes novels hence do not
succumb to patriarchal tortures, rather they have the capacity to analyze the nature of their pain to come to a decision about their lives
and they emerge as survivors with the will to reinvent their lives.
The stories in The Intrusion and Other Stories (1993) include certain
painful moments in a womans life demanding instant decisions. The
Intrusion is about a newly wed womans first sexual experience with
her husband, who abuses her in her sleep, thus causing eternal rupture
in their relationship. The private space of the womans body and the
mind are intruded upon, which could have been willingly shared with
love and understanding. An Anecdote to Boredom reveals the crushing
impact of routine life, where the husband and the wife relationship
becomes a mere habit with each another. The monotony makes the
wife look for appreciation as a person and as a woman from another

140 Jayita Sengupta

man. But when the husband gets the wind of the developing relationship he exercises his will over her. The wife has to give in, in order to
avoid the break up of the family. But she realizes fully and completely
in the trying moments of her decision that it was the best part of her
life that she has to let go. With these stories, one comes a long way in
the Indian womans self-expression even when she attempts to define
herself in society and family.

Conclusion: Re-Locating Identities

Violence, sexual aggression, and marital rape in households which
apparently seem to be respectable, continue to haunt Indian womens
lives. The system of negotiated marriage continues, where a woman
is married off to a complete stranger. In certain cases the woman herself accedes to the process for fear of ostracism from society, as it is
considered shameful to remain unmarried after a certain age. The
torture and agony which follows from the incompatible relationships
are issues too sensitive to be shared and battled against in the public
sphere. So the voice of the woman continues to be stifled or gagged,
not by any outer force, but by her own sensitive codes of conduct.
As Komter explored, we have far to go in uncovering the sociocultural and psychic roots of gender inequality (Komter, 1989: 187
216). Closely bound with the concept of doing gender is the idea
of the traditional codes that have been absorbed and ingrained in the
psychic processes of a culture. So the hidden power in marriage often
lies with the man, who in spite of his education, status and respectability gives way to his primitive instincts. A close analysis of the
reasons for marital rape reveals that in most cases either the man has
no control over his urges or it is force-only-rape, where the husbands
desire for control seems to lead him to use sexual coercion. Such is the
case of the woman in The Intrusion. In Gandharbi, Shibnaths jealousy,
frustration and anger and his own inadequacy drive him to use brute
force over Apala to prove to his own self rather than to Apala his
control over his wife. If he has no control over his mind, surely he has
the right of a husband over her body. In sum, he bruises her physically
and mentally to stifle her and crush her for life.
The mute suffering of the woman within the household has been
long idealized with the suffering image of Sita. The society compulsively ignores the underlying subtleties involved in Sitas rejection of

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 141

Ram when she is asked to go through the agnipariksha for the second
time to prove her chastity. For instance, when Lakshman comes to
her with Rams message, she conveys her rejection of her husband in
the following words: Tell the King on my behalf, that even after
finding me pure after the fire ordeal he had in your presence, now
you have chosen to leave me because of public slander. Do you think
it is befitting the noble family in which you were born? (Kalidasa,
Raghuvansha: 1416). Sita in this address raises two pertinent questions about RamRam as the King and Ram as her husband. He has
failed to protect the family honor by making Sita an object for public
consideration and he has failed in Sitas image of him as her husband.
However, the popular imagination does not consider these subtle implications incipient in Sitas rejection. It is happy to hail Sita for dignified
rejection and does not consider her act as that of self-annihilation in
shame and acute frustration. The society condemns Ram for his insensitivity, but continues to slander its women in private and in public
spheres of life. It is this social hypocrisy which needs to be unveiled,
explored and corrected with better understanding of gender relationships within married couples and among members in the family. The
living identities, signifying the cultural codes or values that one is born
into and the acquired ones, with experiences though interactions or
marriage, have resulted in multi-layered identities in the game of role
playing in life. If it is important for the Indian woman to understand
her roles in family and society, it is equally important for the men too
to understand their roles in homemaking and in society. The struggle
for the Indian woman is to balance the desire for self-expression with
the roles at home and to embrace all aspects of womanhood. For
emancipation, the Indian woman does not have to look to the West
for its solutions. Solutions lie in analyzing the cultural constructs and
in humanizing the Devis that the Hindus worship while they torture
their women either by the social customs of dowry, bride burning,
etc., or by oppressing them mentally with the assumption of a husbands right to dominate over his wifes body and mind. Modernization is a complex process, which depends on socio-economic and
psychic factors inter-dependent on one another. Just as there were
Satis, there were also Kumaris and Kanyas in ancient Hindu society.
Kumaris were unmarried women who were different from the viragos
in the Western society. Kanyas were swasthas, which means whole,
self-illuminated or independent. With the passage of time these two
categories were absolutely done away with and the sati tradition prevailed which directly undercut the merging of the masculinefeminine

142 Jayita Sengupta

identities in the psycho-biological image of conjugality in Indian
mythology. For a harmonious conjugal relationship, equality among
men and women is necessary. This equality in status is dependent on
economic, social and personality factors for the couple to have mutual
respect for each other. It is this psychic dimension which allows for
family decisions on the household size, family budget, etc. As in
Ashapurna Devis Pautraboron, there could be a single bread earner,
in this case being the husband. But the wife and the mothers contribution to the family in managing finances and maintaining peace
and harmony, and Pankajs recognition of it, go into making this
nuclear family a happy one. Kangalicharans tendencies to exploit
Jashodas navety in Mahasweta Devis short story is at the core of
their unsettling marital relationship. Their psychic processes are so
embedded in institutionalized forms of inequity that Jashodas
suffering is inevitable. Shibnath in Bani Basus fiction and the husbands in the novels by Desai and Shashi Deshpande, as well as in Sarah
Josephs short story Mazha, exhibit the peculiarities of the Indian
male psychology. Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan explores this psychic
dimension in Indian popular culture in her illuminating essay The
Story of Draupadis Disrobing:
Drawing upon the unfailing impact of the episode of Draupadis disrobing
in producing shock sexual frisson, popular Indian cinema routinely
includes a rape scene. In such scenes there is no ambiguity about
the wrongdoing of the villain or the innocence of the heroine. In contrast,
the popular song-and-dance sequences which feature the hero and his
friends serenading the heroine, operate according to the more complex
semiotics of eve-teasing. There is no condemnation of the antics of the
young men, but instead explicit self-righteousness: the girl must be taught
a lesson in humility (Sunder Rajan, 1999: 34546).

Sunder Rajan goes on to elaborate that in the epic, Draupadis vulnerability lay in her compulsive polyandry. But the popular culture
ignored this often and pointed to her habitual pride, mockery and
assertiveness for which she is blameworthy and is subject to a chastening ordeal. Just as Sunder Rajan condemns this social attitude
in the essay, she is also unable to sympathize with the women organizations or feminists who following the myth of the female goddess (Kali, for example) as avengers, establish the wrong of womens
violation and institutes justice in an unjust world. She is in favor of

Society, Family and the Self in Indian Fiction 143

the structural understanding of violence and possibilities of collective protest within the framework of law, civil society, and a radical
interrogation of social responsibility for violence against women.
Legal and civil measures like marriage and reformative acts, dowry
boycotts, coownership rights by wives, and the analysis of Roop
Kanwars case relating to bride burning, are desirable and necessary
actions within the governmental framework. But the social psychology
that is so ingrained in the prevailing ideology about women for generations cannot be forced into transformation overnight by legal and
civil measures. The change has to come from within and herein lies
the responsibility of the Indian woman to relocate her identities and
earn for herself respectability in the private as well as the public spheres
of life. Instead of feeding the demands of the persisting popular culture, she has to seek her identity in merging her roles as a mother, wife,
daughter, etc., in the family without subjugation of the self. A frustrated
and a deprived wife cannot contribute much to her family. Such an
understanding of the self and recognition of the same by her family
members can hold the promise of a harmonious family structure and
a balanced community living in the future.

Acknowledgement: For Mahasweta Devis story, I have relied on Gayatri
Chakravortys translation of Breast Stories (Calcutta: Seagull, 1998). Ashapurna
Devis story Pautraboron is from the collection Shera Lekhikar Shera Galpo, edited
by Bani Basu and Arun Mukhopadhyay, (Calcutta: Mitra and Ghosh Publishers, 2001). The quotes from the above text and from Bani Basus Gandharbi
(Calcutta: Ananda Publishers, 1993) are my translations from the original texts.
1. The songs of the theris and women weavers in the medieval ages and
later the women singers in the Bhakti movements. See Susie Tharu and
K. Lalitha, (ed.). Women Writing in India, Vol. 1, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
2. Gerald Leslie and Sheila K. Korman in The Family in Social Context, (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1989) defines the family of orientation as
that a nuclear family composed of the self, siblings and parents. The family
of procreation is the family composed of the in-laws, spouse and children.
The two families often intersect for socio-economic reasons. In Mahasweta
Devis story, the Halder household as a joint family contains many families
of Orientation and Procreation.

144 Jayita Sengupta

Basu, Bani. (1993). Gandharbi. Calcutta: Ananda Publishers.
Basu Bani and Arun Mukhopadhyay (ed.). (2001). Shera Lekhikar Shera Galpo.
Calcutta: Mitra and Ghosh Publishers.
Beteille, Andre. (1993). The Family and the Reproduction of Inequality,
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Burgess, Robert L. and Ted L. Huston. (1979). Social Exchange in Developing
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Chakravarti, Uma. (1981). Whatever happened to the Vedic Dasi? in
Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (eds), Recasting Women: Essay in
Colonial History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Chakravorty, Gayatri (trans). (1998). Breast Stories. Calcutta: Seagull.
Kakar, Sudhir. (1988). Feminine Identity in India, in Rehana Ghadially
(ed.), Women in Indian Society: A Reader, p. 62. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Kalidasa, Raghuvansha, pp. 1416.
Kapadia, K.M. (1955). Marriage and Family in India. New Delhi: Oxford
University Press.
Komter, A. (1989). Hidden Power in Marriage, in Gender and Society, 3(2):
Leslie, Gerald and Sheila K. Korman. (1989). The Family in Social Context.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Madan, T.N. (1993). The Hindu Family and Development, in Patricia
Uberoi (ed.), Family, Kinship And Marriage in India, p. 416. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press.
Nandy, Ashis. (1998). Woman versus Womanliness in India, in Exiled At
Home, p. 42. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
RoyChoudhuri, Subir and Abhijit Sen (eds). (2001). Jyotirmoy Debir Rachana
Sankolon, Vol. 1, pp. 26163. Calcutta: Deys Publication.
Saraswati, Dayananda. (1915). Satyarth Prakash, trans. by Chiranjan
Bharadvaja, p. 32. Agra: Arya Pratinidhi Shabha.
Sen, Amartya. (1993). Economics and Family, in Patricia Uberoi (ed.),
Family, Kinship And Marriage in India, p. 452. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Sunder Rajan, Rajeshwari (ed.). (1999). The Story of Draupadis Disrobing:
Meanings for Our Times, in Signposts. Gender Issues in Post-Independence
India, pp. 34546. New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Tharu, Susie and K. Lalitha (eds). (1997). Women Writing in India, Vol. 1.
New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Thomas, P. (1964). Indian Women Through the Ages, p. 20. Bombay: Asia
Publishing House.
Uberoi, Patricia. (1999). Family, Kinship and Marriage in India. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press.
Wirth, Louis. Urbanism as a Way of Life, American Journal of Sociology,
44 (10).

Chapter 6

Imagined Family
Pangs of Transition
Esha Dey

In our country, family as the basic social unit consists of a structure

of power with a definite location in space. Traditionally patriarchal
family means many generations living under one roof with a clear
division of responsibilities outside and inside the house. The male
is the official head of the family, who is the provider of food, shelter
and clothing and also the defender against attack from other males.
The female is the bearer of children and nourisher of all members of
the household. These two worlds male and female together, as it
were, weave a complex hierarchical pattern of age and gender that
subsumes matriarchy. The bonding of family rests on the security of
the males earnings, which determines emotional responsesaffection
and consideration from husband and father (or their surrogates),
devotion and obedience from wife and children (or their substitutes).
In my perception this clear-cut definition of family as a rigid structure
rooted in an indefinite geographical space is in the process of transition. The demarcation between masculine and feminine spheres no
longer holds, nor does the stability of location. So the traditional power
structure is constantly being challenged and re-invented, particularly
in the middle classes of India. Though all sections of society, religious

146 Esha Dey

and ethnic groups in this vast subcontinent may not exhibit the symptoms of transition in equal and uniform measure, yet the influence
and example of the dominant minority may reach even remote quarters.
So in one of my stories a charwoman of low caste in a Kolkata slum
leaves her tyrant of an underemployed husband, and with her daughter
builds a new home, confident that as long as she has a pair of hands
she need not put up with humiliation (Pargaachhaa [Dey, NovJan
199697]). The fact of change is undeniable because the economic
and political evolution from feudal mercantilism to mixed economy,
from agricultural to industrial dominance, from subjecthood in successive empires to citizenship of an independent democratic republic
cannot but affect the basic social unit of family and particularly the
role of woman in it in a way that nothing perhaps did in the past. In
my textual representation, family is no longer a hermetically sealed
universe rotating on the axis of domesticity; it is very much open to
the external forces determined by history.
It is relevant here to note that the written literary representation of
family has always offered innumerable variation that threw multivalent
insights into the sociological construct we started with. The pattern
of domination and subordination in the hierarchy of gender and age
has often been blurred. Right from the Mahabharata and Ramayana,
women like Satyavati, Kunti, Draupadi, not to speak of Kaikeyi and
Manthara, brought definitive changes in the destinies of men in power.
Interestingly, in erotic classic tales like Suksari Katha, where family
responsibilities and filial roles are minimized, men and women
compete with each other in promiscuity and in the art of deception.
Almost invariably, it is the woman who is at the top. However in
serious representations, the world outside challenges the self-contained
sacred domestic sphere and the woman of the family is at the receiving
end. Even in classical dramas, which usually uphold traditional family
structures, public duty is interwoven with the private. Sakuntalas
excessive longing for her absent husband makes her neglect her task
of attending on Durbasa, a revered sage. This occasions a curse from
the irritable sage and leads to her immense sufferingrejection by
her husband.
The abstract rigidity of family as a hierarchical institution is perhaps
best revealed in womans oral creativity. Innumerable bratakathas
the performance of rituals accompanied by short pieces of rhymed
verseexpress hopes and fears, joys and sufferings of the average
woman centering on a good husband, absence of co-wife, birth of

Imagined Family 147

sons, appreciation from parents-in-law, and so on. There were also verse
tales with moralsusually showing how to be a good homemaker
but preserved in Lakkhir Panchali (or a narrative song dedicated to
the goddess of wealth). These compositions orally transmitted through
generations immortalize the social mores of a time bygone but still
going on. This traditional pattern is holistically maintained in the major
corpus of medieval literature (Mangal Kavyas), all written by men.
Our first major woman writer Chandrabati laid the foundation of
womans writing in Bengali with its typical featurean awareness of
contemporary reality outside the four walls. In the ballad Sundari
Malua she depicts the plight of a family originating in the arbitrary
land revenue system of the Muslim rule, which facilitated the sexual
tyranny of the Muslim officials, who could and did send the wife of
the defaulter to a special prison. The Hindu patriarchy, far from defending the hapless victim, more than matched the Muslim oppression
by enforcing a sadistic codethe stained woman must be banished.
In the background of the sixteenth century, it is remarkable that
Chandrabatis village women, including Maluas mother-in-law, stand
by her in her days of sufferinga fact all the more poignant because
she has to die in any case. There is no deus ex machina at the climax,
no happy endingwhich we always find in contemporary Mangal
Kavyas by men. Maluas husband incidentally remains throughout a
mute spectator of his wifes suffering, conspicuous in his passivity.
Family has already taken a deadly beating; man can no longer be the
protector nor the provider. It appears as though with the political and
the military defeat of the Hindus, family starts losing the balance between the respective spheres of man and woman and their individual
apportioned duties and rights.
For the woman writer today the recognizable succession starts with
Swarnakumari Devi, whose fiction covered a large stretch of space
and time and in which men and women through interaction among
themselves and relationship with the world try to establish bonds in
response to the changing external world. Strangely enough, the narrative of the family, where human relations take precedence over the
matters of state and which may shift and change often irrespective
even of the economic reality, was perfected by a male writer Saratchandra. His unique lyrical genius, combined with minute observation
of social manners as well as domestic rituals and broad-based humanism for the victim, both male and female but particularly the latter,
influenced a long succession of writers many of whom were major

148 Esha Dey

and minor women novelistsAnurupa Devi, Nirupama Devi,
Jyotirmoyee Debi, Pravabati Devi, Saraswati, Shailabala Ghosh, Jaya,
among others. They produced a number of works both short and
long that enjoyed extreme popularity and in which social mores and
taboos interact with individual characters in conventional situations.
This trend reached its culmination in Ashapurna Devi. It is interesting that in her prolific output the best known protagonists are those
who are deeply enmeshed in contemporary history like Satyavati (in
Pratham Pratisruti) and Subarno (Subarnalata). The former is a product
of the nineteenth century Bengali renaissance, while the latters aspiration as well as frustration is a foreground for the nationalist movement
of the twentieth century. The first two volumes of Ashapurnas celebrated trilogy interlock the upheavals in the family with the larger
canvas of national life. In the concluding part (Bakul Katha), the cataclysms of the 1940swar, famine and partition, which changed the
lives of Bengali women foreverbypassed her protagonist Bakul, and
the struggle of Bengali woman ends not with a bang but a whimper.
The turbulences, however, found some expression in Jyotirmoyee
Debis works and more particularly in the writing of Sulekha Sanyal.
We find that Pratibha Basu handles men and women in the family
and the tension arising out of social rigidity or temperament in various
ways, sometimes with romantic sensitivity, sometimes with caustic
naturalism. In Leela Majumdars delineation of slightly upper-class
households, traditional patterns of dominance are often parodied
and melodrama unabashedly debunked with a touch of humor.
Long before our current feminine obsession with body, Bani Ray,
a highly talented and versatile writer, now a victim of undeserved
oblivion, explored female sexuality in various atypical relationships including lesbian, incorporating myths as prefigurative
technique. With her, family quite often became not only oppressive
but also redundant.
Such a galaxy of writers established Bengali womens writing as a
parallel force to the so-called (male) mainstream and many of them
surpassed their male rivals in terms of material success (as determined
by sales chart, filmization, awards, honors etc.). Mahasweta Devi,
even though she has written on man and male relationships in the
family dealing with the very modern problems of male ego and so
on, she is best known by those works in which the family represented
by one individual is caught in the eye of storm that destroys all bonding. Her most famous novels are created in the background of a great

Imagined Family 149

political and violent turbulence, be it in the uprising of 1857, the

Santal rebellion or the Naxal movement.
This apparently irrelevant and definitely an inadequate birds
eye view of my illustrious ancestors is presented only to record my
confession that when I write, I feel very much part of a continuing
tradition, even if there may not be an immediately visible resemblance
between the works of my predecessors and my insignificantly few
efforts, in conceptualization, technique and viewpoint.
In the novel Putlir Kathaa (Dey, 1999), the tale of a girl child, family,
being already uprooted from the traditional hereditary bhite, a fixed
location in undivided Bengal, has become practically nuclear. Baba,
Putlis father, is one of innumerable Bengali Hindu upper caste men
who throughout the period of foreign occupation, starting in the Muslim
era, have been migrating to new places to pursue new livelihoods and
discarding the inherited traditional ones. Baba, a writer by profession
settled in Kolkata, happens to be also a leftist intellectual like many of
his generation who matured in the 1930s of the last century. So he is
liberal enough to educate his much younger wife, Putlis Ma (mother),
and even allow her to develop hobbies like playing the sitar, enjoy
freedom of movement outside home, and enter into social discourse
with his male friendsall quite exceptional in the middle class of the
1940s and 1950s. However, there is an area of male prerogative, a life
outsidemeaning indulgence in alcohol and women, a decadent
feudal vice now transformed into an artistic, bohemian habit, a
channel for escape from the deep disappointment of independence,
trauma of Partition and the anxiety of uncertain income experienced
by Baba. It is the family which bears the brunt. The disorder in the
household is caused by Babas abnormal routine. Mothers bitterness
and misery make Putli long for an escape from this progressive
family. In her desperation she once climbs on to a fishing boat plying
the Marhalta, ditch. She is recognized and brought back home. Her
spiritual rebellion against her fathers anti-religious stand does
not succeed either. On a visit to Puri, the sight of bizarre Lord Jagannath
shocks her, reminding her of the leper begging with stumps at the
temple gate. In a literary exercise at school she pours out the agony
of her alienation as she describes the death of her pet dog, which her
parents put to sleep, forced by circumstances. According to her Bengali
teacher, this is a bad piece of writing, too self-centered and naked.
Putli feels stifled by her family. At this point, to help mother recover
from a nervous breakdown, they go to Bhagalpur, a town in Bihar,

150 Esha Dey

for a change of air. Here too the adda, a Bengali institution of socializing, led Baba and a few friends to engage in usual discussions on the
customary topics like politics, Partition and Hindu woman. One day
there is a debate on the role of woman in mans life. The traditional
Hindu view that man gets a wife in order to have sons is being opposed
by the great classical writer Kalidasas description: the mistress of
household, counselor, companion in togetherness and a dear disciple
in fine arts. Ma is asked to join in and act as judge. Though she is
supposed to be resting in order to recuperate, she is actually busy
cooking extra quantities of fish, for fish is available in plenty and at a
low price in Bhagalpur. She wipes the sweat from her brow, arranges
her saree, appears in the adda and listens to the two views. Dismissing
the poetic one straightaway, she delivers her judgementan ordinary
Hindu wife is an unpaid domestic servant and a free whore.
This dramatic utterance, hastily excused as a product of her illness, is possible only because the unquestioning subordinate status
of woman has been shaken as has been the demarcation of two worlds.
Indeed there is enough hint that Mas breakdown might have been
accelerated by her indeterminate relationship with another man whose
voice Putli sometimes heard on the telephone in the past. Mother has
acquired the urge to protest, although not yet the means to rebel or to
take pro-active steps. Yet she is conventional enough to long for a son
and to bring up her daughter according to the age-old precepts of
feminine behavior. So Putli should not roam about like a boy, she
should dress up, be timid and so on. An only child and a pampered
favorite of her father as well as his friends (who act as elders of a
vanished joint family), Putli does not therefore feel close to Ma, who
she otherwise also finds melodramatic. Her enjoyment of male-like
freedom, granted by Baba who believes in equality of sexes, exposes
her to the trauma of molestation by a family friend. Her first encounter
with male dominance and sex as a tool for oppression makes her
realize the bond of gender between her and Ma, who she now finds a
source of security. Thus a dysfunctional family still possesses valuable
bonding, which is reinforced during transition.
In the traditional joint family, various members like grandparents,
uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews of various degrees, act as
buffers between husband and wife, who are allowed very little privacy.
In the absence of this buffer, a nuclear family, for the first time perhaps
in our society, stands on marital relationship alone and as such its
sexual and emotional aspects receive more attention and emphasis

Imagined Family 151

than before, particularly as the financial empowerment of woman

frees her from the confinement within four walls. In Soti, Binodini
ebong aami (Dey, 1997), a narrative of three women, all highly educated
college teachers, the common character of this change is revealed,
cutting across socio-cultural and even (sub)national differences. The
first person narrator Chitra (aami), a Bengali who works in a degree
college at Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, interacts with Soti and a
rebel called Binodini. Chitra is caught between tradition and modernity.
Though they differ in language, lifestyle and viewpoints, even then
there is a strange unity among married working women both in family
situations as well as in the workplace. With virtually no infrastructure
of support system for working mothers and no social mores of male
participation in household chores, all of them are perpetually engaged
in a balancing act, realizing neither their talent as homemakers
nor their potential as professionals. Often overworked, harassed and
cynical, their financial empowerment does not take away their emotional vacuum. The sense of deprivation takes a critical turn when
the husband asserts the male right to transgress the marital bond of
fidelity. Sotis recital of her husbands ongoing affair with Binodini
reminds Chitra of her similar experienceher husbands escapade
with an air hostess while posted in New Delhi. This hackneyed reenactment of so-called male privilege does not, however, lessen the
profound sense of humiliation and loss of self-confidence experienced
by both the wronged wives, one Bengali and the other Oriya. The
third woman Binodini, herself a wife and mother, does not, however,
feel guilty at all. She is outspoken enough to declare that monogamy
is equally oppressive to both the sexes. It is not only sexual satisfaction
that her marriage does not provide, but also friendship, tenderness
and care. She is therefore in perpetual quest for romance outside
marriage. Chitra painfully remembers how her husband Subir in his
liaison with the Punjabi girl was caught in a feverous excitement of
lust which she as wife obviously could not supply. These affairs break
up because of the intervention of external reality in the form of social/
official pressure on the transgressor. The faade of marriage, however,
continues. The paths of the three women as professionals, wives and
mothers diverge in different directions dictated by necessities of circumstances, but in every home a man and his wife sleep under the
same roof in the same bed, strangers to each other.
Such family transactions throw up a number of subsidiary themes.
The obvious one is the rise of children as players in parents personal

152 Esha Dey

lives, an elevation unthinkable in a traditional setup. They exert decisive
influence on their parents actionsalmost similar to the one earlier
exercised by elders. Sotis teenage son is deeply affected by the discovery of his fathers affair and constantly urges his mother to take
action. Binodinis adolescent daughter catches her mother with Sotis
husband and shames them publicly, thereby cutting an effective end
to the liaison. It is quite clear that children of transgressing or rebel
or non-conformist parents often turn out to be diehard conservatives
as far as the older generation is concerned.
There is, however, the more serious problem of male reaction to
womans empowerment. Both Soti and Binodini, who are otherwise
poles apart, notice that husbands of financially independent women
tend to be less caring and less considerate than those with dependent
wives. Like Chitras bureaucrat husband, they may try to belittle wives
contributionin terms of labor as well as moneyto the household
and even their work outside as mere supplementary income. The
atmosphere in such families is often charged with latent hostility
towards each other or cold indifference. The source of such apparently
illogical male response to the challenge posed by women lies hidden
in a profound feeling of inadequacy that is both deep rooted and pervasive among men in our country. It is a fact that we are a failed
patriarchya patriarchy that has not defended the family or country
(or gods) against invaders. So for hundreds of years, since the customary male area of activities, namely, governance of country and its
defense was occupied by foreign rulers, the Hindu male arena of dominance has been restricted to society, culture and family. Now this
monopoly is being challenged.
In Thikaanaa (Dey, 2002), the chapter presents an elaborate study
of male insecurity and anxiety trying to cope with the New Woman.
Amal, the hero and protagonist, whose family has risen from lower
castes thanks to modern western education, falls in love with Maitreyi,
a slightly older married Brahmin woman,while still a student in an
engineering college in North Bengal. After being duly divorced and
back in south Kolkata in her parental house, Maitreyi brushes aside
social disapproval, plunges into work, and blossoms as a teacher and
later principal of a school. A single mother, she brings up her child
and looks after aging parents like a son. Amal, on the other hand, loses
one job after another as militant trade unionism and callous management lead to closure of one industry after another. He has to earn his
livelihood outside West Bengal. His family, consisting of parents and

Imagined Family 153

elder brothers residing in north Kolkata, a locality at present considered a bastion of orthodoxy, completely disapproves of his affair
with Maitreyi. Alienated from family, Amal all the more clings to
Maitreyi, whose self-sufficiency, command over her environment, and
understanding of his character create in him an aspiration towards a
larger-than-life self-image. The absence of a regular family is compensated in a peculiar yet typical manner. In Bhubaneswar he starts
a Bengali Club as a cultural organization, a practice common with
Bengalis outside Bengal all over the world. Amal becomes the grand
patriarch of an extended family composed of Bengali inhabitants
posted there for temporary periods, all birds of passage. Like a guardian
elder brother he looks after the well being of the members of the club,
finding accommodation for the new arrivals, getting their children
admitted in English medium schools, and keeping their often ambitious and highly-qualified wives suitably occupied. He is everybodys
Amaldaa, acting virtually as the head of a Hindu undivided family.
Yet with Maitreyi, who is practically a wife to him in every way,
he fails in family roles both as a father-figure to her child and as a surrogate son to her parents. He constantly plays the young adolescent
lover trying to dazzle her with a show of powerarranging parties,
picnics, Bengali cultural events like Bijaya Sammilani or Poila Baishakh
and mega functions with Bollywood stars, carefully dovetailed with
Maitreyis weekends and holidays. Gradually he ceases to be her
partner in happiness and sorrow and becomes just her relaxation and
enjoyment. His deep sense of inadequacy, arising as much from unsatisfactory sex and forced separation as from his difference in class
and caste background, bursts out in occasional defiant acts of onenight-stands, which leave Maitreyi secretly devastated. The complexities of sub nationalist politics in Orissa coupled with his own
unscrupulous rush towards prominence destroy his larger-than-life
existence in Bhubaneswar. Transferred to Mumbai and caught in a
vigilance enquiry, he falls seriously ill. As he is fighting in various
fronts, Maitreyi contracts companionship marriage with an elderly
widower, a member of the governing body of her school who has all
along been a sympathetic friend and a willing guardian to her son.
Bereft of Maitreyi and the Bengali Club, Amal becomes a real orphan
and loses mental balance. At a psychiatric clinic in Kolkata where his
brothers admit him for treatment, a young research worker makes
him narrate his life story and in the process of remembrance realizes
where things have gone wrong. Finally healed and master of himself,

154 Esha Dey

Amal goes back to his ancentral house, his thikannaa or address, his
own space on this earth, where he finds peace as an affectionate uncle
to his niece. Thus the empowerment of woman destabilizes the traditional basis of sexual relationship and starts an upheaval in family,
which tries to reestablish itself in new patterns, the model of which
is ingrained in our traditional extended structure where asexual
bonding possesses significant validity.
Further, the traditional structure consisting of different generations often seeks to re-organize itself by overriding nuclear families
and weaving a kind of abstract bonding between ancestors and successors, which creates new complexities. In the novel Sei-Sab Swapnagulo,
all the three major characters, Bishaakhaa, Biplab and Ranajit, trace
their origin to the same Comilla district of East Bengal (later East
Pakistan and Bangladesh), to the same class of upper caste Hindu
landed gentry who, surrounded by a Muslim majority, asserted their
dominance in aggressive self-improvement, acquiring accelerated
progress from feudalism to the modern age. Although the families
branched off in different directions long before the Partition and
settled comfortably in Kolkata and abroad, the inheritance of ambition
and idealism, perhaps two sides of the same coin, continues from
generation to generation. Handsome and brilliant, Biplab, the president of the students union in an exclusive college, possesses all the
glamor of a Bengali hero with the necessary attraction of what seems
to be also a hereditary urge to do something worthwhile. Born too
late to be a communist or a Naxalite, he is, however, deeply attached
to his leftist uncle and aunt, and reveres the memory of a martyred
relative. This critical attitude towards his own class perhaps makes
him fail in the All India Civil Services Examination, in which his
girlfriend succeeds. Consequently he is left high and dry, his male
ego shattered. He courts and marries Bishaakhaa, a quiet, goodlooking and above-average student who seems happy to be a teacher.
However, Bishaakhaa has been brought up as someone very special
by her progressive parents and reacts sharply when she finds out
that she has been Biplabs second choice. Determined to be selfsufficient with her teaching and tuition, she stays back in Kolkata
while Biplab goes to Purulia to educate the downtrodden in a rural
area, where in his loneliness he falls a victim to the seductive charm
of a tribal domestic. Instead of building a bridge with Biplab and
saving the marriage, Bishaakhaa distances herself further from him
as she is frightened by the recital of his leftist aunt, which reveals the

Imagined Family 155

tragedy of women who sacrificed themselves for ideology, including

Biplabs own legendary relative. Biplab overcomes his infatuation and
becomes a serious and dedicated head of an NGO unit in Assam. As
a male provider, his presence in the family in Kolkata gradually
diminishes to being a guest father in the eyes of his only daughter.
Ranajit, a distant cousin of Biplabboth having the same set of
great grandparentshappens to be a classic male, a builder of industry, a provider for family, a dutiful husband, father and son. Apparently
a foil to Biplab, his actions stem not so much from love or affection
for wife and children as from an indomitable desire to prove himself
worthy of his pioneerindustrialist uncle, who adopted him as his
son in infancy. In both Biplab and Ranajit, it is family in the form of
ancestral lineage that directs their course of life. For both, relationship
with wife and children ceases to be priorities of life, but with a very
important difference. Ranajit compensates his lack of attention by
gifting properties to his wife and investing lavishly on children, whereas Biplab gives them nothing but thanks for the freedom he enjoys
from their demands. When Biplab is abducted by terrorists in Assam
and a mutilated corpse is found nearby, Bishaakhaa identifies it as
the body of her husband. She can now legitimately inherit his portion
of the house in Kolkata, which is the center of her security, offer it as
collateral to get bank loan, start a more profitable and less exacting
career as an entrepreneur, and be a better mother to her daughter.
This quiet and fatal violence to the basic structure of family is discovered by the traditionalist Ranajit, a lost childhood friend who has
surfaced in this critical juncture. He regards Bishaakhaas act as prudent and logical, an act finally worthy of their common Chowdhury
family of Comilla.
Thus family, battered by female empowerment, male insecurity
and diminishing responsibility, goes on re-inventing the great institution in innumerable permutations and combinations. Its transactions
may be cynical and grossly materialistic as in the story Akjon Bhaalo
Swamir Jibne Ekti Raat, where the wife functions as a sexual slave and
a domestic worker in exchange for economic and social security, and
children are nurtured as investments. Or the transactions may be genuinely traditional as in Grihini, where a middle-class housewife dedicated to husband and children ends up as a laminated photograph on
the wall. Or quietly oppressive as in Layla, which portrays how an
educated and spirited Muslim girl is gradually transformed into a
conventional wife and mother suffering those typical minority

156 Esha Dey

complexes she herself rebelled against in her youth. The possibilities
of equal partnership and a just attitude toward female sexuality may
be found in Ekaal and Ato Tuku-Swargo. In my novels and stories as a
whole, family is imagined as a microcosm of society that is undergoing
the pangs of transition from a stratified semi-feudal entity to a more
or less modern existence based on the ideals of equality and freedom.

Dey, Esha. (1995). The Women Novelists of Bengal (18551905), in R.K. Dhawan
(ed.), Indian Women Novelists, Set III Vol. 7. New Delhi: Prestige.
. (1996). An Authentic Voice: Ashapurna Devi (19041995), Indian
Literature, JanFeb.
. (199697). Pargachha, in Parichay, NovemberJanuary, Calcutta.
. (1997). Soti, Binodini ebong aami (novel). Calcutta Nabapatra Prakashan.
. (1999). Putlir Katha (novel). Kolkata: Proma Prakashani.
. (2002). Thikaanaa (novel). Kolkata: Mitra and Ghosh Publishers.
. (2004). Aker Por Ak (novel). Kolkata: Mitra and Ghosh Publishers.
. (2004). Grihini, in Hyena (collection of stories). Kolkata: Proma
. (2004). Ato Tuku Swargo, in Shesh Bangali (collection of stories).
Kolkata: Nabapatra Prakashan.
. (2004). Ekaal, in Shesh Bangali (collection of stories). Kolkata:
Nabapatra Prakashan.
. (2004). Ekjon Bhalo Swamir Jibne Ekti Raat, in Shesh Bangali
(collection of stories). Kolkata: Nabapatra Prakashan.
. (2004). Layla, in Shesh Bangali (collection of stories). Kolkata:
Nabapatra Prakashan.
Tharu S. and K. Lalita (ed.). (1995). Women Writing in India, Vol. I. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press.

Chapter 7

The Politics of Home and

Food in Jhumpa Lahiris
Interpreter of Maladies
Irma Maini

If food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the

pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different
degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions
across the boundaries.
Mary Douglas

Images of food have functioned in many different and often contradictory ways in literary works, particularly in writing by women. Food
is seen as a cultural signifier that could be a source of empowerment
and control on the one hand and of powerlessness and domination
on the other, of bonding as well as of separation, of a form of resistance to assimilation and at the same time a nostalgic longing for a
lost world; in short it could define ones identity in both positive and
negative, complex and complicated ways. In Jhumpa Lahiris Pulitzer
prize-winning collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, the
images of purchasing, preparing, serving, and eating food perform in
much the same way as listed above; however, her use of alimentary
imagery becomes further problematized in these stories when seen

158 Irma Maini

within the context of migration, diaspora, and of what constitutes
Salman Rushdie in his book Imaginary Homelands quotes Milan
Kundera: the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory
against forgetting (1991: 14). This is one of the primary conflicts
that the protagonist of Lahiris story entitled Mrs Sen faces. Wife
of a mathematics professor, Mrs Sen is a new immigrant to the US
who is determined not to forget her life in Calcutta, India. Lacking a
sense of identity in this new country, it is vitally important for her to
hold on to her memories of a time when she was somebody. However,
instead of just remembering the past, Mrs Sen uses the past to give
meaning to the present by preparing and cooking foods of her native
Bengal. The daily ritual of washing, chopping, slicing, and grinding
brings a semblance of order in an unfamiliar world, whose ways she
finds hard to understand. Her profile hovered protectively over her
work, a confetti of cucumber, eggplant, and onion skins heaped around
her (Lahiri, 1999: 115). Instead of being a site of oppression and suppression, the kitchen becomes her domain, her territory where she is
in control. For her, cooking is not a chore, as it is for the women in
Marge Piercys poem who rebel by burning dinners. Cooking is one
activity Mrs Sen can take pride in; this is what gives her a measure of
self-worth in a country that sees her as an outsider. Brimming bowls
and colanders lined the countertop, spices and pastes were measured
and blended, and eventually a collection of broths simmered over
periwinkle flames on the stove. It was never a special occasion, nor
was she ever expecting company. It was merely dinner for herself
and Mr Sen (ibid.: 117). Leisurely preparing meals not only gives
her a sense of purpose but also brings back poignant, wonderful
memories of women in Calcutta, getting together and chopping
vegetables for a wedding or a celebration, laughing and gossiping
late into the night (ibid.: 115). This image of communal gatherings
and evocations of flavors and cooking methods work efficiently to
recall the manner of an entire way of life (Goldman, 1992: 178).
Anne Goldman, in her article I Yam what I Yam: Cooking, Culture,
and Colonialism, argues that descriptions of food and its preparation
resonate with nostalgia for an Edenic past (ibid.: 178). Everything
is there, declares Mrs Sen (Lahiri, 1999: 113). Even the young boy,
Eliot, whom she watches after school understands that when Mrs Sen
said home, she meant India (ibid.: 116). More than anything else
Mrs Sen hungers for the lost sense of community. She says to Eliot,

The Politics of Home and Food 159

At home one had to just raise ones voice a bit, or express grief
or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of another
would come to share the news, to help with arrangements (Lahiri,
1999: 116). Granted her image of life back home is uncritical but it
is only an image. However, in the process of remembering she is
inevitably creating what Salman Rushdie calls an Imaginary Homeland, one that is made up of fragments and shards of memory, which
is simultaneously rich with imaginative possibilities. Though Rushdie
uses that phrase in reference to writers, Mrs Sen too is creating her
narrative, not through writing but through the food she prepares,
cooks, serves, and eats. This is a space she can call her own; here she
gains agency and can assert her identity. On an emotional and
psychological level she connects with her maternal ancestors and
her cultural traditions even as she alters, modifies, or adds to their
Two things bring Mrs Sen the greatest joy: a letter from India and
fresh whole fish, even though she complains that the fish tastes nothing
like the fish in India. Frustrated at not being able to get fresh whole
fish in the supermarket though she could choose from thirty-two types
of cat food, Mrs Sen finds a fish market on the beach several miles
from her apartment and insists her husband drive her there to pick up
fresh fish. She is most animated and alive in the fish-store, laughing and chatting with the man behind the counter. Once home, she
inspects her treasures as she lovingly stroked the tails, [and]
prodded the bellies (ibid.: 127). Thus, for Mrs Sen, preparing and
cooking food is more than just a daily routine; it becomes a sensual
experience, an emotionally charged activity as eating food is for
some people.
Apart from cooking, Mrs Sen loves feeding others. The first thing
she gives Eliot as he gets off the school bus is a sandwich bag with
peeled wedges of an orange or salted peanuts to munch on their two
minute walk to the apartment. Each evening she insists on serving
Eliots mother something to eat and drink, a glass of bright pink
yogurt with rose syrup, breaded mincemeat with raisins, a bowl of
semolina halvah (ibid.: 118). Eliots mother, who had confessed to
Eliot that she didnt like Mrs Sens food, would take one obligatory
sip or bite, say it was delicious, and get ready to leave. If feeding is
psychologically the locus of love, aggression, pleasure, anxiety,
frustration and desire for control (ibid.), as critic Sarah Sceats suggests, then Eliots mothers rejection of Mrs Sens food is a rejection

160 Irma Maini

of Mrs Sens being. However, this is not just a case of petulance or
being overly sensitive about any critique of her cooking. It is important
to see this within the context of Mrs Sens minority status as a cultural
outsider in American society. Cooking tasty Bengali meals and creating new dishes is a skill Mrs Sen knows she has. This is the one constant in her life, her anchor so to speak in a life that has changed
drastically since she moved to the US. This is what brings her comfort
and envelops her in a blanket of security and warmth. Acutely aware
of being a cultural outsiderher sari, the vermilion in her parting,
the red bindi on her forehead are only the most visible signsMrs Sen
tries to reach out to Eliots mother through the one thing she is confident about: her food. If food is a code to social relationships, as Mary
Douglas asserts, then Eliots mothers dismissal of Mrs Sens food
only intensifies the cultural divide that exists between Mrs Sen and
American society. In other words, Eliots mothers gesture demarcates the boundaries of social interaction between them. They will
not break bread together, perhaps one of the most primal ways to
establish community; thus reinforcing Mrs Sens status as a social
Sociologists believe that for most new immigrants, the food habits
of their native countries are the last to go in the process of assimilation
and that women in particular hold on to them for a long time. Mrs Sens
tenacity and desire to cook, eat, and feed only Indian food could be
interpreted as one of the ways she shows resistance toward assimilation in American society. She might eat that ubiquitous American
favorite, french fries, or eat clam cakes which according to her tasted
like pakoras (Lahiri, 1999: 129), but she certainly was not going
to give up her native foods. That would mean surrendering a very
significant part of her identity and even the desire to fit into American
society was not worth it. In fact, many immigrants who give up the
cultures of their native countries to become more Americanized
often find that they are still not accepted by mainstream American
society and continue to be regarded as outsiderswith the result that
more and more immigrants have started asserting their ethnic identities and cultures as a way to gain self-respect and agency in a hostile
Foodways historians Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell assert,
foodways bind individuals together, define the limits of the groups
outreach and identity, distinguish in-group from out-group, serve as
a medium of inter-group communication, celebrate cultural cohesion

The Politics of Home and Food 161

and provide a context for performance of group rituals (Brown and

Mussell, 1984: 5). However, this formula becomes a lot more complex
when seen within the context of geographical and political boundaries
that often divide nations. When parts of a nation separate, secede, are
sliced off, or annexed almost overnight, people of one nation become
citizens of a different nation. For example before August 15, 1947,
people in British controlled India were all Indian nationals; after
August 1947, some people were told that they were now Pakistanis;
and after December 1971 some of the Pakistanis became Bangladeshis.
But what of their common cultural traditions that they had shared
for centuries? How does that change overnight? It is precisely this
question about the difference between ones cultural identity and
ones national identity that baffles ten year old Lilia in Jhumpa
Lahiris short story When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine. Born and brought
up in New England of immigrant parents from Calcutta, Lilia has an
uncomplicated idea of nationhood and assumes that Mr Pirzada, the
visiting scholar from Pakistan, is also an Indian. When reprimanded
by her father for referring to Mr Pirzada as an Indian man, Lilia
is confused: It made no sense to me she says. Mr Pirzada and my
parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked
more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes with their meals,
ate rice every night for supper with their hands. Like my parents,
Mr Pirzada took off his shoes before a room, chewed fennel seeds after
meals as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits
into successive cups of tea (Lahiri, 1999: 25). Yet her father insists
she understand the difference and proceeds to give her a history lesson.
Lahiri sets the story in New England, in the fall of 1971, when
Bangladesh was fighting for its sovereignty from Pakistan. Mr Pirzada
and Lilias parents (whose names we are never told in the story) watch
the events unfold on television each evening as they eat their dinner
together: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish
cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce plate of lemon wedges
and chili peppers which they liked to snap open and crush into
their food (ibid.: 30). Food is clearly an important part of the culture
that binds them despite barriers of nation, nationhood, and nationalism. In fact, Lilias parents, who are from east India, have more in
common with Mr Pirzada, who is from east Pakistan (later Bangladesh),
in terms of their food habits and language than a fellow Indian
from north or south India. Yet each of them calls different nations
home. If home is determined by a geographical, political, and/or

162 Irma Maini

emotional space and sense of belonging, then the concept of home
is further problematized for both Mr Pirzada and Lilias parents.
Mr Pirzada leaves his home in Dacca, Pakistan when he comes for a
visit to the US but returns to his home in Dacca, Bangladesh. Physically and geographically it is the same, yet politically and emotionally
everything is totally different. The nation he had once belonged to
and called home (Pakistan) is now a foreign country. The reverse
is true for Lilias parents who, like tens of thousands of immigrants
leave their home in their native countries to make a new home in a
foreign land. In this case everything changes: geographically, politically, and emotionally. Lahiri doesnt focus too much on the ramifications of such a displacement in this story. While Lilias parents do not
assimilate into the dominant culture they clearly make efforts to adapt,
like their celebration of Halloween. At the same time, their deep connection with their homeland is evident not only in the Indian food
they continue to eat each night but in their keen interest in the events
in that part of the world.
Lilias parents anxieties and fears about events occurring thousands of miles away are understandably disturbing to Lilia as are the
images of death and destruction of war that she sees on television. She
cannot share her anxieties with her peers or friends, for no one at
school talked about the war followed so faithfully in [her] living room
(Lahiri, 1999: 32). Confronted with the horrifying images of war in a
part of the world she knows little about yet feels a connection with,
Lilia tries to calm herself and banish the images of that sweltering
world by absorbing the cheeriness of her bedroom decorated with
yellow curtains and a yellow canopied bed. But when that fails, she,
like her parents, relieves her anxieties by eating food. In her case, it is
not Indian food that brings her comfort but eating American candy
that Mr Pirzada gives her. Each night she would put one piece of
candy in her mouth, for the sake of [Mr Pirzadas] family (ibid.: 34)
and say a prayer for their safety. As she swallowed the candy she
seemed to believe she was swallowing some of Mr Pirzadas pain
and fear, and finding a connection with that disturbing world she had
only seen on television. Food historian Margaret Visner says people
often believe if they eat the food of a particular culture they will be
able to get that culture. Ironically Lilia tries to absorb that other
world through a traditionally American/Western treat. Though she
seems to feel guilty about her privileged life, Lilia sees no contradiction between her self-indulgent candy eating ritual and the starving

The Politics of Home and Food 163

Bangladeshi refugees for whose sake she says she is eating candy.
Later when Lilias parents hear from Mr Pirzada that his family had
survived the war and that they are all fine, Lilia throws away the rest
of the candy for now she believes there was no need to eat a candy
for their sake. The connection between eating and emotions has been
well established but Lahiris light touch, particularly in relation to
young Lilias actions, adds another nuance to it. Apart from fulfilling
some sort of emotional vacuum in Lilia, the daily ritual of eating
candy also helps to bring some sort of order to her confused thoughts
about people she does not quite understand.
Jhumpa Lahiris varied use of the culinary metaphor in her stories
understates the fact that the preparation and consumption of food
has multiple and complex meanings. By decoding the discourse of
food, we can begin to understand the way that the politics of food
permeates every aspect of our lives. Critic Sarah Sceats in an article
about women, power, and food asserts, Every meal incorporates
political, cultural, personal, and psychological ingredients (1996:
125). Perhaps we dont need to decipher every meal within those
contexts, but the multifaceted images of food in literature sure give
us plenty to chew on.

Brown, Linda Keller and Kay Mussell, (eds). (1984). Introduction in Ethnic
and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Douglas, Mary. (1972). Deciphering a Meal, Daedalus, 101(1): 6181.
Goldman, Anne. (1992). I Yam What I Yam: Cooking, Culture, and Colonialism, in Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (eds), De/Colonizing the Subject:
The Politics of Gender in Womens Autobiography, pp. 16995. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. (1999). Interpreter of Maladies: Stories. New York: Houghton
Rushdie, Salman. (1991). Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981
1991. London: Granta Books.
Sceats, Sarah. (1996). Eating the Evidence: Women, Power, and Food, in
Sarah Sceats and Gail Cunningham (eds), Image and Power: Women in
Fiction in the Twentieth Century, pp. 11726. New York: Longman.
Visner, Margaret. (1998). Food and Culture: Interconnections, Social
Research, 66(1): 11730.

164 Pushpa Bhave

Chapter 8

Representation of the
Family in Marathi
Autobiography Written
by Dalit Women
Pushpa Bhave

Before reflecting on the primary material of this chapter, one needs

to address the problems of theorizing autobiography. There are many
complex issues of genre, gender and caste which surface when one is
talking about womens autobiography, especially those written by
Dalit women.

The Autobiographical Impulse

Autobiography as a literary genre has always been a contested
category, both in India and in the West. It was valued as an interpretation of life in its totality but not as a literary text. With the loosening
of the hold of New Criticism on literary scholarship, several critics
began reading autobiographies as a literary text rather than documented

Representation of the Family in Marathi Autobiography 165

history. Within womens studies, autobiographies acquired a special

position as the arrival of women in language texts, if not on the literary
scene. Writing the self was on the one hand a step into the public
sphere; on the other hand, it was an expression of a womans private
self. Though fiction and autobiography are supposed to be vastly
different, the latter does have the narration of a structured I. Within
womens tradition (whether Indian or otherwise) where women were
given identities and role models by patriarchy, the autobiography was
positioned at a site of its own choice.
How did male critics look at autobiography? With limited eyes,
one may say. For example, Georges Gusdorf s seminal essay Conditions and Limits of Autobiography declared that the task of autobiography is first of all the task of personal salvation (Gusdorf 1980: 39).
But neither Gusdorf nor Georg Misch in his History of Autobiography
in Antiquity (1950) could perceive such narration outside the domain
of the white male and Western culture. Gusdorf explains that the
artist and the model coincide, and that the historian considers himself a great person. These great persons predominantly wrote of
their public endeavor. They used language to rhetorical purpose while
women used the conversational tone to write about their private lives.
In India, traditionally, home and family life have been the womens
domain. They understood their identity in a referential manner. The
womans autobiographical self stands against the Western modern
notion of individualism. Many Western theoreticians believe that
autobiography is not possible where consciousness of self does not
predominantly appear. Gusdorf argues that the cultural precondition
for autobiography is a pervasive concept of individualism, a conscious
awareness of the singularity of each individual life. He, like many
other theorists, has post-Renaissance Western societies in mind. I am
quite aware that Gusdorf is often identified as the dean of autobiographical studies. His contributions are undeniable, especially his
assertion that autobiographical selves are constructed through the
process of writing and therefore cannot reproduce exactly the selves
who lived.
However, the individualistic concept of the autobiographical self
that pervades Gusdorf s work raises serious theoretical problems for
critics who recognize that the self, self-creation and self-consciousness
are profoundly different for women, minorities and many nonWestern peoples.

166 Pushpa Bhave

The model of a separate and unique selfhood that is highlighted
in Gusdorf s work and shared by many other critics, establishes a
critical bias that leads to the misreading and marginalization of autobiographical texts by women and minorities. The inapplicability of
individualistic models is two-fold. First, the emphasis on individualism does not take into account the importance of group identity for
women and minorities. Second, the emphasis on separateness ignores
the differences in socialization in the construction of male and female
gender identites. The concept of female selfhood in the work of
feminist theorists such as Sheila Rowbotham and Nancy Chodorow,
in contrast, are grounded in a recognition of the historically generated
differences between men and women. Application of their theories
of womens selfhood to womens autobiographical texts, particularly
those by women who also belong to racial, ethnic, sexual and religious
minorities, illuminates the unfolding narratives of womens life writing
and thereby revises the prevailing canons of autobiography.
The autobiographer in a minority group creates a self in the very
act of seeking it. Her autobiography projects a single radical and radial
energy originating in the subject-center, an aggressive creative expression of the self, a defence of individual integrity in the face of an
otherwise multiple, confusing, swarming and inimical universe. Psychoanalytic critics of the autobiography often focus their analysis on
the way in which self-creation in the text explores or recapitulates the
writers past interplay with his/her parents. The feminist critics lay
emphasis on a sense of identification, interdependence and community. In fact Nancy Chodorow (1978), while discussing the mother
and child relationship, calls it a complex relational constellation.
Her analysis of self in womens autobiography uses the concept of
interdependent existence, which might be useful while dealing with
the theme of familial representations.

Dalit Womens Consciousness

There are parallels that can be drawn. Womens double consciousness and that of Dalits can be understood in light of these considerations. The family is the integral part of the Indian womans
experience; it is the primary cultural space available to her. The male

Representation of the Family in Marathi Autobiography 167

members of the family or women who go out in the world bring

the public lifeor part of itinto private homes. A woman is conditioned to perceive the family as her protective shell; she is also
tutored into being the protector of the family, its traditions and, in
India, the caste structured nature of the family. Anyone outside the
immediate family circle or outside the extended family (blood relations) is known as Itar in Marathi, meaning the other.
The way the autobiographer inscribes the I erases the traditional
markers of social boundary. An autobiography mediates the space
between self and life. If for a moment we unfamiliarize ourselves
with the familiar process of writing an autobiography, we would ask
the questionwhat is experience? It is important to ask this question
because many times an autobiography is read or evaluated in the
context of the exterior reality in which the author resides. It is argued
at times that womens autobiographies are too subjective to be
authentic. Yet, experience is the process by which subjectivity is constructed for all social beings. Through that process one places oneself
or is placed in social reality and so perceives and comprehends as
subjective those relationsmaterial, economic and interpersonal
which are in fact social and, in a larger perspective, historical.
Autobiography theory raises an inquiry into processes of subject
construction, into the relationship between discourse cognition and
reality, the relevance of the position or situatedness of subjects to the
knowledge they produce and the effects of difference on such knowledge. When one is talking about women writers or Dalit writers
male or femalethe question of authenticity is problematic. Present
day autobiographers, specially women and Dalits are aware of this
and relate it to further queries such as: How does she authorize her
claim to writing? How does she negotiate the gendered fictions of
Identity is tied to notions of experience. Dalit womens autobiographies were always a latent invisible force waiting to find expression.
Configurations of politics and history in India brought them to the
fore and into academia only a decade ago. Being a self-fashioned
narrative, a story, a history and a confession as well, the I or self
within the narration can be multiple and can reflect the theoretical,
political debate in the outside world. Fascinatingly, in the process it
might have internalized the tradition which it is fighting against and
negating. The complexities are enormous.

168 Pushpa Bhave

Marathi Dalit Narration

Marathi literature has a significant tradition of autobiographical
narration. From the 13th century onwards Bhagavat dharma, a religious
sect (post-Buddhism) accepted women members and gave them the
rights denied to them by Manusmriti. This sect had allowed saints
from all castes to mingle together. It was a sect which assumed equality
before religion, not in the villages but on the banks of the rivers.
Women brought their oral culture to the sect, they used the images of
their household work, they talked of women crossing the threshold
of the home. These women like Janabai, Nimata, Muktabai and Soyara
were not householders in the traditional sense, yet they brought the
images of the householder; and gave the autobiographical tone
to Marathi poetry. The most striking metaphor used by them and
their male counterparts was the contrast between a Pativrata Nari
(pious lady who worshipped her husband) and Vesava (prostitute).
The womans voice was heard and written about for the first time. The
Mahanubhav sect also had women who questioned their seer and
teacher Chakradhar. Mahadaisa or Mahadamba wrote wedding songs
for Lord Krishnabut they are compositions of a householder who
dispassionately witnessed life within the family.
In the British period the second generation of the educated elite
wrote novels. The first few novels were written by men but they were
centered on women and were structured as womens life stories. Upto
1930, we see novels written in an autobiographical vein where the
woman is a protagonist. These social novels depicted high-caste and
middle-class joint families in great detail. From Haribhan Apte to
Mama Warerkar, authors took on womens voices to talk about the
oppressive atmosphere of a joint family.
The beginning of 20th century saw women writing their own autobiographies. They usually used the word Atheewani meaning memories
(less formal than memoirs) or Puran. Ramabai Ranadewife of Justice
Ranadecalled her autobiography Amchya Athawani. She was the
narrator but she named Ranade differently. In Ramabais autobiography we see the predicament of the wife who is supposed to please
her husband by her attempts to become an educated modern wife and
yet win the respect of all family elders. The enlightened husband
would not be seen supporting his wife against the traditional elders.

Representation of the Family in Marathi Autobiography 169

Two famous autobiographies make similar claims to a particular

kind of family experienceone by Laxmibai Tilak, Smrutichitre, and
one by Baya Karve. Both these women have minds of their own. In
spite of their famous husbands they constructed their own selves
in the narration, speaking in some detail about their inner turmoil
and the outer demands. Fortunately for them, both these women had
families which were hardly traditional or casteist, and one can say
that the picture of their families or extended families is hardly representative. Yet, there is a womans anguish which they share with many
women in other kinds of families when they articulate the unspoken
hurt of women who are taken for granted by their men folk.
After Independence we have many autobiographies written by
women; for example, by women who had occupied some public space
in the fields of education or theater. Many were tales of exploitation in
the family or within the man-woman relationship. Women were not
supposed to talk about or write about family matters, but they searched
for ways of expressing themselves. In the circumstances, male critics
were usually hostile towards such writing.
Are Marathi Dalit womens autobiographies different? There are
overlaps in how one perceives the woman question and the caste
question. When one is talking about Dalit autobiographies one must
be aware of the dynamics of the Dalit movement in various phases.
The pre-Independence movement by B.R. Ambedkar strove to free
Dalits from the internalized trauma of being untouchables. He brought
women into public life and strove hard for the spread of education and
for political rights. Conversion was a strategy to free Dalits from their
lowly position in the Hindu caste hierarchy. After his death the Republican Party faded away. The younger generation revolted against the
old Republican politics and there was a cultural revoltthe Dalit
Panther movement. Dalit literature defined itself by three words
Vidroha (revolt), Vedana (grief ) and Nakar (saying no) to being defined
by the Manu culture. In fact, to begin with, the rhetoric of no was
Traditional autobiographies were written with a sense of achievement, while Dalit writers chose to end their narratives at the crisis
point in life where they crossed the peripheral existence to touch the
so-called mainstream. Dalit autobiographies expressed a deep concern
for mother figures who had suffered because of the caste stigma. But
when Dalit women started to write autobiographies, their understanding of society and experience ran deeper and they dealt with

170 Pushpa Bhave

accounts of caste oppression on one hand and patriarchy on the other.
Not surprisingly, they exposed the gender-based discriminations and
hierarchies within the Dalit community as well.
In the context of Marathi literature, the lines are somewhat blurred
about Dalit womens autobiographies and those of women from other
marginal positions. I am choosing a few autobiographies, not all written by Dalit women, and stretching the category to include Ador by
Najubai Gabit (the first autobiography by a tribal woman) and Me
Bharun Pawle by Mehrunissa Dalwai (a woman from the progressive
Muslim movement).

Examples of Dalit Womens

The problem with Dalit womens autobiographies is how to deal
with the personal I and the community we. This problem can be
best illustrated in Jina Amucha by Baby Kamble. The title itself means
our life. The writer is conscious of the dynamics of social change
how the new economic system interacts with the traditional caste
system. She describes her position in the family and society and relates
that to her fathers contracting business. Even being called Baby is
indicative of her posture. In her narration she hardly talks about her
personal history. Kamble is trying to depict how Dalit women live in
a small village coping with double oppression, from the family on
the one hand and caste patriarchy on the other. She uses what might
be called the grotesque as a literary form when her search for space
(social and psychological) turns intense and significant. The latter
half of her narration expresses the impact of Babasaheb Ambedkar
and her style becomes rhetorical. The use of Mahavi dialect and its
poetic cadence is notable. Baby Kamble is not a highly-educated person but her sensitivity to womens sexuality, patriarchal control and
social depravity is lucidly expressed.
Another autobiography contemporary to Baby Kamble is Shantabai
Kambles Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha. Shantabai was a trained teacher,
she along with her husband joined Ambedkars movement. But
her husband had a second wife so she had to suffer the hurt which
was inflicted on so many women in that age. With reference to this

Representation of the Family in Marathi Autobiography 171

autobiography one must mention the problem of family censorship

exerted on womens writing. Almost adhering to dictates, Shantabai
remained evasive about her marital problems and individual pain.
Mala Udhvasta Vhayachaye by Mallika Amersheikh is a very controversial autobiography. Mallika belongs to a later generation as compared
to the two writers mentioned above. She is the daughter of a famous
Muslim activist and his Hindu wife. Both were partners in the left
movement. Mallika married the dynamic Dalit poet-leader Namdev
Dhasal while rather young. She speaks of the agony of living with a
person such as Dhasalbeing infected by venereal disease by him.
The middle-class readership welcomed her outspoken narrative
because it confirmed their prejudice against Dalits. Yet one can look
at it from another angleshe was a pampered child brought up in a
typical middle-class school, immature at the age when she married
a charismatic leader. So she could not understand his upbringing on
the roads of the red-light district or his problems as a leader of the
Dalit Panthers. Her romantic notions and the realities of married life
could hardly match. Yet one may note the personal detail that Namdev
and Mallika continue to live together. Though she had expressed her
dismay as the wife of a powerful leader who was fighting social injustice,
she also saw the problematic husband. Sometimes she depicted herself
as a tragic queen bound to circumstances. Nevertheless, she remained
within the charmed circle of his attraction.
A comparison may be attempted with another autobiography,
Me Bharun Pawle. Mehrunissa Dalwai is the wife of a famous Muslim
progressive leaderthe late Hamid Dalwai. Her autobiography does
not take over the we syndrome. She came from a well-to-do Muslim
family while Hamid came from a poor Konkani Muslim family. She
talks a great deal about this difference. He was an activist. She is
proud that she economically supported the family by being a working
house-wife. There are many mentions of Hamids gratitude for her
role. Though there are references to the tensions within the movement,
threat to his life by orthodox Muslims, she was not involved in the movement (she took over after Hamids death). The latter half of the narration is about his illness, a kidney transplant and the traumatic years
that followed. Though personally troubled, Dalwai is hardly aware
of the deep moral issue of accepting the kidney from a criminal. Instead, there are abundant mentions of food and recipes throughout
her autobiography. Her Marathi is quaint since she started using the
language only under Hamids influence.

172 Pushpa Bhave

A historically significant and unusual autobiography is the tribal
book, Ador by Najubai Gabit. Spread over three parts, it talks about the
clannish existence of adivasis. The language and attitude of the narrator is that of an activist. She talks about rights of the adivasi women
but can hardly express their point of view. Such a book raises issues of
agency and literary capabilities. Historical and documentary evidence
gives the testimony to a less known way of womens lives. Literary
form comes only as a secondary concern. To return to an earlier point
made in this chapter, subjectivity is also a socially constructed image.
Between the literary and the sociological, contemporary theory does
not recognize too many boundaries. In the form of the autobiography,
especially of women from disadvantaged communities, the genre
definitions break altogether. In the present book, the individual voice
and the social concern merge into a unison.
Compared to the many middle class autobiographies of women,
self-writing from marginalized women is often reticent about interpersonal relationships. But the women are not shy about accepting
or expressing the physicality of their relationships. The subject of
how the body is inscribed in the language of womens autobiographies
is another valued area of enquiry. The abovementioned narratives
are addressed to a middle-class readership and the consciousness of
the difference in gender and caste attitudes is very visible. The subjectivity is moderated, the message is perhaps more important. The
voice of the woman, silenced so long, must now carry far out of her
home, to her family that is lulled into the quietitudes of patriarchal
assumption, to the community that is often an uneasy coalition, to a
readership that may have little knowledge of the hidden world of Dalit
and marginalized women.

Chodorow, Nancy J. (1978). The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis
and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley University of California Press.
Gusdorf, Georges. (1980). Conditions and Limits of Autobiography, in
James Olney (ed.), Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, p. 39.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Misch, Georg. (1950). History of Autobiography in Antiquity. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Representation of the Family in Marathi Autobiography 173

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson (eds). (1998). Women, Autobiography: A
Reader. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Marathi Works
Amarsheikh, Mallika. (1984). Mala Udhvasta Vhaychai. Mumbai: Majestic.
Dalwai, Mehrunissa. Me Bharun Pawle.
Gabit, Najubai. Ador (the first autobiography by a tribal).
Kamble, Baby. Jina Amucha. Pune: Rachana.
Kamble, Shantabai. Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha. Mumbai: Purva.

174 Sutapa Chaudhuri

Chapter 9

Real and Imagined

Gujarati Families
Shifting Positionalities of Gender
in Contemporary Gujarati
Womens Writings
Sutapa Chaudhuri

People had given you

Rosy flower-painted frocks
to save their prestige and retain their control on you.
That too
On one condition
Learn only that these people would teach,
Speak what they want you to speak.
Only theirs is the right choice,
not what you like.
You may exist
If ., then .
If ., then .
If ., then .
Only then, you shall get the promise of safety.
Within the Laxman rekha drawn by them,

Real and Imagined Gujarati Families 175

With the sound of the clock kept by them,
And by their winding up,
You have to live
(Saroop Dhruv, Cinderalla: Beejo Pag Pan Oomara Ni Bahar).
Those days I used to tell you stories of Princes to induce you to sleep.
Today I am telling you those stories to awaken you.
(Usha Sheth, Mara Ghar Ne Umbaro Nathi).

In the era of globalization, the definitions of family, society, culture,

and the individual are all in flux. Not only have peoples lives and the
concept of families changed drastically, but the criteria for gender portrayals in contemporary writings have also changed along with them.
Gender and gender relationships are crucial in Gujarati families. This
chapter tries to understand the reality of Gujarati families as imagined
and presented in contemporary Gujarati womens fiction. A survey
of the prominent works show the diverse ways in which definitions of
gender and family are constructed and reconstructed time and again
in contemporary Gujarati fictionboth in novels and in short stories.
These fictional constructions of gender definitions have subtly projected/resisted the prevailing sociocultural image of women and men
in Gujarati society and vice versa. In order to understand how gender issues have been represented in contemporary Gujarati womens
writings, it is necessary to have an overview of the genre.

Family and Gender in Canonical

Gujarati Literature (18801990):
Visions of the Ideal
Traditional portrayal of women or men as essential bearers of imposed ideologies recur time and again in mainstream Gujarati literature where we find the glorified and idealistic portrayal of women as
silent, submissive, nurturing and dutiful entities, while men are brave
and responsible. One of the most famous portrayals of women as
the Adarsh Nari is found in Gowardhanram Tripathis epic novel
Saraswati Chandra (18871901) in the Pandit Yug. In this novel, the
ideal woman is imaged in many roles. Through the portrayals of

176 Sutapa Chaudhuri

the ideal grand-mother, mother, daughter, sister or the vamp, this novel
seems to dictate the sociocultural norms that bind a woman and warn
against the pitfalls facing the transgressing woman. In this novel, the
heroine Kumud represents the archetypal Gujarati woman, the ideal
and desirable, silently suffering and sacrificing herself for the family and
society at large. On the other hand, Gunasundari and Dharmalaxmi,
Kumuds mother and grandmother, are prototypes of the adarsh
woman who fulfill their dharma at any cost. Significantly, in Kusum,
Kumuds younger sister, we get the first glimpse of the new woman.
In the character of Saraswati Chandra we find the new, educated
Gujarati man. For almost two generations, Gujarati writers portrayed
their women in the image of Kumud and men in the image of Saraswati
Chandra. The writings of Kanaiyalal Munshi, like Gujarat no Nath
(1917) also focus on the heroic aspects of men and women who though
apparently independent, often submit their identities in total surrender.
They surrender to the prevalent socio-familial and cultural norms
and stereotypes of the ideal woman/man. In the next era, the character
of Rohini in Jher to Pidhan Che Jani Jani (1952) by Manubhai Pancholi
Darshak, is the modernized version of Kumud but with a difference.
Rohinis forbearance becomes the source of her power as she accepts
a positive way of life. From the 1960s we find the changing connotations of family and gender relationships slowly taking shape.
Instead of the integrated families of the earlier writings, the focus
shifted to fragmented relationships and divided families. Female or
male characters however, though educated, still represent traditional
and essentialist values.
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a total change from the point of
view of presentation and subject matter as the writings exemplify the
altered values of the modern times, the fast pace of the society, and its
psychological complexity. In keeping with this modernistic trend, we
find existentialist novels like Amrita (1965) by Raghuvir Chaudhari.
Yet, even here the protagonist, Amrita, is forced to surrender her notions
of freedom and identity and accept convention and social practice. In
the 1990s, we find the emergence of the literature of resistance. These
writings have a mature portrayal of not only men and women, but
also of explorations into different aspects of society. One of the most
significant perspectives of the 1990s is from women writers who show
women/men as progressive, modern and individualistic, and capable
of shaping their lives.

Real and Imagined Gujarati Families 177

In canonical Gujarati literature, the idea of man and manliness is

perpetuated and perpetrated throughout the centuries. Phrases like
stree par swamitva, stree jatini maryada recur again and again in Gujarati
fiction. The husband who controls, scolds and even physically or emotionally abuses the wife for the smallest of reasons is not only omnipresent, but his actions are also condoned as his birth right in Gujarati
fiction and culture. In Dhirendra Mehtas Dishantar (1983), Purvis
disabled husband Nikhil becomes furious when he learns that she
has taken her lunch before serving him. Angrily he bursts out in accusation, Dabba man rotli kem nathi? Purtu randhti pan nathi, humna ne
humna lot bandhje (Why arent there rotis in the box? You dont even
cook properly; knead the dough for my rotis right this moment). Such
situations, in which the essence of the prabhutva of the man over his
wife whom he thinks of as his daasi is foregrounded, have become a
staple in folklore, canonical or contemporary Gujarati fiction.

Family and Gender in Contemporary

Gujarati Womens Writings: Resistance
and Reconstruction
The idealistic visions of women and men in mainstream Gujarati
literature create a simplistic duality by portraying women as a commodity to be used for profit or as self-sacrificing and dutiful care-givers in
a family. Women are the emblems of the silent and submissive Adarsh
Nari while men are the stereotypical Prabhu. Contemporary Gujarati
womens writings as literature of resistance, however, attempt to create
a more active, and complex presence for both men and women. They
try to evoke life in modern Gujarati families as it is actually lived. The
snapshots of the variegated complexity of life, reflecting the demographic and political changes in contemporary Gujarati culture, can
be interpreted as representations that showcase men/womens need
to survive in this fast changing modern worldto be able to exercise
free will, to make fluidity and discontinued adjustments, and to craft
their lives.
Gujarati women writers go beyond the familiar ways of conceptualizing gender. They present a challenge to the dominance of the

178 Sutapa Chaudhuri

repressive structures within which both women and men exist.
Traditional patriarchal discourses of family accept men as the sole
subject of attention, view the objectification and commoditization
of women as necessary and real, and see women as patterned by their
kinship identities of daughters, wives, mothers, grandmothers and
widows who live in terms of these relationships. In contrast, contemporary women writers focus on the changing configurations of gender
and family in present day Gujarat. They see both women and men as
subjects, but these subjects are posited as ambiguous and fashioned
by societal and individual discourses that are constantly shifting. Their
writings read almost like palimpsests, as if they are erasing the imposed patriarchal notions of gender, and writing down newer concepts
for both men and women. This is amply illustrated in Suhas Ozas
Ughada Akash No Ek Tukdo, Tarini Desais Mahalaxmi, Anjali
Khandwalas Chandlano Vyaap or Suvarnas Tou Tou Kevu Saru. In
Ughada Akash No Ek Tukdo (A Patch of Open Sky), Oza portrays the
whole gamut of a pregnant womans experience at the time of her
labor in a hospital. Jasoda, in Tarini Desais Mahalaxmi dares to flout
the age-old Indian convention of considering widows as inauspicious
by supporting her widowed daughter-in-law in her desire to participate
in her sons marriage rites. In Chandlano Vyap (The All-pervasive Bindi)
Anjali Khandwala shows how, irrespective of class, caste and education, the bindi confers on a woman a status which allows her to
participate in all the happy occasions of familial and social life. On
the other hand, in Tou Tou Kevu Saru (How nice it would be), Suvarna
boldly and dispassionately talks about sexuality, lesbianism and
bisexuality in the lives of two close friends, Baisakhi and Setu. As these
writings show, there is no single truth for women/men, but many
truths. As subjects, women/men become the deployers of alternative
discourses who manipulate normative signs, create new spaces, and
exercise agency. In order to create newer categories of gender, the writers
dwell upon the ongoing resistance towards the construction of identity
in a radical way that characterizes the lives of women/men. It accepts
a vital dimension of realitythe self-perceived world of women/
men contesting the hegemonic construction of women/menthat gives
rise to not only literatures of protest and resistance but also to assertion
of autonomy through unconventional life styles, expressions of freedom through subversion, challenge and opposition. The family becomes
one of the chief sites where this resistance is located.

Real and Imagined Gujarati Families 179

The Debate Rages
Gujarati women writers have contested both the control and the
connotations of conformity to societal norms that the term family
conjures. Family is the integral part of a Gujarati womans experience;
it is the primary cultural space available to her. She is not only conditioned to perceive the family as her protective shell, but is also tutored
into being the protector of the unit, thus reinforcing and perpetuating
its traditions, authority, frames and structures. For women, family
thus becomes a site for struggle where they have expectations of security and mutuality yet experience denial, fragmentation, subordination
and consequently, alienation. Interestingly, in Gujarati womens
writings we repeatedly find the untying of the marriage knot, a retracing of the sacred seven steps (Saptapadi), a breakdown of the marriage structure, and consequently, a disintegration of the conventional
family system. Interestingly, the freedom to take boundless steps/
flight in the sky, a symbol that is recurrently encountered in these
writings, comes only after the erasure of the erstwhile family structures. In these writings, the symbolic dissolution of the bondage that
the traditional family represents opens up alternate choices and modes
of life for both women and men. To give voice to their silence and
suppressed desires, they start looking for alternatives as they hope to
live life differently. The women in these writings are striving against
the socially-imposed ideological bondage of subordination: from
darkness they are moving towards light, from confinement to freedom, from alienation to mutuality. In short stories such as Kundanika
Kapadias Nyay, the story of a woman who chooses to walk out of
her marriage as a rebellion against her domineering husband, Sarojini
Mehtas Dukh ke Sukh (Suffering or Happiness) where an ordinary
woman through sheer hard work and grit establishes a hotel business
after her husband deserts her, we find marriages dissolving, families
collapsing and women emerging unscathed. The stories of the heroine
in Kapadias Punaragaman (The Return), or Vasudha/Vyomesh,
Vasanti/Satish in her Saat Paglan Akashman or Makrand/Mamta in
Ila Arab Mehtas Vistaar, all tell the same story of disintegration and
self-construction. In Chaka Chakini Adhunik Bodhkatha (A Modern

180 Sutapa Chaudhuri

Fable of Two Sparrows), Swati Mehd narrates an essentially feminist
story of the emancipation of a she-sparrow and the world of newfound joy in the freedom to fly.
In Gujarati womens writing, family thus becomes a hot bed of
debate, discussion and a site for crucial confrontation and decisionmaking. Family, in their writings, opens up spaces for voicing, negotiating and appropriating tensions peculiarly experienced by women.
Within this trend among Gujarati writers, women resist the identities
and role models imposed upon them by the patriarchal family
unit, recognize the different concepts of self, self-creation and selfconsciousness that are vital for women, and take into account the
importance of group identity for women. Contemporary Gujarati
women writers are thus, on the one hand, deconstructing and dismantling the hegemonic constructions of gender in families, while at
the same time building and constructing a positive gender discourse.
Beginning with the pioneering efforts of Vidyagauri Nilkanth and
Shardagauri Mehta, carried on unflinchingly through the writings of
Dhiruben Patel, Saroj Mehta or Kundanika Kapadia and taken up
time and again in the works of younger generation writers like Varsha
Adalja, Hemanshi Shelat or Suvarna, the issues of family, marriage,
and female identity have been debated, discussed and analyzed in
depth from myriad perspectives. The writers focus on the changing
lives of women who are conscious about their right to protest against
a patriarchal system that has pushed them into stereotypical roles,
confined their talents and compelled them to assume a dependant
status. They question the system, searching for their own identities
and status as individual persons. Seemingly oscillating between the
individual urge for self-fulfillment and the social demands made on
women for self-sacrifice, these women writers create characters that,
when driven to the wall, make bold choices for the survival of their core
being. By making choices, these women characters are challenging
the system, questioning the authority, searching for, negotiating, as
well as appropriating their identities and their status both in the family
setup and the larger social structure. Believing that a change in the
condition of women must begin with a change in their own consciousness, the contemporary Gujarati women writers portray women
as gradually coming to realize their own oppression in their short
stories and novels.
Kundanika Kapadia, a major voice in contemporary Gujarati
womens writing, in her famous novel Saat Paglan Akashman (1984)

Real and Imagined Gujarati Families 181

or Seven Steps in the Sky (1994), presents the story of Vasudha, who
after 32 years of being an obedient and dutiful wife and an ever sacrificing, ever solicitous mother, dares to challenge her husbands authoritarian attitudes and leaves her sheltered existence, the security of
marriage and family, in search of an individual identity of her own.
She says: I dont want to die fulfilling others expectations. I want to
live a life that satisfies me. I want to live true to myself, to my thoughts
and my feelings. I dont want to be an ideal wife; I want to be a real
woman. (Kapadia 1994: 3). Vasudha rejects the socially sanctioned
security pegged by familial relationships and finds her way to freedom,
growth and self-fulfillment in an alternate way of lifethe life in a
commune, a utopian community based on sharing and respect for
one anothera new extended family as it were, called Anandagram,
literally, the abode of happiness. It is in Anandagram, significantly,
that Vasudha the new woman finally meets her soulmate, her emotional and spiritual counterpart, the new man Adityathe sun, radiating
light and warmth to disperse the dark loneliness that has engulfed
Vasudha; together they dare to dream of a new future in the vast
open spaces in the mighty Himalayas. The note of protest against
womens existing position in society is found in Ila Arab Mehtas
Batris Putlini Vedana (1982). It portrays womens struggle against
injustice done to them and their attempt to establish their own
identities. The protagonist Anuradha, who has just published a novel
about the fascination of a young widow for a man, feels suppressed
by her husband who is offended about the way Anuradha deals with
a tabooed subject. At the end of the novel, Anuradha says neither
Goddess nor Giantess; let us remain as women. Both Saat Paglan
Akashman and Batris Putlini Vedana, though centered on single female
characters, present womens anger against male chauvinism and assert
womens creative identity as they come out from their passive, limited
lives to actively fight for their rights and equality.

The Changing Profiles of

Gender Portrayals
The younger generation of contemporary Gujarati women writers
like Varsha Adalja, Hemanshi Shelat, Suvarna, Amrapali Desai, Parul

182 Sutapa Chaudhuri

Rathod or Sunita Majithia, try to form new equations of gender relationships in their writings that reflect the changing profile of women
and families. These contemporary women writers envision women who
have successfully utilized their education, intelligence, ambition and
decision-making capability in the outside world, and moved towards
self-discovery, turning inwards and acknowledging their identity as
individuated, integrated and assertive beings. The central female protagonists in the works of these women writers boldly and maturely
face the diverse conflicts they encounter at familial and social levels;
unlike the earlier generation of women characters, they make bold
choices even when not driven to the wall, in order to uphold their
dignity as individuals. Inspired by the ideas of freedom for women,
these middle-class, educated, urban women confront the deep-rooted
prejudices and biases of a still patriarchal society. They resist the
stereotypical roles that women are still expected to play in the so-called
educated, enlightened middle-class Gujarati society. (These writings
open up a new world of gender equality in which man-woman relationships are examined boldly and with an egalitarian attitude that show
new women. These women make choices not out of helplessness or
desperation, as in the earlier works, but through reasoning and selfanalyzes. These women are whole within themselves, aware of their
needs, conscious of their desires, confident of their potential, and are
ready to assert themselves as free and desirous individuals in their
relationships with people within the family and outside.) Women in
these writings, significantly, form and live in homo-social and/or
alternate communities of support and mutuality that in turn provides
an atmosphere of nurturance, recognizes the value of womens experiences, validates the long denied desires or conflicts in womens lives,
and promotes self-discovery and a turning inwards so that the women
gradually but surely move towards the satisfaction of their urge for
self-fulfillment. These writings resist and reject the compulsive burden
of the ideal token womenthe image of women as obedient, docile,
self-sacrificing, self-effacing creatures, and emblems of virtue, submission and silence. In Varsha Adaljas writings, exploited and marginalized women gain strength and insight through these very
experiences. Her women characters try to search out their individual
selves through the resolution of their psychological conflicts. Chandra
Shrimali presents the stories of physical and mental exploitation of
Dalit women in her collection Chani Bor. Himanshi Shelat presents
womens plight subtly through translating social realities into her

Real and Imagined Gujarati Families 183

stories, thus making us aware of the deep rooted injustice, agony,

ambivalence and confusion in the lives of women. Contemporary
Gujarati womens writings carry a distinct voice which rejects the expectations that women exist for others and not for themselves. A focus
on womens present role as potential rebels is seen in these writings.
Yet, at the same time, these writings invite men to share a freer future
in which both men and women can jointly explore the world.
In contemporary Gujarati womens writings, we find women contesting the ideology of the family from two specific points of view. On
the one hand, there are women with more or less traditional points
of view who revolt or give voice to their experiences of imprisonment.
This is succinctly brought out in short stories like Saroj Pathaks Sarika
Pinjarastha (Sarika, the encaged), where the protagonist, Sarika, is
trapped in the cage of social norms and conventions so much so that
she is even denied the freedom to take her most personal decisions.
On the other hand, women are featured as mature, desirous individuals in control of their selves, their lives and their environments like
Pratiti in Sunita Majithias Akdanu Phool, who tells Pritesh, her
husband, that she has seen through his pretence and hypocrisy and
thus would terminate their relationship. While the first group of
women is forced to take decisions when they are driven to desperation,
the second group of women is confident and free enough to declare
their choices. As there are two groups of women, correspondingly there
are two groups of men also. In the first segment, men are shown as unrelenting patriarchsconventional, bogged-down by obsolete sociocultural norms and customs, and thus becoming insensitive, uncaring,
egotisticeven masochisticwho view their women counterparts as
property to be disposed of, or used as they please. The second group
of men, however, functions as alter egos to women in a true sense of
the term. These men are non-traditional, non-hierarchical, sensitive,
understanding and supportive with an egalitarian outlook on life.
In many works by contemporary Gujarati women writers, like
Dhiruben Patels Dikri nu Dhan, Saroj Mehtas Sukh ke Dukh, Bharati
Vaidyas Boltu Maun, Suhas Ozas Ughada Akash No Ek Tukdo, Swati
Mehds Chaka Chakini Adhunik Bodhkatha, Parul Rathods Viparyas,
Amrapali Desais Prapti, Kundanika Kapadias Nyay, Sunita Majithias
Akdanu Phool, or Ila Arab Mehtas Vistaar, women gradually realize
their subjugation to their chauvinistic husbands and become aware
of the frustrations, the discontent and domination in their lives.
Women like Radha (Prapti), Lopa (Viparyas) or Pratiti (Akdanu Phool )

184 Sutapa Chaudhuri

have all passed their lives in voluntary dependence and have seen
through the faade of conjugal life and boldly decided to get out of
the relationship that is inhibiting their freedom, controlling their needs
and silencing their desires. These women cast off the associations of
goodness, meekness, self-sacrifice, submission or silence and along
with those attributes they freed themselves from the age old ideologies
of the traditional Adarsh Nari. They are mature enough to have faith
and confidence in their own selves and bold enough to assert themselves
as free individuals in control of their lives, fates and circumstances.
Women like Pratiti or Vasudha are new women, women who can
voice the discontent in their lives, who are not willing to give up their
needs as individuals. Pratiti in Akdanu Phool by Sunita Majithia says,
I am not at all interested in this logical (or illogical) fraudulent partnership, nay slavery. I am not at all willing to entangle myself in this
imaginary cocoon of yours. Pratiti was not deceived like Radha in
Prapti, but rather like Lopa in Viparyas, she voluntarily agreed to live
a life of dependence knowing that in gaining you I will loose my own
identity; but only on one condition of retaining her self-respect as
partner in an equal relationship. To her, mutuality forms the very
basis of conjugal life: The lamp of the conjugal light is lit by the
union of a man in the form of light and woman in the form of a
flame. Yet in her own life she suffered rejection and loneliness brought
about by her non-reciprocal conjugality with her husband. Her confidence in her own self makes her able to move out of this subjugating,
dehumanizing relationship; to move forward in search of selffulfillment.

The Birth of the New Family

Manashi, Lopa, Radha, Pratiti, Mamta, Vasudha, Mitrathe central
characters around whom the contemporary Gujarati women writers
weave their storiesall reflect the changing profiles of the new woman,
of women who are grappling with the conflicts in their lives, searching
for mutuality in relationships, self-fulfillment, trying hard to regain
control over their lives, reaching out towards connectivity with others.
They are all in search of a new horizonthe horizon of the the limitless sky inviting one for a boundless flight. To experience that special

Real and Imagined Gujarati Families 185

joy in flying on ones own wings, these women step out of the
threshold of their homes, leaving behind the comfort and the false
sense of security of the warm nest. Instead of a life of trauma, forced
guilt, rejection and indifference at every level within their own homes,
they choose a life of freedom where they can retain their self-respect
and live as desirous, autonomous, integrated beings in their own right.
Instead of submitting and adhering to the patriarchal dictates that
see women as dutiful homemakers, women like Pratiti destroy their
homesthe cocoons of illusion that have bound them in a guarded,
shielded and confined lifeand emerged as self-conscious, sentient
butterflies, ready for a boundless flight to freedom.
Contemporary women writers in Gujarat are not only projecting
the concept of a new womanmature, confident, and individualistic;
integrated in themselves and whole, who function as individuals
with self-aware, assertive identities, capable of living life on their own
termsbut are also trying to promote the concept of the new man.
In contemporary Gujarati womens writings, men are increasingly
portrayed as alter egos to women. These new men are necessary to
build the concept of a synergistic society that these writers wish
to project. The idea of the new man that emerges from these writings
goes against the traditional portrayal of men either as the all powerful,
brave and strong bread-winning patriarch of the family, or the insensitive, uncaring, chauvinistic egotist. These new men are conceived
as partners to the new women. They are egalitarian, sensitive, understanding and supportive. They leave the insensitive lordly men behind
and become soulmates to their female counterparts as they are
sensitive, understanding, and even with a touch of the feminine. As
equals they become collaborators in the social change. This egalitarian
trend indicates a change in the definition and portrayal of gender
relationships in contemporary Gujarati womens writings in which,
from a relationship of alienation and intransitivity, women and men
journey towards a much better understanding of a mutual relationship.
Men like Sambal in Saroj Pathaks Saugandh, the unknown man
on a wheel chair who gives a new lease of life to Sushi in Varsha Adaljas
Chandrannu Ajwalu, or men in the utopian commune where Vasudha
in Kundanika Kapadias Saat Paglan Akashman, finally reaches selfactualizationSwarup, Gaganendra, Aditya, Agnivesh, Vinod believe
in equal partnership with women. They believe that, as Swarup says
in Saat Paglan Akashman, women have to free themselves from the
bondage of their femininity and men from the bondage of their

186 Sutapa Chaudhuri

masculinity and try to become whole beings the true strength is
not in exercising authority over another, but in making others strong.
(Kapadia 1994: 174). These men reject the traditional patriarchal
notions of a separate sphere for men and women with its associations
of a gendered division of labor. The new men in these writings like
Priti Senguptas Swapnao ek Rang, Anjali Khandwalas Chandlano Vyap,
Suvarnas Tou Tou Kevu Saru or Bharti Dalals Shatru all feature as
alter egos to women. These men cook, clean and feature prominently
in house-work or childcarethings that the ordinary patriarchal
Gujarati men can never even imagine doing. Gaganendra, the husband
of Abha in Kapadias Saat Paglan Akashman, categorically says Its a
fact that I am a man, but that I should not clean grains is a pre-conception. Its a fact that I cannot give birth to a child but that I should not
wash nappies or sing lullabies to make it sleep is in the same class.
(Kapadia 1994: 175).
This ongoing struggle to create new paradigms of family illustrates
that these women writers have come a long way from the prescriptive,
idealized notions of gender and family persistently put forward in
canonical literature as they try to envision a family that acknowledges
the women/mens right to build interpretations of social, familial
and personal relationships, which authenticate both men and woman
as gendered, individuated, autonomous subjects in their own lives,
within or without the contours of a family. The new family that takes
shape in these writings is an alternate modeit is a family based on
companionship and mutuality, irrespective of blood ties among the
family members. It is marked by respect, nurturance and understanding, based on the notions of support, liberty, and broad, openminded and liberal views of life. It is a family based on the egalitarian
notions of equality and mutual need, where women are free from the
burden of the imposed social-familial and cultural taboos, the consequent stigma, the attending fear and the forced guilt. The vision of
a family that gradually emerges in these writings holds in itself the
sense of a supportive community rendered meaningful by the strong
bonds of mutuality, support, understanding, transitivity and respect.
This new family recognizes and willingly accepts both independence
and interdependence as integral conditions for its harmonious functioning. In this extended family, people would find a new meaning in
their livesthey would feel their lives worthwhile as they share their
common longing to fly under the same sky together.

Real and Imagined Gujarati Families 187

The womens writings in contemporary Gujarat project multiple

realities. It not only reassesses the traditional human values but also
focuses on the awareness that family systems are changing. The
Gujarati women writers paint pictures of existences configured by
the societal, hierarchal forces that shape and determine gender subordination, childcare, household chores, family relationships and interwomen communications. They insist on organic, creative and positive
interdependence within the family that mutually reinforces the bond
and does away with the negative issues that alienate family members
from each other and give rise to problems like lack of communication,
anxiety, conflict, aggression, anger, hostility, violence, fear, depression.

Amin, Amina. (2001). From Stereotype to Individual: Women in Womens
Short Fiction in Gujarati, in Jain and Singh (eds) Indian Feminisms. New
Delhi: Creative Books.
Amin, Amina and Manju Varma. (2002). Trans.: New Horizons in Womens
Writing: A Selection of Gujarati Short Stories. Gujarat Sahitya Academy,
Dalal, Anila. (2001). Changing Profile of Women in Gujarati Fiction, in
Jain and Singh (eds). Indian Feminisms. New Delhi: Creative Books.
Dasgupta, Sanjukta (ed.). (2003). Families, Vol. 1, No. 2, Feb. Kolkata.
Desai, Neera and Usha Thakkar. (2001). Women in Indian Society. National
Book Trust, New Delhi.
Jhaveri, Manshuklal. (1978). History of Gujarati Literature. New Delhi: Sahitya
Kapadia, Kundanika. (1994). Seven Steps in the Sky. Trans. Kunjbala and
William Anthony, Navbharat Sahitya Mandir, Ahmedabad.
Meghani, Jhaver Chand. (2003). A Ruby Shattered. Trans. Vinod Meghani,
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai.
Mehta, Dhirendra Mehta. (1983). Dishantar. Bhavnagar: Prasar.
Tharu and Lalita (ed.). (1993). Women Writing in India, Vol. 2. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press.
Tripathi, Govardhanram. (1994). Saraswatichandra. Trans. Padmasingh
Sharma Kamlesh. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

188 Arpa Ghosh

Chapter 10

Hypocrisy and Hollowness

in the Indian Joint Family
A Study of Mahesh Dattanis Plays
Arpa Ghosh

Bravely Fought the Queen (BFQ; Dattani, 2000), a problem play about
the darkness and iniquity at the core of the Indian joint family, by
Mahesh Dattani has recently been incorporated in the undergraduate
honors syllabus of the University of Calcutta. Teaching the play to a
group of twenty-year-olds in a girls college in Kolkata is in itself an
eye-opener. The play invites group-discussions in an unprecedented
manner generating questions and comments galore about the themes
and symbols used by Dattani to comment on the texture and truth
of Indian upper middle-class life. Not that other plays by time-honored
playwrights commanding pride of place in the university syllabus are
bereft of symbolism. But the immediacy and contemporaneity of the
Indian context and the can of worms Bravely Fought the Queen opens
with respect to the Indian family, is something students spontaneously
respond to. Dattani stimulates student curiosity and observational
skills in a manner Macbeths witches and Loukas cigarette (Bernard

Hypocrisy and Hollowness in the Indian Joint Family 189

Shaws Arms and the Man) have been unable to do in a long time.
When encouraged to share their experiences of the joint family,
students, at first reticent, soon overcome their shyness, and give
instances from family life (their own and things they have seen and
heard in the neighborhood) which make it amply clear that Dattani
has touched a chord in their hearts.
The joint family system with its undergirding of parental authority
and control has long been the mainstay of the Indian way of life.
Dattani pits the traditional sociological institution against IndianEnglish, a language that is a major component of his drama. The use
of English in Dattanis plays is felicitous, since in almost all his plays
he brings together characters of disparate provincial and linguistic
identities. In Bravely Fought the Queen a South Indian couple is brought
up face to face with a north Indian family. In Dance like a Man the
daughters fianc belongs to a different community and hence communicating in English is natural under the circumstances. In Tara
the brother Chandan leaves India for a foreign destination, and when
he recounts his past, the use of English, a language that has long become his own, is necessary. In all these plays the use of English, cutting
across community and family barriers, with its underlying associations
of a liberal, globalized culture, elicits subversive disclosures about the
hypocrisy and double standards of the Indian family.
Exchanges with my students motivated me to examine core family
issues dealt by Dattani in his plays. My students pointed out to me
how the issues of unjust treatment of the girl child (Tara), parental
opposition and scorn at the choice of an unconventional profession
like dancing by the son of the family (Dance like a Man [Dattani, 2005]),
molestation of a child in the hands of elderly male relatives (Thirty
Days in September [TDS]), closet homosexuality (On a Muggy Night in
Mumbai [OMNM] and Bravely Fought the Queen) and domestic violence,
marital infidelity and closet alcoholism (Bravely Fought the Queen) are
an integral part of Indian metropolitan family life, cutting across provincial and class divides. Dattanis English plays gain a peculiar social relevance in the contemporary Indian context as hypocrisy and
duplicity of the city-bred middle and upper-middle class is the major
theme of his plays. Dattanis language is the language of the upwardly
mobile, culturally flexible Indian who while striving towards a certain social status is yet unable to overcome his bigotry and emotional
blindness with respect to basic behavioral and moral codes of conduct.
What appeals to students is Dattanis sophisticated handling of moral

190 Arpa Ghosh

issues. Here is a dramatist who shows grim, disturbing vignettes of
Indian family life, sharply contrasting the glitz and glamor of public
life with the emotional and moral bankruptcy of private life without
once preaching to his audience. Dattanis appeal to the generationnext is that of an artist who calls for a healthier synchronization
of global and Indian values, rather than one who strikes the high
moral note.
Bravely Fought the Queen is bold and sensational in its approach to
the subject of Indian upper-class hypocrisy within the precincts of
the joint family. The predominant theme of the play is the hollowness
in the core of the much-touted Indian joint family, the sacred cow
that has been worshipped over centuries. The playwright interrogates
familial relationships: husband-wife, parent-child, and brother-sister;
revealing how men motivated by thoughts of personal gain abuse the
women in their family, how the practice of wife-beating is passed on
like a mantle from father to son, and how a family torn by lies, iniquity
and injustice tries and fails to draw a veil over shameful family secrets.
Much has been made of Dollys role in this play as the queen
who fights bravely like Laxmibai.
A powerful domestic tragedy, this play highlights the circumstance of a
woman fighting against all the odds that the forces of patriarchy have
piled against her. This woman [Dolly] is of course the Queen referred
to in the title of the play, a title which in itself is an intertextual derivation
sourced from a translation of a Hindi poem about the indomitable Rani
of Jhansi (Dhar, 2005: 8283).

This contention, however, fails to take cognizance of major issues

like the differing historical circumstances of Laxmibai and Dolly and
also the generic characteristics of Dattanis play.
The Trivedi sisters-in-law Dolly and Alka are defeated souls who
have given up on life without a real fight, because as any feminist
primer will point out, resistance to male exploitation can only be
political in nature. A woman cannot partake of her husbands assets,
his rum, his lifestyle, the amenities his money buys for her as they
buy for Dolly and Alka, and resist his sadistic domination at the same
time. This is not to claim that all housewives are victims of male
torture, but economic dependence of the wife on the husband and
addiction to the soft life that a rich husbands money provides are
definitely tools of oppression that women hand over to men.

Hypocrisy and Hollowness in the Indian Joint Family 191

Dollys and Alkas habitation in the twin houses provided by their

sadistic husbands is collusion and complicity, in the sense that silence
and endurance vis--vis torture and exploitation is consent and collusion. They are therefore objects of pity and compassion, definitely
not tragic heroines to be admired or glorified like the Queen of Jhansi.
As characters they are interesting because they are lifelike studies of
weak, upper-class Indian housewives who are victims of male exploitation and domestic violence, easily recognized and identified by
Dattanis audience. Also interesting is the diseased psychology of
female victims of male domestic oppression, because instead of uniting against male oppression, Alka, Dolly and Baa (their mother-inlaw) constantly bicker with each other. Failure on the part of the
women to unionize against male oppression is a major feature of the
Indian joint family, increasing a housewifes isolation and insecurity.
Their gestures of defianceAlkas rain-dance that is an expression
of her repressed, frustrated sex-urge (Dhar, 2005: 297), and Dollys
chilling simulation of uncoordinated movements of a spastic child
to bring home to her abusive husband that their spastic daughter
Daksha is a direct consequence of the physical torture heaped upon
her by him at Baas instigation (ibid.: 312)are too little and come
too late as gestures of resistance, after the best part of their lives has
been trampled by their spouses and in-laws, and cannot be equated
with Laxmibais heroic battle against the British.
Baa, the mother-in-law of Dolly and Alka, is the power-broker of
the patriarchal system, aiding and abetting male supremacy. Her
counterparts are to be found in the pinched, disgruntled, domineering
mothers-in-law in Ashapurna Devis novels,1 in all the mothers-in
law who have suffered in their day, yet who persist on taking it out on
their daughters-in-law, and in this way help to perpetuate male domination and female suffering.
Baa. Rub my back and I will tell you something.
Alka: I dont want to hear your nonsense.
Baa. If you dont, I will vomit and you will have to clean it. (Dhar, 2005: 283)

Baas bed-ridden presence in the upper reaches of the stage is a significant depiction of the devious working of power in a joint-family.
Baas counterparts in other Dattani plays are Shanta, the indifferent
mother of a sexually abused child (Thirty Days in September), and
Roopa (Tara), who deliberately destroys her daughters life in a blind
bid to give undue preference to her son. These women see themselves

192 Arpa Ghosh

as cogs of the patriarchal wheel. Their moral philosophy is the very
opposite of individualism. As a net survey sees it:
A sometimes puzzling aspect of Indian culture is the absence of what we
call in the West, individualismthe belief that human actions are determined by and take place for the benefit of the individual. That is, the individual interests of mature adolescents and adults usually take precedence
over responsibilities to extended families. The individualism of economic
theory holds that each citizen should be allowed freedom in the exercise
of his business pursuits and any financial rewards are his to dispose of as
he pleases. The equivalent belief in the Indian experience to this powerful
western doctrine might be labeled familialism. For example, in India,
marriages are not arranged between individual men and women but
between families.
The familialism of India is solidly rooted in family, that is, persons
related by blood and marriage as parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and
uncles, and cousinsa lineage system, generations deep. The family in
India is a group much larger and much stronger than the filial bonding
known as family in the West. In India the family interests take precedence
over the interests (desires and choices) of each family member. Individual
initiatives which are dedicated to and clearly benefit the entire family
group may be tolerated or encouraged.

Physically Baa is the most decrepit member of the Trivedi family, yet
as a node of financial and negative psychic power she is the most potent
figure dominating the rest of the family. Tara and Chandans mother
Roopa in Dattanis play Tara (2000) is an even more disturbing example
of a woman acting as betrayer of her own sex to facilitate male preeminence in the Indian family. At the end of the play Tara and Chandan
are informed by Patel their father that in their infancy Tara and
Chandan as Siamese twins had three legs among them. The third leg
received its blood supply from Taras body and at the moment of surgery would have benefited Tara if it had been left attached to her torso.
But in a bid to place her son Chandan in an advantageous position in
the male-dominated world, Roopa, accompanied by her influential
politician-father, bribed the highly qualified pediatrician to cut the
leg from Taras torso and graft it on Chandans torso. Patel recounts
the crime committed against his daughter Tara so many years ago:
Patel: I came to know of his [the surgeons] intention of starting a large
nursing homethe largest in Bangalore. He had acquired three acres of
prime landin the heart of the citythe largest in Bangalore. A few

Hypocrisy and Hollowness in the Indian Joint Family 193

days later, the surgery was done. As planned by them [the doctor, Roopa
and her father] Chandan had two legs, for two days. It didnt take them
very long to realize what a grave mistake they had made. The leg was
amputed. A piece of dead flesh which could havemight havebeen
Tara (Dattani, 2000: 378).

The betrayed Tara withers away and dies realizing that the enemy of
the girl-child does not exist outside but within the parameters of the
joint-family. Taras story, that of flagrant discrimination against
the girl-child, is a paradigm cutting across the class and provincial divide
of the heterogeneous matrix that is India. The findings of a net survey of the male/female ratio of Indian children are disturbing:
An abnormally high death rate of little girls as contrasted to the death
rates of little boys causing a low and declining female/male ratio in a
whole population is called fatal daughter syndrome. Fatal daughter
syndrome is a socially derived phenomenon within human families reducing the number of daughters and increasing the proportion of sons.
Families close to the apex of the status hierarchy are more likely to exhibit
fatal daughter syndrome than families lower in the hierarchy.

Other major evils faced by the woman are social prejudice against
non-conforming professions like dancing and the girl-childs molestation in the hands of trusted and respected relatives. In Dance like a
Man (Dattani, 2000), Jairaj points out how his danseuse-wife received
an indecent proposal from a male relative who regarded her as easy
game because of her profession.
Jairaj to Ratna: What did you want me to do?... Look the other way while
your uncle asked you to go to bed with him? Do you think your
uncle made such interesting proposals to all his nieces? No! That would
be a great sin. But you were different. You were meant for entertainment
(Dattani, 2000: 410).

Jairajs bitterness stems from the lack of family support and understanding regarding dance as a profession that haunts him and his
wife Ratna all their lives. Thirty Days in September (Dattani, 2005) is a
play entirely devoted to a discussion and analysis of the social evil of
child molestation and its repercussions on the girl-victim. The passive/
almost acquiescent stance of the victims mother is a significant comment on the dubious role played by the so-called educated middleclass woman in aiding and abetting crimes perpetrated against the
girl-child stemming from feelings of fear and helplessness.

194 Arpa Ghosh

Mala: I am talking about the time when uncle Vinay would molest me.
When I was seven. Then eight. Nine. Ten. Every vacation when we went
to visit him or when he came to stay with us. You were busy in either the
pooja room or the kitchen. I would go to papa and cry. Before I could
even tell him why I was crying he would tell me to go to you. You always
fed me andand you never said it but I knew what you were saying to
me without words. That I should eat well and go to sleep and the pain
will go away
Shanta (really puzzled): Mala, my daughter. What all have you been
thinking all these years? You have always been so bold and frank. But
sometimes, you tell stories (TDS, Dattani, 2005: 2526).

The refusal to acknowledge the existence of the problem is typical

of the Indian joint family set-up, which is based as much on silent
connivance as it is on authoritative dictat and fatwa.
The men in Bravely Fought the Queen, Jiten, Nitin (husbands of Dolly
and Alka), and Sridhar (their employee and Lalithas husband) are
chilling studies of male chauvinism in its various forms and stages.
Jiten, Nitin, Praful and Jitens father form a powerful caucus of male
domination in its diverse forms and manifestations. Jiten, the wifebeating, prostitute-visiting businessman is the villainous Indian patriarch who is responsible for much of the unhappiness that destroys
the lives of his wife, daughter and sister-in-law. Nitin, the closethomosexual is to be condemned not because of his sexuality, but
because of his cowardice to come out in the open with his sexual
preference. His coyness and dishonesty destroy Alkas life, whose
childlessness and alcoholism are direct functions of her husbands
sexual hypocrisy. Furtive homosexuality is a typical Indian problem
that is brought up repeatedly by Dattani for examination in the current scenario of Indian family life. In On a Muggy Night in Mumbai
(Dattani, 2000), a play set in a gay commune in a posh residential
area of Mumbai, a member Bunny Singh confesses that he is compelled under the circumstances to lead a double life:
Bunny: the man whom my wife loves does not exist. I have denied a
lot of things. The only people who know methe real meare present
here in this room. And you all hate me for being such a hypocrite.
I have tried to survive. In both worlds. And it seems I do not exist in
either. I deny them [his gay friends] in public, but I want their love in
private. Everyone believes me to be the model middle-class Indian man
(OMNM, Dattani, 2000: 102103).

Hypocrisy and Hollowness in the Indian Joint Family 195

Living a spurious, split existence is as much a part of being a gay

Indian as it is part of being a member of the Indian joint family system, which withholds approval and respect to all men who are not
aggressively masculine. In his essay Demonising Homosexuals In India,
Siddharth Srivastava (International Herald Tribune, 2003), states
the Indian governments dogmatic attitude towards sexual nonconformists:
The Indian government recently reaffirmed its stand against homosexuality in India, a move that could drive the gay community further into the
fringes of society. Arguing before the Delhi High Court, the government
argued that Indian society is intolerant to the practice of homosexuals/
lesbianism. The government was replying to a petition filed by the New
Delhi-based Naz foundation, which works for the welfare of HIV positive
and AIDS patients, that had sought to legalize homosexuality in India.
The foundation had challenged the constitutional validity of Section 377
of the Indian Penal Code, which makes homosexuality illegal. According
to the law, whoever voluntarily has sex against the order of nature with
any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for
life, or for a term that may extend to 10 years.

The Naz foundation argued that due to fear of police action, consenting adult males having sexual relations were not coming out,
thereby hampering medical intervention. The governments reiteration
of the law comes during a time of hesitant moves by Indian gays to
venture out of their closet existence.
Such intolerance and social blindness cause men like Nitin and
Bunny to lead double lives.
Jiten and Nitin (Bravely Fought the Queen) are products and victims
of a perverted matrishakti or maternalism practiced by their mother
Baa, who exercises a lot of power on her sons by virtue of the torture
she suffered at the hands of her husband. The power of the matrishakti
is unique to Indian tradition. The paternalistic religions of Christianity
and Islam have no scope for such power. Women in the Hindu religion
are elevated to the status of matridevi or the mother-goddess (Durga,
Kali, Jagadambha and Yashoda). The position of the mother of robust
sons is therefore a coveted one in the joint-family system and is often
earned at great personal cost.
Alka: You can win so easily with me because you have two sons to protect
Baa: Yes! I have been blessed with two sons. I thank God.

196 Arpa Ghosh

Alka: And I? I have been cursed because I dont have children. Thats
what you want to say! ....
Baa: Karma. It is all karma.
Alka: You know why I cant have children. You wont let me. Thats
why!.... He [Nitin] needs your permission to have children and by God,
you wont give it to him (BFQ, Dattani, 2000: 28384).

Power in the hands of benighted, ill-educated women like Baa is often abusedto blackmail and misguide sons and ironically to fortify
male domination by torturing subordinate women in the family. Baa
abuses her power over her sons to turn Jiten into a male chauvinist
wife-beater and Nitin into an effeminate coward by petting him excessively. Baas bedroom occupies an interesting suspended space in the
upper reaches of the stage emphasizing the factors of mind-bend and
maternalism. For all her debilitating illness, Baa holds the strings
of the family. She has transferred her property in Dakshas (Dollys
spastic childs) name so that the Trivedis stay together come what
may. The space given over to Baas bedroom is therefore a terrifying,
unnerving space radiating negative energies whereas by rights it should
be giving off a positive, synergizing aura. The brothers, while taking
it out on their wives, are typically submissive sons, honoring and flattering their mother. Jitens suppressed rage against his mother, who
is indirectly responsible for the birth of his spastic daughter, is vented
in his ghastly murder of the beggar-woman squatting outside his home
moments after he witnesses Dollys spastic dance.
Sridhar: Hes [Jiten] running the car over a beggar woman! Over and
over!.... He is still at it! God! Stop it! Stop it! Stop! ... Hes killed her!
(ibid.: 313)

Dollys and Alkas brother Prafuls ghostly, Machiavellian presence

in the play chills the audience. Like Banquos ghost Praful pervades
the discourse of the play. He tortures the women as brother, thereby
drawing the net of male oppression even closer, imprinting upon
Alkas consciousness an indelible fear of male coercive force that
stunts the flowering of her personality:
Alka: He [Praful] just dragged me into the kitchen. He lit the stove and
pushed my face in front of it! I thought he was going to burn my face!
He burnt my hair. I can still smell my hair on fire. Nitin was right behind
us. Watching! Just Praful said, Dont you ever look at any man. Ever
(ibid.: 257).

Hypocrisy and Hollowness in the Indian Joint Family 197

At the same time Praful bribes his brothers-in-law by pouring good

money in their near-bankrupt business in futile attempts to maintain
a fragile peace in the family, and probably also to salvage his guilt. In
contrast to the constant internal strife between Dolly, Alka and Baa,
there is connivance between the men. Praful, in order to facilitate his
affair with Nitin, bullies his sister Alka into marrying the latter. Among
the male members of the family therefore there is much better understanding and networking that aid in the perpetuation of patriarchal
domination in the joint family.
There is another mysterious male presence that is part-human, partemblem: Kanhaiya, the cooks son with whom Dolly may or may
not have an illicit sexual tryst. Kanhaiyas presence or non-presence
is intriguing. The dramatist wisely leaves lots of room for ambiguity
by suspending Kanhaiyas character in the twilight zone of reality
and fantasy. Idle gossip between Alka and Lalitha about Dolly sleeping
with the young servant opens a can of worms about the ugly underbelly of the upper-class Indian joint family.
Compounded with Nitins reference, at the end of the play, to the
autorickshaw driver with whom he will spend the night now that his
wife is in drunken stupor, Alkas reference to Kanhaiya gives us a
murky glimpse into the netherworld of the so-called respectable Indian
family. At the same time, it is never clarified if Kanhaiya is real or a
figment of the womans imagination. Dolly and Alka seem to play
out this fantasy on a regular basis (ibid.: 26162).
As a fantasy-figure Kanhaiya offers temporary respite to the women
from a life gone awry. For Kanhaiya is another name for Lord Krishna,
the mythical lover of women. If Kanhaiya is a figment of the womens
imagination it could be the beginning of a schizophrenic retreat to a
make-believe world for Dolly, and this is definitely a threat to her
sanity. A major reason why Bravely Fought the Queen is not a tragedy
and Dolly not a tragic heroine could be this piece of fantasy she allows
Alka to spin verbally for her night after night. Dodging harsh reality
and retreating into a make-believe world of love and peace could be
a razors-edge mode of survival for violated women teetering on the
edge of lunacy, but it is definitely not the hall-mark of a tragic character. The picture of Lord Krishna to whom Shanta (Thirty Days in
September) turns to with greater frequency in order to escape the harsh
indigestible truth that her daughter Mala has been irreparably
damaged by continued and unimpeded molestation by a male relative
in her childhood years, signifies a private, precarious, female space

198 Arpa Ghosh

eked out within the stifling male domain. This space, however, contains the negative implications of defeat, collusion with male authority
and the danger of mental disorder/lunacy.
Props and names are used in Dattanis plays as symbols to comment
on the tensions and paradoxes of traditional Indian family life. The
bar at the center of the Trivedi drawing room (Bravely Fought the Queen)
is symbol of both male domination (the alcohol is bought with the
husbands money) and female enslavement (Alka surreptitiously laces
her Pepsi with rum borrowed from the bar). It is also a palpable threat
to productive, healthy family life. The facial mask sported by Dolly
could stand for her increasingly failed attempts to conceal her unhappiness and anger from outsiders like Lalitha. Oh! I have cracked
my mask (ibid.: 238). The dwarfish and, to some, elegant bonsai
plant (ibid.: 246), the cultivation of which is an expensive hobby,
signifies a process of female disempowerment, the willful truncation
of female personality and self so that male egos may be placated.
The ReVaTee advertisement campaign is an interesting conglomeration of symbols. Apart from being the derogatory totem of womanas-body touted by the advertisement world to titillate men, it also
signifies at a deeper level Jitens loosening grip over reality, his insular
attitude towards women, and his lack of awareness that times have
changed. The advertisement campaign is as follows:
In the storyline for the video commercial, you have the model looking
out of the window and she sees that her husband or her lover has come
home. She quickly rushes, opens a box, removes the new ReVaTee bra,
panties and nightie. Cut to her dressed in them. She lets her hair loose,
pirouettes and lies on the bed, just as the door opens. Freeze. Signature
Light his fire with ReVaTee (ibid.: 274).

When Sridhar, the educated employee, points out that the entire campaign is impracticable and offensive, Jiten stubbornly maintains that
it is men who buy lingerie for their women. (One womans response
to the proposed advertisement campaign is: No woman waits for
her husband to arrive to change into a frilly overpriced nighties
and jump into bed. If thats what lights his fire, Id sooner buy an
extinguisher (ibid.: 279).
Jiten: Men would want to buy it for their women! Thats our market.
Men. Men would want their women dressed up like that. And they have the
buying power. Yes! So theres no point in asking a group of screwed-up

Hypocrisy and Hollowness in the Indian Joint Family 199

women what they think of it. Theyll pretend to feel offended and say,
Oh, we are always being treated like sex objects (ibid.: 276).

Interestingly, Jiten draws attention to interrelated realities of the Indian

family: male earning power and emphasis on male pleasure, realities
that are responsible for reducing woman to a semi-nude body, a passive object of male voyeuristic gaze. The couch in the Trivedis office
that is used by Jiten for the purpose of sexual trysts with call-girls is
a direct threat to the physical well-being of his family, AIDS being an
ineluctable reality in contemporary India.
As a dramatist Dattani is inspired by Ibsen and Tennessee Williams
the realists of early and mid-twentieth century. Like his forbears
Dattani too seeks to locate and rupture the fissures in the apparently
smooth and even surface of family life, to unravel subversive, violent,
negative passions that seethe below the surface in apparently placid
families. Like Ibsen he frustrates the audience by withholding from
them the cathartic moment when negative passions are purged on stage,
consequently forcing them to carry the discontentment and frustration
of their theatrical experience into their mundane lives and think hard
about their own unsatisfactory circumstances. In fact, Dattanis plays
are the very opposite of tragedy, leaving behind a bitter after-taste of
defeat, emotional squalor, pettiness and bankruptcy.
Dattani gives us compelling dramatic moments using cinematic
techniques of montage, split screen and flashback in all major plays.
Spectacle is of crucial importance to his plays. No amount of skilled
play-reading will convey the pathetic image of a drunk, soaked, mudbespattered, exhausted Alka or the horror of Dollys spastic dance
that is virtually the climax of Bravely Fought the Queen. Yet repeatedly
the climax is thwarted and suppressed in play after play. In Bravely
Fought the Queen Alka slips in the mud while dancing in the rain and
is horribly abused by Jiten, while Dollys spastic dance, by far the
most compelling moment of the play, is almost immediately followed
by Sridhars account of Jitens bestial murder of the old beggarwoman. In On a Muggy Night in Mumbai Ed, the-gay-in-denial-mode
fails in his suicide attempt and the party breaks up tamely. In Bravely
Fought the Queen moments of denouement are followed by moments
of defeat and further complications, till finally the play ends on a
negative, defeatist note:
Nitin: But you [Alka] didnt know! He [Praful] tricked you! I-I am sorry.
It wasnt my fault. (Moves to her and slowly covers her face with the

200 Arpa Ghosh

blanket.) But now you will have to sleep. I mustnt keep him [the autorickshaw driver] waiting. (He moves towards the kitchen.) The office is
not a good idea too many people passing by but herethe outhouse.
Perfect. Yes. Dont wake up. Stay drunk. You mustnt watch those
powerful arms. (Exits to the kitchen.)
The kitchen light goes off. The thumri plays. Spotlight on Alkas huddled
Slow fade out (ibid.: 315).

The nouveau riche, upper-middle class Indian family is only a small

segment of the heterogeneity that is India. The Trivedis, the Patels,
and Kamlesh and his guests cannot be taken as Indian archetypes as
they belong to the upper crust. Dattanis drama is not representative
drama because in the age of globalization, when diversity of race,
religion, regionalism, sexual orientation, language, ideology and political beliefs have utterly problematized the Indian context, there can
no longer be a representative drama. Dattanis drama is, however,
contemporary and cross-cultural, in keeping with traditional family
codes and very relevant to metropolitan reality. Part of the audience
Dattani loses by presenting his plays in English is recovered by his
reaching out to urban audiences of diverse linguistic and provincial
orientation. Seeking to break the age-old molds of parental domination, sexual conformism and social role-playing, Dattani continuously grapples with burning issues like homosexuality, marital
infidelity, parental cruelty, sexual abuse of children and closetalcoholism.
The dramatists time and age are complex and non-heroic. The
enemy lies within rather than outside. Even a young, educated newlymarried man like Sridhar (Bravely Fought the Queen) follows the
footsteps of his boss by having casual sex with a call-girl, thereby
leaving his wife open to the threat of AIDS and other venereal diseases. Jiten and Nitin are both flagrantly unfaithful, while Dolly and
Alka are gradually succumbing to alcoholism. Lalitha too has started
drinking in a bid to keep up with the Joneses. The corruption and
weakness are therefore within the bounds of the joint family and not
outside it. The challenges are workaday and a constant drain on
energy. They have to be tackled with the help of new strategies and
new levels of vigilance. Laxmibais death, in the war of independence
in 1857, at which time she took an honest, political stand against her
enemies the British, is tragic, whereas Dollys final spastic-dance is

Hypocrisy and Hollowness in the Indian Joint Family 201

macabre and horrifying precisely because there is no redeeming

cathartic release of negative energies. Laxmibai indeed belongs to a
faraway, lost time that has little or no relevance to Dattanis day. The
title Bravely Fought the Queen thus acquires trenchant irony. The heroic
position of the Rani is an impossibility within the purview of the
Indian family. The victim-position of Dolly and Alka is a grim reality.
There is no middle position so far as the playwright is concerned.
Dattanis treatment of his theme rises above voyeurism and scandalmongering (though the presence of these elements cannot be denied)
by virtue of his extraordinary skill in stage-architectonics and his
perceptive character-portrayals. The Indian joint-family system, where
money-power and brute-power go hand in hand, is depicted in his
plays as a stagnant slough of despond with no possibility of change
for the better. Sharads trenchant ridicule of Ed, a closet homosexuals
attempts to deny his natural desires (On a Muggy Night in Mumbai),
reflects family pressures, pressures to conform to certain time-tested
patriarchal modes.
Sharad: You see, being a heterosexual mana real man, as Ed put it
. I get to be accepted. I can have a wife, I can have children who will
adore me simply because I am a heteroI beg your pardona real man.
I can be king. Look at all the kings around you, look at all the male power
they enjoy, thrusting themselves on the world, all that penis power!
(Thrusts his pelvis in an obscene macho fashion.) Power, man! Power!
(OMNM, Dattani, 2000: 101)

The picture that Dattani draws is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Yet by

withholding easy solutions and facile denouements in his plays he
does provoke the audience to sensitize itself to the stark reality of
the Indian family and possibly work out its own solutions in combating the ruthless manner in which the Indian joint family exercises
power to crush and marginalize women, children and sexual nonconformists.

1. In Bengal Ashapurna Devi is regarded as a pioneer figure in uncovering
the domestic politics and injustice that vitiated the lives of married women
in the nineteenth century in her trilogy Pratham Pratishruti, Subarnalata,
and Bakulkatha.

202 Arpa Ghosh

Dhar, Subir. (2005). Where There is a Will and Bravely Fought the Queen:
The Drama of Mahesh Dattani, in R.K. Dhawan & Tanu Pant (eds),
The Plays of Mahesh Dattani, A Critical Response, pp. 8283. New Delhi:
Prestige Books.
Dattani, Mahesh. (2000). Collected Plays. New Delhi: Penguin.
. (2005). Collected Plays: Volume Two. New Delhi: Penguin.
Directory, March 20, 2000. (Downloaded from the net)
International Herald Tribune [France] (2003). September 20.
Internet survey on Familialism available at
a6familialism.htm, last accessed on July 11, 2007.

Reflections of Family and Woman in Telugu Literature 203

Chapter 11

Reflections of Family and

Woman in Telugu
A Look at Womens Fiction
N. Venugopal Rao

One of the remarkable characteristics of modern Telugu literature
has been its sensitivity towards gender issues both in the private and
public spheres. The pioneer of modern Telugu literature, Kandukuri
Veeresalingam (18481919), spent all his life on the improvement of
womans status in society and his writings cover almost all contemporary aspects of the gender questiongirl childs education, child
marriage, widow remarriage, and gender equality. His path-breaking
efforts were continued and widened by several of his followers
including Gurajada Appa Rao (18611915), who penned important
books like the drama Kanyasulkam (first edition 1892 and second edition
1909), which dealt with bridal price, among other things, and several

204 N. Venugopal Rao

short stories and poems. This progressive tradition continued and
witnessed qualitative leaps throughout the century.
However, with over a hundred years of experience and an enlarged
body of knowledge, one could find this otherwise progressive and
radical tradition a little problematic in some aspects. Telugu society
and literature are so dynamic that each new generation is identifying
inadequacies in the thoughts and practices of the earlier generations,
however forward looking the latter might have been in their contemporary times. The twentieth-century Telugu literature has seen more
than half a dozen schools of thought and movements, and each successive trend identified shortcomings in the preceding tendency. A
gender-sensitive approach gradually matured over the years with the
incorporation of newer ideas and rejection of older misconceptions.
Notwithstanding this general progressive and gender-sensitive
approach, there have been considerable lapses in recording and analyzing the contributions of women writers towards understanding the
family and other existing patriarchal institutions and modes of thought
as oppressive and overpowering against women. Though there has
been a lot of literature written by women on their specific experiences
within family and their different perceptions, a systematic study of
that body of literature to arrive at reasonable conceptualization is yet
to take place. Though some rudimentary work has been done on the
subject, a proper history of womens writing in Telugu is yet to be
In this background it would be interesting to study the portrayal of
the institution of family and the role of woman in the short stories
written by women. There have been a couple of studies on this theme
but these have not dealt separately with womens writing and instead
given prominence to male writers. Though the contribution of male
writers like Chalam (18931979), Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry (1891
1961) and Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao (19091980) is too important
to be ignored, there is every need to study the short stories of women
writers separately.

There has been a controversy on the first modern short story in Telugu.
While the accepted literary history conferred that place on Diddubatu

Reflections of Family and Woman in Telugu Literature 205

by Gurajada Appa Rao, which was published in 1910, the recent

feminist scholarship unearthed Streevidya (Rao, 2000) by Bhandaru
Acchamamba (18741904), published in 1902, as the first short story.
Here it is out of place to go into the controversy and motives attributed
in not recognizing Streevidya as the first story. However, it would be
important to note that both the stories dealt with the theme of womans
Streevidyas publication celebrated its centenary in 2002. At the
beginning of Streevidyas centenary year, Telugu literature has seen
another short story Saalabhanjika, written by Kuppili Padma. In a
way, Saalabhanjika also deals with educating woman for a different
emerging profession, if one may call it so, as Streevidya prepares the
woman for an education that helps her family. This chapter would
like to comprehend what transpired between these two stories over a
period of one hundred years.

Different Dimensions
On the whole the Telugu short story reflected five major dimensions
with regard to the theme of family and womans role in it. The dimensions are:

harmony in family and the need to maintain it,

strife in family and its subtle manifestations,
estrangement within family and expressions of its complexity,
arguments against the institution of family and the emphasis
on destroying it, and
(v) portrayal of non-family woman.

These five dimensions cannot be placed in watertight compartments. There have been overlaps and deficiencies. Similarly the phases
of the different portrayals cannot be strictly explained chronologically
as there have been overruns and anachronistic expressions. However,
it is possible to discern a broad pattern over long spans of time. While
the first three dimensions existed simultaneously for over seven decades, the fourth and the fifth gained powerful expression during the
last two to three decades. Even today one can find all the elements in
the current short stories with varied emphasis.

206 N. Venugopal Rao

Harmonious Family
During the first phase all the attention was on maintaining harmony
within the family. Writers were glorifying the supposed happiness
within the family and idealizing the role of woman (read sacrifice
and subjugation of woman) in maintaining a good family. In fact,
women seemed to be elevated from the earlier position of silence
and invisibility to that of active participation, but within the family,
and for the sake of husband and family only. Even the earliest appeals
for womans education can now be analyzed as attempts to sustain
this harmony, among other things. One could also argue that the desire
for womans education emerged as a possible safety valve to check
the domestic conflicts arising out of modern life as well as an acceptance of the rising aspirations among women.
Though there are a number of literary pieces written on the theme
of womans education by both women and men, including Veeresalingams Rajasekhara Charitra, it would be instructive to look closely
at Streevidya. Written by a great woman who achieved a lot within a
short span of thirty years of her life, the story argues in favor of
womans education, through the husbands perspective. The essentially
patriarchal viewpoint of the husband advocates womans education
on various grounds that support and strengthen family structure.
When the wife objects to getting educated as she is already burdened
with domestic chores, the husband responds saying, I am not suggesting you stop other works. Household chores are inevitable for
women. Instead of wasting your time in talking to neighbors after
your work, it would be better to study. He also says, In the world,
wife should always help her husband. Unless she gets educated, she
cannot fulfill her duty completely.
The supposed inevitability of womans responsibility regarding
domestic functions, the contemptuous tone against the womens
gathering and chatting, and education as source of help for husband
these were the views of educated middle-class men in propagating
womens education a century ago. Acchamamba, a woman of extraordinary insight in her times, was also inadvertently expressing the
same views. The views show that womens education, the major theme
of womans emancipation in those days, had more stress on strengthening family rather than on facilitating womans creativity, independence and individuality. One need not go into the works by men

Reflections of Family and Woman in Telugu Literature 207

to prove this point. It seems that in those days it was generally accepted
that the lack of education on the part of woman was a factor for
disharmony in family and womans education was presented as a
remedy to overcome this and bind family together.
Other apparent factors of disharmony like suspicious character of
women, another woman in the life of the husband, conflicts between
mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, step-mothers indifference and at
times hostile attitude toward step-children, and womans dissatisfaction on shortage of money, jewels, sarees or cosmetics, also formed
part of the early short stories. These factors were considered evils
among fussy women. In fact, the major element in the stereotype of
woman is her fussy and quarrelsome nature. Leaving aside all the
real reasons for domestic disharmony, the popular misconception
was that women were to blame for having such qualities. Most of the
literature echoed this. Either complete stories were woven around
each of these factors or the issues became discursive and minor but
substantiating parts in a larger story. However, one should note that
all these issues were considered with a prejudice against woman and
her innate nature, and the literature wanted to preach good sense
to women. The sermonizing attitude was a common denominator,
irrespective of whether the story was written by a man or a woman.

Pandoras Box Opens

It may be argued that if so many issues concerning women were
taken up and the literature felt the need for sermonizing, the family
at that time must have been undergoing some palpable tension, and
literary expression was only a reflection of that suppressed reality.
Maybe the apparent harmony started losing its cementing force during
the early decades of the last century. Literature might be responding
to an aspect of social dynamics quite unknowingly. The beauty of the
times lies in raising a democratic demand of womens education, to
hide an undemocratic wish to maintain unequal harmony within the
But the tension could not be held under wraps for a long time. The
second phase of the portrayal of family can be recognized from the
early 1920s, when Chalam started introducing ideas like freedom of
choice and womans sexuality into his stories. When the time has

208 N. Venugopal Rao

come to discuss womans sexuality and freedom freely, the hitherto
closed Pandoras Box of family strife was opened. Writers, particularly
women writers, could give expression to a lot of factors behind the
disharmony in family.
There have been sociological reasons for this kind of upsurge.
Thanks to the spread of education or because of the increasing participation of women in social life, including the national movement, the
obstructions to womens activity came to the fore. Naturally the obstructions and the frustration against them found expression in literature. However, the time was not yet ripe to come out openly against
the inequality between sexes and discrimination. The short stories
from the 1930s to 1950s present this kind of ambivalent attitude. The
stories apparently support family and appear to be pleading for
harmony. But underlying tensions and frustrations as portrayed in
the stories provoke the reader to think in a different direction and
explore newer options.

Analysis and Exploration

The third phase, roughly beginning in the 1940s and continuing till
now, was a gradual and logical follow-up to the second phase. The
stories that came out during the phase talked about various problems
in the family and analyzed the reasons. Though the stories spoke
about possible adjustments to keep the family going, the stress was
more on understanding the problems in depth. On the social and
historical level, this phase coincides with spread of the national
movement and communist ideology. The new modes of analysis and
exploration might be credited to the new awakening. More women
writers, coupled with enhanced publishing activity, emerged on the
scene. The number of women readers also grew with more modern
amenities in the kitchens and homes, and the writers had to cater to
their intellectual needs.
As women were more and more realizing the discrimination and
oppression within family and in public life against them, it would be
natural for the literature to reflect this reality. Ever newer understanding of suffocation in a hitherto accepted phenomenon gave rise to more
trouble spots. The discrimination against the girl child and gender

Reflections of Family and Woman in Telugu Literature 209

discrimination in upbringing, education, resource allocation, etc., came

to be recognized more sharply. The institution of dowry came under
heavy attack. The insignificance of womans role in decision-making
in family matters started hurting the women. While these tensions
were visible, the invisible thirst for equality, intellectual companionship, and creative upsurge also started finding expression.
This period saw a lot of churning that led to the fourth phase,
when the family institution itself was questioned and open challenges
to give up family evolved. The option of breaking the family institution, propagated by Chalam, gained ground and a number of followers, both men and women writers, began giving expression to the
idea, though sometimes in an indirect way.

Search for Solutions

The fourth phase perhaps began in the mid-1970s, influenced by the
International Womans Decade and widespread democratic consciousness of post-Emergency days, and continues till now. It is one
of the most turbulent times in the history of modern Telugu literature. In fact, it is impossible to stick to genre frontiers during this
time since the debates were all-pervasive and all the forms reflected
the debates. The inequality and suffocation in the family, abundantly
portrayed in the earlier two phases, were radically questioned and
the influence of Marxist and feminist politics led to ideas of overthrowing the family system. Though there was reference to separation
in earlier stories, it has become much more pronounced now. Story
after story brought out a number of nuances and hitherto unrecognized aspects of family strife, and each of these aspects were shown
as a potential family breaker. Indeed the mood of the times was bordering on extreme options that suggested the break-up of family as the
only solution available.
Of course, it would be unfair to say that all the women writers of
this period were suggesting only one solution. Even when they were
advocating the break-up of a suffocating family, most of them were
hoping for a better companionship. Even the nomenclature started
transforming with husbandwife giving way to partners and

210 N. Venugopal Rao

Uncharted Fields
The next phase has brought in non-family woman into the center
stage of the short story. Though Telugu literature has known nonfamily women since the days of Madhuravani (in Kanyasulkam) of
Gurajada Appa Rao, till the 1990s the only non-family woman type
recognized was the prostitute. The last decade changed this perception
and the single woman professional and the separated woman living
independently, two single women living together without any family
bonds, and women in an armed guerrilla squad have come to become
protagonists of short stories. In the meanwhile, some of the perceptive
short story writers introduced newer elements with regard to the status
of women within the family.
Volga, a prominent figure in the current phase, had covered almost
all aspects of gender discrimination and thirst for equality in her short
story collections Prayogam and Rajakeeya Kathalu as well as in novels.
Kuppili Padmas collections Muktha (1997) and Saalabhanjika (2001)
have a number of stories on single women. The new type of woman
also has her share of existential problems within her nest and in the
outside world. Saalabhanjika speaks of three different professional
women and one of the women teaches another on the role of woman
in the emerging profession of glamor dolls. The globalization process and the rise of the new economy where glamor and showbiz are
the key words have turned women into decorative pieces used for
business promotion. The society and family have an ambivalent attitude towards these new womenrespect and awe at their incomes
and status and sneer at their compromises. The story captured the
tensions involved in this new existence.
What will happen to the old-aged woman if her family gets destroyed? Even as the old-age homes mushroom in Telugu society,
where the rich and capable lodge their old-aged parents, how do the
children look at their old-age mothers? This aspect demonstrates the
hypocrisy involved in a family. The son would like to protect his nuclear family and property on the one hand and questions or abandons
his filial duty on the mother. Thus the modern man is both reinforcing
and destroying the structure of family simultaneously. This is not a
simple moral or social question but there are factors of larger political
economy behind this dual attitude. K. Ramalakshmis story A Typical
Son (Rao, 2000) is an example of this crisis.

Reflections of Family and Woman in Telugu Literature 211

The family, as it exists today, coupled with the so-called modernization and imperialist medicine, is reducing the status of woman to
a well-oiled machine and at the same time posing as crediting her
with a lot of power and conferring the status of Super Mom on her.
P. Satyavathis Super Mom Syndrome (2003) is a powerful portrayal of
these double standards. The story not only reflects the suffocation
and trauma in a family structure but also the pharmaceutical multinational corporations machinations in dumping harmful medicines
on third world women. The women short story writers have also identified the role of consumerism in aggravating the domestic tensions and
Muraleevaallamma by Ranganayakamma is an example of this trend.
Another powerful portrayal of familys stifling pressure on women
is with regard to alienation suffered by women. The Marxian analysis
of labor alienation could well be applied to the estrangement of a
woman within a family. As Marx spoke of four levels of alienation
from the labor process, from the product of labor, from fellow laborers
and from human essencewomen in the family institution also face
similar alienation. P. Satyavathis Illalakagaane (1995) is an effective
portrayal of these alienations. The protagonist woman in the story forgets her name in the course of giving herself completely to her family.

With this broad overview, which has a wide scope of developing into
a full-fledged monograph, one can identify various themes that reflected and analyzed the predicament of woman within and outside
family. The short stories not only diagnosed the social maladies but
also tried to prescribe possible remedies. These stories are, at the same
time, both posing problems and suggesting solutions and thereby enriching our understanding of social dynamics, particularly with regard
to the gender question.

1. An earlier version of this chapter was presented at the seminar on
Representation of the Family in Telugu and Urdu Womens Writing, held in

212 N. Venugopal Rao

Hyderabad in February 2002. The earlier draft was published in Families,
Vol. 1, No. 2, February 2003.
2. Womens Writing in India (two volumes), edited by Susie Tharu and
K. Lalitha; Noorella Panta, edited by Bhargavi Rao; and Sahitya
Mahilavaranam (2001) by Chekuri Rama Rao are some important

Alladi, Uma and M. Sridhar (eds). (2001). Ayoni and Other Stories. New Delhi:
Stree Katha.
Kannabiran, Kalpana, Volga and Vasantha Kannabiran (eds). (1995).
Sarihaddululeni SandhyaluFeminist Raajakeeyaalu, Kaaryaachaana,
Prasnalu. Hyderabad: Sweccha Prachuranalu.
Kuppili, Padma. (1997). Muktha. Hyderabad: Maatha Publications.
. (2001). Saalabhanjika. Hyderabad: Maatha Publications.
Malladi, Subbamma. (1985). Andhra Pradeshlo MahilodyamamMahila
Sanghaalu (18601983). Hyderabad: Prajaswamya Prachuranalu.
Murthy, Satyanarayana, Polapragada. (1999). Telugu Kathanika. Hyderabad:
Telugu Academy.
Ranganayakamma. (2004). Muraleevaallamma, in Amnaaki Adivaram
Leda?. Hyderabad: Sweet Home Publications.
Rao, Bhargavi (ed.). (2000). Noorella PantaRachayitrula Katha Sankalanam.
Bangalore: Prism Books.
Rao, Chekuri Rama. (2001). Sahitya Mahilavaranam. Hyderabad: Sweccha
Satyavathi, P. (1995). Illalakagaane. Vijayawada: Self-published.
. (2003). Mantranagari. Vijayawada: self-published.
Syamala, Gogu. (2003). NallapodduDalita Streela Sahityam, 19212002.
Hyderabad: Hyderabad Book Trust.
Tharu, Susie and K. Lalitha (eds). (1991/1993). Womens Writing in India
(Two Volumes). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Vidmahe, Katyayani, Jyothi Rani and Shobha. (1994). Mahila Janajeevana
SamasyaluMoolaala Anveshana. Warangal: Society for Womens Studies
and Development.
Volga. (1992). Rajakeeya Kathalu. Hyderabad: Sweccha Prachuranalu.
. (1995). Prayogam. Hyderabad: Maanavi Prachuranalu.
. (2002). Palikinchaku Mouna Mridangaalanu. Hyderabad: Sweccha

Globalization and Diasporic Family Dynamics 213

Chapter 12

Globalization and
Diasporic Family
Reconciling the Old and the New
Mary Mathew

The global dispersal of the Indian diaspora, regardless of individual

differentiations, is bound at the heart by what Emmanuel S. Nelson
calls a complex network of historical connections, spiritual affinities,
and unifying cultural memories which manifests itself in varying
degrees in their literary productions (Nelson, 1993: xi). While migration distances the immigrants from the mother country, electronic
and satellite communications create a new sense of accessibility to
the homeland that in turn reinforces their inherited identities. Hence
the assertion of cultural theorists like Arjun Appadurai and Anthony
Smith that diasporic communities remain at heart, local and provincial
even as they acquire transnational characteristics (Appadurai, 1990:
124; Smith, 1990: 17193). At the same time, the strategic placement of the expatriates at the cusp of the bicultural apex prompts the
inescapable formation of new subjectivities, aspirations, and anxieties,
for which their literary discourse becomes a site of critical deployment.

214 Mary Mathew

The growing interest in recent years in the complexities of the
diasporic psyche is evidenced by the current pedagogic and curricular
appropriation of immigrant texts into mainstream academias all over
the world.
For diasporic families dispersed across the four corners of the globe,
homeland culture functions as a source of meaning, a focus of identification, and a foolproof system of self-validating representation.
Members of this intimate community are bound by the desire to create
ones own successful social space in the alien environment, preserve
memories of the past and its rich cultural legacy, and most of all, the
deep compulsion to perpetuate that heritage in its undiluted intensity.
In Nations and Nationalism (Cornell University Press, 1983), cultural
critic Ernest Gellner defines the principle of unity among globalized
diasporic families when he comments on how culture is now their
necessary shared medium, the lifeblood, the atmosphere within which
alone the members can breathe and survive and produce. No matter
how families within the group vary from one another in race, class,
prospects, and economic status, homeland culture unifies the community into one homogeneous entity that transcends difference and meets
on equal ground. In that sense, the cultural identity of immigrant
families across the globe goes beyond a mere point of allegiance or
commonality; it is a structure of enormous power and seamless solidarity. In Global Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1992), Anthony
McGrew defines this phenomenon when he comments on how the
term globalization refers to these processes, operating on a global scale,
which cut across national boundaries, integrating and connecting communities and organizations in new timespace combinations, making
the world more interconnected. Space appears to shrink into a global
village of telecommunications reducing the earth to a contained and
concise Noahs Ark of economic and ecological interdependencies.
In this brave new miniaturized world, space can be crossed in the
twinkling of an eye by jet, fax, or satellitewhere the concept of
space is annihilated by the concept of time.
Diasporic books, written in the above context of globalization, represent significant moments of cultural collision that expose the
precarious vulnerability of cultural boundaries. As contemporary
interpretations of alterity, they are at times radically decentering narratives that reassign the margin and the center between the immigrant
and the host cultures. If I were to borrow a perfect example of power
structure and realignment from colonial literature, it will be Rudyard

Globalization and Diasporic Family Dynamics 215

Kiplings three page story Naboth, a quasi tale of 1886 published in

the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore and presented through the
eyes of Ahab, the narrator. Here the colonialist narrator offers some
money to the impoverished native, Naboth, who sets up a confectionery stall in the colonizers garden. When his enterprise succeeds
and develops into a set of shops and finally a brothel, the patron puts
a violent end to Naboths invasion. The tale closes with the narrators telling comment, Naboth is gone now, and his hut is ploughed
into its native mud with sweetmeats instead of salt for a sign that the
place is accursed. I have built a summerhouse to overlook the end of
the garden, and it is as a fort on my frontier from whence I guard my
empire (Kipling, 1886: 75). As decentering narratives, diasporic books
generally depict the shifting and fluid dynamics of power versus disempowerment, as Kiplings tale does, and in the process, they realign
with violence the binarisms between alien and host cultures and/or
between the hegemonic and the orthodox.
The works of expatriate Indian fiction offer a theory of change in
more ways than the one above. Generally and subjectively speaking,
the insertion of immigrants into international communities can be
defined as a movement from semi-feudalism to capitalist economies,
or as a shift from cultural fundamentalism to industrial consumerism.
Diasporic fiction theorizes that these moments of change can be
pluralized and plotted both as confrontations and as transitions, or
that they can be perceived in relation to the histories of domination
as well as in relation to modes of production narratives (Spivak, 1985:
24361). In books that view exiled life as a series of confrontations,
the immigrant is often portrayed as the solitary social aspirant flexing
his unsure wings in a world of meritocratic individualism, one who
sees implacable rivalry as the dark undercurrent of life in his adopted
world. In cold-blooded slice-of-life writings, the exiled hero makes
it by sheer virtue of his wits, luck, and Karma, much like the native
who survives by guts and gumption in the pores of the comprador
capitalism of the colonizing power. Benedict Andersons grounding
presupposition in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and
Spread of Nationalism that genuine anti-imperialist resistance develops
just when there is access to the cultural aspects of imperialism is a
paradigm for the diasporic context as well, if one were to take into
account symptoms of silent revolt, withdrawal, and alienation that
characterize immigrant experience in confrontational books. Here
the forces arrayed against the hero/heroine take the form not just of the

216 Mary Mathew

indigenous and adopted systems of domination but also those of class,
race/ethnicity, and sex/gender, which validate the terror of the existentialist vision of ones isolation in space and sentiment. The resultant toll on personal well-being is depicted in several of Bharati
Mukherjees works. In Tigers Daughter, Tara suffers an implosive
collapse of her westernized Hindu self when subjected to the East/
West polarizations within her family. Dimple, the heroine in Wife,
suffers the agonies of dislocation and rootlessness and in a fit of selfdestructive rage kills her husband. The Middleman and Other Stories
portrays Eng, who alternates between flawless enunciation and curseridden ghetto slang, revealing her precarious balancing act between
opposing cultures. In Jasmine, the heroines body language reads as a
text; her mincing, hunched-over sidle, the dead giveaway of the
aliens desperate otherness.
By contrast, books that celebrate exile and hybridization as positive
transitions glorify the challenge of the experience, which calls for
constant innovation within the new system and a sharpening of ones
skills of coping and survival. For example, in The Shadow Lines Amitav
Ghosh enumerates the benefits of borderlines that cause people to be
more closely bound to one another and cultivate new patterns of
irreversible symmetry. As intimate social spaces in the immigrant
family are invaded by unconventional cultural processes, the shock
of cultural collision can be profitably redirected to modes of constructive aggression and empowerment in the transplanted social setting,
as Padma Hejmadis Sumi Spaces and the Uncle Monkey series illustrate.
Also diasporic families are seen to achieve a sense of balance within
the experience of imbalance through pride in the intelligence, expertise, and education of individual family members (see Uma
Parameswarans Rootless but Green are the Boulevard Trees [1987]). Individuality and adult configurations of being viable to members within
the seamless and tight-bound unit of the family (see Trishanku by
Uma Parameswaran) synchronically with their struggle to mark what
Homi Bhabha calls the shifting boundary that alienates the frontiers
of the modern nation (Bhabha, 1990: 291). Defeating the reductive
and injurious processes of homogenization, the family thus becomes
the vehicle of healthy cultural transmission as well as the guardian
of privileged ethnic purism who resists brutalization, la Draupadi
in Mahabharata or Sita in Ramayana (Nelson, 1993: xvii).
The juxtaposition of the twin themes of confrontation and transition explain the peculiar rhythmic fluctuation between rejection and

Globalization and Diasporic Family Dynamics 217

acceptance, desire and disavowal, exclusion and inclusion, suffering

and happiness that is characteristic of diasporic thematic structures.
There seems to be a principle of opposition at work here (in David
Spurrs terminology) between non-being and being, lack and fulfillment (Spurr, 1993: 93)a dividedness that repeats itself through a
series of Derridean oppositional concepts: being and nothingness,
good and evil, innocence and perversity, consciousness and nonconsciousness, liberty and servitude, life and death (ibid.: 16768).
The same dichotomy extends to the portrayal of expatriate characters
whose multiple subjectivities are concretized in diasporic fiction
through doubles or alter egos who personify the hidden elements of
the protagonists psychobiography (see The Journey by Indira Ganesan).
Like the nun in Charlotte Bronts Villette whom Mary Jacobus
reads as a form of Lucy Snowes vengeful repression and Gilbert and
Gubar as one of Lucys many buried selves, or Bertha Mason whom
Gilbert and Gubar perceive as Jane Eyres truest and darkest double,
the alter egos in diasporic fiction externalize the protagonists
negations and psychological conflicts arising from the crossfires of
bifurcating cultures and value judgments. Ideological antitheses to
one another as characters, they are in fact complementing aspects of
the same expatriate consciousness.
Women in these works are depicted as complicit victims caught in
the grinding machinery of cultural translation. They are particularly
susceptible to the consequences of conflict and repression, especially
when possessed of significant gifts of intelligence and creativity in
their personal lives. Advancement in the new world is typically measured in terms of masculine empowerment and this has its own implications for the woman. Female maturity and gratification are rigidly
equated with motherhood and marriage; her life all too often defined
as compromise and coercion rather than choice. She is the domestic
angel guarding the perilous survival of her children and husband, the
cement that fills and holds together the shifting crevices of family
structure. A recurrent theme in Padma Hejmadis diasporic stories is
the pain of the home-bound womans subjection (Birthday Deathday
and Other Stories) and the need to reroute oneself (Letter). Pain on the
individual level evolves to sadomasochistic fascination with violence
within the family in Indira Ganesans The Journey. Negotiating new
territory is perceived to be traumatizing to mothers in particular, who
are symbolically incarcerated by the compelling need to be homemakers. They suffer the loss of emotional equilibrium through loss

218 Mary Mathew

of communication, while their husbands and children gain stability
and advancement from outside connections. As the process of dissolution accelerates, women resort to modes of escapism that in turn
trigger male anxiety and eventually victimize the children, who get
caught in the counter-currents of conservative and hegemonic forces.
If women are frequent victims and sufferers in immigrant fiction,
so in a subtler sense are a significant number of the growing youth of
the second generation. These are trapped on the Western side of the
cultural Great Divide and seem unable or disinclined to comprehend
the pluralistic identities of their bicultural parents. Lacking first hand
acquaintance, their imaginations construct the homeland as a series
of absences and negations, analogous to E.M. Forsters A Passage to
India, which sees India mainly in terms of its absencesthe absence
of productive human relationships, meaningful institutions, even the
absence of knowledge about what really happened in the Marabar
caves (Spurr, 1993: 102). To the uninitiated second generation, the
objective correlative of India is the baffling emptiness of the mysterious caves, or as Sara Suleri has argued, the essence of India represented by mysterious inner spaces which can be described but not
interpreted, let alone assimilated (ibid.). If metaphors of ravishment
characterize Indias colonial experience, metaphors of distancing and
punishing repudiation increasingly illustrate her dubious and provocative stance as homeland for the young, Westernized diasporic
Hybridization and its double consciousness bring rewards on one
hand and danger on the other. Salman Rushdies public defense of his
embattled novel about migration, The Satanic Verses (1989), offers a
uniquely compelling argument for global hybridity. Speaking against
those who perceived the mixing of cultures as erosion and rupture,
Rushdie stated: I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that
comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and
fears the absolutism of the Pure. The Satanic Verses is for change by
fusion, change by conjoining. It is a love song to our mongrel selves
(Rushdie, 1991: 394).
Yet for most immigrants, a value judgment of the diasporic experience is not as easy or as simple as Rushdies statement implies it is.
For significant numbers of us, two visions of possible harmony and
violent collision as contrapuntal narratives summarize the hybrid

Globalization and Diasporic Family Dynamics 219

experience of the diasporic family. In The Dark Dancer, Balachandra

Rajan perceives the gopuram, the blunted pyramid over a Hindu
temples inner sanctum, as symbolic of constructive diasporic experience where the individual planted on alien ground rises unyieldingly
from the obstinate earth, the blunted thrust giving aspiration, solidity, and earthiness (Rajan, 1958: 166). There is beauty in its defiance,
promise in its stability. Conversely, the same diasporic experience has
been negatively portrayed as in Cyril Dabydeens symbol of the house
on fire in Distancesa haunting reminder of migrancy, rootlessness,
and terrifying fugitiveness. In the final analysis, the seeming contradiction of those two images define a challenging union of opposites,
where the positive complements the negative and the sum of the
experience is greater than the parts.

Anderson, Benedict. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin
and Spread of Nationalism. London: New Left Books.
Appadurai, Arjun. (1990). Disjuncture and Difference in the Global
Economy, Public Culture, 2 (Spring): 124.
Bhabha, Homi. (1990). Dissemination: Time, Narrative, and the Margins
of the Modern Nation, in Homi Bhabha (ed.), Nation and Narration,
pp. 291322. London: Routledge.
Chua, C.L. (1992). Passages from India: Migrating to America in the Fiction
of V.S. Naipaul and Bharati Mukherjee, in Emanuel S. Nelson (ed.),
Rewording the Literature of the Indian Diaspora, pp. 5162. Connecticut:
Greenwood Press.
Dabydeen, Cyril. (1977). Distances. n.p.: Fiddlehead.
Derrida, Jacques. (1976). Of Grammatology, Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty
Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Gellner, Ernest. (1983). Nations and Nationalism, Ithaca. New York: Cornell
University Press.
Ganesan, Indira. (1990). The Journey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Gezari, Janet. (1992). Charlotte Bront and Defensive Conduct: The Author and
the Body at Risk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Ghosh, Amitav. (1989). The Shadow Lines. New York: Viking Penguin.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. (1979). The Mad Woman in the Attic:
The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New
Haven: Yale University Press.
Hejmadi, Padma. (1985). Birthday Deathday and Other Stories. London:
Womens Press.

220 Mary Mathew

Hejmadi, Padma. (198889). Uncle Monkey, Massachusetts Review 29:4,
Special Issue on South Asian Expatriate Writing and Art, (Winter): 599608.
Jacobus, Mary. (1978). Villettes Buried Letter, Essays in Criticism, 28: 22853.
Kipling, Rudyard. (1886). Naboth, Lahore, India: Civil and Military Gazette.
McGrew, Anthony. (1992). Global Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Mukherjee, Bharati. (1972). The Tigers Daughter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
. (1972). Wife. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
. (1988). The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Grove Press.
. (1989). Jasmine. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
Nelson, Emmanuel S. (ed.). (1993). Writers of the Indian Diaspora. Westport:
Greenwood Press.
Parameshwaran, Uma. (1987). Rootless but Green are the Boulevard Trees.
Toronto: Toronto South Asian Review.
. (1988). Trishanku. Toronto: Toronto South Asian Review (TSAR).
Rajan, Balachandra. (1958). The Dark Dancer. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Rushdie, Salman. (1989). The Satamic Verses. New York: Viking.
. (1991). Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta Books.
Said, Edward. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage.
Smith, Anthony. (1990). Towards a Global Culture, in Mike Featherstone
(ed.), Global Culture, pp. 17193. London: Sage Publications.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1985). Three Womens Texts and a Critique
of Imperialism, Critical Inquiry, 12: 24361.
Spurr, David. (1993). The Rhetoric of Empire. Durham and London: Duke
University Press.
Suleri, Sara. (1992). The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

Food, Family, Widowhood 221

Chapter 13

Food, Family, Widowhood

in Ashapurna Devis Short
Naina Dey

I write what I seenone else could sum up so simply and aptly the
nature of Ashapurna Devis works as the author herself. Indeed,
Ashapurna Devi was never swayed by the political turmoil of her age
(which was perhaps not possible because of her conservative background), nor did she attempt to preach a code of conduct in her writings. Hers was the age of science and technology, of the two world
wars, of Owen and Eliot and Joyce and Lawrence, of such eminent
Bengali littrateurs as Premendra Mitra, Jibanananda Das, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Manik
Bandyopadhyay, Dhurjatiprashad and others. But far from the
madding crowd, it was the Bengali middle/lower-middle class family
that she could observe without inhibitions from the boundaries of
her own little world; this family formed the core of her works. The
author has remarked:
Society and literature are interdependent. If the writer becomes wayward,
he loses all rights. He must know that his works have relevance. And that
he has a responsibility towards society. The writer must show the way to
ascension, not simply write by instinct.1

222 Naina Dey

Standing at the crossroads of time, when the history of the world was
fast changing, Ashapurna Devi concentrated essentially on the family,
especially on the women in the family.
Ashapurna Devis Chchinnamasta is a short story that first appeared in 1949 (two years after Independence) in the festival issue of
Anandabazar Patrika, and was till 2004 the only story by a woman
writer in the Calcutta University undergraduate syllabus. It is significant that stories by Mahasweta Devi and Swarnakumari Devi were
later included, which shows that women writers are beginning to be
taken seriously by academics. When I first came upon Ashapurnas
story, it was the title Chchinnamasta that caught my attention. Relying
on my somewhat vague memories of pictures of Chchinnamasta, which
one may find on the chala (decorated thatch) behind the idols of
goddess Durga, and of a Hindu mythological film in which I had
seen an image of Chchinnamasta when I was a mere child, I began to
look for a symbolic/thematic connection between that terrible image
of the bloody goddess holding up her own severed head and drinking
her own blood in evident glee, and the story itself.
But to my surprise, the story began with no trace of Chchinnamastas
violence. Instead, I perceived a very domestic scene of a widowed
mother hurrying up a young girl Monty to draw the alpana, for her
son was going to arrive any moment with his newly-wed bride.
However, the arrival of the new bride initiates a chain of actions
seemingly insignificant, but clinchingly relevant. Jayabatis urge to
get her son settled with a wife in tow backfires when daughter-in-law
Pratibha reveals her true colors soon after marriage. Her pride, her
impolite and uncultured mannersstark contrasts to Jayabatis
normally reserved nature and perseverancecompletely unsettles the
peace of the household. Pratibhas increasing verbal onslaughts, first
on Jayabatis financial status, and then her artistic capabilities, are
counter-balanced by Jayabatis own suppressed rage and vehemence
negative, violent emotionswhich finally find their outlet in son
Bimalendus fatal accident (which is structurally the climax of the
story). There is however, thematically, a second underlying climax.
Jayabati does not take her own life or go mad (as neighbors thought
she would), but what becomes more conspicuous now is her approach
towards her newly widowed daughter-in-law. The neighbors, who
perform much the same function as the Greek chorus, are amazed at
the way she coaxes Pratibha to eat those potherbs and lentils, the
fare of the Hindu widow that Pratibha had once scorned as a bride.

Food, Family, Widowhood 223

Here Ashapurna Devi follows convention in portraying the complexities of the mother and daughter-in-law relationshipa feature
one may find in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (I cite Tagores Chokher Bali, where Rajlaxmi
is dissatisfied with her daughter-in-laws immaturity and lassitude).
The story is obviously not concerned about the more recent social
evils such as dowry deaths or divorce. The theme here is more downto-earth-concerning a seemingly uninteresting and commonplace tale
of two women trying to possess a man, namely, the hapless son and
husband Bimalendu. The post-Independence setting too reveals the
simplicity and mundaneness of a typical Bengali rural household,
with neighbors and relatives popping in and out at opportune moments and making apparently casual yet deliberately calculated
responses to add to the authenticity of the story itself. All the characters, except Bimalendu, are women with little or no formal education, luxuriantly indulging themselves in senseless gossip. The concept
of the nuclear family, which had already invaded the city as an inevitable outcome of the partition, has still not found its ground here
and thus one finds the eldest of the Lahiri wives on one of her
rounds of the neighborhood, while Jayabatis small family seems
somewhat incongruous in this well-knit society. The only connection
with the city seems to be through Bimalendu, who gets the privilege
of higher education in Calcutta, and in this Bimalendu seems to be
the representative of the average middle-class Bengali male on whom
rely the women of the family (as has been his fathers case before
him). Moreover, Jayabati is a widowand we can assume a figure
wearing a plain white saree who must not draw the alpana, for a
widowed woman is an inauspicious person, a lost womanall
of which are significant for they reveal a rural Hindu society of
more than fifty years ago wanting in progressive social forces and
in the moral qualities so essential in social development. Also, with
the use of words as guchchir, dakho dikin, and so on, the author intensifies
the genuineness of her characters within the specified setting.
In her chapter entitled Mothers, Mothers-in-law and Motherhood in
Modern Bengali Short Stories by Women Writers (Families, vol. 3), Tapati
Gupta opines that in the light of patriarchal demands and domination,
for most women motherhood and the status that comes with it
are perhaps the only gift they enjoy from the family legacy. Conversely, as Gupta says, The gift also involves [the woman] in sacrifices
she is sanctioned to make and which she considers as part of her

224 Naina Dey

marital-societal-ontological obligation.2 The role of the mother takes
on a new dimension with the arrival of the daughter-in-law:
When the young mother becomes a mother-in-law she again accepts the
agency that patriarchy has endowed upon her as a surrogate mother to
her young daughter-in-law and consciously or unconsciously she becomes
part of the patriarchic set-up. The young mother who was the
childbearing machine of her husband now becomes the sons deputy. Yet
as the revered head of the family she enjoys a position of prestige.3

In Chchinnamasta, however, Jayabati appears to have been comparatively better off than most of her female counterparts as she has not
only enjoyed the companionship of a liberal husband when he was
alive but was a partner to his tiniest confidences. This is perhaps why
she initially thinks of being a mentor to her newly married daughterin-law rather than being the latters rival. It is evidently Pratibhas
misbehavior that embitters their relationship.
But despite all adherence to conventionality in setting and character
portrayal, the unconventionality of Ashapurna Devis treatment of
her central character lies in Bimalendus death and Jayabatis response
to it. Jayabatis changing frame of mind as shown before and after
Pratibhas arrival is nothing new considering that such feminine
conflicts are common in Indian households. Nevertheless, Jayabatis
disillusionment is significant. One notices that before Pratibha arrives
Jayabati reminisces on the golden days of her past:
Even when her son was a mere boy, she would spend nights talking and
dreaming of his marriage. The two saw no end to their aspirations
whenever their thoughts centered round their son. But Debnath simply
departed putting an end to all hopes, leaving her alone to bear the joyless,
mundane burdens of this world.4

And such memories form the basis of her dreams of the future:
Imagination cannot be reined, and thus it flows unlimited in the shape of
dreams and blissful desires around that beauteous form. It grows on the
soil of ones own bitter experiences and the self-confidence which emerges
as the outcome. She will show those who have earned the epithet of dominating mother-in-laws how to treat anothers daughter as ones own.5

This is a a desire that transcends the commonplaceness of the eternal

ego clash (the outcome of the critically balanced power relation)

Food, Family, Widowhood 225

between mothers and brides. Though the conflict is inevitable, what

is remarkable is that instead of focusing her anger entirely on Pratibha,
Jayabati finds the passivity of her son all the more outrageous and
Calm and serene by nature, Jayabati suddenly felt as though her blood
caught fire.
She had never spoken a harsh word to her son, but now in her heart she
uttered a vile word about him.
Has Bimalendu become tongue-tied that he cannot answer?6

The nature of the motherson relationship may be said to contain its

own share of ambivalence. Tapati Gupta quotes from Ashis Nandys
Woman versus Womanliness: An Essay in Speculative Psychology:
It is only with respect to his mother that he is his whole self and recognizable as an individual. Associated with this in the son is a deep feeling
of ambivalence towards a controlling yet discontinuous mother. He often
sees her as a treacherous betrayer, mainly because of her intermittent
presence and nurture which are in turn due to the exigencies of her familial
role, social obligations, mores, and taboos.7

Thus, initially emotionally dependent on his mother, Bimalendu develops antipathy towards Jayabati soon after marriage and once even
blurts out: You are becoming so narrow-minded. Surprising! Finally,
the eldest of the Lahiri wives provides that additional impetus required
to set Jayabatis wounded pride aflame:
Dear, dear, but your Bimal is as good as gold. Doesnt he say anything?
Even gold turns into iron if the goldsmith is unscrupulous, sister!
Heaven only knows! What an evil day! What a pity, not five or seven
sons but one, and the wife comes and leads him astray. So much suffering
for a nice woman like you!8

Gradually, the values of tenderness, softness, self-sacrifice and nonviolencevalues that are supposed to be inherent in motherhood
are shed by such repeated onslaughts and both Jayabati and Pratibha
engage themselves in shameless mud-slinging.
However, the extreme form of humiliation comes when Pratibha
ridicules Jayabatis preference for vegetables:

226 Naina Dey

Pratibha pushed away the bowl with the back of her palm and replied
That doesnt mean that I love eating heaps of vegetables like the widowed
hags. Why did you spoil them when you could have kept them for yourself!
The object of your greed!9

What stuns Jayabati is not the suddenness of the attack but the validity of the fact that forms the basis of Pratibhas onslaught. Indeed,
relatives and neighbors were not unaware of Jayabatis weakness for
vegetables and the arrow finally hits its mark. Here I would like
to mention that the vegetables become a sort of metaphor for
Jayabatis status as a widow who must abstain from taking meat or
fish (both of which incidentally, are expensive and thus heavy on the
family budget); and therefore, her desire for the edible greenery that
grows in profusion in the backyard cannot be validly criticized. Moreover, the vegetables signify the disparity in the marital status of the
two women and later the deliberate emphasis laid on the widows
fare of potherbs and lentils by Jayabati becomes relevant in the light
of Pratibhas misfortunes. In her chapter (cited earlier), Tapati Gupta
further reiterates the cause behind the marginalization of the Hindu
Bengali widow:
A false halo is painted around womans sexuality by the metaphoric
castration of the Bengali widowher shaved head and white attire, her
spartan meals. These are actually devices that enable society to shirk its
economic and moral responsibility of maintaining the widow in conditions
of material comfort. It also mythifies the curse of sterility by constant
reminders of the importance of the socially acceptable male partner in
generative relationship.10

Nevertheless, the event which takes place in between the above mentioned incident and Bimalendus accident is that of Jayabati confining
herself in the prayer rooman event that despite its insignificance
has aroused much curiosity in readers and critics alike because of what
follows. The author never makes it known what exactly Jayabati, with
her wounded pride, had prayed forDid she desire that the lord
Madhusudan punish Pratibha herself ? Or did she wish for the traitor
Bimalendus death, which would be a fitting punishment for Pratibhas
misdemeanor? And more importantly, does Bimalendu die because
his mother wanted him to? Referring to another story Aayojan by
Ashapurna, where the grandfather prays for his grandsons death,
not because he hated the child, but because he sought to satisfy his

Food, Family, Widowhood 227

own wounded ego, Nabanita Deb Sen speaks of a unique quality

that is ever-present in the human sub-consciousness, a quality that is
never openly acknowledged because of the lack of definite means of
defining or even locating it:
The glorified images of motherhood or paternal benevolence which are
conventionally accepted by society and literature have been mercilessly
ripped apart by Ashapurnas truthful analysis. Over and over again, in
her short stories, do we find the mothers compassion defeated by mundane
selfishness, sacrificed at the altar of personal ego.11

This clearly rules out the role of supernatural intervention as the

cause of Bimalendus death. The child in Aayojan survives the fever
and Bimalendus death is just a coincidence, though his violent and
untimely end is actually a premonition as well as a symbolic enactment
of Pratibhas destruction as willed by the resentful Jayabati, for without a husband a Hindu widow is as good as dead. And unlike Jayabati,
who after her husbands death had clung on to her own hopes of
Bimalendus future, Pratibhas fate is completely sealed since she has
no future to look forward to. Without Bimalendu, the man, Pratibha
is now rendered completely helpless and at the mercy of her motherin-law.
Nonetheless, the sense of uneasiness is deliberately evoked as the
writer is yet to reveal another aspect of Jayabatis nature at the end of
the storythe notable change of attitude towards Pratibha. What
becomes conspicuous here is Pratibhas silence and Jayabatis regaining of her mastery over affairs. The neighbors, who had so long played
their role in cunningly instigating the duo, are now reduced to mere
spectators though they do remark on the change in Jayabatis voice:
Jayabati would meticulously arrange the snow-white rice on the shining
black stone dish and callBouma, O Bouma, come and have a mouthful.
Doesnt the tone of compassion sound a bit in excess in her voice? The
relatives could hear from the neighbouring houses and wondered at
this revelation of Jayabatis compassion and magnanimity.12

This is a change doubtless subtle, but ample to show that Jayabati is

relishing Pratibhas misfortune.
Nevertheless, besides revealing the power politics between the two
women, the story focuses on the dynamism of Jayabatis character.
When the story opens, she is the conservative, rural widow, skilful in

228 Naina Dey

performing domestic chores, eager to build and sustain an organized,
orderly household through economy (her trunks, boxes and wardrobes
are decorated with covers made from the borders of sarees) and assiduous care. With the sudden death of her husband, the ideal housewife of the first phase becomes the strong and resolute widow, and
the change in circumstances and her own loss of authority after
Bimalendus wedding transform her into a woman embittered by her
own disillusionment. After Bimalendu dies, it seems somewhat that
fate has united the two women. But the author-narrator lingers for a
while as if to gauge the genuineness of the seemingly placid atmosphere and sounds almost exultant when she hears Jayabati call:
Does that pity which flows in her words find its serene reflection in her
eyes? ... in her looks, and in that hidden smile which lurks at the corner of
her lipssubtle and poisonous?13

The woman who had found her powers being gradually usurped by
another secretly rejoices when she finds the disputed territory (her
own son) destroyed (however premature and terrible his death may
have been), for it has left her rival destitute. And thus, Jayabati becomes
the Chchinnamastathe woman who gets consumed by her own passions and becomes metaphorically the cause of her own destruction
through the actual death of her only son: Other than the black circles
under the eyes and the slight raising of the cheek-bones, there were
no obvious signs of change.14
Ashapurna Devis prime objective was to portray her characters,
especially her women, in the light of their relationships with the world
around them. They are not paragons of unsurpassable beauty or
virtue, nor are they consciously aware of their own powers or limitations as one finds in the British writer Fay Weldons novels. Also,
while Weldons women seem to be perennially at war with the maledominated world outside their own limited spheres, Ashapurna Devis
women are domestic, apparently docile, and even try their best to
stick to social norms. Still, there are instances when they emerge more
powerful in their passions and sacrifice, selfishness and even passivity,
unlike the men who seem somewhat ineffective, even helpless (as in
Shab Dik Bajay Rekhe). In fact, through characters like Jayabati and
Praxis (in Weldons novel of the same name), who live out roles they
have sold themselves including the fulfilling of other peoples
needs, both authors overturn in exaggerated and emblematic

Food, Family, Widowhood 229

fashion the contradictions inherent in the demands that society imposes upon women. Beside Ashapurna, a number of Indian writers
have tried to dispel the notion of the idealized stereotypical concepts
of motherhood and widowhood revealing the hollowness of social
strictures and feminine virtues. Thus the grandmother/mother-inlaw in Chhabi Basus Meyemanush (Woman) leaves her sons home
to live with her childhood friend, the old widower from Karmatar.
On the other hand, Telegu writer Chalam, in Vitantuvu (Widow),
depicts a widow who decides to bear the child of a man without
caring for the repercussions. Another Telegu writer Kodavtiganti
Kutumbarao, in Pempudu Talli (Foster Mother), also deals with the
yearnings of a young widow who develops a physical relationship
with her adopted son. Hindi author Premchand (who wrote immediately prior to Ashapurna Devi) has, however, idealized women, even
the usually dreaded mother-in-law of Indian folklore; and one comes
across stories such as Widow with Sons, in which the newly widowed
Phulmati finds herself gradually losing control over her household
and dying a terrible, lonely death.
There is, however, no justification in assuming that the women
control their own fates. In Bimalendus death, Jayabati is as much
the victim as her daughter-in-law. Pratibhas reactions to her husbands
demise are never presented in the story. But we are confronted with a
new entityindefinable and malignant as the terrible Chchinnamasta
(for the mother with all her softer instincts had died with her sons
death)who feels no sympathy for the bereaved wife but like the
madwoman in the attic, exults in her own destruction and in the

ChchinnamastaAccording to ancient Hindu mythology Parvati,
Shivas consort, wished to go to her father Dakshas house, where a
yajna was about to be performed. When Shiva refused to give his
consent, the enraged Parvati began to manifest herself in ten different
forms, each as awesome as the other. Shiva, terrified and amazed,
gave his consent. Chchinnamasta (also called Chandika) was the
fifth manifestation and the most terrible of all. In her the goddess is
seen stark naked, bathed in her own blood, holding her severed head

230 Naina Dey

in one hand, and drinking the blood spurting from her truncated neck.
Also engaged in the act are her two female escorts Dakini and Barnini,
both naked and adorned with garlands of human heads like the
goddess herself. It is believed that one who could appease the goddess
would gain Shivatva (the highest place in Heaven) after death.

1. Ashapurna Devir Chchotogalpo Sankalan, National Book Trust, India, xi,
2. Sanjukta Dasgupta (ed.). (2004). Families: A Journal of Representations,
Vol. 3, 73. Kolkata: Blue Pencil Publishing Editorial & Consultancy
Services Pvt. Ltd.
3. Ibid.: 7374.
4. Ashapurna Devi. Chchinnamasta (from Ashapurna Devir Chchotogalpo
Sankalan), National Book Trust, India, p. 160, 1999.
5. Ibid.: 161.
6. Ibid.: 162.
7. Sanjukta Dasgupta (ed.), Families: A Journal of Representations, Vol. 3,
p. 74.
8. Ashapurna Devi, Chchinnamasta (from Ashapurna Devir Chchotogalpo
Sankalan), National Book Trust, India, p. 167, 1999.
9. Ibid.: 16869.
10. Sanjukta Dasgupta, ed., Families, Vol. 3, p. 79.
11. Ashapurna Devir Chchotogalpo Sankalan, National Book Trust, India, xviii,
12. Ashapurna Devi, Chchinnamasta (from Ashapurna Devir Chchotogalpo
Sankalan), National Book Trust, India, p. 171, 1999.
13. Ibid.: 170.
14. Ibid.: 171.
(All translations from the original Bengali sources are by Naina Dey).

The Self and the Family in Telugu Womens Poetry 231

Chapter 14

The Self and the Family in

Telugu Womens Poetry
M. Sridhar
Alladi Uma

We wonder whether one would ever think of a seminar on man and

family!1 Whether the man is in the family or out of it, it doesnt seem
to disturb the universe. But how is it that the moment we think of
woman, we cannot but think of her place in or outside the family? It
seems the only point of reference, for a discussion of the woman
must begin with the family. The womans identity is therefore defined
by her relation to the family. At one level, society thus defines a woman
but at another level it accuses her of discussing nothing but the family.
But when a woman consciously thinks of her own self, her own
identity, she begins to interrogate her place, her relationship with her
husband, with her children and with other members of the family.
This chapter attempts to analyze two collections exclusively of womens
poetry that have appeared in the last ten yearsNeelimeghalu: Streevada
Kavita Sankalanam (1993)2 and Mudra: Vanitala Kavitalu (2001)in
terms of their treatment of the womans self and the family.3
What holds this family together? In her Rajeevanalu (Lives of
Compromise) Patibandla Rajani writes how, even as the couple
recognize the mutual discontent that underlines their relationship,
an emergency is imposed invoking the theory of unavoidable ideal

232 M. Sridhar and Alladi Uma

married life together (Neelimeghalu : 44). Compromise is the inevitable
principle that holds the family intact. In the poem Sneharahityam
(Lack of Friendship), while acknowledging the lack of understanding and love between man and woman, Kondepudi Nirmala
voices clearly the stark reality of how satisfying bodily urges becomes the only meaning of life (Sarma, 1999: 157). Volga, on the other
hand, makes an ironic comment on the Life-together in marriage
(Dampatyam), which is held intact only because of societal pressures.
She says that though the husband and wife recognize that neither
one needs the other, when each becomes a mere property of the other,
the only reason for the union, remains its protection from outside
aggression (Neelimeghalu: 4950).
It is not that the subservient condition of the woman is dictated by
her being a housewife. Mandarapu Hymavati brings out the economic
aspect of the relationship between the working woman and her husband in her poem Sarpa Parishvangam (Serpentine Embrace). Amidst
the ecstasy of their bodies having come together, the husband comes
up suddenly with the question, When will you get your salary?
The woman responds: Even a prostitute wont come up with a question like that at such a time (Neelimeghalu: 37).4 She feels then like
casting off such a relationship, but the mire of the institution of marriage bogs her down so completely that she lives each minute of her
life compromising, finding it impossible to extricate herself from its
serpentine embrace (Neelimeghalu: 5758).
The most concrete instance of the institutionalization of marriage
is the perpetuation of its values through language. Permit us to quote
the entire poem Bandipotlu (Dacoits) by Savitri:
When the teacher said:
Ill get you married off
if you dont recite the lesson
I was afraid.
When my brother said:
My husband is my boss
who never grants me leave
even when I need it most
I grew suspicious.
When the neighbours said:
But, hes a man, a maharaja

The Self and the Family in Telugu Womens Poetry 233

so what could be missing?
I understood.
That marriage is a huge punishment,
that husband gobbles up your freedom,
and that half the population
that we nourished at the breast
divides and rules.
(Ramarao and Zide, 1993: 208)

Inscribed in language, marriage as an instrument of punishment, the

authority of the husband and the superiority of the male attains social
But patriarchy gives a false sense of protection to the woman. This
is brought out in a poem entitled Needalu by S. Jaya, wherein she uses
the pun on the title (Shadows/Shade) to good effect. She says:
What if the shade gave protection?! No plant grows under the
shade of the banyan tree (Neelimeghalu: 77).
There are poems that attempt to shatter the false sense of importance the woman cultivates regarding her position in the family. In
the poem Tivachee (The Carpet) Vani Rangarao gently chides the
woman who foolishly imagines her place in her parents home, her
position vis--vis her husband and children (Neelimeghalu, 7980). In
the poem, Vantillu (Kitchen) Vimala emphasizes the need for a
woman to realize how she has been controlled by the metaphor of
the kitchen and the necessity to break herself free from it: Even as
the traces of childhood were about to leave me/ I began to be groomed
here [in the kitchen]/I have been taught kitchenness (Neelimeghalu:
85). The myth of even her authority over the kitchen is blown when
she says: My mother is the sole queen of this kitchen kingdom/but,
ultimately its my fathers name/thats on all the vessels in the kitchen!
(Neelimeghalu: 86). Vasanta Kannabiran also draws on the familiar
dictum of the home as heaven (Grihamekadaa Swargaseema) for a
woman to underline the need to shatter this image (Neelimeghalu:
What we have seen above are portrayals of the uneasiness, the
struggle and the desire to confront the values family and society
impose on women. Does this confrontation really take place? What
forms does it take? How does a woman become conscious of her
own identity?

234 M. Sridhar and Alladi Uma

The mental strength a woman cultivates can allow her to derive a
sense of her self even from a physical union. In her poem Sparsanuraganni Alapistoo (Singing the Touch of Love) Jayaprabha says:
I who gets ignited with your touch/you who is fired by my touch/
remain, always, distant/like the earth and the sky! (Neelimeghalu:
27). This distance reminds us of the poem Dooram (Distance) by
Revati Devi. She measures the distance between the husband and
wife who are married for some years:
Between the husband and wife who have been married for some years
the heartless distance of bullocks in the grinding mill

This advaitic distance

that exists between him and me who are so far apart
is a distance that leaves no room for even the wind to squeeze through.
(Sarma, 1999: 153)

In Advaitam (Non-Dualism) Volga deviates from the stereotypical

portrayal of the world that surrounds the body of a woman. No more
does she need the presence of a man or of the world. She talks of the
importance of a self-propelling force. She exhorts the woman to force
herself into the world. She likens this experience to her falling in love
repeatedly or giving birth to a baby the first time (Neelimeghalu: 28).
She is obviously asserting the right of the woman to celebrate her
body. The womans right over her body is treated differently by Mahe
Jabeen in Navasmriti (The New/Nine-month Commandment),
where she celebrates a womans pride in her motherhood. Even as
women oppose imposition of the role of mother on them, Mahe
Jabeen asserts her right to live that unique experience:
How does it matter who? I should live that experience
How does it matter who? When I decide to bear for nine months
I should make that wonder of an experience my own
the rustle of the heart in my womb
No need for anybodys authority
over the fruits of our flesh and blood
Amidst the banishments unclear even to them
I stand at the juncture of this era
announcing my motherhood.
(Neelimeghalu: 107)

The Self and the Family in Telugu Womens Poetry 235

While Neelimeghalu came out announcing itself as a collection of

feminist poetry and has put together contemporary poets, the more
recent collection Mudra edited by Sheela Subhadra Devi and Bhargavi
Rao has a hundred poems by women ranging from the fifteenth century to the present. As it makes no claims of including only feminist
poetry, we find such writers like Chillarige Swarajyalakshmi and
A.S. Mani reiterating certain conventional notions regarding women.
Consider, for example, Konni Padyalu (A Few Verses) by Swarajyalakshmi, wherein she says:
All the hardships are for the woman who has no husband
such luck for the man who has no wife
the husband does not lose anything if he has no wife
the husbandless has to let go everything.
(Devi and Rao, 2001: 55)

It is significant to note that this early poem deals sensitively with the
plight of the widow, though it may appear to be reiterating the need
for protection in a womans life and may also be consistent with the
thought of the times. But how does one respond to a poem like Manis
Ainaa (But), where she bemoans the plight of children and the house
when even the mother becomes independent and takes up a job? Let
us look at the following lines:
Who will set right the house?
Wife, husband, children, guests
Love is the affectionate union of give and take
the golden nest where hearts have a healthy growth
the refuge of civilization for generations together
Each becomes a loner with her own existence
Who are they helping by taking up jobs?
(Devi and Rao, 2001: 100)

There are some poems in this collection too that question the stereotypical portrayals of women. Poems by Vani Rangarao, Kondepudi
Nirmala, Savitri, Vasanta Kannabiran and S. Jaya have a clear feminist
focus. Kondepudi Nirmalas Nannalni Konali Ratenta? (We have to
Buy Fathers, Whats the Price?), with its biting sarcasm, hits out on
the social structure, which pays importance to fathers:
It seems the respectable ones are born only to their fathers!
We are born from our mothers womb

236 M. Sridhar and Alladi Uma

If we have to learn a cupped hand full in schools
we need to buy fathers how much per kilo?
(Devi and Rao, 2001: 118)

Not only mainstream middleclass Telugu women writers but also Dalit
and Muslim-minority women writers have been voicing their protest against the stranglehold of institutions both without and within,
within being the institution of the family. It is heartening to note that
Mudra, which came out eight years after Neelimeghalu, takes this into
account and includes a poem each of Shajahana and Challapalli
Swarupa Rani, powerful voices, one representing the Muslim-minority
womans voice and the other the Dalit womans voice. In Qabaddar
(Beware), Shajahana unveils the horrors of the married life of a
Muslim girl:
We are absolutely worthless
in herds as lumps of flesh
wearing cloaks over our minds as we do over our bodies
we are like bats dragging on our colourless tasteless odourless lives
Even as we are aware that our husbands are only temporary
for they throw meher at our faces and change wives
we decorate
our sacrificial dupattas with sequins of smiles.
(Sridhar and Uma, 2000: 101)

The tone of the opening lines itself suggests that while the poet
describes the condition as it exists in a Muslim household she is not
the one to take it lying down. There is already an indication of the
refusal to adhere to these prescriptions. So it is no wonder that the
poem ends on a note of defiance:
I am tearing the cage-like purdah outright
I am not scared even if I am branded a kafir
These hands that have held your feet
these hands that have embraced you
these very hands
are closing their fists
for having continued to live with you even when I didnt like it
We too are thinking.
(Sridhar and Uma, 2000: 102)

The Self and the Family in Telugu Womens Poetry 237

Swarupa Ranis Ahwanam (Invitation) is also a poem of intense

questioning of a casteist society that uses the bodies of women of
lower castes and also of the mainstream feminists who have been
unable to understand the different levels of exploitation women from
these classes face. In what seems like a response to Vimalas Vantillu
(Kitchen) Swarupa Rani says:
Your courage that made you scream up to the heavens
that some one teased your little darling
did it go into a drunken slumber in front of some five star hotel
when the parts of my body were not just beaten to a pulp
but when the remains were thrown out
Oh, my deep blue clouds that have taught me to rain!
The drizzle of your questions
has reached those fully equipped kitchens
but why hasnt it reached even the threshold of the three stoned stove of
a house I dont even have!
(Devi and Rao, 2000: 14950)

What is surprising though in this collection is the relatively insufficient attention to the questions of the self and the family, questions
that seem inevitable to a discussion of the woman. Is this a case of
deliberate neglect by the editors (though their introduction as well as
a small section of the poems testify to their awareness of these questions) or an indirect acceptance on their part of the assumption that
a womans position is more or less secure in the institution of the
How do we read a poem like Jogini by Ch. Usha Rani? It condemns
the powerful societal forces that perpetrate the jogini system where
the joginis are forced to live the life of permanent brides. It ends
with a voice of revolt: For the awareness that begins with me alone/
she [Ellammavva] ushers in the looks that will make me break out
(Devi and Rao, 2001: 191). When Usha Rani writes: Saying Ill fall
at your feet, master! Well lick and wipe your chappals/We are permanent brides who are not given the traditional send-off (ibid.: 190),
she is of course questioning both the stranglehold of customs and
the rich landlords. But there seems to be in this poem a lurking desire
for being a bride (not a permanent bride) who will be given a send-off
by her parents, a bride who will be given away. Isnt this in some
sense a validation of the marriage rituals, of the power hierarchy

238 M. Sridhar and Alladi Uma

within the family system and the security a woman may find within
the family structure?
On the other hand in Mehendi Streela Vignyapti (A Request from
Mehendi Women) Volga celebrates the life-giving qualities of these
women: We only know to make you happy/dont come to us to
die/We are dying many deaths so we can live (Neelimeghalu: 160).
Does this poem then allow us to explore the possibility that women
can be happy outside of marriage? Not really, for it talks of how
they can give happiness, but not of their being happy outside the
family system. Theirs is a proscribed profession. They recognize the
fact that these men who come to them have wives, mothers and homes.
What if the speaker is ironic about the heavenly homes, etc.? If at
one level the poet seeks to assert the prostitutes love and compassion,
at another level there seems to be some awareness on the part of the
prostitute of what she lacks in life.
Do we then say that for the most vociferous of feminist writers the
family as it exists today needs to be questionedthat is, the hierarchical structure that makes a woman dependent and therefore insecure
needs to be questioned and rejected? Does that mean that feminist
writers have no problem with the concept of the family itself ? We are
quite puzzled as to why there are not in these anthologies poets who
reject the family in toto. We do not have to go too far to see how women
respond to these issueswe only have to go to Telugu womens fiction
(both short fiction and the novel). We wonder why not the poets?

1. This chapter was presented in a seminar on the Representation of the Family
in Telugu and Urdu Womens Writing, held at IACIS (now IUCIS),
Hyderabad on July 27, 2002.
2. The first feminist anthology in Telugu, Guri Choosi Pade Pata (The Song
That Is Sung as You Target), was published by Tripuraneni Srinivas in
1990. Neelimeghalu contains almost all the poems in this anthology.
3. An anthology of Telugu Dalit womens writing was published since this
chapter was written. Titled Nallapoddu (Dark Sunrise), this anthology
traces the tradition of Dalit womens writing since 1921. We have looked
at the poems represented in this anthology to see if they would make a

The Self and the Family in Telugu Womens Poetry 239

difference to the argument presented in this chapter. It must be pointed
out straightaway that only a few poems here deal with the issues concerning
the family. Swarupa Rani, an older Dalit poet (different from Challapalli
Swarupa Rani discussed in the main body of the book) has a few feminist
verses under the rubric Streevada Padyalu, wherein she details how it is
easier for her to take the torture of her parents-in-law and sister-in-law
than that of her husband. Envisaging the new woman in her poem Kotta
Shatabdi Vanita (The New Century Woman), another poet, Edluri Vijaya
Kumari, questions the social construction of the women that confined
them to the kitchen and the household. She becomes the scapegoat in a
male-dominated society in which she is weighed down by the burden of
worries and lack of peace, while the male enjoys a world of happiness
and pleasure. The poet therefore wishes that women prove their strength
and refuse to be confined to the roles of cooking and giving pleasure to
men in bed. In another poem on the plight of a scavenger woman, Mary
Madiga details how she too goes through the familiar difficulties of a
housewifetaking care of the household chores and the kitchen, waiting
with fear for the drunkard husband who comes only to abuse and beat
her upeven as she suffers her work as a scavenger outside. We might
wish to conjecture as to why there have been very few Dalit poems that
discuss the theme of the family in this anthology, which spans an eightyyear period. We wonder whether the preoccupation with family is more
of an upper-caste, middle-class phenomenon that does not affect most
Dalit women, who belong to lower classes and castes. The historical survey
to this anthology seems to point in this direction. Discussing the contribution of mainstream feminism in Andhra Pradesh it says that mainstream
feminism has sought to challenge the family, the authority-based relationships between men and women and the patriarchal structure that
hides the male dominance which attributes holiness to motherhood
(Dalita Sahitya Charitra Nepadhyam Nallapoddu: Dalita Streela Sahityam,
Hyderabad: Hyderabad Book Trust, 19212002: 15). The survey also says
that it does not appear as if mainstream feminism can see clearly the
role of the Vedas and Hindu religion and the caste structure, which is its
foundationthe main reasons for the suppression of women and the
inequalities in society. That the preoccupations of Dalit women are indeed
very different from those of the mainstream women is suggested by the
extract we quoted from Challapalli Swarupa Ranis poem. It is interesting
to find that the historical survey quotes some of these very lines to indicate
the departure Dalit womens writing makes from mainstream feminist
4. All translations in the book except otherwise indicated are our own
unpublished ones. Page references are to the Telugu originals.

240 M. Sridhar and Alladi Uma

Devi, Sheela Subhadra and Bhargavi Rao (eds). (2001). Mudra: Vanitala
Kavitalu. Bangalore: Prism Books Pvt. Ltd.
Neelimeghalu: Streevada Kavita Sankalanam. (1993). Hyderabad: Swechcha
Ramarao, C. and Arlene Zide. (1993). Trans. Dacoits, in Arlene Zide (ed.),
In Their Own Voice: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary Indian Women
Poets, p. 208. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
Sarma, Indraganti Srikanta (ed.) (1999). Yuvanunchi Yuvadaakaa: Kavita
Sankalanam 19361996. N.p.: A. JoVi. Bho. Prachuranalu.
Sridhar, M. and Alladi Uma. (2000). Trans. Beware, Indian Literature, 200,
pp. 10102.



242 Shoma A. Chatterji

The Family in Flux 243

Chapter 15

The Family in Flux

The Decimated Family in
Rituparno Ghoshs Films
Shoma A. Chatterji

One of the greatest impacts of urbanization and modernization in
India has been on the family. This much-revered social institution,
once considered as stable as it was sacrosanct, is now under threat,
not only through its disintegration and fragmentation, but perhaps
much more, by its very definition. The basic definition of family as
the basic social unit is changing every minute across the world, even
in closeted societies where women are conditioned by restrictions on
every kind of mobility within and without the family. The family is
in crisis all over the world. The core of the complexity is sometimes
placed at the door of the modern woman torn between the double
bind of work and familyjuggling responsibility, time and energy
between the two all the time. Sometimes, the reason for the crisis is
said to be a redefining of family valuesthe choice of men and
women to remain single, leading to a further fragmentation of the

244 Shoma A. Chatterji

nuclear family. At other times, the rising crisis within the family
framework is due to a new perspective on family created by same-sex
partnershipslesbianism and homosexuality. There are other
alternatives tooold peoples homes, double-income-no-kids families,
single-parent families resulting from separation, widowhood and
divorce, and so on.
There are live-in partners with or without children who wish to
explore the finer nuances of relationships lived beyond the sanction
of the church or priest or the marriage registrar. There are families
with absent fathers not necessarily because the partners are separated
or legally divorced, but because the father is away earning more money
for the family. This may or may not finally lead to a legal split that
reduces the cocoon of security and stability the family was initially
expected to offer and, in consequence, increases the borders of its
As more and more women go out to work, equations on the home
front begin to face turbulent weather. It is an acceptable and necessary
presumption that women be given equal opportunities for education
and employment. But behind the closed doors of a home, equality is
still a long distance away. While granting that the mother is the natural
caretaker of the child, the crucial factor of joint parenting does not
go down too kindly with the present young generation. Not many
working women today are prepared to succumb to emotional and
physical pressures arising out of home and work responsibilities. This
is true even when a majority of women have to work out of economic
compulsions. A national statistical update shows that 80 percent of
women in the Indian workforce come from the economically deprived
class and are forced to work outside home for financial reasons. Not
undermining the contribution of the remaining 20 percent who support the intellectual strength of the country at large, one is still under
an ethical binding to speak in favor of those who toil hard to meet
the needs of basic survival. Sadly, the 20 percent often remain beyond the paradigms of socio-economic discourse. A few among this
20 percent are women who are contributing to the shifting nature of
the family unit in a major way.
Most peoples idea of a normal family is that of a married couple
with children. Does this correspond with the reality of peoples lives
any longer? In 2001, only 23 percent of British households consisted
of couples, married or unmarried, living with dependent children,
as compared with 35 percent in 1971. In 2001, 14 percent families

The Family in Flux 245

consisted of people living on their own (Social Trends, 2002: 40).1

Marriage was considered to be the cornerstone of family life but in
2000 67 percent of respondents from the British Social Attitudes
survey thought that it was alright for a couple to live together without getting married. According to David Morgan, Family represents
a constructed quality of human interaction or an active process rather
than a thing-like object of detached social investigation (Morgan,
1990: 16). There are re-marriages too, and all these have an impact
on the national economy at large though these are not visible often
because we choose not to see them and not because they cannot be
This chapter seeks to examine:


The socio-economic changes that are seeping into the family

structure, consequently bringing in changes in powerrelations between partners, married, living-in, separated or
divorced, or changing the very framework of the family when
it is headed by a single parent in the absence, more often, of
the father than of the mother;
Celluloid depictions of the decimated Indian family in some
films of Rituparno Ghosh.

Part I: The Impact of Socio-economic

Changes on Family Values and Family
Relationships in Urban India in the
Twenty-first Century
The Economic Implications of Divorce
The urban world continues to shed silent tears over the impact of
divorce on society, on the family, on the partners directly involved in
the divorce, and especially on children. What escapes us is the fact
that, like it or not, the splintering of families underscores a rise in

246 Shoma A. Chatterji

production levels in the economy. The extended family comprising
of the male head of a family with his wife, children, their families
and grandchildren living under the same roof, eating out of the same
kitchen and pooling in their labor and income resources to cover expenses is slowly on its way out in urban India. Exceptions are traditional business families where living under the same roof is directly
linked to their business interests and any split within will inevitably
lead to a split in business interests to the detriment of all concerned.
In this sphere too, the positive effect of such split on market forces
has remained a gray area. When the joint family breaks up to create
several nuclear families, the first outcome is a rise in the demand for
housing. The entire housing sectorreal estate, promoters of real
estate, construction, recovery of unused landexpands in monetary
and business terms. Traditional homes covering spacious extent of
premium land fall under the promoters axe and new skyscrapers take
their place, mercilessly destroying a once-beautiful and expansive
The environmental waste is taken for grantedlesser greenery in
the cityscape, lesser land for childrens parks and playgrounds, narrower pavements and more human waste to litter the streets. But a
capitalist economy thrives on such ecological waste instead of lamenting over it. As long as there is development at the cost of ecology,
who cares?
These market repercussions are multiplied when even the nuclear
family breaks up as the result of separation or divorce. One of the
partners must move out to seek accommodation elsewhere. Relocation
means a rise in demand for housing all over again, notwithstanding
the narrowing of the area of apartments to handkerchief-sized flats.
There is an immediate rise in the demand for consumer durables
the partner who moves out with or without children must get a
refrigerator, a mixer-grinder, a television set, furniture, a telephone
connection, a gas connection, perhaps a computer, and other such
paraphernalia. This leads to a considerable rise in the demand for all
these goods, directly contributing to production, distribution, exchange
and employment. While a couple lives together, its needs remain
confined to a single refrigerator, a single television set, a single telephone connection and so on. The long-term and short-term effects are
a continuous rise in the demand for consumer perishablescereals,
pulses, vegetables, etc. There is a rise in the demand for domestic
help too. There are other benefits toomore money going into the

The Family in Flux 247

exchequer by way of taxes under different heads, more employment

opportunities across the board, increased potential for home business
such as home-made catering, telephone banking, car-pool and so on.
The happiest among everyone in the economy is the legal fraternity.
The judiciary opens up possibilities of expansion with provisions of
more family courts in the country.
Sadly however, both the establishment at the central and state levels
and the investment sectors has not been able to tap the infinite potential
inherent in separated families. The financial infrastructure has not
been able to adjust to this new family structure in the Indian economy.
Banking, insurance and public issues have never bothered to create
separate areas of savings and investment for separated couples. Till
date, Indian investment companies and banks have no provision for
housing loans for single partners of separated couples. This is a specific
lack because repartnering or remarriage after separation and divorce
is not common in the country. Loans for automobiles and twowheelers have no provision for separated partners though this could
lead to much greater revenues than at present. Couples today have a
much lower tolerance level within marriage than couples in their fifties
and sixties. As a result, the divorce rates in urban metros are shooting
up. The question of who is guilty is not important because couples
are now looking at it as a question of choice.
In the US, studies have shown that womens increasing financial
independence reduces their motivation to enter and maintain relationships (Sweeney, 1995). Consistent with this hypothesis, early studies
typically found that women with limited economic resources were more
likely to remarry than other women (Coleman and Ganong, 1990).
However, this pattern may have altered due to the following factors:
1. Changes in attitudes and values regarding gender rolessuch
as the greater value placed on womens economic achievements
and mens involvement with children;
2. Changes in the labor marketsuch as reduced employment
opportunities for older men;
3. Changes in consumption patternswhich may make two
incomes seem increasingly necessary to achieve a desirable
standard of living;
4. Changes in law and public policysuch as substantial increases
in social security payments and more rigorous child support

248 Shoma A. Chatterji

These changes reflect and reinforce the benefits for women of having independent financial resources, both in and out of relationships.
In this context, repartnering may not be perceived as a solution to the
financial strain of divorceeven for women with few economic resources. Besides, the social stigma attached to repartnering among
women in India proves to be a big hurdle for young divorced women
when they must choose remarriage both as a social and as an economic
solution to their problem.
India does not have any social security scheme for divorced partners
who suddenly find themselves at the wrong end of the stick if they
are not employed. Prolonged litigation pending divorce places further
pressure on their finances, thereby also delaying any plans of remarriage or repartnering following divorce. Exchange theory conceptualises
children as an economic appendage and as a barrier to new relationships because of the constraints on time and financial resources they
impose. Looked at from a different perspective, children might be
perceived as an alternative to a new relationship following divorce,
particularly if sexual relationships are perceived as high risk and not
reliable emotionally (Smart and Neale, 1999). At the least, children
provide company and can act as the hub of an ongoing family life for
the resident parent.
Thus, banks, insurance companies and private financing agencies
should open up provisions for loans on easy installments and low
interest to fund court cases with security that does not place the litigants under further pressure. This might be done on a welfare-oriented
basis such as banks taking up rural development of remote areas.
This will automatically place hidden ceilings on exorbitant fees
charged by exploiting lawyers since the supply and demand for lawyers
will rise and tend to equality, thereby creating an environment of
price-stability in the legal market. Shedding tears for a changing family
scenario is of no use in an environment where change, as the clichd
saying goes, is the only thing that remains constant.

The Economic Consequences of

Educating Daughters
Fertility decline, a measure of development across the world, has a
rather sinister significance in India. This lies in the fact that it targets

The Family in Flux 249

the female sex exclusively. According to Sunil Gulati, Director, Census

operations, the preference for the male child is still there. When this
is supported by technology-assisted choice such as ultra-sound and
amniocentesis, in spite of the legislative ban on the latter in several
Indian states, the decision to get rid of the baby girl becomes that
much easier. Haryana, for instance, has achieved the dubious distinction of topping the list of states with a fast-declining female ratio at
861 per 1,000 males. It is the worst when compared to the national
femalemale ratio of 933 females to 1,000 males.
Unfortunately, this stems from the common notion that girls are a
lifelong financial liability for the parents. If one probes a bit deeper, a
completely different picture emerges, when placed against the backdrop of urban metros in the country. The direct connection that earlier
existed between more sons and the rise in the familys financial status
has worn thin over the years. While the cost of raising sons has increased, the indirect cost of migration of employable sons from rural
to urban areas has also gone up. These two hikesthe cost of education and the cost of migrationare eating into the long-term economic benefits of having and raising sons. Add to this the uncertainty
factor that arises when the migrant son forms a nuclear family and
cuts off the economic umbilical cord, his parents feel it would entitle
them to a share in his high earnings. In cities, the prohibitively high
cost of foreign education of a son extends beyond the benefits that
are expected to accrue from this education to his parental family.
Sons were economically independent only so long as they were
considered pivotal in the familys income-acquisition and wealthaccumulation strategies. This remained true till that time when education was considered for the elite and the expense of educating
children was considered worthy only for sons. Today, education-forthe-elite has been replaced by the mass education system. This has
made education accessible to both boys and girls. Mass education
has, in an overall sense, increased the total costs of educating all children. But it has, at the same time, reduced the benefits accruing from
the education of sons. The social and economic values of education
have declined with the introduction of mass education. Economically,
because mass education paves the way to ordinary jobs with low
wages, static or little vertical mobility, and no career. Socially, because
ordinary jobs with low pay do not fulfill social aspirations. This happens because mass education is neither need-based nor job-oriented.
Despite these negative implications, mass education has increased

250 Shoma A. Chatterji

the economic potential and the individual aspirations of daughters.
Mass-educated girls have discovered that economic value not only
contributes to their social and political status but also becomes a strong
support system for their parental and matrimonial families.
Dowry is the main reason why parents consider daughters to be
an economic liability. The perpetuation strategy still recognizes the
son as the heir who carries the family line forward. With the wide
popularity of mass education, there has been a multifold increase in
the educational and employable opportunities of girls. Parents reluctant to send daughters for expensive courses in medicine and engineering have little reason to object to their higher education within the
mass-education framework. Though jobs specific to these women are
still low-paying and often smack of sexist strategies, daughters who
are employed before their marriage provide tangible economic benefits
to their parents. They are also in a position to save for their own
dowry in case they agree with this system. Girls who get into employment during their college years often invest wisely in apartments with
easily repayable bank loans. This effectively reduces the burden
their parents consider them to be.
For a girl who has brother/s, expensive education at a professional
course of higher education is determined often by her individual merit.
This should be good enough to ensure tution-waivers or scholarships
so that the parents do not have to shell out the exorbitant fees. In this
sense also, it is more expensive to educate a son than to educate a
daughter. Middle-class families in urban metros are now beginning
to weigh the merits and demerits of having daughters against having sons. An intelligent parent realizes that the social costs of having
a daughter are more beneficial to old parents than those of having
a son.
The benefits accruing to parents who have spent on the education
of their daughters through the mass education system far outweigh
the costs that are incurred in such education. This also becomes a
plus point when the girls get married since a working woman with
a regular pay-packet is a personification of an on-going, lifelong
dowry. Working outside the home widens their world-view, often
leading them to choose their own life-partners. Not only many such
self-negotiated marriages are free of the dowry baggage, but they often
lead to more stable relationships based on mutual respect than the
ones negotiated on the basis of economic give-and-take in the name
of dowry.

The Family in Flux 251

Perceptions of a complete family have changed among young,

urban working couples in the country. They now choose to stick to
the self-imposed one-child norm or decide to have no children at all.
They are more or less gender-neutral about their offspring and are
more democratic in their treatment of male and female children.
Young couples that go in for adoption since they cannot have children
of their own are noted for their tendency to prefer girl children over
boys. However, mere quantitative changes in demographic planning
patterns within the microcosm of the nuclear family are of little
consequence unless these are backed by cultural persistence. Cultural
persistence signifies a persistent hammering at the patriarchal system
that considers daughters an economic liability (arising from dowry,
marriage and education) and looks upon sons as economic assets
(old-age security.) This implies the complete wiping out of evil social
customs like sati, dowry, economically uncertain widowhood, and
similar humiliating factors that oppress and insult women through
slow and sure social conditioning.
A beginning can be made by doing away with all symbols and
manifestations of patriarchy such as suffixing the fathers/husbands
family name to ones own. Another way is to persuade the State education machinery to introduce subjects and textbooks that are egalitarian, sex-neutral and democratic. But the lineage-perpetuation
strategy with the son as the central figure will go on playing the hero
in this play where patriarchy is the means and patriarchy is also the

When the Wife Earns More than

the Husband
Many women determined to make a success of their career in any
field decide to remain single since marriage could bring complications
when a wife brings in a five-figure income and the husband earns a
four-figure one. With corporate salaries trying to keep tryst with the
sky up there, with women topping the merit lists at professional and
university examinations, these problems are getting more common
than, say, they were a decade ago. Marriage threatens not only the
career prospects of the wife, but even the harmony and peace that are

252 Shoma A. Chatterji

anticipated in an ideal marriage. Much more than money is at stake
when financial roles are reversed. The rules of a marriage can change
in unexpected ways. But couples who learn to handle the pressures
often end up stronger, says a marriage counselor from Calcutta. The
husband must be taller than you, older by a few years, perhaps, and
definitely earn much more than you do, my grandmother used to
say, adding otherwise, the apple cart of marriage will take a tumble.
This has more than a grain of truth in it as the rising divorce rates
among highly successful women indicate. When you are financially
secure in your own right, a schism in your marriage has only emotional
repercussions, not financial ones. So, instead of fighting tooth and
nail everyday and turning the bedroom into a nuclear field, you choose
to walk out of the marriage, says Deepshikha, who divorced her
husband because he could not adapt to her success. As for social
ostracism, you just learn to look the other way and concentrate on
work. It is still the best therapy, believe me, she sums up, wizened
yet not bitter, with her marital experience.
In a groundbreaking study released by the Families and Work Institute, USA,2 women earn half or more of the income in an astonishing
44 percent of dual-earner homes. Figures from the U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics (1993)3 show that 22 percent of women earn more
than their husbands, a rise from 17 percent in 1987. These figures
reveal a sea change in American society that is turning the traditional
family upside down. More than money is at issue. When wives are
higher earners, and thereby the main providers, couples are forced to
rethink the way they make decisions and take care of their children.
For most couples, this implies a shift in the power-equation within
the family, more complex terms of negotiation, and of course, sacrifices. Most Indian husbands do not quite care for these changes. Their
patriarchal conditioning from childhood, where they have watched
their fathers calling the shots and mothers tending to fathers and
children, makes them feel humiliated or disappointed because this is
not what they had bargained for by way of marriage. If you compare
the strides Indian women have made over the past fifty years with
that of Indian men, you will find that the women have fared far better
and are far ahead in terms of education, employment and development, in urban India. It is difficult for the men to absorb the shock of
these jet-paced changes. Therefore, it is natural that they resent most
of these changes, said Vimla Patil, ex-editor, Femina, at a seminar
on marriage sometime ago. She is right. Few Indian couples feel

The Family in Flux 253

emancipated by these changes, preferring to share the rewards and

responsibilities of supporting a family to being locked into old stereotypes. In this changing landscape, there are no role models, just
reminders of a vanishing past. No poring through the classifieds in
the morning daily, just day-to-day adjustments, small and big, to a
situation our parents would not have faced in their wildest dreams.
But they are learning, ever so slowly. They are learning to adapt to
changes in career-jumps and pay-hikes for the wife. Urban lifestyles
offer few or no option/s. Couples now need two incomes to settle
their bills and pay the kids school fees or crche money. According
to the Families and Work Institute study mentioned above, 88 percent
of women surveyed said that they would work part-time, rather than
full-time, if they could still live comfortably. Thirty-one percent said
they would prefer staying home if they could afford to, obviously
because of small children whom they hate to leave behind. The Indian
scenario, ironically, is not quite so bright. Roopa, newly married,
chooses to live away from her husband because that would need her
to quit her high-paying job as secretary to a foreign consul. She also
earns more than he does. Her rationale is simple. Let him begin to
earn more and Ill happily quit joining him and looking for another
job, never mind the pay, she says. Cool.
Barry Dym (1995), Ph.D., a family therapist in Cambridge, MA,
thinks men should deflect questions about their well-paid wives. A
man should never feel emasculated by a wife who earns more than
he does. Cloe Madanes4 advises couples to keep separate bank accounts
and a common pot, contributing the same percentage of their incomes
to each. Women are more willing then men to negotiate spending
decisions, even when they have more financial clout. Collaborating
on household tasks and childcare could also help diffuse tensions
and prevent resentments. Talking openly about insecurities and frustrations will help couples air feelings that could sabotage their relationship. Success is being redefined in new terms according to the changing
environment in husband-wife relations. We now have to reconsider
what gives a person value, both as a professional and as a private
person. We need to understand that there are some jobs that will
always pay less than others, and that it is a mistake to attribute the
difference only to talent and hard work, says Madanes. But we
also need to look at a persons non-material contributions to the family.
A lot of times, a man who is a good father and partner in running the
home is a big help to his wifes career. There is no point in competing

254 Shoma A. Chatterji

because both husband and wife have common interests so far as the
family goes: childrens education, acquiring a house of their own,
savings for old age, money for vacations. The more a husband and
wife look upon themselves as family rather than as rival breadwinners, the more they can share in each others successes and failures,
without keeping score.

Children of Single Parents

The reality of being the child of a single parent is no longer exclusively
confined to the early demise of one of the parents. Little is known
about how the child of a single parent reacts to an environment in
which one parent is missing. A single-parent family is a social aberration in a world in which a child opens his eyes for the first time to
be greeted by two parents. M.K.Pringle, an educational psychologist,
insists, in Needs of Children (1975), that a child develops through copying the behavior, attitudes and values of both his parents, who serve
as his idealistic role models. The child, says R.J. Corsini (1999),
is also influenced by members of a family who are dead. Their memories linger and their attitudes generate nostalgia strong enough to
influence the behavior patterns of the child.
The single parent child who is distanced from one parent has to
cope with a concocted image of the lost parent if this distance begins
very early in his/her life. The surviving parent is directly responsible
for contributing to this concocted image. This parent either builds up
the missing parent into a paragon of virtue or converts the absent
parent into a scapegoat responsible for having burdened the surviving
family with every imaginable problem under the sun. How does this
child cope with the process of growing up? How does he cope with
his schooling? With his socialization process where he feels a freak
among peers who come from two-parent, normal families? Does
his coping differ from children who live in a complete family with
both parents? Some of these questions have been analyzed by Smita
Gupta, a single-parent child herself, in her M.Ed. dissertation at the
University of Bombay. Gupta says she has almost no recollection of
her father, who died when she was a toddler. Along with two brothers,
she was brought up single-handedly by her widowed mother, who
had to hold down a job too. Guptas study, entitled A Psycho-Social

The Family in Flux 255

Study of School Students Coming from Single-parent Homes in Relation to

Their Performance at School (1992), opens up a small world of knowledge offered through similar studies undertaken by Western scholars.
F.D. Breslin5 says that maternal deprivation can lead to listlessness,
loss of appetite and retarded mental development. Inadequate
mothering can lead to deficiencies in the way a child is held, fed and
responded to. Such children are more prone to allergies, emotional
disturbances and poor motor or intellectual development. Agatha
Bowley6 says maternal deprivation can lead to bedwetting in a child
unless he accepts his present guardian as his mother even if it is
the father. Excessive fear, insecurity or aggression are said to cause
bedwetting in a motherless child.
In every single-parent family, the imprint of the personality, resources and limitations of the sole parent gets to be markedly stamped
on the child. The childs sense of identity in a two-parent family on
the other hand is shaped by two sources of input. Therefore, the personality development of the single-parent child is almost critically
dependant on this single parents resources, stability and methods
of coping.
Herzog and Sudia (1973) suggest that factors resulting from the
absence of the father might contribute more to the delinquency of
children than the actual absence of the father. The mothers ability to
maintain supervision and control over the child is hampered by the
fathers absence. Problems come from depressed income, inadequate
living needs, and mothers psychological and behavioral reaction to
absence or separation from the father. Community attitudes towards
the child and his family also change when the father is absent. But
the researchers also add that with proper handling by the mother, the
child learns to resolve his problems of stress over a period of time.
Guptas findings are interesting but not conclusive. She found that
single-parent children had a lower level of emotional and social
adjustment than children from complete families. She adds that these
differences are marginal and are unlikely to have significant repercussions on their personal lives later in life. But their educational adjustment is quite low when compared with the educational adjustment
of children from intact families. Gupta ascribes this to factors like
greater burden of household responsibilities, lesser time available for
studies, disastrously obsessive loyalty towards the single parent, natural feelings of being deprived of one parent, and feelings of insecurity

256 Shoma A. Chatterji

and inferiority resulting from a cultural conditioning that has taught
them that a single-parent family is a social aberration.
Gupta laments the lack of research on the effects of parental breakup on the development of the child. What little research there is,
says she, is largely confined to self-selected, atypical groups, namely
those seen in psychiatric wards and child-guidance clinics. We do
not know for example, whether it damages the child the least to grow
up in an unhappy home with both parents, or, alone, with one parent
where there is no remarriage, or with one natural parent and a stepparent.
Although the absent father phenomenon tends implicitly to
blame men for moral irresponsibility, there are many who come
to the defence of young men, arguing that they are often full of hope
on becoming fathers. Yet, because they lack certain relationship skills
or do not receive much support, they leave behind children who will
grow up angry and alienated. In the US and UK, the crisis of fatherhood has produced a growing number of self-help groups for men
who want to become better fathers. In the US, groups such as the
Promise Keepers and the National Fatherhood Initiative work with
men to develop their family and fathering skills.

The Concept of Live-in Relationships

The phrase live together might be a newly coined term in postmodern India, but this relationship can be traced back to Adam and
Eve. They could be termed the first live-in couple in history. But the
institution of marriage did not exist then. Besides, neither Adam nor
Eve was aware of the logistics of their relationship. Their relationship
survived basically on their dependence on each other in the midst of
nature that drove them into the Darwinian battle for survival of the
fittest. A registration certificate did not back this union of souls. Nor
did marriage rituals or any mandatory symbols of marriage like
the proverbial wedding ring or the mangal sutra show on Eve. One
bite on that apple of desire and everything changed forever. The fig
leaf gave birth to the first two civil and decent human beings on
earth, bringing along the selfish need for security and stability in the
relationship, culminating in the birth of the institution of marriage.
This did offer stability and security in one sense. But in another sense

The Family in Flux 257

marriage was tilted in favor of the husband who appropriated his

wife as property and forgot that she too, was as much a person
as he was. This appropriation was socially sanctioned through marriage symbols exclusively targeted at the female in this two-partner
relationship. Interestingly, the wife was party to this total appropriation of her mind, body and soul in exchange for food, clothing and
shelter. In other words, despite the religious sanctity marriage is said
to be blessed with, in reality it was simple barter economy at work.
Dr Ahalya Raghuram, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology
in Bangalore, says, A couple in a live-in relationship is especially
vulnerable as the partners are under pressure to make the relationship
work and also cope with an unsympathetic society and parental disapproval. Alienation from ones family, coupled with the insecurity
of the relationship, can play havoc with a persons psyche. A woman
in a live-in relationship who suddenly discovers that she wants to
marry, puts herself in a perilous position if her male partner does not
wish to marry, and she unconsciously places him on a position of
power, thus negating at one stroke the power equation a live-in
relationship is supposedly based on.
For mainstream people, things have been quite mundane, and sometimes, sad. The mundane relationships ended in marriage, which
means there was nothing rebellious about these relationships to
begin with. A few sad ones even ended in the death of one partner.
Tarun Banerjee,7 a Calcutta lawyer, quotes the case of a 25-year-old
woman who committed suicide when her live-in relationship began
to crack up. By then, however, she had given birth to a child. Today
her parents are left to look after the child. They are now trying to
gain legal custody of the child from the male parent which, given
custody laws in India, they are sure to lose. True that a child born out
of wedlock is now entitled to his fathers legacy. But what if he has to
share it with his fathers legitimate children born within marriage?
Besides, he is not heir to the inherited property of his father though
the legal children are. Socially, the child has to live under the shadow
of social stigma because we still live in a society that recognizes marriage and does not recognize live-in relationships. This is the more true
when one of the partners is already married with a separate family.
Partners in live-in relationships however, have no rights on each
other unless they go in for a legal agreement. This means that in case
of a split, there will be no ownership or property rights. Children
born in a live-in relationship are considered illegitimate. Partners have

258 Shoma A. Chatterji

no rights to each others financial assets and verbal agreements hardly
stand the test of law. Partners also cannot make end-of-life decisions
for each otherabout surgery, transfusions, cardiac pulmonary
resuscitation and the use of life support machines. In the absence of
a will, the deceaseds family has all rights.
Are couples that opt for live-in relationships different from normal
couples who conform to the social and legal laws of monogamy?
Yes, they are, says Dr Somnath Banerjee,8 a Calcutta-based psychiatrist. People who do not believe in conforming to social norms
at all, people who are used to clandestine sexual relationships, people
who are abnormally headstrong, have the inclination to get embroiled
in live-in relationships. There are people who wish to enjoy sexual
freedom without the responsibilities of marriage. Such people almost
always get into live-in relationships. If either partner is unmarried,
they marry as soon as they feel responsible. Or, they break off and
the relationship could end on a sour note. Lets carry on as long as
it lasts, is the attitude. Some get involved only on the basis of sexual
desire for each other. But finally, it boils down to the philosophy of
freedom and enjoyment minus responsibility.
I personally do not believe that live-in relationships could present
society with a healthy, social environment. It is not an environment
that permits the child born of such relationships a happy childhood.
Marriage carries with it an aura of respect, never mind the fact that
we know it to be a faade in many cases. The faade can be broken
through and remedied by law and social action. But where the relationship itself has no social or legal sanction, it is a relationship without
respect. And children are its worst victims. I consider it wrong to
artificially impose a Western concept of manwoman relationship
on the Indian mindset and expect radical results. Because live-in
relationships are, in any case, temporary. This comment came from
Gillian Rosemary DCosta Hart, the Anglo-Indian representative in
the West Bengal State Assembly.
An Indian court bestowed legal sanction on a live-in relationship
between a married man and an unmarried woman against a backdrop
of the USA lamenting its rising divorce rates. A couple of generations
of latch-key children in US do not know what the word family
means and look to India as an illustration in monogamous relationships stabilized through marriage. A couple of years ago a division
bench of the Allahabad High Court offered one Payal Sharma the
liberty to go anywhere and live with anyone.

The Family in Flux 259

In a habeas corpus petition decided by Justice M. Katju and Justice

R.B. Mishra, the court stated: Petitioner Smt. Payal Sharma appeared
before us and stated that she is about 21 years of age which is borne
out from the high school certificate which shows that her date of
birth is July 10, 1980. Hence she is a major and has the right to go anywhere and live with anyone. In our opinion, a man and a woman,
even without getting married, can live together if they wish to. This
may be regarded as immoral by society, but is not illegal. There is a
difference between law and morality (Judgement delivered on May
17, 2001 in Payal Sharma versus Superintendent, Nari Niketan and Others,
C MP No. 16876 of 2001).
Feminist organizations and believers in womens emancipation have
lauded this as a landmark judgement in favor of the woman because
it gives her the choice marriage strips her of. She now has the freedom
to choose the man she loves, to go wherever she chooses to go, to live
with him as long as she likes, to leave him when she wishes to leave,
and so on. Reduced to simple logic, she can now call herself a truly
liberated woman. In one sense, this is true. But what if the other
partner, the man, happens to be a married man with children to boot?
This is precisely the point of debate in the Payal Sharma case. Without
going into the legal implications, does this absolve the male partner
of his filial responsibilities towards his wife and children, which includes living with them under the same roof ? In a country that legally
punishes bigamy except in the case of Muslims, how can a Division
Bench of a High Court pronounce a judgement that openly violates
another lawthe social, legal and filial implications that bind the
husband in a Hindu marriage? There is a difference between law
and morality, the learned judges said. Even if one concedes for a
minute that there is a difference between law and morality (which
again, is a debatable point), how do the judges explain the contravention of one law by another? What legal parameters have the judges
conceived of about the children born out of such live-in relationships
when other children born within wedlock also exist?
N.R. Madhave Menon9 opines that the legal system has been derived
by the State from the moral code. This regulated sex relations outside
marriage, fixed the age of marriage, prohibited homosexuality and
delineated what was considered to be an acceptable relationship
between the two sexes in social intercourse. These views are reinforced
by religious interpretations and customary practices which received
the binding authority of law, says Menon. So, the judges were wrong

260 Shoma A. Chatterji

in saying that law and morality are two different things. A murder is
both morally and legally wrong. So is a burglary. The entire legal
structure is founded on moral principles of right and wrong. An
adulterous relationship between an unmarried young woman and a
married man is morally wrong. Thus, to give it legal sanction is to
deconstruct the entire principle on which law is based.
True, that laws need to change and evolve, with new laws replacing
the old. So do moral beliefs and principles. But they always go hand
in hand and there is no reason why a court will flout morals in a
single case that could lead to a general trenda trend with consequences on women and family in particular, and the society at large.
Feminists who have lauded this judgement are missing the wood for
the trees. The liberty granted to Payal Sharma also means a violation
of the wifes right to a life of dignity and self-respect. And an absolute
restriction placed on her marital right to live with her husband. It is
liberty for one woman at the cost of liberty of another woman.
Besides, when two women are bound to the same man, by marriage
or by love, with sex being the lowest common denominator, it amounts
to backtracking into the nineteenth century, when a man could have
several wives and several mistresses at the same time. And no questions
The financial framework of live-in relationships has not been
explained at all, says Tarun Banerjee. How would a live-in relationship differ from marriage if the law sanctions both? How would the
financial needs of the couple be looked after? If the man has to look
after his companions needs, in what way then does she have a status
different from that of a legally wedded wife? If the man happens also
to be married how would he divide his financial responsibilities between his wife and his companion? are some of the disturbing questions he poses and to which, right now, we have no answers. Gujarat
for a long time had something called Maitri Karaara friendship
contract entered into voluntarily between a man and a woman, which
decreed that the woman would exercise no claim on the man during
or after the relationship beyond friendship. The man in such relationships was always married and the woman was a single woman
who was also responsible for the upkeep of her parental family. Since
she knew that she could never marry, she and her family willingly
consented to such a contract because this was the only way she could

The Family in Flux 261

enjoy a physical relationship with a man. And no questions asked.

When the story of Maitri Karaar blew up in the media many years
ago, it was declared illegal and the contract became not even worth
the stamp paper it was typed on. It was a sort of eyewash for a married
man to take on a mistress from a respectable family.

Part II: An Exploration of the

Decimated Family in Some Films Directed
by Rituparno Ghosh
Rituparno Ghosh (1961)
In a little over a decade, Rituparno Ghosh, born in 1961, has established himself as one of the best directors in contemporary Indian
cinema. Though he has largely worked in Bengali, his native language,
with stories and themes that are rooted in Bengali culture, his films
have broken geographical and linguistic barriers by reaching national
and international film festivals. Having studied Economics at Jadavpur
University, Ghosh chose a career in making advertising films. Ghosh
had no formal training in any department of film making. Perhaps
his desire to become a filmmaker lay in his genes, his father having
been a noted maker of documentary films in his time.
After having made around 400 ad shorts, many of which won
prestigious awards, Ghosh shifted his focus to feature films. His first
full-length feature film, Hirer Angti (1992), was produced by the Childrens Film Society of India. Though the film won an international
award, it failed to get a public release in theaters. However, the film
was later shown several times over at small festivals for childrens
films and also on the small screen. The film looks like a product directed, put together ratherby an amateur trying his hand in a new
medium. It is slipshod and handled half-heartedly.
All his films have bagged national awards. A TV serial and countless ad films have won awards too, but Ghosh is far from satisfied.

262 Shoma A. Chatterji

Ghosh feels that in Dahan, his third film, only five out of the 220 minutes
bore the masterly touch of film making. As for Unishe April, this
brought him the national best director award in 1996. Barring some
scenes, the film could have been improved upon. While these two
films are quite important and relevant, it is Asookh that was his
best and most mature film till then, says Ghosh.
I try to analyze the reasons of vulnerability in a man or a woman,
says Ghosh. If I am to portray a man as a protagonist Ill have to
establish why he is vulnerable and only then can I move on to the
other aspects of the story. Unlike his earlier films, which focused
entirely on women, Asookh, adjudged the best Bengali film of 1999,
explores a fatherdaughter relationship. Unishe April depicts a danseuse who, it is believed, has sacrificed her family for her profession,
which leads to her later being held responsible by her daughter for
the husbands untimely death. However, as the film moves on and
circumstances lead to a motherdaughter confrontation, it appears
that it was the mother who had done all the sacrificing, including
financing the daughters expensive medical education. The father
wallowed in the self-pity that comes of being married to a woman
much more talented and giving than he was. Dahan analyzes the relationship between a daredevil young schoolmistress and a house-wife
who is molested in front of her husband and a crowd of timid passersby.
He is now one of the most prolific among serious filmmakers in
the country and he has by now directed around a dozen films, each
one a statement of the position of the woman in the family either
through classical literature, or based on an original screenplay, or
inspired from a news story of a real incident in the life of a woman.
The family as portrayed in the films directed by Rituparno Ghosh
is counter to most perceptions of all conventional and traditional forms
of this social institution. Through his films, beginning with the contemporary and post-modernist Unishe April to his latest period classic
Antarmahal, one discovers that instead of worrying about the composition and structure of the family, he studies what families do and
what his characters themselves consider to be family. This may or
may not be in keeping with popular perceptions of family but it coincides with images of the family in real life quite often. He steers clear
of the abundance of concern that literature and popular cinema have
showered on the family as an institution of society. At the same time,

The Family in Flux 263

his films define in minute detail the everyday activities of family life.
This includes the ordinary ways in which families eat together (Asookh,
Utsab, Titli), enjoy leisure activities (Titli, Bariwalli, Chokher Bali), and
care for each other (Asookh, Dahan, Shubho Muhurat), which are not
trivial but things that really matter to families.
Stated simply, Rituparnos celluloid family could be defined as a
radical family in emotional and psychological terms, even where the
family apparently seems to be quite conventional in its structure and
its composition. The house/apartment/mansion that the member/s
of the family inhabit in each film evolves into a character unto itself,
and does not remain confined merely to being defined as the physical
framework and environment within which the human characters
negotiate their terms of changing interaction. This chapter seeks to
explore the celluloid family presented by Rituparno Ghosh in five
filmsUnishe April, Dahan, Asookh, Bariwalli and Utsab.

Unishe April
The timeframe is caught within a single day and night, the 19th of
April, and the film borrows its title from this day. It is the death anniversary of Aditis father, who died when she was a small girl of maybe
ten. When the film opens with a flashback to the fathers death and
then zooms into the present, we find that Sarojini has just received a
prestigious award for her singular contribution to the art of classical
dance. The news of the award sets in motion a chain of events that
finally lead to a confrontation between the mother and the daughter,
distanced through what, on the surface, appears to be a clash of values
but which has snowballed over time basically from a slow and sure
breakdown in communication. Aditis consciousness is made up of
memories of a dead father, his identity, his pain, and his alienation
from his celebrity wife reflected as a kind of picture puzzle through
various pieces of flashbacks from her point of view. Sarojini, on the
other hand, has created her own space through her dance recitals;
she is now focused on her dance classes, which she holds in her own
house. She is aware of the alienation from her own flesh and blood,
Aditi. She tries to build bridges. But her celebrity status comes in the

264 Shoma A. Chatterji

way, increasing the chasm between the two. She tries to compensate
for this gap in the motherhood experience by playing surrogate mother
to her dance pupils who are devoted to her. Aditi plans to bring permanence to the chasm by announcing her decision to establish her
medical practice permanently in Delhi, miles away from Calcutta,
her mothers base.
Aditi, on holiday from Delhi, feels redundant in her mothers larger
world of fame, power and status. As she reflects and introspects on
her past, the father stands out as a martyr. Sarojini, thrilled with the
news of the award, does not seem to remember the anniversary, reinforcing Aditis conviction about her mothers over-involvement in her
love for her art, and therefore, in herself, so much so that in her world
there is no place either for a long-dead husband or a living daughter.
Ghosh has taken great care to choose the decor of the duplex apartment setting to establish a definite relationship between the decor
and his two protagonists, the mother Sarojini and her daughter Aditi.
The walls of the elaborately decorated and furnished drawing room
downstairs are flush with huge photographs and posters of Sarojini
bedecked in her dancing finery. The telephone on the writing bureau,
the pen and the pad by its side, defines the method and the perfection
in her life. Aditis bedroom is filled with memorabilia of her father
with the fresh flowers on his photo emphasizing the importance of
the date. The objects are symbolic of her choice of remaining trapped
and she is crowded by things that constantly remind her, not only of
her dead father, but also of the deep empathy she feels for him. The
single-date calendar is a constant reminder of the day, its significance
in the narrative and in the lives of these two women. It also brings
out the typical attempt of a bourgeoisie household in a contemporary
urban metro to make life stand still. Stretching the same argument,
this symbolizes the emotional stasis of Aditi, though in terms of
attainment she has proved her worth. But if one probes deeper, one
will discover that her choice of medicine for a career is not an independent one. On the one hand, it is a conscious and a deliberate
defiance of her mother. On the other, it is the sense of personal commitment she feels she owes her dead father, also a doctor. Beneath
the surface of the medical career is her craving to belong, to hold on
to her relationship, which, considering the boyfriends casual attitude
to the relationship, is probably a stillborn one. Unlike the American

The Family in Flux 265

melodrama, this function of decor does not extend to fix forever

domestic property relations as a model of social life.
The question of property relations does not raise its ugly head in
an Indian bourgeoisie household because it is not really a model of
our social life. Therefore, while it retains its bourgeoisie character, it
does not guard its members from their emotional disturbances. The
economic significance of the relationship between Aditi and Sarojini
is brought out lucidly when her mother tells her that it was she who
funded Aditis upbringing and her expensive medical education. The
flashbacks narrated from Sarojinis point of view, however, unfold
the upholding of the same power-relationships that exist between a
husband and his wife in a patriarchal order, where the husband is the
main breadwinner and the wife merely offers a complement in
terms of income, if at all she does earn. This highlights the fact that
even with a significant financial contribution, the urban, enlightened, Indian woman is not free from the patriarchal power-base in
the family.
Sarojini has a male friend who Aditi suspects her mother had a
special relationship with. But the mother dispels her doubts and now
Aditi responds with sympathy for a young and beautiful widow who
chose to fight it alone. In the final analysis, Aditi comes to terms with
the fact that her own circumstantial victimization by her celebrity
mother was an imagined one born out of her mothers long absences,
when she went to perform outside. But mainly, it sprang from memories of her fathers death during one of these absences for which she
held her mother responsible. As day breaks, the conflict between the
mother and the daughter gets resolved and a new family is born.

Dahan (Crossfire) opens with a voice-over of one of the two women
who form the center of the narrative. This female voice, which is
used as a framing device in this circularly structured film, destabilizes,
at the very outset, the popular practice of using a male voice-over
and thus registering the authority of the male. The female voice functions here, unlike in dominant cinema, in relationship to one of the

266 Shoma A. Chatterji

major visible characters on screen. Dahan, based on a novel of the
same name by Suchitra Bhattacharya, is actually a cinematic interpretation of a true incident that took place in Calcutta in June 1992.
Director Rituparno Ghosh takes this incident, and the novel based
on it, to make a strong statement, not only on the position of womanas-victim in Indian society, but also on audience expectations of
female representation conditioned by popular cinema.
Jhinuk is the independent, working daughter of a professor and is
engaged to Tunir, a man of her choice. Romita is a housewife, married
to Palash, chosen by her father, a corporate big shot. The two meet
accidentally when five men try to molest Romita and carry her away.
When the husband protests, they beat him up as well. This happens
outside the Tollygunje Metro as the two are returning from a shopping
trip. Jhinuk intervenes on their behalf and then persuades them to
lodge a police complaint. The molesters escape in the melee. The
incident is front-page news the next morning, turning Jhinuk into a
heroine. Romitas in-laws are grateful but change under pressure.
Palash and Tunir dissuade the two women from appearing in court
for their own selfish motives, dictated by patriarchal norms. Romita
cracks under pressure and refuses to identify the culprits in court.
Jhinuks evidence is turned against her, as the defence lawyer makes
insinuations about her moral character. The molesters are released.
What happens to the two women? Ghosh leaves this open, allowing
his audience to draw their own conclusions, departing magnificiently
from the original novel, leaving crevices and cracks, both in the narrative and cinematic spaces of an unusual closure.
There are three families in the film. The first one is that of Jhinuk.
She belongs to an upwardly mobile upper-middle-class Bengali family.
Her father is a professor. The mother is a housewife, presenting the
archetype caring and loving mother to her two children and submissive
wife to the husband. Jhinuk is a schoolteacher and her brother is
studying for an engineering degree at IIT, Kharagpur. They seem to
present the picture of an ideal family, waiting to buy that piece of
prime land to build a house, for the son to graduate, and for the
daughter to get married to Tunir in the near future. The grandmother
chooses to live apart in an old peoples home in the same city. This
points to the subtle decimation that has crept into the apparently
holistic family. Though her parents and brother are thrilled and feel

The Family in Flux 267

justly proud of their brave daughter, trouble raises its ugly head when
the court case against the molesters begins. As the film comes to a
close and Jhinuk is preparing for her marriage, she is dogged by doubts
about getting married to a man who is pressurizing her to back out of
the court case because it is directly linked to his transfer and promotion. This, even before he has become her husband.
Romitas marital family is an extended one, with husband, his
parents, his older brother and his wife. Her in-laws seem sympathetic
towards her to begin with. But they stop her from identifying her
molesters in court. She tries to call up Jhinuk, who she hardly knows,
but hangs up the phone when Jhinuk picks it up. Her husbands
sympathy soon turns to anger when his office colleagues tease him
and question him about the difference between molestation and rape.
So, Romitas family too, as her elder sister-in-law informs her one
day, is not the well knit, structured and composed family it appears
to be. Trina is in love with the main molester, the son of a powerful
and influential father who can pull enough strings to get his son out
of the jam. Her parents are very happy about her choice and the
newspaper headlines about the molestation do not change their perceptions about him in any way. But, much to the shock of her parents,
Trina staunchly refuses to go ahead with the engagement. Is Trinas
parental family, then, a fragmented one? Romita decides to take a
break and fly off to her older sister in Canada, not sure about whether
she will or will not come back. Jhinuks steps are slow, heavy and
faltering, as she walks wearily out of the old peoples home towards
the fenced gate of her grandmothers old age home.
The anguish and pain of the three women, Romita, Jhinuk and
Trina are captured through subtly lit close-ups while the expressive
faces of the actresses do the rest. Though Romita is beautiful, (an
award-worthy performance by Rituparna Sengupta), Ghosh strips her
of glamour after the molestation as she tries to cope with herself
within her bedroom. Jhinuks cross-examination by the defence lawyer
is intercut with her serious illness in bed, the mosquito curtain offering
a false veil of security. Questions keep nagging us. What is the difference between molestation by outsiders and marital rape of the wife
by the husband? What kind of family would one call it when a
molested wife is raped by her own husband in anger and frustration
as a sort of punishment dealt out to her in the full knowledge that she

268 Shoma A. Chatterji

is the victim and not the victimizer? Through Dahan, Ghosh succeeds
in freeing the portrayal of the family in cinema, both narrative-wise
and cinematically, from its obstinate permanence of happy togetherness and transforms this rigid image into a surface which functions
in complex and contradictory ways, rather than as a purely referential
commodity offering one-dimensional meanings.

Asookh deals with the two things Rituparno is famous forthe
loneliness of the individual, and the fragmenting of relationships in
a post-modern situation. Asookh is like a sequel to Unishe April with
the relationship reversed. In Unishe April, the mother was a danseuse,
a public figure, and the daughter was an ordinary doctor. Their
relationship is constantly under a cloud of misunderstanding created
out of communication gaps, some circumstantial, some destined. In
Asookh, the schism is between a daughter, Rohini, a renowned film
star and her father Sudhamoy, who is unwillingly forced to depend
on his daughters earnings. Ghosh calls it his personal tribute to parenthood, to the unit made up of father and mother. Modern life distances us from our own parents to a considerable extent. I have tried
to show this through Asookh. I am more interested in the subterranean
layers of such relationships. Be it between mother and daughter,
(Unishe April), be it between two young women bound only by the
commonness of their gender (Dahan), be it between two unrelated
men and women (Bariwalli) or be it between a father and his daughter
(Asookh). Through this fatherdaughter schism, he tried to explore
how our mental states are vitiated by circumstances beyond our control, leading to a loss of faith. But being an optimist to the core, he
finally comes to terms with the fact that there is still hope for a
restoration of the lost faith, leading to a liberation of the human spirit.
Tagore is omnipresent in the film. Rohini keeps on reciting Tagore
from memory. Her boyfriend quotes and sings lines from Tagore and
Rohini or her younger successor, a starlet, joins in. A large photograph
of Tagore adorns the wall behind her bed. But all this is just in audiovisual terms. The spirit of Tagore is conspicuously absent. Tagore,

The Family in Flux 269

who wrote where the mind is without fear and the head is held
high in Gitanjali, would never have agreed with the emotional uncertainty and insecurity that dogs every waking moment of Rohinis
life. This very often happens because she suffers from acute insomnia
and cannot sleep without a heavy dose of sleeping pills. She suffers
from dryness in her eyes and is forever using eye drops to moisturize
them. Like most female stars, she wears glasses in private and lenses
in public space. The contradiction is that, for one who dotes on Tagore,
to suspect her father for her mothers illness being diagnosed as a
case of possible immuno-deficiency syndrome, or to suspect her goodfor-nothing, unemployed, chain-smoking fianc of a secret liaison
with the starlet, is perhaps an insult to Tagores memory. Rohini perhaps would have been better off leaving the bearded fianc, who offers
a kind of moral support, which does nothing to resolve her fears. But
looked at in retrospect, perhaps it is Tagore who helped her out of
her conflict. Who knows?
Ghosh resolves her crises in the closure of the film. She asks forgiveness from her affectionate father for having dishonored him with her
suspicion, arrogance and rudeness. She learns to cope with her own
disloyalty in suspecting her fianc for his faithlessness. But all this is
quite unbelievable for an actress, a famous film star because her very
field of work spells out faithlessness at every step. It is a field where
morality is an empty word, a phonetic sound, and an arrange-ment
of alphabets that means nothing.
Based on Ghoshs own story, script and dialog, Asookh scores in
terms of the tightly knit script, and flesh-and-blood dialog. The interiors
conceptualized by Sudeshna Roy and the production design by Indranil
Ghosh are realistic too, bringing out the spaces explored through the
apartment where Rohini lives, through the make-up room where she
spends a lot of her time, her bedroom, which is dark and dull, and
the hospital where her mother lies ill. Debut-cinematographer Aveek
Mukherjees camerawork struggles with the darkness he has to deal
with, every step of the way. But there are sparks of brilliance, especially
in Rohinis bedroom and make-up room.
Ghosh builds up a collage of images portraying the family through
scenes drawn as if from real life. When the film opens, Rohinis proud
parents and the maid are watching a film starring Rohini on the small
screen. The family eats home-cooked food before the mother is moved

270 Shoma A. Chatterji

to the nursing home. In her absence, food comes in a tiffin carrier
and Sudhamoy has to serve the food at the table. As Sudhamoy and
Rohini dine together, Rohini reacts strongly to her fathers worry about
her mothers bowel movements, as they are eating, and walks away.
When Rohini begins to avoid her father, there is this little girl who
brings in fresh flowers into the home, like a ray of hope for the father,
who is intrigued and sad about the way his daughters behavior
towards him as changed for the worse. But the family in this film
has one invisible memberRabindranath Tagore. The poet emerges
as an eternal companion, guiding and supporting the protagonist
through all vicissitudes. Ultimately, it is Tagores interpretation of
the universal religion of the Upanishads that prevails. Tamaso maa
jyotirgamaya...: Lead us from darkness to light.

Based on a short story of the same name by Rituparno Ghosh himself,
who also wrote the script and dialog, Bariwali opens with the lines of
a ritualistic wedding song welcoming the bride into her new home.
The camera is fixed on the antiquated door of a large mansion. Slowly,
as the credits end, the monochrome turns to color, in soft hues of
brown, sienna and amber. The wedding song evolves into a leitmotif,
recurring now and then as the narrative unfolds. Bonolata was almost
married once. But her groom-to-be died of snakebite on the eve of
the wedding. Since then her life is one long, metaphorical journey
into nothingness, filled with dreams of the marriage that never
was. It is as if she carried a family curse that gave the men an early
death while condemning its last heir, Bonolata, to a life of isolation.
Bonolatas lonely nights are dotted with nightmares. She sometimes
sees herself as a bride, while at other times it is her maid Malati who
is in bridal attire. Red, the auspicious color for the Bengali bride,
dominates her dreamsthe bridal red of the sari and the veil, the red
of the sindoor as she dreams of a married Malati calling out to her,
the red paint splattered by Dipankar turning into blood splashing
into her face. In real life, the bland colors of gray and white and light
purple that she wears turn to bright yellows and greens when she
falls in love with Dipankar.

The Family in Flux 271

Bariwali presents a strikingly unusual picture of the family. It is

a family consisting of a single member, Bonolata, surrounded by
an old retinue and a young maid. Bonolata keeps herself confined to
the spacious upper floor of the huge ancestral mansion in which she
resides. She comes down for emergency reasons to repair a fuse,
for instance. This family structure is punctured when the shooting
team arrives from Calcutta, intruding into the physical space of the
home, the social space of Bonolota and her servants, and the intimate,
emotional space of Bonolota herself. This intrusion does not, however,
violate the privacy of the family but changes the emotional stasis of
its members nevertheless.
Bariwali offers several points of view. One is the omniscient pointof-view of Ghosh, who wrote, scripted and directed the film. The
second one is that of Dipankar the filmmaker, who steps into the
dilapidated mansion of Bonolata, its present owner, to ask permission
to shoot his film, Chokher Bali, based on the Tagore classic. The third
point of view is that of Bonolata, whose small world suddenly opens
up to welcome a larger, glamorous expanse she finds difficult to absorb
and thus, falls in love with the 40-plus director. And four, the points
of view of the four observersMalati, Bonolatas naughty but kind
maid; Prasanna, the old attendant who has stayed on; Sudeshna, the
film actress who plays Binodini in Chokher Bali; and Debashish, the
strapping young art director of Chokher Bali. Surprisingly, while Ghosh
uses his most sharp and acid pen to paint the character of Dipankar,
he turns extra-soft while dealing with Sudeshna, the film star and
Debashish, the art director. Bariwali is as much the story of Bonolata
as it is of Dipankar, or Malati, or Sudeshna, for that matter. It would
be a misnomer to believe that the landlady forms the focus of the
film. She does occupy a major slice of the cinematographic and narrative space, true. But through her loneliness, her vulnerability, the
frustrations and tragedy arising out of the enforced suppression of
her sexuality, we learn as much about film people, film making and
about the simplicity of life in small towns. For example, when
Bonolata asks Malati to fetch a copy of Chokher Bali from the local
library, Malati comes back and says, They said it is difficult to locate
a book if you cannot name the author. Bariwali is also about female
bonding, (Bonolata and Malati), about loneliness and isolation and
betrayal of one human being by another. Yet, Bonolata of Bariwali is

272 Shoma A. Chatterji

no martyr. She believes in trust and in love. The old attendant Prasanna
has never betrayed her trust. Nor has Malati, who is more her friend
and guide than her maid, and with whom, distanced in terms of age,
lifestyle, class and attitude, Bonolata shares a strange bonding.
If one cares to look beyond the immediacy of the films narrative
and cinematographic framework, one will be able to see another
portrait of a larger, extended and different family in the film. It is a
picture of the film industry as a family peopled with polarized qualities of the self-centered, egoistic, opportunist and exploitative film
director on the one hand and the exploited film actress on the other.
The production designer presents the only sane voice within this
team. The self-reflexive process of using a film-within-a-film is a fascinating revelation, a celluloid confession of sorts, by the filmmaker
who creates, within the larger film, an objective distance between
himself and his characterthe filmmaker-in-the-film, who is a celluloid replication of the director himself. Mrinal Sen did this effectively
in Akaaler Sandhane. One of the most brilliant self-reflexive statements
on celluloid is Antonionis unforgettable 8. French filmmaker Jean
Luc Goddard used film-within-a-film for a few of his films. Bariwali
thus evolves into (a) a medium of creative expression of the artist
(director) through the aesthetic use of sound and image, and (b) his
own reflection seen in the mirror of this film-within-the-film. When
he blends these two, the third objective of the artist (director) emerges
as a natural extension of these two, and this is (c) throwing a rope
that bridges the gap between himself and his audience.

In Utsab, Ghosh opens the narrative through the video camera of a
strapping young man, Joy, grandson of the matriarch, who lives alone
in a sprawling mansion. Joy uses his camera to make observations
on the house, the family and the festival. The Durga Pooja is the
peg on which the film hangs. Joy wants to become a filmmaker,
but has surrendered to his fathers wishes to do an MBA abroad. His
comments on the trivialities around the house are allegories that bring
alive his passion for films and filmmaking. I have heard these pooja

The Family in Flux 273

vessels were used by Satyajit Ray in Debi, he says. My mother told

me this though she was very small then.
The camera pans across the house, explores the long corridors, the
windows, the courtyard where the sculptor is putting finishing touches
to the Mother Goddess and her children. Bumba, one of the matriarchs grandchildren, sits in front of the sculptor, questioning him
about Durga and her four children. Slowly, as we warm up to the
family reunion, the cracks begin to show. The children want the house
sold. The older daughter (Mamata Shankar) has problems with her
husband, who has stayed back under the purported excuse of a business tour. The problems revolve around her earlier affair with a cousin,
Sisir (Dipankar Dey in a brief appearance), who has now made it big
and wants to buy the house. The younger daughter (Rituparna
Sengupta) is about to split with her husband (Prasenjit), who chooses
to drown his failure in the bottle and live off his wife. The younger
son (Bodhisatta Majumdar) has problems with his present job and
needs money.
Aveek Mukherjees brilliant camerawork captures the shadows
lurking behind the pillars along with the brilliance of the decor around
the Durga icon, the single-umbrella Durga symbolizing the unity
within an extended family. He grasps the frequent tears in Rituparnas
dark-circled eyes, the confused expression in Bodhisattas face when
wife Monika (Anuradha Roy) tells him that she knew all along
about his problem, the antique, marble-topped table in the matriarchs bedroom as she prepares to retire for the night, closing in on
every small detail. Arghya Kamal Mitras editing matches the rich
quality of the film, while the single Tagore song acts like a metaphor,
mending relationships, creating new ones, sustaining the ones that
are already there. Sounds from outside the space of the film bring
the outside world in at times, such as the blaring loudspeaker belting out old Hindi and Bengali hits from the neighborhoods community pooja.
The narrative is often broken into with insights from Joy, who is in
a hurry to capture everything and everyone with his video camera.
He keeps interspersing his close-ups with comments on the goingson, spiced up with his love for Bengali films. Aparna Sens Parama
opened with a close-up of the Durga icon, he says, as he captures
the Sindoor Utsav on Bijoya Dashami day. Why must every married

274 Shoma A. Chatterji

woman wear the regulatory uniform of the red-bordered white saree
during Durga pooja? he asks himself. Intricate womanly details like
the women rolling out luchis or sorting out flowers for the pushpanjali
enrich the tapestry of the narrative. The film closes with the nowfamiliar Rituparno insignia of hope and optimism. The house remains
unsold, the matriarch now living with her youngest daughter and a
now sober son-in-law, defining a life of contentment and happy reconciliation. The closing shot shows the clicking of the remote while
they are watching Joys video film. The credits begin to appear.
Rituparno is in total control. Whether it is Madhabi as the matriarch
or the deconstructed Prasenjit as the younger son-in-law, each one
lives the role he/she is called upon to play. Rituparna excels as the
younger daughter while Ratulshankar sparkles in a wonderful
debut. Arpita furthers the promise she revealed in Asookh. Rituparno
exploits every nook and corner of the mansion, including its steps
and dark corridors, through the generous use of mid-shots, longshots, close-ups and tight close-ups with Aveeks fluid camera. He
fleshes out every single character in the filmeven the visually absent
ones. He stresses the positive side of each character, making each
resolution all that more credible and smooth. Dialog, one of his
strongest points, is picked straight out of real life sans circumlocution,
sans melodramatic embroidery, sans frills and with generous doses
of humor.

A Summing Up
One must draw attention to a strikingly unusual insight Ghosh offers,
through Unishe April, into the place the kitchen occupies in the minds
of two women. Surprisingly, it is the kitchen and all that goes into
the making of an impromptu meal in the middle of the night that
suddenly throw the doors and windows of communication wide open.
The mother and daughter are trapped in an openness they are not
prepared for but are forced to confront. I say surprisingly because
the kitchen does not form a part of their respective public or private
domains. The figurative cupboard, Aditi discovers, does not hide any
skeletons, but only the tragedy of a woman who was/is misunderstood
by her own daughter simply because she did not quite fit into the

The Family in Flux 275

mold of an idealized mother-love which might have, in the long-run,

metamorphosed into a stranglehold.
The mood of the film begins to change once the camera follows
the two women into the kitchen. Tins are opened, an old recipe notebook is found, there is a frantic search for a particular ingredient that
must go into the one-dish meal. Lets make it without the saffron,
says Aditi. No, says Sarojini, underlining her striving for perfection
in every area of life. Then one tin exposes a long-lost bottle of French
perfume Sarojini thought had broken long ago. I hated that smell,
cries Aditi because it reminded me of your absences. The preparation of the meal is subordinated to the unfolding of layers of information and understanding between Aditi and Sarojini, as is the
meal they share at the dining table and finish off to enter Aditis bedroom on the floor above. This use of the kitchen offers an insight into
its identity in bridging this woman-to-woman relationship within the
home. Note that in Unishe April neither the mother nor the daughter
is a housewife in the ordinary sense of the word. The kitchen arrives
like a point of catharsis in the narrative and visual space of the film.
And having played its role, it recedes once more into the background,
allowing the mother and daughter to re-occupy centerstage.
The camera now moves upstairs into the girls bedroom, with
noticeable paraphernalia for an elaborately, almost childishly, planned
suicide. Sarojini chances upon the suicide note while Aditi is in the
bathroom. When she comes out, the mother slaps her daughter; but
instead of re-establishing the chasm, the slap brings them closer.
One unique element in a Rituparno Ghosh script is its distinct
structure, which changes with every film he directs. Unishe April
opened with the shocking scene of an untimely and sudden death.
Whispers and hushed tones underscored the grief of a little girl in
shock, till we were surprised to discover that the entire unfolding was
in flashback. The narrative of Dahan is sandwiched between letters
penned by one of the two main female characters to her sister away
in Canada. Asookh explores the cinematographic space with a structured narrative that moves in and out of film shoots, the make-up
room of the film-star heroine, and the dark, brooding ambience of
her bedroom as the camera closes in again and again on her loneliness,
her deep emotional insecurity, and her sense of alienation. In Bariwali,
he brings Bonolata down to repair a fuse gone wrong. Dipankar the
film director steps in to help her out. The film closes on the same

276 Shoma A. Chatterji

note. The film team has left, the fuse has gone kaput once again and
Bonolata clambers downstairs to repair it herself, having come to
terms with her loneliness all over again.

The familys relationship to the physical spaces it occupies is less important than its relationship to the emotional spaces created, sustained
and destroyed between and among the members who constitute the
basic structure of the family in the first place. The members relationship to each other and among themselves has long been a focus of
literary, sociological, cinematic and historical discussion and debate.
The family mirrors society and society reflects the family, where both
are gendered in particular ways, especially within the patriarchal
paradigm we seem to function in. Countless treatises have been written
and archived and numerous seminars have addressed links between the different members of a single family and how these links
strengthen, or get loosened, or break, or re-join over time, subject to
socio-economic factors that are also in a constant state of flux. Gender
assumptions have been employed, either with a bias, or based on a
neutral hypothesis, to characterize these relationships and in the same
way, have used the family unit to construct gender. Often left out of
such discussions are the socio-economic spaces newly created under
the demands of these shifting paradigms of family space.
Critics since Virginia Woolf have explored the implications of a
room of ones own, dividing space into seemingly irreconcilable
feminine, domestic domains and masculine, public arenas. This
does not pertain any more, at least in the urban metros of Indian
homes where the extreme constrictions of space in a very physical
sense are taken for granted and without challenge because of sheer
lack of possible alternatives. But extremely limiting conditions of
physical space within the home can also create a threat by themselves
by throwing a sparring couple at each other again and again if only
by the sole reason of their not having a private space wherein they
might reflect and introspect on the reasons of the sustained conflict
between them.

The Family in Flux 277

1. Social Trends: A National Statistics Publication produced to high
professional standards set out in the National Statistics Code of Practice.
Published with the permission of the Controller of Her Majestys
Stationery Office (HMSO).
2. Every five years, Families and Work Institute conducts its National Study
of the Changing Workforce (NSCW), the only on-going study of the
U.S. workforce of its kind or scale. By surveying large, nationally representative samples of employed workers, the NSCW provides valuable,
timely information on the work and personal/family lives of the U.S.
workforce. It is the only study of its kind to provide 25-year comparisons,
from 1977 to 2002, of life on and off the job. The study is widely used
by policy makers, employers, the media, and all those interested in the
widespread impacts of the changing conditions of work and home life.
The 2002 reportHighlights of the 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforceexamines five topics in depth:

Women in the Workforce,

Dual Earner Couples,
The Role of Technology in Employees Lives on and off the Job,
Work-Life Supports on the Job,
Working for Oneself versus Someone Else.

3. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the principal fact-finding agency

for the Federal Government in the broad field of labor economics and
statistics. The BLS is an independent national statistical agency that
collects, processes, analyzes, and disseminates essential statistical data
to the American public, the U.S. Congress, other Federal agencies, State
and local governments, business, and labor. The BLS also serves as a
statistical resource to the Department of Labor. In 2005, women who
were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings of
US$ 585, or 81 percent of the US$ 722 median for their male counterparts. This ratio has grown since 1979, the first year comparable earnings
data were available; that year, women earned about 63 percent as much
as men did.
4. Madanes, Cloe, family therapist in Rockville, MD, and author of The
Secret Meaning of Money, 1994, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.
5. Quoted by Gupta in an interview with the author.
6. Dr Agatha Bowley is consultant psychologist at the internationally
famous Cheyne Centre for Spastic Children in Chelsea, London,
England, and also the Surrey (England) Horsham and Crawley Child
Guidance Clinics.

278 Shoma A. Chatterji

7. A legal practitioner based in Calcutta in an interview with the author.
8. A practicing psychiatrist in an interview with the author in Calcutta.
9. N.R. Madhave Menon; Chancellor, National University of Juridical
Sciences, Calcutta, and Member, Law Commission of India. Madhave
Menon is the former Dean of the National Law School of India, the
immediate past-President of the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, and the Indian representative to the International Client Counseling Competition. He has previously been Head of the Department
of Law, Delhi University; Principal of the Government Law College,
Pondicherry (India); a Fellow of the American Council of Learned
Societies; Editor of the Indian Bar Review; and Secretary of the Bar
Council of India Trust. In 1994 the International Bar Association conferred on him its Living Legend of Law Award. His publications include
Hand-book of Clinical Legal Education (1997), Social Justice and Legal Process (1985), The Legal Profession in India (1983), and Legal Education in
India (1982).

A study entitled Family Stress and CopingA Decade in Review (Journal of
Marriage and the Family, No. 42, 1983).
Arendell, Terry J. (1987). Women and the Economics of Divorce in the
Contemporary United States, Signs, 13(1): 12135.
Coleman M. and H.L. Ganong. (1990). Remarriage and step-family research
in the 1980s: New Interest in an old family form, Journal of Marriage
and the Family, Vol. 52, pp. 92540.
Corsini, R.J. (1999). The Dictionary of Psychology. Philadelphia, PA: Brunner/
Dym, Barry. (1995). Readiness and Change in Couple Therapy, Basic Books.
Gupta, Smita. (1992). A Psycho-Social Study of School Students Coming from
Single-parent Homes in Relation to their Performance at School, M.Ed.
Dissertation, University of Mumbai.
Herzog, E. and C.E. Sudia. (1973). Fatherless HomesA Review of Research,
University of Chicago.
Morgan, David. (1990). Risk and Family Practices: Accounting for Change
and Fluidity in Family Life in E.B. Silva and C. Smart (eds), The New
Family, pp. 1330. London: Sage Publications.
Pringle, Mia, Kellmer. (1975). The Needs of Children, Hutchinson & Company,

The Family in Flux 279

Rainwater, Lee. (1984). Mothers Economic Contributions to the Family
Money Economy in Europe and the United States, in Patricial Voydanoff
(ed.) Work and Family: Changing Roles of Men and Women. Palo Alto,
CA: Mayfield.
Smart, C. and B. Neale. (1999). Family Fragments?. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Sweeney, M. (1995). Remarriage of Men and Women: The Role of Socioeconomic Prospects, CDE Working Paper no. 9508, Centre for Demography and Ecology, University of Madison-Wisconsin, USA.
Ultasi, Agnes. (19862001). Partnership, Solidarity and Transformation
of Family Structured in Hungary.

280 Meghna Gulzar

Chapter 16

The Reel Indian Family

Reflections from Celluloid
Meghna Gulzar

The family has been one of the most important institutional pillars
in Indian society. Any art form of society is reflective of its culture.
The family has been a pivotal part of our artistic heritage and depicted
in great detail, right from the Epicsthe Ramayana and the
Mahabharata. So much so that centuries later the most popular art
form in India todaynamely, Hindi cinemastill draws inspiration
from them and churns out films of the family drama genre, albeit
with a few modern shades. So resilient is the institution of the family
that it has sustained the onslaught of technological revolutions, multinational companies, satellite television and the so-called shift to nuclear families, and constantly reinvented itself to sustain its position
as the cornerstone of Indian society. It comes as no surprise then that
television sets are bursting at the seams with family-based daily soapoperas, or Saas-bahu soaps as they are popularly known, and that the
biggest box-office hit of 2001 was the lavish family film Kabhie Khushi
Kabhie Gham. It would be prudent to point out at this juncture that
the families depicted in the Saas-bahu soaps as also in Kabhie Khushi
Kabhie Gham are a far cry from the families of our epics, fables and
folklore, which were not afflicted with the maladies of excessive wealth
and adultery!

The Reel Indian Family 281

Which brings us to these pertinent but poignant questions: Has

the complexion of the Indian family really changed so? Are its reflections in our cinema and television appropriate and accurate?
Through this chapter, I will attempt to find an answer to these questions, although treading carefully because the road down the history
of the Indian family as it appears on celluloid is long-winded and
filled with complexities. Being just one-film old and not really raised
on a diet of films, I do not consider myself an authority on Hindi
Cinema. Therefore my observations will be like those of a lay member
of the audience, watching the Indian Family as it has been reflected on
screen through the years.
Mere paas maa haivery few of us today are unfamiliar with
this famous line from Deewar even though it was made way back in
1976, a story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law as well as
the moral spectrum. Shashi Kapoor playing the righteous son proclaims to Amitabh Bachchan that he doesnt need the bangla, motor
or paisa because he has his motherhe has everything. This one prolific line is a defining example of the importance our films give to the
mother as well as to the family.
Right from the beginnings of Hindi Cinema, the family has been
an important core of the films story or plot. The early films were
primarily mythologicals or adaptations of our great epics, in which,
as we all know, the family is a pivotal element. This trend continues
till todaythe Mahabharata has inspired not only various versions
of TV serials, but also a modern adaptation on screen like Kalyug
(1981) about two feuding industrialist families. Hum Saath Saath Hain
(1999) is a twenty-first century take on the Ramayan, centered on
sacrifice and filial duty.
The families in the two films are vastly different, almost antithetical
to one another. The Kalyug families are conniving and competitive,
who stop at nothing, including murder, to achieve their ends. On the
other hand, Sooraj Barjatya, the director of Hum Saath Saath Hain
portrayed a family whose members are close-knit, emotionally
attached, respectful and loyal to one another. When the mother
banishes the adopted son from the family because she wants her sons
to be the heirs to the family wealth, the younger brothers refuse to
take their older brothers place, and like Bharat in the Ramayana,
refuse to sit on the elder brothers chair!
Which one of these two reel families is the true reflection of the
real Indian Family?

282 Meghna Gulzar

India is an effervescent combination of a myriad of castes and
cultures, with their own distinct norms and ethics. This multiplicity
is further compounded by the varying economic strata in Indian
society. Naturally, a definitive portrait of the true Indian family gets
blurred in this diversity. To further complicate matters, India has been
producing an average of 400 films a year since the 1930s, and that is
a conservative estimate. To dredge out the real Indian family from a
plethora of about 40,000 films is quite a task! To facilitate the process,
using economic background as the stratifying tool seems a plausible
So well divide the Indian family into the impoverished, the feudals,
the nondescript middle class, the rich and the unbelievably super rich,
and then examine their reflections in Hindi Cinema through the ages.

The Impoverished
Poverty has all but vanished from the Hindi film scenario today. But
the trials and tribulations of an impoverished family were a familiar
theme in films in the 1950s and 1960s. The most memorable of these,
Mother India (1957), glorified woman as wife, as mother and as a
savior of honor. The film reflects the life of Indias poor peasant
families and their exploitation by feudal landlords. It is a remake of
director Mehboob Khans earlier film Aurat. Radha, played by
Nargis, became the screen icon of the eternally suffering mother who
is able to sacrifice her own son for the values she holds dear. Nirupa
Roy carried the torch from her, from the 1970s onwards, as mother
to Amitabh Bachchan, the angry young man.
That dharma must prevail over familial bonds is a perennially
favorite theme of Bollywood filmmakers. In Ganga Jamuna (1961),
two brothers are pitted against each other, one a policeman, the other
an outlaw. The policeman finally kills his fugitive older brother for the
sake of justice. Decades later, in Shakti (1982), a father (Dilip Kumar)
shoots his own son (Amitabh Bachchan) in the name of the law.
The predominant issue in this breed of the Indian family was
poverty, exploitation by the feudal lords and overcoming of hardships
to emerge triumphant. Sometimes there was no triumph. Do Bigha
Zameen (1953) tells of a dispossessed peasant who goes to the city

The Reel Indian Family 283

with his son to earn money to pay back a loan. He becomes a rickshawpuller while his son works as a shoeshine boy. Eventually he returns
to the village battered by the harshness of city life, only to find his
land taken over by a city developer.
It would be interesting to note that marital discord, adultery, generation gap or disintegration did not afflict the impoverished Indian
family, at least in mainstream Hindi Cinema. These issues were dealt
with in the so-called parallel cinema. I say so-called because I personally disagree with any art form being pigeonholed into categories
for the convenience of the media.
Nevertheless, it was around the 1980s that films depicting dysfunctional families in this economic background began to appear. Chakra
(1980) is about a widows efforts to save her son from the criminals
of the shantytown she lives in. She also has a lover, a truck-driver by
whom she becomes pregnant.
Govind Nihalanis Aakrosh (1980) is a hard-hitting film about the
frustration and helplessness of the tribals in India. Lahanya, played
by Om Puri, is arrested for murdering his wife in a drunken state.
Throughout the film, he maintains a silence, even to his defense lawyer
Naseeruddin Shah, who wants to help him. Through the course of
the film it is revealed that the wife was raped and murdered by local
bigwigs. In a shattering climax, Lahanya kills his sister, saving her
from the same fate that befell his wife.
In Rihaee (1990), director Aruna Raje makes an imaginative social
satire on the sterility of many marriages in rural India as the ablebodied men of the village migrate to the cities to work, leaving their
women behind and returning only for brief periods every two or three
years. In the interim arrives a raunchy young man, played by
Naseeruddin Shah, who has an affair with and impregnates one of
the women. The woman boldly faces her husband with the inevitable
in the climax of the film.
Films portraying women in a liberated light were made as early as
the 1930s. Duniya Na Mane (1937), made by V. Shantaram, is about a
young woman who has been tricked into marrying an old widower.
She registers her protest by refusing to consummate the marriage.
The widower passes from initial rage to frustration, ending in a sense
of guilt and eventual suicide. The film became a big box-office draw,
got rave reviews and aroused extreme reactions as well. Unfortunately,
such a bold stance was limited to just a handful of films.

284 Meghna Gulzar

In Dr Madhurika (1935) the wife, who is a doctor, sacrifices her
profession to preserve the sanctity of the home, save the marriage
from professional rivalry between spouses and play along in the role
of the submissive Hindu wife. Feminists slammed it but the audiences
loved it.
It is probably this compliance with traditional values that restricts
most filmmakers in exploring out-of-the-box ideals, particularly in
mainstream films. Hence, in most films, the impoverished Indian
family is united, close-knit and healthy in its functioning. Even Lagaan
(2001), a film set in the rural milieu, though made in the twentieth
century has poverty, the fight against the oppressive British regime
and its taxation as the central theme. Not only are all the families
healthy and functional, but the entire village is one close, extended
family unit.
For the maladies of adultery, bigamy and disintegration and the
like to afflict it, the reel Indian family needed to have more

The Feudals
The above-mentioned disorders have afflicted the feudal Indian family
incessantly over the years in our films. It is almost as if wealth brings
with it the freedom or misfortune, as some might believe, that go
against the accepted social and traditional norms. In this breed of
the Indian family, honor is still important but morals and values tend
to weaken. In Bimal Roys Devdas (1955), as in its previous and most
recent versions, the status of the family comes in the way of love.
This however, does not stop the protagonist from visiting a kotha,
which was perhaps looked upon as a status symbol. It also permits
an older man to marry a second time, a girl half his age and as old as
his daughter. The woman as usual is meant to continue in the tradition
of the submissive Indian girl with no protest, but for the symbolic oil
lamp that keeps the flame of her thwarted love still burning. This
subtle modification is only in the twentieth-century version directed
by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
But the women in Zamindar families are not always this submissiveParo does make a last-attempt dash to her mansion gates to

The Reel Indian Family 285

see Devdas, in spite of being forbidden to do so. However, the gates

close before she can make it outside.
Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari) in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) takes
to alcohol to keep her husband company, who indulges in nocturnal
orgies. The film described the slow disintegration of a feudal family
wherein men follow the tradition of the times and are given to drink,
gambling and orgies with courtesans while their wives languish in
Shyam Benegals first feature film Ankur details rural life and exposes the feudal system for its indifference and brutality. A Zamindars
son arrives from the city to oversee his fathers estate. Bored and sexually frustrated, he seduces and eventually impregnates his attractive
maidservant (Shabana Azmi), wife of a deaf-mute laborer. The image
of the feudal Indian family is almost typecast as oppressive, amoral
and severely derogatory towards womenof their own family and
those outside it as well. Bigamy is quite an accepted norm in this
milieuright from Lal Patthar (1971), where the Thakur (Raaj Kumar)
marries a much younger woman (Raakhee) in spite of keeping a
woman (Hema Malini) before her, to Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki and
more recently, Zubeida (2000).
It is only in the last decade, with the emergence of new, younger
filmmakers, that the image of the feudal family has been given a
much-needed makeover. One probable reason could be that though
Zamindars by lineage, the family is often depicted as having migrated
to the city and is now in its new avatar of a respectable business family.
Both the Thakur families in Mansoor Khans Qayamat Se Qayamat
Tak (1989) are free from the vices of adultery, bigamy and courtesans.
Once again, family pride comes to the fore and age-old enmity thwarts
the love between the younger generations.
Certain aspects still remainthe dominance of the patriarch in all
decisions and the silent and obedient profile of the women in the
family. One would hope that as the Hindi film industry is infused
with newer talent and younger, cosmopolitan minds, films too would
reflect a certain progressive thinking. The reality is quite contrary
the younger lot of filmmakers is in fact returning to the folds of the
family, upholding traditional norms and age-old value systems. Only
the packaging has become modernwrapped in foreign locales,
clothed in Western designer labels and dotted with marvels of
technology like e-mail, mobile phones, zany sports cars and even

286 Meghna Gulzar

helicopters! But that is the breed of the unbelievably super rich, whom
we shall come to later.

The Nondescript Middle Class

The middle class is considered to have the most conservative sensibility
in Indian society. Yet in Hindi films the furthest liberties have been
taken with its nature and characters. I therefore use the term nondescript, as it is virtually impossible to get one defining portrait of
the reel middle-class family.
Basu Chatterjees Sara Akaash (1969) is a moving study of an
arranged marriage and attitudes within a joint family. Lack of communication between the couple and the tensions of joint family living compound the problems till the wife goes away to live with her
parents. Her absence leads to realization, remorse and eventual happy
A marriage crumbling under the mundanity of daily living has
been a recurring theme in Basu Bhattacharyas films Anubhav, Avishkar,
Grihapravesh and his last film Aastha. The characters of all these films
belong to the middle class and are disposed to marital discord, adultery
and infidelity.
A rare occurrence in Hindi films is when an adulterous wife does
not repent of her behavior and stands by her acts and decisions. Paroma
(1985) and, more recently, Astitva (2000) are two such films.
That such taboo issues are only addressed in offbeat films is not
entirely true. As early as 1963, mainstream filmmaker B.R. Chopra
made Gumrah, in which a married woman (Mala Sinha) cheating on
her husband (Ashok Kumar) sneaks off for a clandestine rendezvous
with her lover (Sunil Dutt). On being discovered, the repentant wife
returns to the family fold. The conclusion was a clear concession to
the traditional morality of the Indian audience.
However, it is important to remember that not all of the nondescript
middle-class families are beset with marital problems. Bawarchi (1972)
is a witty and humorous film about a cook (Rajesh Khanna) in a
middle-class family riddled with petty problems like insufficient
income, lack of privacy in a joint family, ego tussles, supremacy issues,
and petty politics between the family members.

The Reel Indian Family 287

The family drama genre is also called the Madras Formula as

the majority of films in this genre are made in South Indian languages
and by South Indian directors in HindiK. Vishwanath, Balu
Mahendra, K. Balachander and T. Rama Naidu, to name just a few.
Films like Sansar, Ghar Ek Mandir and others portray close-knit traditional Indian joint families where the men work and are the key
decision-makers, while the women stay home and obediently agree
with the men, upholding the virtues of silent-suffering and self-sacrifice. Financial hardship, quarreling brothers and exploitation by
conniving relatives are the main problems of the nondescript middleclass Indian family.
These films came to be made in the 1970s and 1980s, when there
was enough crime and violence on the streets and on celluloid as well.
It was the era of the angry young man, played to the hilt by the one
and only Amitabh Bachchan, in film after film! At such a time, falling
back on the security of tradition and family seemed to find favor
with the audiences. Not too many people notice that these films carry
sublime regressive messages with respect to women and their place
in family and society.
So resilient is the institution of family that even in the era of action
films, the plots revolved around justice or revenge for wronged parents
or suffering mothers in order to justify the action. Zanjeer (1973), Sholay
(1975), Coolie (1983), Ram Lakhan (1989), and Agneepath (1990) are
all about seeking retribution in the name of the family.
The 1980s also saw the rise of television as an emerging mass
medium. A soap opera could in a single night attract more viewers
than the entire audience of a popular movie in a week! Serials like
Hum Log and Buniyaad gripped the nation with their popular appeal.
They are essentially sagas about Indian middle-class families and once
again preach the values of joint living, familial duties and remaining united in the face of hardship. Not far behind was the appearance
of the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, reinforcing the
same traditional norms. Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi was perhaps the only serial
at the time that depicted a nuclear familya husband, wife and her
Everyone would agree that the 1980s were the worst period of Hindi
Cinema with run-of-the-mill, meaningless films with hackneyed plots
and worse performances, stuffed with mediocre songs and unnecessary violence. A new addition to the melting pot was the angel of
death in variations of the rape and revenge formula. The ideal Hindu

288 Meghna Gulzar

wife and virtuous woman had suddenly become a violent, gun-toting
vigilante in films like Sherni, Khoon Bhari Maang, Pratighat (1987) and
Zakhmee Aurat (1988).
Competition from television and the increasing number of flopping
films forced filmmakers to rethink their craft. Films had to get bigger
and better, polished and well packaged. Foreign locales replaced
Indian settings, the characters became more modern and contemporary and realism gave way to gloss, glamor and grandeur. The rich
and the unbelievably super rich were on their way!

The Rich
In its post-liberalization, post-branding age, India is looking more
and more like a mini-Europe or the United States. People drink Pepsi,
eat at McDonalds, wear Tommy Hilfiger, Gap or Armani, live in outof-Manhattan lofts and go to school (even actors in their late 20s and
30s!) that appear to have materialized out of Beverly Hills! However,
the core of the film is still Indian. In fact, it could not be more traditional. The family is always sacred and so are the country and its
traditions. In 1989, the Indian joint family came to the fore in Maine
Pyaar Kiya. This breed of the rich family lives together, prays together
and even plays cricket and Antaakshari together. Through various
scenes and dialog it underlines the virtues of a good Indian wife
peeling peas being one of themand denounces women who work,
wear western clothes or have short hair. It professes that love can
only be fulfilled with the permission and approval of the parents.
Sacrificing love for the family has been a recurring theme in Hindi
films. What was spun in Kabhie Kabhie is taken a step further in Dilwale
Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), where Shahrukh Khan, the slick young
NRI, refuses to elope with his beloved Kajol and insists on winning
the approval of her family instead. This NRI family, even though it
has lived in England for over thirty years, still listens to Hindi film
songs but jives to rock-n-roll on the sly. The daughters are fluent in
bhajans as well as familiar with the various Indian rituals, especially
Karva Chauth, the perennial favorite in Hindi films. Rani Mukherjee
wears the skimpiest of clothes in Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai (1998) but
promptly sings Om Jai Jagdish Hare when dared to sing a Hindi song.

The Reel Indian Family 289

The term ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) is alien to the

NRI families of Hindi Cinema; they could give true-blue Indians a
run for their rupee any day! No one has ever questioned what the
young generation of the rich family does for a living. It is assumed
that the boys take up their fathers business, but what of the girls?
Why do we not see women as independent professionals in Hindi
films who aspire to more than just marrying the man of their dreams?
Why are these women from affluent families, with no dearth of resources at their disposal, still only reduced to ornate caricatures that
sing, dance and observe traditional rituals and festivals? Traditionalism
is not so bad unless thats all there is!
In spite of all the exposure to liberalization and a global economy,
the rich Indian family is still extremely conformist and traditional in
their thinking. Hindi Cinema may have actually stepped back in time,
in its attempt to gain audience approval at any cost!
In Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? (1994), Nisha (Madhuri Dixit) is an
educated and aware city girl. Yet she has hardly any objections and
dutifully agrees to wed her elder sisters husband in the best interests
of her infant nephew. A plethora of causes has elicited the increased
popularity of such family-focused films. The global market for Hindi
cinema seems to desire a return to culture. Seeing cultural attire
and traditions seems, to many people, the greatest and most familiar
form of relief amidst the millennium craze, as also a reinforcement
of their sense of identity.
Only a handful of films depict the rich Indian family ailing with
marital discord and familial disintegrationSilsila (1981), Arth (1983),
Masoom (1983) and Ijaazat (1987), to name a few. Fire goes a step
further to explore lesbianism between sisters-in-law. And most recently
Mira Nairs Monsoon Wedding is an in-depth and somewhat realistic
portrayal of a rich Punjabi family with its fair share of problems.
But as the stakes get higher, the films costlier and the reel Indian
family becomes unbelievably super rich, the values and ideals they
portray become more traditional, conformist and sometimes regressive. Anything and everything Western is looked down upon, except
their designer labels and other status symbols. The new generation
of filmmakers has their finger on the nations pulse. They understand
that now you need to have odes, both to the gods and to the family.
They are tapping nostalgia for a safer world where the family becomes
an enclave protected by the tall doors of their sprawling mansions.

290 Meghna Gulzar

As the rich Indian family becomes unbelievably super rich, they
become more traditional instead of progressive and liberal.
The most lavish example of the unbelievably super rich Indian
family is the Raichand Family from Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham
(2001). They send their children to study in foreign universities and
are affluent enough to travel by helicopters. But their women are not
allowed to have a say on any issue. The wife of this affluent patriarch
is akin to a very glamorous version of the typical Hindu housewife.
She submissively lets her husband banish her dear son from the family
and out of pure reverence to her husband does not even try to contact
her son for a decade! The father, an educated and worldly wise man
and owner of a huge business empire, is rigid enough to expect his
son to forsake his own love and marry a girl of his fathers choice. He
even mouths autocratic lines like Keh diya to end an argument,
with him having the last word.
In spite of the above critique, it must be acknowledged that these
films have gone on to become top box-office draws, even setting historic collection records! They must have done something right
The opulence and characteristics of the rich has even trickled into
our television serials in its plethora of Saas-Bahu soaps. The families
are all into business and industry. The men run the companies and
the women run the household. Once again, the joint family seems to
be very popular and all the family members live together peacefully.
The women dress in their finest saris and jewelry to go about their
daily chores as well as the rites and rituals on festive occasions. However, for the purpose of longevity and for providing dramatic twists
and turns, these normal, cohesive families are infused with villains
and vampsthe conniving daughter-in-law, the greedy-for-inheritance
son-in-law, the step-mother, et cetera. Extra-marital affairs and illegitimate children are added for extra spice.
Television serials are spared the acid test of the box-office and the
stakes are much lower, hence they can risk being non-conformist, to
the point of being controversial. Lets not get fooled that this is actually
progressive in any way. It is at best, sensational.
Films however, have a lot more at stake and therefore play safe
with well-worn values and time-tested traditions. That they actually
meet with success and acceptance brings me back to my question
in the beginning of this chapterif what Hindi films are portraying
as the reel Indian Family is being accepted by audiences, is that
then the real Indian Family?

The Reel Indian Family 291

The truth is, the real Indian family is a little bit of all of the above.
It is traditional in its beliefs, yet constantly trying to walk the tightrope
between the parochial and the liberal. It is insular when it comes to
values and family norms and yet universal in matters of honor and
justice. It is vulnerable to the onslaught of urbanism and yet resilient
enough to remain the focal point of Indian society even in the twentyfirst century.
That our films, our television serials and our commercials still play
the family card to stir our emotions is testament to the everlasting
importance and strength of the Indian family.
Just as the five-spices powder or Garam Masala, as we know it,
adds flavor to Indian cooking, without which it would be bland, so
also the Indian family is a zesty combination of traditions, values,
maladies, weaknesses and above all, an innate strength to overcome
it all
One we will continue to savor on screen and off it

292 Meghna Gulzar



294 Meena Alexander

Hunting for Fish 295

Chapter 17

Hunting for Fish

A Poem
Meena Alexander

A highbacked room above a canal becomes our gathering place.

Amma shrugs off a cotton blouse, unravels a six yard sari.
Free of ancestral plots of pepper and cardamom.
She is able to lift her knees and climb these wooden stairs.
My son whose head just touches my belly button,
Bounds away, tugging a train made of match boxes.
There are sparks on the bridge below,
Firecrackers perhaps?
My year old daughter is gallivanting on her fathers back
They are hunting for fish in the open air market.
He is my husband and for long lapses I have shifted myself
Against his blue waters and fled.
In another life I will sleep the long sleep with him.
Not here, not yet.

296 Meena Alexander

I am a housewife still, I have work to do.
The imagination presses against warm storage spaces.
Underground chalices for flesh.
I must open the bags my father packed before his last illness.
But why are we in this room only blackened stairs will reach
Above a canal of green blue water?
Under water stones shift, our muscles knit,
Plucking strength to lift worn suitcases packed with family photographs.
Under sepia surfaces stir white ancestral bones
Still smarting in their skins of fat.
At the very end, we shall be casteach soul in its morsel of flesh
As bread on the shining waters of Kochi.

Chapter 18

The Family
As I Saw it, as I See it
Vidya Bal

I have been a journalist for more than four decades. My presentation

today is primarily based on my experience while editing two
magazines during this period. In the first 22 years of my journalistic
career I worked for the magazine Stree (Woman) of Kirloskar
Publications, which had a progressive outlook. For the last few years,
I have been running the magazine Miloon Saryajani (Women
Together), which I started in 1989.
As a journalist, I had the privilege of interacting with a large number
of people and getting exposed to numerous experiences, situations
and debates. I owe my development as a human being to all this.
I was born and brought up in a typical Maharashtrian middleclass family and moved into a new but similar set-up after marriage.
Till the age of 35, I was a typical middle-class womanone who
obediently stuck to the traditions, maintained the aesthetics of
silence, and therefore never-never questioned the elders about why
we lived the way we lived. I was a stereotype, you may say. The field
Paper presented at the Fulbright-TISS workshop held on June 2930,
2002 at TISS, Mumbai.

298 Vidya Bal

of journalism taught me to ask questions. The journey began with
me interrogating myself. I fought with my inner self. The process
took me far beyond the questions that I raised and helped me stand
by myself when it came to a crunch. I realized I was undergoing a
growth process. My worldview began cutting across the narrow vistas
of a close, traditional family. And soon, I found myself getting familiarized with the concept of an extended family founded on feminist
ideology. Once started, the process gained momentum very quickly.
It has not ceased till this date.
Journalism also brought out the activist in me. While editing Stree
I became a member of a group of women who founded Nari Samanta
Manch (Forum for Womens Equality) in 1989. Then I started the
magazine Miloon Saryajani to provide space for womens issues that
were generally neglected by mainstream journalism. It is not a mouthpiece of any particular movement, but it does have an affinity with
issues raised by progressive movements. In that sense, it is a social
magazine. It strives to take the ideas promoting equality and humanity to men and women who reside just beyond the periphery of
womens movement. I thus live the life of an activist and a journalist.
Miloon Saryajani regularly undertakes numerous activities that are
complementary to the magazines philosophy. We have introduced
Sakhi-mandal (group of women friends) in various cities, where
women periodically come together to share one anothers problems/
views/achievements. These mandals also bring together readers,
writers and the editor. Sath-Sath (together) is a forum for marriageaspiring youths who want to make the union a truly successful,
interactive relationship based on equality and respect for each other.
Therefore, this is a marriage bureau based on a totally different
Akshar-sparsha is again a library with a difference where people
meet to share views about the books they have read.
The magazine Nari Samanta Manch and all these activities keep me
abreast of various aspects of womens lives, which in turn enrich
me as a journalist. This is a fascinating process similar to the water
cycle in nature wherein I begin my journalistic journey by reaching
out to the people and ending up precisely there!
In the endeavor to make the readers and writers more communicative, I decided to take an unusual step. I was convinced of the fallacy
in the notion that the editor was genius and an epitome of all the
worldly knowledge, and therefore had the right to preach others.

The Family 299

Departing from this norm, I decided that the editor would simply
convey his/her views, allowing the readers to read freely. This enabled
me not only to create a bond of mutual trust with readers but also to
facilitate a truly meaningful dialog with them. The results were not
forthcoming immediately. They came slowly but steadily. The stream
of letters candidly reflected readers confusion and dilemmas with
regard to the published literature in Miloon Saryajani. This positive
change in the attitude of readers encouraged me to take another step.
I always send personal replies to all my readers. Now I also started
selecting those letters which had some social relevance. Without disclosing the identity of the writer and with her/his prior permission I
started writing editorials on the issues raised by the letter-writers.
The title of my editorial column was Samvaad (Dialog). This gave
me rich returns. My level of understanding grew, the dimensions of
the magazine widened and a meaningful bond was created between the
readers and me.
The experiments coincided with my growth pangs. I started understanding the limitations of middle-class ideology; it started reflecting
in the magazine. The Stree magazine, despite its generally progressive
outlook, had confined itself to the idea of making the middle class
woman a better wife, a better mother and an ideal daughter. It tended
to reinforce the notion that middle-class women had no questions,
dilemmas in their lives. Stree did enrich to a certain extent the lives
of the middle-class women as it published articles ranging from flower
arrangement and recipes to politics, economic and social issues. But
for me this was insufficient. I was somebodys mother, daughter,
sister and wife; but I surely owe something to myself as a person, a
human being. Does one simply wish it away? Through my personal
experiences I had learnt that a woman was suppressed even in an apparently decent middle-class family. Coinciding with this crucial
juncture in my life, the International Year of Women was declared.
The Womens Decade followed. These developments emboldened
me to steer Stree gently towards the feminist thought, as I began arguing through its pages that besides being a mother, a wife and a
daughter, a woman was also an independent member of the family
and the society.
Every magazine automatically reflects the ideology of its editor.
Obviously the change in me also started reflecting in Stree. Without
hurting the sentiments of the readers, I successfully shut out, one by
one, the typically female columns on hair-styles, flower arrangements,

300 Vidya Bal

knitting and so on. I replaced them with debates through questionnaires and free flow of discussions on family issues. The dialog
between the readers and me paved the way for new story ideas and
even poems.
Here I would like to recall a few examples. In 1976, we had published a special issue on womens liberation. The cover story was on
the Woes of a Widow. Other noteworthy topics included a debate
on aspirations, experiences and turmoil faced by newly married
couples. Anonymous articles of women venting out the sufferings
wrought by their corrupt husbands and raised questions that challenged hallowed concepts and rituals such as importance of marital
status, motherhood and ceremonies like Haldi-kumkum.
This was about twenty-two years ago. I remember a story written by
a woman from Goregaon in Mumbai, then a cluster of typical middleclass Maharashtrian families. The story was in a letter form, wherein
a daughter wrote to her mother about her decision to marry a youth
of her choice only after experimenting with staying together. She had
attributed her independent successful personality to the upbringing
and values nurtured by the mother. And hence, she urged her to be
honest with these values and try and understand this different experiment. The story obviously created ripples in the society.
I also remember two more letters wherein a woman in her sixties
had urged me to discontinue her membership because she was unable
to bear the mental disturbance created by the literature published in
the magazine. The second letter was from a young working wife who
too expressed inability to continue with the membership. Her problem
was also somewhat similar as she was disturbed by the partial treatment meted out to her by the mother-in law, who behaved respectfully
with the son by giving him tea in the sitting hall, while the daughterin-law was asked to fetch hers from the kitchen. The nagging feeling
of being less than equal also reflected in the attitude of the husband,
who used to snatch the newspaper from her hands. Although the
incidents were seemingly small and insignificant, the magazine was
instrumental in making her aware of the discrepancies and creating
self-respect. She had opted for shutting down the doors to emancipation because she was well aware of the limitations of having to
continue with the same family ties. She had expressed her inability
to bear the stresses and strains out of her personal growth through
the magazine on the one hand and the status quo imposed by the family

The Family 301

members on the other. We published this letter without disclosing

the identity and received about 250 replies to it.
The very beginning of a story by Suniti Aphale was shattering
enough for the so-called values and ethos of a family. It speaks of a
widow standing by a window, witnessing the last journey of her
husband. She is actually relieved to get rid of his clutches and decides
to live by herself, enjoying the small, mundane luxuries of life like
drinking hot tea and eating good food. This lady is born and brought
up in an orphanage, and is married to the rector. She has adopted a
son from the orphanage. But she receives another rude shock of her
life when her son comes to her and tells her not to worry as he had
decided to look after her. Once again her right to a self-reliant independent life is cruelly snatched away and the dreams of an emancipated life are thus smashed into smithereens.
I also remember another story by Vijaya Wad on the life of a widow.
After the untimely demise of her husband she stays single to bring up
her son. The son gets married, settles down and now has a daughter.
At this juncture the mother at the fag end of her life thinks about
herself and decides to marry the music teacher of her grand daughter.
This veteran teacher is loved and respected by all. But, except for the
grand daughter, everyone in the house feels aghast at her decision to
remarry at this particular juncture.
The stories of noted feminist Gauri Deshpande titled Madhya
Latpatit (Shaky Middle) and Dr Vidyut Bhagwats Garbha (Foetus)
created ripples. These stories portrayed the intricate facets of the man
woman relationship that transgressed the unidirectional husband
wife bond. The negative responses outnumbered the positive ones.
The International Year of Women and the subsequent Womens
Decade were the turning points in my life. Both raised societys general
awareness about womens issues. Around this time, Stree carried a
story about a nursing home in Pune. Run by a retired nurse, the nursing
home ran a racket involving illegal exchange of infants. The modus
operandi was perfect. The children of those mothers, who for various
reasons were unable to nurture the child, were clandestinely passed
on to infertile women. That episode set me thinking. I realized that
both the females were victims of societal norms. The biological
mothers were made to abandon (mostly female) children born out of
rape or illegal sex to save the family pride. The infertile mothers,
being victims of family and social barbs, were made to accept the
child lest they would be outcast because of infertility. Based on this

302 Vidya Bal

story, we at Stree raised questions concerning the hallowed concept
of motherhood, the associated social norms as well as the various
social compulsions that a woman has to face. We sought to know
whether every single woman really yearned for children. Was this
yearning truly personal? Or was she made to think that way by the
society? Or worse, was she a victim of pressures and took recourse to
motherhood in order to avoid insults and abandonment by her family?
Even granting that Stree definitely had a progressive outlook, an
investigative story like this was a decidedly bold step.
Now let me come back to my observations about some of our contemporary story writers. I have noticed that the style of some story
writers often reflects the transformations in their own thought process.
For example, the women characters in Asha Bages stories, starting
with her story Rukmini to the recent ones, have gradually become
more confident, responsible and liberated; they now have convictions
of their own. Her story Shuddha (Pure) is a remarkable one. The
story talks about a newly wedded couple on honeymoon. The first
three days have passed beautifully with both of them exploring the
newfound sex experience. But this comes in the latter part of the
story by way of flashback. The story actually begins with both of them
traveling in a bus, trying to avoid each others touch even by accident.
The mutual tension is perceptible. The reasons unravel as the story
proceeds into the immediate past. It so happens that on an early morning on the second or third day of the honeymoon, she casually steps
out of the hotel for a walk. Since he is fast asleep, she is alone. She is
raped by unknown goons and returns devastated to share her tragedy
with him. Both of them leave the town immediately on a two-day
journey to Rameshwar. Noticing a drastic change in his attitude after
the rape, she feels terribly hurt. The expression of affection, the caring
touch, and the anxiety are all gone, to be replaced by cold aloofness
on his part. At Rameshwar, he takes a holy dip in the sea and asks
her to accompany him to the temple. She expresses inability saying
she is into her menstrual period. The sentence instantly brings him
tremendous relief as it suddenly dawns on him that the rape has,
indeed, not made her pregnant! She now feels even more hurt than
she did after the rape itself.
Our society is now quite used to grown children migrating abroad,
leaving their old parents behind. This phenomenon obviously affects
family relations and therefore constitutes an interesting story subject.
Sarita Padkis story Jale (Net) is based on this subject. The son has

The Family 303

migrated to a foreign country. His mother has become old but the
bond between them has stayed intact. The lonely mother becomes ill.
The son becomes restless. His wife is relatively unconcerned and hence
reluctant to share his anxiety. He comes to India to nurse the mother
and returns after her health improves. After a few days, she again
becomes ill and subsequently dies. Meanwhile the wife also becomes
restless by the frequently recurring memories of her old parents.
Disturbed emotionally, she rushes to India to meet her parents. That
is where the story ends. The story beautifully portrays the emotional
bonds, with all their pulls and tensions, within a family in a peculiar
These are only a few noteworthy examples published in Stree and
Miloon Saryajani. Though set against a family backdrop, they boldly
comment upon the present family system, and hint at how it could or
should be. They found their way to Stree and Miloon Saryajani almost
naturally in view of the widely acknowledged progressive outlook of
these magazines. Elsewhere one is flooded with stories depicting a
status quoist attitude towards society and family.
Miloon Saryajani went a step ahead of Stree to propagate the freedom
of expression so far as feminist thought was concerned. One will
notice that, strictly grammatically, the title of the magazine (Women
Together) is female gender-specific although it does intend to embrace both genders among its readers and writers. So it could well
have been Miloon Saarejan (Everyone Together). My contention is
that for ages women have merged their gender identity with that of
men. They have had no reservations about being clubbed with men
when-ever the mixed group is referred to as Saarejan. Now it is
time for the men to make a reciprocal gesture.
I became an activist while working with Stree. I was already deep
into the womens movement when I launched Miloon Saryajani. I was
now well aware of the issues though I wouldnt say I had fully grasped
and digested its ideological base. I had begun deliberating upon
the concepts of gender equality, freedom, love, friendship, and a
non-hierarchical structure within a family and without. I had also
started practicing them as honestly as I could. Though I had not fully
understood the ideology of social reformers like Mahatma Phule,
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar and Mahatma
Gandhi, I had begun realizing the significance of their contribution
to society. Miloon Saryajani was launched against this background.
My own experience as a journalist, the tremendous goodwill of

304 Vidya Bal

likeminded friends, donations and other support from many of them,
and an affinity with readers were all that was needed to start the
venture. By now this venture has taken firm roots. Earlier I had worked
on a project Growing together in the rural parts of Pune district. It
enriched me to a great extent. The project helped me go beyond the
values and life of the middle-class world. By this time I was also
through with my family responsibilities and had actually distanced
myself from my family. I had started staying on my own in a small
flat inherited from my parents. The office of Miloon Saryajani was
also located in my flat. Whenever someone asked me whether I stayed
alone, my answer was a firm no, because I was staying with Miloon
Saryajani! While running the magazine, I have constantly tried to
translate into practice my faith in democracy, bringing in a nonhierarchical functional structure, an informal relationship with
colleagues, and collective decision-making.
Miloon Saryajani professes commitment to womens issues.
Although it does not claim to be a literary magazine, several renowned
Marathi authors are its regular contributors. More importantly, the
writings of not so well known persons also find an assured place in
its columns provided they are authentic and based on telling personal
experiences. They need not necessarily be of a high literary value.
Let me give you just one example. In January 1989, Nari Samanta
Manch had organized a meeting of destitute women in Pune. One of
the participants was a woman from a respected, educated family. She
was being tortured physically and mentally for years in her house.
Yet she could never muster the courage to take the issue to the NSM
until then. On the day after that meeting, she handed me a bunch of
poems based on her personal experience. Although they could hardly
conform to the literary norms of poetry, I published one of them
with an editorial note that hailed the new found strength of the novice
It is equally necessary to publish pieces of a literary value targeted
at just above the lowest common denominator of the readers level
of understanding. Unless this is done consciously and carefully, that
level would never rise. The cover of Miloon Saryajani carries a line
that says It is a magazine that reinitiates a dialog with oneself.
True to that ethos, the magazine has serialized a number of articles
raising new issues and opening up new vistas. For instance, Prabha
Ganorkar wrote a nine-article critique of Gauri Deshpandes writings.
Dr Milind Watve, researcher and professor, wrote articles on the

The Family 305

theme of Nar-madi te Streepurush, which traced the transition of

gender relationship from males and females to women and men.
Pushpa Bhave ran a column on contemporary politics. Efforts were
also made to keep in limelight the thoughts of social reformers including Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Mahatma
Phule and his wife Savitribai, Pandita Ramabai and Tarabai Shinde.
Miloon Saryajani is of course not an exclusive womens domain. The
1990 womens day special issue of the magazine was devoted to household chores. Among its contributors were Dr Baba Adhav, member
of the Hamaal Panchavat and, equally significantly, one Dr Honwad
who completed his Ph.D. abroad and voluntarily became a house
husband after he returned to India.
We made an appeal to men to write on interesting familial topics
such as the traditional way of selection of a bride, male participation
in parenting, fatherdaughter interrelationship, the lifestyle of activist
couples, and so on. It received an excellent response. The concept of
healthy co-living is a subject that calls for deep thought before marriage
and sincere action after the marriage. Senior couples are invited to
narrate and discuss their bitter sweet experiences to the youthful SathSath members on this platform.
The reflection of all this cannot necessarily be straitjacketed in
any of the conventional literary forms like story, poem or article.
Miloon Saryajani respects this reality. Since family is a social institution,
the changes therein are a direct derivative of the changes in the social
fabric. However, one comes across as many writers and readers who
are aware of this fact as those who are totally ignorant. While it is
true that the institution of the family has a definite role in human
life, it is equally necessary to appreciate that it is undergoing significant
changes. Feminists often have to face the criticism of being wreckers
of the family institution. But nobody bothers to understand what they
have to say about this institution. Most people yearn for an assurance
of companionship at several levels including personal, intellectual,
emotional, economic and social. The family fulfills this need and
feminists readily recognize this. As we all know, the multi-dimensional
institution of family evolved in the course of time on the bedrock of
blood relations. It had its own virtues as well as limitations including
a hierarchical structure, discrimination on the basis of gender and
age, and primacy to a direct blood relation. The feminist concept of
an extended family seeks to overcome these limitations, recognize
intra-family politics, and advocate equality, freedom, justice and love.

306 Vidya Bal

It doesnt deny a place for homosexuality among men and women.
One must admit that the writers who can ably handle this entire gamut
of a feminist family are very few compared to those who write about
relations, pressures and tensions in a traditional family. Their following
in the readers community is also limited. It is a sad reality of our
literary world.
Neither the traditional family nor the new one can be free of
internal tensions. But the reasons vary. The fabric of the traditional
family is rapidly acquiring a jaded look. One can, at best, be nostalgic
about it but it wouldnt help in practice. On the other hand, even the
intricacies, pressures and tensions in the new family are still evolving. For example, the subject of manwoman friendship in the
present day family calls for serious and responsible treatment on the
part of the younger members as well as their seniors. The usual labels
of an affair or immorality should not be allowed to cloud ones
vision. A few story writers like Saniya, Gauri Deshpande, Meghana
Pethe and Chhaya Naik do seek to make a responsible and logical
argument to this effect in their writings. One comes across several
women in their stories who struggle to lead the life of a respectable
human being, and yet the people around them fall miserably short
of appreciating that effort.
Most women have not yet been able to become truly self-reliant.
But one can definitely notice their journey in that direction. The unfamiliar path is replete with hurdles, pitfalls and the resultant tensions.
The women who have dared tread this path to self-reliance may be
continuing with their family bonds, may have broken out, or may not
have entered into them at all. But all of them appear to be constructing
their own sphere of friends. On the face of it, they may be staying
alone or they may be leading a married life; but they also enjoy being
a member of an extended family. This extended family does not impinge upon their day-to-day life. It is not supposed to. The extended
family expects them to be on their own in their routine life. But it also
binds them together through love and care even while allowing enough
space and freedom to all. Such examples may be rare, but even that
rarity does not find an appropriate reflection in our literature.
Many stories are set against a rural backdrop wherein child marriages are a major issue. The age limit for marriage set by the law is
well known and justified. However, although defiance of law in practice is not defensible, one must at least understand and appreciate
why this happens. The stark social rural reality manifests itself in

The Family 307

many ways including premature physical relations and pregnancy,

alcoholic husband, dowry, domestic violence, poverty, hard labor and
exploitation in the workplace. An educated girl feels this pinch the
most as she finds herself unable to adjust to the oppressive familial
culture post marriage. Several stories portray all this quite well.
Over the past 2530 years my journalistic privilege has exposed
me to the multiple facets of the institution of the family. There are
several women whose self-esteem continues to be dormant and have
therefore accepted their oppressive reality as fait accompli. The second
rung comprises those at an elevated level of awareness, thanks to the
efforts of the womens movement. These women are perpetually restless; some of them also know the answers to a given problem, but
they are unable to take firm decisions because of the highly restrictive
social reality.
That somebody like me born and brought up in a middle-class
milieu could see through and analyze this whole gamut of a traditional
family even while taking a broader view of the womens movement
was entirely due to the midlife intellectual journey I undertook. That
is how I realized that the progressive struggle ought to interlink and
complement various social movements such as those pertaining to
women, Dalits, environment, alternative policy of development, eradication of superstitions, threat of nuclear arms, and so on.
Miloon Saryajani is a medium for me to convey my perceptions of
all these issues to our readers. It is an ongoing struggle to widen my
own vision and that of Miloon Saryajani as well as that of its readers
on issues ranging from the personal and the local to the global. The
process has been far from smooth. There have been moments of mistakes, pitfalls, disillusionments and shocks. But there have also been
moments of happiness. The rich experience garnered over decades
has helped me tide over all this. It is not easy to bring about a quick
transformation in our social surroundings, nor do I consider myself
powerful enough to perform that miracle. Nevertheless my past 35
40 years with Stree and Miloon Saryajani have enabled me to go much
beyond being an editor to becoming a personal or familial acquaintance of a number of women. I draw immense satisfaction from this
fact. I am also happy to note that Miloon Saryajani is in constant search
of a place that lies a little short of academics and experts, and a little
beyond activists.
While it is true that many women writers do portray the effects of
the changing social reality on the institution of family, they also suffer

308 Vidya Bal

from social pressures while doing so. I cannot complete my presentation without referring to those pressures.
A national colloquium was held at Hyderabad in July 2001 on a
theme under the eloquent title of The Guarded Tongue. It was preceded
by workshops in ten states of our country to discuss if women writers
were under a constant watch from some quarters. Several creative
women writers at the colloquium narrated their experiences and viewpoints in this regard while speaking on the theme of The Censor Within.
The women in our society labor under the burden of their traditional socio-cultural image and their role in the family. They cannot
unburden themselves and the rare one who dares invariably becomes
a target of criticism from her husband, relatives and the society; in
some cases even physical abuse is not taboo. Many renowned women
authors disclosed this probably for the first time at these discussions.
Let me quote here some of them.
Love is an agent of censorship.
We of the older generation of writers have been wearing the veil of censorship like a nine yard sari.
What is most interesting is the censorship within us, the cultural policeman
who is inside us.
Scissors to cut with, a needle and thread to sew my lips with, if I write my
subconscious, the earth will be covered with paper.
For me creativity is like a raincoat. When I enter my house I hang the
raincoat outside the front door. I long for the day when that raincoat
becomes my skin.

These quotes of creative women writers have been expressed in different languages. But I think they all speak with the same tongue about
our family life.

Chapter 19

Thoughts on
Nonda Chatterjee

Aamar shonar bangla aami tomaye bhalobashi,

Tomar aakash tomar bataash aamar prane bajaye banshi
(My golden Bengal, I love you.
Your skies and your breezes, play like a flute in my heart )

Ki jadu bangla gane,
Gaan geye danrh majhi taane
Geye gaan nache baul,
Gaan geye dhaan kate chasha
(What is the magic in a Bangla song,
That the boatman rows to this tune,
The itinerant dancer twirls to it,
The peasant sings as he harvests his paddy )

Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day
American Lyric

310 Nonda Chatterjee

And yet again,
Vande Mataram,
Sujalam, sufalam, malayaja sheetalam,
Shasya shyamalam, mataram
(I bow to thee, mother,
Prosperous with fruit,
Cooled by breezes,
Green with growing grain,
My mother )
Indian National Song by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

This nostalgia for the eternal Eden, this longing for a spiritual identity
that appears as an amalgam of prosperity, hearts ease, happiness
and song, an imagined community, largely mythical, can be summed
up in one word, home, a place one can call ones own, which one
strives to reach and call ones own all through life, yet which, for most
of us, always seems to remain just out of reach till ones dying day.
It is significant that the three Indian songs were composed by people
who considered themselves dispossessed by foreign invaders who
had despoiled their precious land and deprived them of their identity,
and who longed not only to restore the land to its pristine glory but
also to regain their rightful place in it; whereas the American lyric
was composed by folk who had dispossessed others, destroyed a way
of life, a culture, and then were overcome by nostalgia for what they
had done away with. Both are constructs that owe more to emotion,
imagination and romanticism than a clear historical perspective. I can
clearly recall the euphoria that had Indians in its grip on August 14,
1947, when the leaders and masses were equally certain that the problems that had beleaguered the country through centuries would disappear like magic on the morrow, when India made her tryst with
destiny. It was short-lived, however, and the disenchantment that
had begun with the partition deepened steadily through the years,
and home remained as distant a concept as ever for the dispossessed
who flowed into India and continue to do so till date, and the people
who were in turn dispossessed by them in their own country, for land
and resources cannot be stretched beyond a limit. In short, the reality
could never catch up with the ideal, which was romantically conceived
and was therefore largely imaginary.

Thoughts on Home... 311

What then is home? Is it a place where family, country, culture,

community, color, creed, prosperity are compatibly combined, mainly
in memory? Does this place exist in reality, or is it merely a state of
mind? For instance, a large section of the post-independence,
Western-educated, tennis-playing, mountain-trekking, Beethovenloving middle-class Indian society, raised on a steady diet of Oxbridge
lore, Dickens and Jane Austen, Shelley and Byron, Nelson and
Marlborough, felt seriously alienated at the departure of the British
and the consequent erosion of a way of life they had had held up as
the ideal to be followed; nor could they bear the thought of returning
to the restrictions, superstitions and intricacies of typical Indian life,
as they saw it. Nirad Chaudhuri is a case in point. Most of these
people, who pined for the British way of life, however, failed to realize
that the change was a part of a historical process that had begun with
Sarajevo, that Britain could not hold on to India for she did not have
the economic strength to do, so that Indian Independence was an
inevitability, not an achievement. That when Lord Edward Gray had
said in 1914 that lamps were going out all over Europe he had made
a greater prophecy than anyone realized at the time, but that it was
only half a prophecy, for he could not possibly know at that point
that globalization would replace colonialism in a matter of years
and that new lamps would be lit, more powerful than the old by
different powers, a replay of the Aladdin story. Out of nostalgia,
and because this life-style had conferred elite social status in the
British era, these people quietly clung to their accustomed way of
life, continued to live in houses with chintz curtains, read Victorian
literature and cull their values from it, garden avidly, educate their
children in missionary schools, speak English more fluently than their
mother tongues, and in doing so and passing on to their progeny
invaluable cultural capital, they created a class of people who would
fit smoothly into the new global society which would ultimately
dominate India.
We have all heard people from West and East Pakistan speak of a
home back home, where perfection was the order of the day, and
smiled skeptically to ourselves. As a wag once put it:
If we could add up all the land and property these people left behind, we
would have another planet earth!

Anglo-Indians always, in the post-independence era, referred to

England or Australia as back home and thus drew down derision

312 Nonda Chatterjee

on themselves for making tall claims from their native and slightly
darker neighbors. The story goes that an Anglo-Indian foreman
was once directing an Indian worker in his duties, and every time
he issued an instruction, he referred to the menial as Midnight,
Get on with it, Midnight or Shake a leg, Midnight. Ultimately
the fellow had had enough, so he turned around and said:
Hey, who are you calling Midnight, you are half-past eleven yourself!

The pathos of these statements was obscured by the more obvious

absurdity, and many of us failed to detect the longing that underlay
these pronouncements, the desire of the dispossessed to regain property or status, however meager, that had constituted identity and
given them a sense of home in a past and which, though largely
imagined, had become the whole truth to them.
The Bengali makes as fine a distinction between basha and barhi,
house and home, as does the Englishman, and he is not merely
distinguishing the temporary from the permanent, but also making
an emotional distinction between a mere shelter and a place where
one belongs; similarly, on all official forms in a system inherited
from the British, a distinction is made till date between residence
and permanent residence, the temporary and the ancestral. It is
difficult to decide who influenced whom, for the Brits banished from
merry England to the land of heat and dust suffered from acute
nostalgia, quite often overlooking the fact that here they were willing
exiles making their fortunes! Similarly, the Babu brought up on
the definition of happiness that was almost an adage, believed that
the happy man was he who was not in debt and who lived at
home, (arini ebong aprabashi), and who, compelled to serve first, the
East India Company and then The Raj for economic reasons,
traveled most unwillingly a few miles from home to his place of work,
after a week-long round of fond farewells!
It is this longing for home that gave shape to colonial India
the mansions with their graceful columns, tall, green, shuttered
windows, phaeton and later, car porches and deep verandahs; the
Civil lines where officialdom, white and brown, lived in spacious
bungalows set amid manicured gardens; the rolling cantonment areas
with barracks and magazines, where military personnel held sway;
golf courses, cricket pitches, tennis courts, clubs; monuments like
St. Pauls and Victoria Memorial, Lutyens Delhi. But the two areas

Thoughts on Home... 313

which mirrored Britain most closely were the hill stations like
Darjeeling, Simla, Nainital, and Mussoorie, where the natural landscape aided recreation or transcreation and the gardens with their
herbariums, vegetable gardens replete with tomato, asparagus, lettuce,
celery, rolling lawns with their mixed borders, English flowers, and
sweet-pea lattices, roses, and orchards where raspberry and blackberry
and creepers of strawberry vied with the mango and the lichee.
It was in his garden that the Englishman came into his own as did
his spouse, the memsahib, monarchs of all they surveyed. The
more ambitious went in for features like the serpentine with weeping willows, rockeries, sunken rose gardens, green and summer
houses, conservatories, lily pools. One hears of a railway officer, a
Mr Rutherford, who refused promotion for fifteen years, till he retired
from service so that in fact he could continue to live in the homegarden he had created in his official residence in Allahabad, and
who was so heartbroken at the prospect of returning to England, his
real home, that he spent his lifes savings to buy a cottage in the
hills in India, where he could begin all over again with his garden, his
concept of home! And he was not the only one; several English
families preferred to stay on in India after Independence, for the
spiritual transformation that had started unobtrusively had put down
such strong roots that they could not face the thought of leaving this
country. The British names on gate-posts in hill-stations and places
like Macluxigunj in Bihar bear mute testimony to this love of home
even today. Jim Corbett was heartbroken when he migrated to Kenya
and the bond he had built with India survives till date in his everpopular books and the National Park named after him.
But what of the brown sahib, the upper-class Indian educated in
public schools abroad or missionary schools in India, becoming
men on the playing fields of Oxford, Cambridge or even Sandhurst,
deeply steeped in Christian culture, the Victorian and Edwardian
social, political and scientific tradition, completely at home in the
language, history and literature of the colonizer? Who rode and played
tennis on terms just below equal with the Brits and were happy
doing so? Who wanted their wives to come out of purdah and participate in the social scene, much to the chagrin of their more conservative
elders? Where did they locate their identities and how did they deal
with the crisis that was created by the struggle for independence?
Which country would they call home? How would they fit into an
Indian India after 1947?

314 Nonda Chatterjee

Very badly, in many cases, particularly government servants like
members of the Indian Civil Service, the Indian police, Indian Judicial
and Medical Services, and educationists, whose main claim to distinction had been their Englishness; like beleaguered snails they carried
their British home on their back and ignored as far as possible the
changes that were taking place around them! I can still remember my
uncles ( ICS and home secretary) outrage when my aunt suggested,
very timidly, that we have puri and sabzi for breakfast one morning:
As long as I live, he thundered, breakfast will always be bacon, eggs
and sausages accompanied by hot toast with butter and honey, followed
by fruit!
None of us dared to question him, though, why dessert after dinner
was invariably a native sweet, and why we had to eat it, dutifully, off the
finest china with a dessert-fork!

There followed a period of push and pull between the proponents

of westernization and Indianization, which put the post-colonial
public psyche under severe stress. On the one hand, science, technology and need for modernization could not be ignored, and on the
other, Gandhijis concept of Ramrajya, seemed to indicate a return
to pre-historic times! A small problem I personally faced seems to
sum up the situation admirably.
In 1947 I was nine years old, reading English History happily
with my mates in a convent school in class five, when the authorities
realized the horror of the situation and decided to rectify it. The
prescribed book, beautifully written and illustrated, was withdrawn
immediately, almost as though it were obscene, and we waited with
bated breath for the better book. It arrived in due course, written
by an eminent historian and scholar who shall be nameless, 500 pages
long, couched in impeccable English meant for university students.
We could not understand a word, nor did our teacher, Ms Daniels,
have any idea how to make it intelligible to us! After we had practiced
weightlifting for a week, she told us to leave the book at home and to
take down the notes she would give us, which we would just have to
learn by rote. Was this the beginning of the rote-learning culture
that is so prevalent in India even today, I sometimes wonder. It took
a very intelligent and patient father a long time to explain to a nineyear-old the difference between boring nationalist and attractive
alien, and why the first should prevail over the other, and in the end
he did not make much headway. Perhaps his heart was not really

Thoughts on Home... 315

in it? By the way, I found the book very useful when preparing for my
Bachelor level examinations.
This crisis of home continued through the 1950s while India
bumbled her way towards political identity, directed by leaders who
were more at home in English than the national languages! Pundit
Nehru once came to our university to deliver the convocation address,
and it was clear that the prospect of speaking in Hindi for forty-five
minutes was an intimidating one for him. So when he asked us, rather
tremulously, what language we would like him to use, and we chorused
in one voice ENGLISH! the relief was so great that it hung almost
palpable in the pin-drop silence of the huge senate hall packed with
over a thousand students. Then he began to speak, and the wonderful
rhetoric and measured cadences that had mesmerized even the British
flowed in an enchanting stream for more than an hour, inspiring,
practical and meaningful, one of the more memorable experiences
of our student life. As we were coming down the stairs, still in a romantic daze after this wonderful speech, a snippet of conversation in
Hindi between two fellow students hailing from a nearby village,
dispelled much of the splendor and set us thinking.
First student: What on earth was the fellow talking about? Made no sense
to me at all. He sounded more like an Angrez ( British) than Indian.
Second student: Exactly. why have we elected one Angrez to replace
another? What will he do for us? Perhaps he is a British spy? (My

How was this huge dichotomy to be resolved?

This conflict between Indian-ness and the colonial legacy was
apparent in every sphere of life, and we, the young and female, were
the worst victims. On the one hand the traditionalists in the family
wanted us to take on the image of Lakshmi and dedicate our lives to
hearth and home, while the avant garde said that Independence
meant the freedom of the individual, the freedom to choose, the right
to become career-women and eschew marriage, the right to go to hell
if we chose to. Constant choices had to be made, in matters of food,
apparel, individual style, books, movies, future plans, and whichever
way we might veer, we were sure to come up against criticism, till it
seemed we could do nothing right, and our self-esteem was eroded to
pulp. For instance, I was told very seriously by my young, married
aunt that it mattered little that I spoke English, read avidly, rode a
bicycle, played tennis, could drive a car or, and, horror of horrors,

316 Nonda Chatterjee

had friends of the opposite sex. What would matter in the end was
whether I had learnt to cook, clean and sew, to please my mother-inlawthat is, if I ever had the good fortune to be married! In later
years I would have ample opportunity to ponder these words of
And what of the homes where we lived? Should they continue
to reflect the erstwhile Raj style or should a more patriotic ambience
be created? My uncle, who viewed life very seriously indeed, took to
wearing wooden slippers, la ancient seers, and threw every stick of
furniture except a string-bed and a chauki out of his near-spartan
room. But in the end decided to compromise on the armchair to which
he was addicted, by arguing that armchairs had existed and been in
use in India long before the Brits arrived on the scene; they had been
called kedaras and been used by Hindus and Muslims alike. None of
us had the courage or the inclination to debate historical issues with
him, for we desperately wanted him to enjoy his chair, and he continued to do so as long as he lived with a clear conscience, on the
basis of this historical justification! My aunt, his wife, was ordered to
throw out sofas, tables and chairs and create a more appropriate
atmosphere in the sitting room, which was very baroque with brass,
copper, Kashmir carpets and velvet drapes, to begin with. So she got
rid of the furniture, made seating arrangements on more carpets and
used embroidered bolsters or gaon takias as they were called by
fashionable, nationalist decorators, in elaborate formations to make
her guests comfortable! She, also being a painter of some repute,
covered the walls with large watercolors in The Bengal School style,
of various mythological characters and situations, very colorful,
romantic, even idyllic, underscoring the Ramrajya theme. So did
many patriots pay their tribute to free India and salve their
consciences about doing their bit for their homeland.
I was married in the late 1950s into the traditional household of a
family who had migrated from East Pakistan in 1947, a part of the
exodus, and though the sons had acquired an education, held good
jobs and were doing their best to fit into the Calcutta social scene, my
mother-in-law found nothing to her satisfaction in this hypocritical
city. To her it appeared that she was marooned in a sea of artificiality
surrounded by people who did not speak her language, share her
culture or understand her values. She would have liked her sons to
marry girls from families such as hers, but her elder son who worked
for one of the top companies of India where British traditions still

Thoughts on Home... 317

held sway, realized the importance of an educated, westernized

wife and put his foot down. He had met in Uttar Pradesh an aunt of
mine who held a university degree, was an avid naturalist, entertained
with great sophistication, and been greatly impressed. In addition to
her in-laws house, a massive three-storied building in the heart of
the city, her doctor husband had built on the outskirts, on two acres
of land, a beautiful cottage set like jewel in an exquisite, sprawling
garden. Laid out to resemble his father-in-laws, Civil Surgeon and
famed horticulturist, renowned one in Lucknow, it was an English
garden, with not one regular feature missing, but with an aviary and
lily pool thrown in. Since it was a one-horse kind of place then with
not much to do, all the young men in the company, particularly the
young unmarried ones, gravitated to her open house as much for
her famed kebabs as her scintillating humor and conversation. There
on the velvet lawns of her cottage, the air fragrant with a thousand
roses, under a starry canopy, these young men soaked up an entire
culture along with the delectable eats that circulated constantly, served
by her impeccably uniformed cook, Ashraf, and bearer, Afzal. One
romantic night, with a couple of drinks and plenty of good food under
his belt, my future husband asked my aunt to find a girl for him like
herself and that is how we met.
I will not go into the adjustments my mother-in-law and I made to
become the best of friends and live amicably together for thirty years,
but one occasion that stands out in my memory as a home affair
that I would like to mention. It was Christmas, and since there were
a lot of British officers with their families residing in the Company
Colony where we lived, plans for festivities were made well in advance. There was to be carol singing, a childrens party, a fancydress ball on Christmas Eve at the club and a burra lunch at the
Branch managers residence on the day itself. On Boxing Day a
shikaar had been planned that would take us into the jungle thirty
miles away for three days and nights, where the men would hunt and
the families would have an extended picnic. Since I was a junior
officers wife I had several duties to attend to, and it was not till two
days before Christmas that I realized that I had done nothing for the
house or for family members, and it was the first Xmas in my own
For in my fathers house there were many mansions and we had
celebrated every festival with gusto, whether it be Id, Diwali or Xmas,
and the latter had meant hanging up our stockings on the eve, our

318 Nonda Chatterjee

little hearts agog with anticipation and not forgetting the old chewed
up sock for our dog Jimmie, who was the biggest baby, a tree in the
drawing room, carols with neighbors, my mothers rich contralto
voice leading the choir, midnight mass at the nearby cathedral, readings from the Bible and Tennyson by dad, roast goose, a delicious
pudding made by my mother that dad would ignite with brandy, and
we, the family and guests, would wait in impatient anticipation for
the blue flames to die down so we could tuck in! For us children,
there were always silver coins and charms hidden in the pudding,
and looking for and finding them was the high point of our evening!
As we grew up, the stockings went into abeyance, but the rest of the
ritual was faithfully performed every year.
An uncontrollable nostalgia seized me and I called my mother to
ask for the recipe for the pudding. She must have heard the wistfulness
in my voice, but she merely said that she was sending us a pudding so
I need not make it, but suggested that I buy the presents, and very
nice ones for my mother-in-law.
But this is where I ran into serious trouble. My mother-in-law threw
a real fit saying that she had suspected all along that we were either
crypto-Christians or belonged to the Bramho Samaj, that she found
the entire concept of celebrating the festival repulsive, that she should
never have allowed her son to marry into an English-speaking
household such as ours, and that if this nonsense went a step further,
she would return to Calcutta and never have anything to do with us
again! In vain did my father-in-law, brother-in-law and husband try
to reason and explain she was adamant!
Bruised and disappointed, I retreated into my shell and crept out
of the house into the semi-wilderness that served for a park, hid myself
in the shrubbery, sat on a fallen log that see-sawed, my favorite seat,
and tried to think things through. I had been repeatedly told by my
parents that the purpose of a festival in every religion was togetherness
and the exchange of gifts signified goodwill renewed, hence, the
oftener an occasion could be found, the better. Also that one learnt a
great deal about a culture by observing its ritualistic norms. Dad had
made me read before I was ten years old the stories of the great epics,
the Bible and the Koran, and been delighted when I had observed
sapiently that they all seemed to tell the same story! Due to this we
had been so much at home on all these occasions, that no strangeness had been felt and they had just been a seamless part of the larger
concept of home.

Thoughts on Home... 319

But I had also been told that my husbands home would henceforth
be my second home and that I must make every attempt to be and
make the other family members comfortable in it. That I must make
adjustments in small matters gladly, but not at the cost of my basic
values. That I was to influence and be influenced till a common
rostrum was found, acceptable to both sides. I had listened dutifully,
not quite realizing what a tall order it was for a girl in her early
twenties. Now this had come up an identity crisis of sorts, to use a
clichd term Quo Vadis?
Should I give in gracefully and call it a day? Or should I take a
stand and try to get my way, purely as a matter of principle? But then,
what of the togetherness that was the essence of a happy home?
Would that be torn beyond repair by my action? Was I mistaking
nostalgia and sentiment for ideology and allowing them to overrule
empathy and practical sense? As I debated these issues, I remembered
my mother-in-law telling me about Durga Pooja in her maternal
grandfathers house, when she was a child. They had been the local
Zamindars, and during the four days, from Saptami to Bijoya, the
entire village had participated in the festivities and been fed at the
great house four times a day. So much kichri had to be cooked that it
had to be stored in a room specially made for this purpose! And
because she was so beautiful, she had been chosen for the Kumari
Puja for three years, and dressed in resplendent red and gold, been
the cynosure of every eye. And now? She went like everyone else to
pay her respects in the local pandal where the rituals were never to
her satisfaction. Was this protest her way of preserving the culture
that had been and still was home to her?
Much time had passed, dusk was setting in, my hands and feet
were freezing, but I still sat on, unable to move. However, when I
heard my mother-in-laws anxious voice calling out to me again and
again and asking me to come home, I got up and rushed, unable to
see very clearly. Without a word she held out her arms and I ran into
them with a sense of comfort I had never experienced before with
her. Then she said, Come with me, I have a surprise for you. As we
neared the house, I was surprised to find every light blazing, and in
the verandah a welcoming committee that included not only the inmates but my parents and only sister, and inside, a tree loaded with
presents, and on the dining table the biggest and most succulent Xmas
pudding ever! My father had achieved this miracle by solemnly
explaining to my mother-in-law that though we were definitely not

320 Nonda Chatterjee

Christians, it was customary in certain circles in West Bengal to carry
Tatta (gifts to the daughters house on festive occasions) for Xmas,
and they had merely fulfilled their time-honored social duty on this
occasion, specially because it was the first year of my marriage!
I found out much later that my mother-in-law had not been taken
in by this ruse, but had pretended to go along with the charade because
she had appreciated my need; she had also realized the fact that I had
been doing a lot of things that I had never done before, merely to
please her and fit into the new home mold, and that had impelled
her to accept the fable. The sociological lesson, assimilation is better
than elimination, had been internalized with minimum pain by both
of us and led to a strengthening of bonds. However, looking back
today over a span of more than forty years, I can honestly say that
the world, the home I knew with my own family, despite its apparent
alien overtones, stands out in my memory as the only real thing for
me. The unique culture disappeared with the people who created it,
and it could neither be replicated nor recaptured even with our best
efforts, except in conversations with my sister, the only co-sharer extant
today. So, to reiterate, home is more a state of mind and has less to
do with place than time, people and emotion.
This attempt to reconcile the two cultures became the hallmark
of the period till about the 1970s, when immigration on a massive
scale turned the situation completely around and the second phase
of cultural colonialism began. What many of us did not realize at
that point was, that we were entering the second stage of globalization
(what Thomas L. Friedman calls globalization 2.0, which had been
prevalent in the West since 1800), as an independent entity instead
of a British colony, and that the economic forces let loose by this
huge change would shape the life of the intelligentsia and put cultural
considerations and patriotism on the backburner, at least for the
middle class. Education in India was still for the elite, jobs were few
and far between, business opportunities practically non-existent. Staying at home was a luxury few could afford. On the other hand,
there was a huge demand not only for unskilled labor but also for the
educated and adventurous in countries devastated by the war. England
was no longer the only Mecca, greener pastures beckoned, particularly the transatlantic. And so began in the 1960s the great exodus to
the US, the land of millionaires and dreams, and the beginning of
Diaspora and all that is consequent on it.

Thoughts on Home... 321

But what of us who did not go away? Where do we stand today in

terms of home? To what extent have we been able to create an
integrated society that is home to all its indigenous citizens? What
is supremely ironic is the apparent contrast between the young generation of jeans-clad, sneaker-shod, gum-chewing, laptop-carrying,
jargon-spewing, bright young Westernized Indians on the make, and
their consciously Indian, pyjama-kurta clad, jhola-toting ( cloth bag
with long shoulder strap), slipper-shod, betel-nut chewing, Englishafter-a-fashion speaking young counterparts, equally on the make,
for in truth they are not different at all. In their single-minded pursuit
of wealth and success they have found home, and as blood brothers,
world-citizens, appear very much at home in twenty-first century
India. Only their methods, professional and political, are different.
But what of the third group, the sensitive, socially conscious, those
beset by doubt, the thoughtful, the creative, the idealistic, whose
imagined community is vastly different from what they see around
them? And then, the vast hordes who are still illiterate, unfed, unwashed, who still kill their daughters, and less often, sons to propitiate
the rain-godwhere do they fit in? Finally we, the elderly, who were
born into the Raj but have lived the major portion of our lives in free
India, who have made more adjustments than we can recount to fit
into this country that has changed beyond recognition, whose near
and dear ones all live abroad, who find communication an increasing
difficulty? Yet whose heart still lifts with Tagore, for whom Durga
Pooja is a significant festival, who try to keep alive the culinary skills
of their ancestors, whose soul is wrenched when the Kalbaisakhi
(summer storm) fills the pitiless blue sky with dark clouds, for whom
the most precious memories are linked to this land what or where
is our home? Must we continue to look for home in phone calls,
e-mail, the occasional visit, music, books, plants, work, but in this
land to which we supposedly belong? Or should we bow to the inevitable, accept my initial thesis that home is and always has been in
the imagined past, in the mind, and nowhere else, and give up the

322 Shashi Deshpande

Chapter 20

Looking Back
Shashi Deshpande

Our annual summer trip to my mothers family home in Pune was

the high point of the year for us. It was a heady combination of relief
after the annual examination, the joy of a long holiday and the excitement of going to Pune, which, for us small-towners, was The Big
City. To see the twinkling lights of the city in the early morning as we
approached Pune, to get off the train and to find platforms full of
bustle and noise was a stark, and, to us, a welcome contrast from our
quiet little Dharwad station with its single platform. But the greatest
pleasure still lay ahead, when the tonga ride through brightly lit streets
ended in a narrow lane before the family house. The front door would
open on our arrival to a babble of voices greeting us, invariably saying the same words: How theyve grown! Everything here was the
antithesis of our life in Dharwad. There we lived, just the five of us,
parents and three children, in a large colonial-style bungalow with a
sprawling compound and neighbors beyond shouting distance. This
family home in Pune opened straight on to a lane, so narrow that you
could imagine it was possible to shake hands with people in the house
across the street. Early mornings, the voices of people who walked
past the house were so clear you felt they were in the house. In fact,
however, neither any voices nor anything happening outside the house

Looking Back 323

really penetrated; for, inside, the house was a whole world, with so
much happening that everything else was only a sideshow.
The house, called a wada, was a sprawling three-storied one, with
beautiful full-length arched windows with carved woodwork, huge
doors that were rarely closed and more staircases than even we children could count. Just when you thought you knew them all, you
would come across yet another hidden, rarely-used staircase. The
mammoth front door, closed only at night, had decorative brass knobs
and a large brass ring that operated as a knocker. The house had
three courtyards which provided light and ventilation to the rooms
overlooking them and to the passages alongside. There were many
rooms which remained dark and dingy though, like the storerooms,
or the small room where the women, after their morning chores were
over, napped or read the newspapers. But to me the most memorable
feature of the house, when I look back today, was the champa tree
which grew between the cattle shed and the back door (adjacent,
actually to the front door) of the house. It towered over the house,
but there were daring souls among the kids who clambered on the tin
roof of the cattle shed to pluck the heavenly fragrant flowers.
Why is the house insisting on intruding when Im trying to write
about the family? I guess the truth is that I cant separate them in my
mind. And they were, in some way, mirror images of each other. The
family was just as large, sprawling and complex as the house, and it
had, like the wada, both its sunny and dark rooms. As children, we
saw only the brightly lit rooms, though we did get occasional glimpses
of the dark hidden corners during times of crises, when conclaves
were held behind closed doors through which came raised voices
or, when there was a tragedy in the family and the women retired to
the dark rooms and spoke in hushed voices, their saris held to their
faces. A vague memory of the women sitting in a silent circle after
the untimely death of an aunts husband comes back to me almost
like a scene of mourning from a play.
Children accept families unthinkingly and so did I, in the early
years, take this family for granted; its size and the complexity of relationships within it seemed perfectly normal. It was much later that
I realized how unusual it was. Not because it was a joint family, which
was quite normal then, but because of how distinguished some of its
members were. The head of this family was my mothers father
Babasaheb, or Baba as he was called in the family. I heard very recently
from an uncle that he came from their village to Pune, his three

324 Shashi Deshpande

brothers in tow, for the purpose of education. And educated they certainly were! Baba himself became a lawyer, one of the most successful
lawyers of his times in Pune. He died when I was four and my memories of him are few and indistinct. But his personality dominated
the family as greatly as his portrait did the large hall on the first floor.
This had been his office and it continued to be known as Babas
room even after a younger brother occupied it. For decades after his
death people spoke of him as if he was still alive; stories of his generosity, his public work and concern for every individual in the family,
including the widows, became legends. Sifting through the stories, I
find his love for education the most significant thing about hima
love that made him scrupulous about the studies of all the children in
the family, most unusually, of the girls as well as boys. All the children
had tutors to teach them (torment them, they said later) after school
hours. What gladdened him most when he came home was the sight
of the children sitting in a row at their low desks in the large hall. My
mother was the first female graduate in the family and the story was
told of how he garlanded her when she passed her B.A. Years later I
came across some of his letters to my mother and I was as much
amazed by the chaste and beautiful English he wrote, as by the fact
that he managed to mention, with affection and concern, so many
members of the family in each letter. A widower himself, he had lost
two wives, he looked upon all the children in the family as his own.
No special favors were shown to his own five children, a fact that
they much resented. Years later, I could hear echoes of this feeling
in their words.
The second brother was only a matriculate and worked in the Police
Department. This uncle (Bhausaheb) and Baba were spoken of as
being devoted brothersmy mother often invoked the Ram
Lakshman comparison. But unlike his brother, Bhau detested the idea
of girls going to school. My mother and aunts often told us how they
tried to sneak out without being seen by him, in order to avoid his
snide remarks and nasty words which reduced them to tears.
The third brother, Bapusaheb, was the intellectual one, the first
LL.M in Bombay University and, for some time, the Dewan of a
native State. He too was a widower and had only one son surviving.
This sonmy unclebecame a lawyer like his uncle and ended up
as the Chief Justice of India.
The equally illustrious fourth brother, Kakasaheb, was an F.R.C.S
and worked with the Maharaja of Baroda. I later read in the Maharani

Looking Back 325

of Jaipurs autobiography that he was a close confidant of the family

and that he had advised and helped her during her love affair with
the Maharaja of Jaipur! A highly Westernized handsome six-footer,
this Kaka could charm everyone. In the mornings, when he came
down from his bedroom on the third floor, he would greet everyone
even the widowed auntswith a Good morning. We children
giggled at this incongruity, but the aunts loved it. The two children of
his first wife were brought up along with all the other children in the
wada, this large brood of motherless children being looked after by
the widowed aunts. Not surprisingly, these children regarded themselves, not as cousins, (an un-Indian concept, anyway) but as brothers
and sisters. Even real siblings were not as close as those who grew up
in the wada together. The greatest insult one could pay the other was
You never lived in the wada! What do you know?
The four brothers had an only sister, whose lively good-looking
and affectionate children were in and out of the wada as well; some
of them lived there, and one married her cousin eventually. A widowed
step-sister of my mothers and her two children were brought back to
live in the wada by Baba. A very independent woman, my aunt eventually had her own establishment in the wada. Their dingy rooms were
the center of attraction for us, because of her four grandchildren and
our aunts son, a lotus eater, whose life consisted of playing cards,
going to movies and races. He was the wit of the family, a general
favoriteand the despair of his mother. He got movie magazines
from the subscribing library, which I read avidly, becoming familiar
in the process with names like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. I was
so starved of reading material in Pune that I even read my cousins
betting books! Later, when I became older and bolder, I began creeping
into Babas room, quietly taking books out of the unlocked book
cupboards. I remember reading John Gunthers Death Be Not Proud.
There were many more who counted as family: families of married
daughters, of daughters-in-law, (my mothers long-dead mothers sister
was Mavshi to the entire family), close friends, the family priest, a
doctor uncles compounder and so on. Only one person, my mothers
stepbrother, a doctor, moved away, taking his share and building
himself a bungalow on Deccan Gymkhana. The parting had been
acrimonious and he would not allow his family to visit the wada. His
sweet-tempered wife and docile daughters did not dare to disobey,
but those in the wada enjoyed making clandestine visits that were
laced with guilt and excitement. In spite of this bad feeling with the

326 Shashi Deshpande

family, this uncle took another widowed sisters children into his home
and educated them. And when my mother was suffering from T.B.,
he looked after her, on the condition that no one from the wada would
visit her. Of course, there was a conspiracy to flout this condition!
During the summer vacations, the house was chock full. All the
children, and mothers like ours, who came without their spouses,
slept in the big hall on the first floor. My most vivid memory of my
stay in the house is of waking up to the chirping of the sparrows in
the courtyard. Of hearing the tinkle of cups and saucers and slurred
still-sleepy voices coming up from the open dining space. One of the
two widowed aunts was in charge of the early morning tea, a long
drawn out program. She sat patiently, continually making fresh tea
as people woke up at different times. We children had our own programsplaying cards, (occasionally the adults joined, becoming as
boisterous as us), outings to the parks, to a movie, to Parvati Hills.
Sometimes we tagged along with an adult to go shopping on Lakshmi
Road. There were visits to the temples with an aunt or a grandaunt.
Once each year there was an ice cream making program. The ancient
ice cream machine was brought out and everyone had a go at turning
the handle. No ice cream ever tasted as delicious as the tiny saucers
of the watery stuff we finally got.
We accepted the fact that the adults had their own programs that
we could not join in. Plays were very popular but taboo for children
(some children grumbled about this) since they went on till the early
hours of the morning; we stirred in our sleep when we heard them
coming home, sshing to each other as they tiptoed to bed. But children were taken to weddings. Family politics and kinship decided
who went to which wedding, and adult whims decided which children
accompanied them. I can still remember how beautiful and regal the
women looked, dressed in their jewelry and their nine-yards Chanderi
and Benarasi saris! And how an uncle, looking intently at his wife,
asked, Doesnt she look like the Maharani of Baroda? She blushed
and we felt uncomfortable at the adult emotions that made themselves felt in this remark. Family weddings, of course, turned the
house topsy turvy; mattresses were spread at night everywhere and
there were long queues for the two toilets and bathrooms. These weddings brought out both the best and the worst in the family. There
was a tremendous sense of togetherness; it was always we or us.
Everyone chipped in with their own areas of expertise. One aunt was
an expert in decorative items, another knew every ritual, and yet

Looking Back 327

another specialized in ukhanas (poetic couplets, containing the husbands name, which the bride, and often other women too, had to
recite). But weddings brought out certain exclusions as well. The
wealthier ones and those with better positions were projected as the
face of the family, and their higher status recognized in many ways,
one of which was the silverware that VIPs ate out of. Even as a child,
I could feel the undercurrents of resentment, the sore feelings this
produced, which perhaps is why I cannot bear even to look at, leave
alone eat out of a silver plate! In general, however, the family hierarchy
was scrupulously observed, people ranked according to age and generation. I can vividly remember the ceremony, when each family gave
gifts to the bride/groom and parents, and how carefully the order of
seniority was followed! Im sure there was always some heart-burning,
but luckily children dont know these things.
Years later, I wrote in my first novel of women who had been addressed as Kaki, Mami, etc., for so long that no one knew their names.
In my mothers family too, all daughters-in-law became Vahini
(brothers wife). They were known as Vahini throughout their lives,
though the husbands name was sometimes added as an identifying
prefixAppas Vahini, and so on. Daughters-in-law had to be scrupulous about the way they addressed their in-laws. I remember how
strange my sister and I found it to be respectfully addressed by our
cousins wife, who was the mother of four, with a tai suffixed to our
names. We were her husbands sisters; so, never mind the fact that we
were just girls in short frocks, we had to be given our due respect! I
dont know whether this was part of all families, but I remember
how proud the family was that they gave their daughters-in-law an
honored place. (This was always said by the daughterswas it envy
that provoked the remark?) In turn, most daughters-in-law had a fierce
pride in the family.
Like all families of the time, this family too had its share of widows.
I came to know their stories much later; at the time, however, they
were just this Kaki and that Kaku, each having her place and role in
the life of the house. One of them, widowed at the age of eleven or
twelve, was, in spite of her ugly red sari and shaven head, a beautiful
woman, with liquid dark eyes and the slim legs of a model. There
was never any cruelty; in fact these women were much wanted. One
could be cynical and say that this was because they were workhorses;
but I know that there was a great deal of affection too. Which is why
it took me years to realize the tragedy of their lives. A woman who

328 Shashi Deshpande

had never known what marriage was gave the motherless children
the tenderness they longed for. She was the one sent to help daughters
during their confinements. And it was she who gave us (and our
mothers and aunts as well) oil baths and made special ladoos for our
breakfast. Another widowed aunt who was not shaven because her
brother had fought against it, had a sharp mind, and my grandfather,
I heard later, often said that she should have been a lawyer. She was
also considered a very fair-minded woman and unlike the other grandaunt, she had no favorites.
At our age, we took these women and the way they cared for everyone for granted. The ones we admired and were fascinated by were
the young and fashionable uncles and aunts. They formed a circle
within the family, having their own activities, their language, and their
secrets. My mother, being slightly older, having married a Kannada
man, and living in relatively distant Dharwad, was out of this circle,
something that she resented all her life. We too, as being a daughters
children and living in a small town, felt ourselves, at times, outsiders.
And then, suddenly, when a cousin said, We are all Babas family,
arent we?, we belonged. The statement was clearly an echo of something an adult had said, a result of some crises, perhaps. But we were
guilty of practicing exclusions as well. The widowed grand-aunts
sisters granddaughter longed to be accepted as one of the family.
Take her out with you, our grand-aunt would plead with us. Yes,
we would say and then scheme to find ways of avoiding her!
Generally, however, the politics of inclusion and exclusion passed
us by. It was the mothers who were passionately concerned and touchy
(as my mother was) about these things. We were unaware of feuds,
though my sister got caught in a one as an innocent messenger carrying
mangoes to a granduncle from an aunt. Later, we realized that the
orchard from which these mangoes came was disputed property,
but at the time the explosion that followed the gift left my sister
bewildered and trembling. This schism later split the family, the aunt
and uncle making a separate kitchen on the first floor. Which meant
that there were three kitchens in the house now, which made it awkward for guests, because to eat in one house or the other was to make
a statement about where your allegiance lay. My sister and I visited
the wada once during the Christmas vacation when we were living in
hostels in Bombay. We were welcome in all the three places, but the
house looked sad. Something had gone out of it. The main house downstairs had only three old people living in ittwo widowed grand-aunts,

Looking Back 329

and an old grand-uncle. But family feeling still existed, for when I
was to get married, the uncle who had separated from the family
long back offered my mother his bungalow for the wedding. The entire
wedding took place in his house, all the preparations were made in
the wada and everyone pitched in to help.
A few years after that, the third brother, Bapusaheb, died. So did
my uncle, who lived on the first floor. Bandicoots were running wild,
making huge tunnels in the walls at night and leaving piles of debris
in the morning. A decision was taken to sell the house. The story
goes that the Judge uncle stood there until the house was demolishedas if keeping it company to the last. It seemed that with the
death of the house, the family too had reached its end. People moved
away, and though most were in Mumbai and Pune, without the old
house there was no getting together. The judge uncle, who, after all
the four brothers died, became the family head, seemed to have inherited Babas role and kept in touch with everyone. Perhaps it helped
that he had married his own cousin, his aunts daughter, who had
lived in and known the wada. When he became the Chief Justice of
the Supreme Court, he invited the entire family to Delhi to participate
in his investiture. But distance and a lack of shared interests made for
a gradual and easy parting. The younger generation is, of course,
totally disinterested. Nevertheless those who had lived in the wada
together still have close bonds. The other day a cousin rang me up
and said her son was returning to Pune in a new job. But he wont
live with us, she said, adding, We have another flat on the floor
above ours, he will stay there. It was the we that caught my attention. I knew she was using the pronoun to include meit was our
flat. Just the way people had spoken in the days when they lived
together. Everything was ours, nothing was mine.
Strangely, I, who had never really lived in the wada, could not let
the house go. After it was demolished, it kept coming back to me in
my dreams. Night after night I saw it as it had been, inhabited, bustling
with people, I heard voices, I vaguely glimpsed faces, known and unknown. It was out of these dreams that my first novel Roots and
Shadows was born. Much of it came from my memories of the family
in Pune. In time, questions darkened some memories: Why were
womens lives lived so much in dark rooms? Why did an eleven-year
old have to live a life of deprivation because someone they called her
husband had died? And how was it that men could marry again
and yet againand have mistresses too after their wives died? The

330 Shashi Deshpande

seeds of so much more that became part of my writing lie in that
family. I think it was there that it beganmy struggle to understand
the complexity of human beings and of human relationships, the
dilemma of our life-long yearning for love and our struggle against
bonds. The words a novel about a family are often used as a derogatory label, but I believe, as I once wrote, that in the family, you
can see, in a microcosm, the politics of a nation.

Small-Scale Reflections on an Ancestral Home 331

Chapter 21

Small-Scale Reflections on
an Ancestral Home
Makarand Paranjape

The title of this memoir alludes to a poem by A.K. Ramanujan. I dont

know if the house I write about resembles his. Ramanujans house is
definitively retentive: not only does nothing/that ever comes into
this house/goes out (Ramanujan, 1976: 102) but also nothing stays
out (ibid.: 105). In the case of my house, it is the opposite. Everyone
left or died one by one. The house emptied out and slowly became
quite different from the home of an extended family that it once was.
Though I never lived in it and only visited it during the summer holidays, my ancestral home did contribute to my self-fashioning in
significant ways.
My earliest memories of our homestead in Umbergaon, where
my fathers family comes from, go back to my infancy: the incredible
discomfort of the sweltering summers there, the horrible train journeys, the dreaded visits to the outhouse by the compound wall, sooty
lanterns, half-clad, aboriginal servants, and the heat boils which
I used to get. Then, blurred images of many cousins, aunts and uncles,
the sickening politics of mothers looking out for their own even while
maintaining a semblance of impartiality, the anxiety in the house
over the expenses arising out of so many guests, the rides in the tonga,
the mango-room full of ripening fruit, prayers intoned in the evening

332 Makarand Paranjape

and glorious star shot nights on charpoys in a yard freshly sprayed
with water and smelling of champak blossoms.
This was a large house of three stories, with over fifteen rooms.
When you entered from the main road through a small wooden gate,
you saw a verandah with benches and large, teak easy chairs. The
flooring of the entire house, except for a few special rooms, was mud
with cow-dung moppings. The verandah led to a smallish sitting room
with cane sofas and my grandfathers writing table. It also had an
ancient clock which had to be wound every day and its time adjusted
by six minutes. Adjacent was the shrine room, with the idol of the
family deity, Lakshmi-Narayan. A priest came daily to perform pooja.
Then you entered the main living area, a largish room with little
furniture on the sides but a large swing bang in the middle. This room
mostly served as a passage to the inner apartments. It opened to
another verandah, much smaller, facing the large front yard, ending
in the cowshed. This living room had two other smaller rooms facing
the yard. One was a dressing room. It always smelled of rose talcum
powder, afghan snow, eau de cologne, and hair oil. The latter was for
some reason red in color. The ladies would lock themselves in there
to dress. The other room was full of medical paraphernalia including
homeopathic and allopathic medicines, an enamel enema bowl, red
salve, rats bane, scissors, lint, bandages, syringes, and all sorts of junk.
Halfway through the living room, opposite the door to the drawing
room, was another door that lead to a large passage and a flight of
stairs. Later, some bathrooms would be built adjoining the passage,
but earlier it used to house large and shiny copper vessels in which
drinking water was stored. Our well had been polluted some years
ago because someone had died in it. So all our drinking water came
from one of our neighbors. This bringing of water was a daily and
onerous exercise. In this passage were also coconuts from our orchards
left to dry and large urns full of grain. There was enough to feed a
large number of people for at least a year. I realized later that such
measures were necessitated by the frequent famines that dogged India
during British rule. There was no food security, so it was incumbent
upon families to store grain that would last months of adversity. The
rice had to be husked, cleaned, and stored with castor oil, which kept
away pests.
There was a storeroom and a flight of stairs going up at one end of
the living room. Walking through the passageway, you came to the
dining room, which was a long room where fifty people could sit

Small-Scale Reflections on an Ancestral Home 333

down to eat. In those days, there was no dining table; we sat on the
floor on wooden pats. From this room, you descended three steps to
reach the smoky kitchen, with its wood stove. When there werent
too many people in the house, we ate in the kitchen. Children were
fed first. But among the adults, my grandfather always ate first, with
the other men, while the women ate later. The meals were delicious,
everything grown on our land including the rice and vegetables. Even
the rotis, I remember, were made from rice flour. We ate them
steaming, with dollops of butter.
From the kitchen, you went out to the backyard. This had the tulsi
vrindavan, a beautiful shrine with basil which was worshipped by the
women everyday. Further away, there was also a bath house built
around a well. Water was heated in brass boilers. The toilets were by
the wall, with straw buckets underneath. Most of us found them
hideous and frightening though now I see them as much more ecofriendly.
Upstairs, the house had one large and grand room called the diwan
khana. This was done up for special occasions but otherwise we simply
lounged around in it. It had chandeliers, mirrors, a large Ravi Varma
print of a girl on a swing, and solid granite flooring. It also had a
large and imposing safe, which was so exciting to open. Of course,
there was hardly any money in it. There were four or five bedrooms
around this main room.
There was one more floor, but it was totally out of bounds to children. I did go there to find an attic with all kinds of junk, truck axels,
tonga wheels, pumps and motors, large tin trunks, stacks of paper
and so on. It was in this stack that I saw the insurance policies of my
great-grandfather, a famous pleader and gentleman farmer. The company was Sun Life Insurance, incorporated in Toronto. I doubt
whether my grandfather got anything from these policies.
The journey from the country to the city is one of the quintessential
metaphors of Indian modernity. We all have memories of this move,
whether in our own generation or that of our immediate forbears.
Indeed, this is the theme of many a modern literary and cinematic
classic in India, for instance, Pather Panchali. Such a move is also
accompanied by the shedding of the extended and the beginnings of
a nuclear family.
I wrote about some these memories in a poem composed when I
was half-way across the world in another continent.

334 Makarand Paranjape

My Buried Youth in Umbergaon
Each vacation, we measured our years
by the progress of the new tar road.
Electricity had come when I was very young,
but the servant quarter was yet unwired.
A flickering wick on the earthen floor
cast warm, inviting shadows. There, at sundown,
the handymen relaxed on haunches, softly chatting,
and their beedies, with each deep puff, fiercely glowed.
In the little room to the right of the hall
ranged sooty lanterns, ready for special use
like when you had to, after dark, visit the latrine
which was by the distant compound wall,
or when unexpectedly, the electricity went off.
On the dark, empty beach, there we could be free
to play out our fantasies. Two cousins in pony tails,
flushed with youth, would pretend to be film stars.
They taught us, in English, to say Hi and Bye
which was pretty ahead of our times in 1965.
The wind sighed its longing through the evergreens,
and the sea complained constantly even when out of sight.
By sunset, we had to leave though our castles were incomplete.
On the way back, a broken club-house and tennis court
always spiced our curiosity: who could have played
tennis, here in this remote, undeveloped village?
The spacious wash house was built around the well.
It was dark and cool, even in the hottest spells:
if you came in from the bright warm sun, it took
some blinking before you could see clearly again.
In the large well hung a deep and friendly silence.
Its stones were mossed and slippery. When you
let go the rusty bucket, the wooden pulley whirred.
The splash that followed was always superficial:
you had to wait for the bucket to drink its fill
before plying the pulley, whose old handles were smoothened
by rough palms. When the dripping bucket emerged,
the brown, whiskered cord glistened, wet and taut.
In the morning, still together, but not so well-disposed
standing in single file, we brushed our teeth, grumbled,

Small-Scale Reflections on an Ancestral Home 335

and the dark gutter was streaked with our white spittle.
An old bronze boiler supplied the hot water. The aunts,
with soap and towel, retreated into the smaller rooms
taking one bucket of well-water, another steaming hot.
They warmed the stone seat before closing the door;
then, emptying pitcherfuls over their shoulders, the bath.
Before supper-time, long prayers had to be intoned.
Perched cross-legged on a broad, creaking swing
we feigned earnestness by swaying to the beat,
but when left to ourselves, never failing to skip.
By nine, we lay on charpoys in the yard, gazing at the sky.
On moonlit nights, the yellow champak was fragrant and luminous;
there were earth smells too, the plants being freshly watered,
and in season, the lush scent of mangoes ripening in the porch.
The custom was to tell each other stories, until no one spoke
except the cicadas, who kept tedious vigil without repose.
My great-grandfather built that mansion
for a sum of only rupees six thousand.
(But that was in 1907.)
He was a pleader in the Thane district court,
sufficiently modern to smoke. His brand:
555s, which then came in round tins.
With cane, topi, and waxed moustache,
he is portrayed upstairs in black-and-white.
In a dusty closet rest some of his things:
an ancient iron safe effectively conceals
debentures and bonds of poor investments,
an insurance policy that returned no yields.
Dozing undisturbed for decades, cob webbed shelves
retain withered tomes, ledgers, rusted biscuit cases,
invoices, faded letterheads, clotted ink, quills,
lacquered paperweights; underneath, on the chest,
bandages, enema equipment, enamel bowls,
scented water in sealed bottles, rusted scissors,
red salve, rats bane, ointment, tincture iodine,
epsom salts...
I could, of course, go on,
but to cut the long story short, when
the road reached the shrine of the Monkey God,
as you are likely to have guessed by now,

336 Makarand Paranjape

we went far away from our ancestral home.
That summer, hoping, as usual, to return,
I hid something precious in the pigeon cote
in the musty alcove over the parlour door.
Now continents later, unsure of my past,
in vain I try to recollect that nuance.
I know I mourn a conventional loss
you too, I dare say, wistfully long
for one or two memories,
misplaced beyond recall.
My childhood belongs to another tongue,
it briefly came back to me just now,
like snatches of a forgotten song.
You dont blame me, do you,
for writing these fragments down?

Despite the slightly self-deprecatory distancing that the tone of the

poem accomplishes, this house is deeply etched in my consciousness.
When I was eight, my upanayanam, or thread-ceremony, was held
in this home. It was a huge event, with so many family and friends in
attendance. I had never felt so important in my whole life. At the
same time, the rituals seemed to have little to do with me but were
some kind of social obligation. No one explained the full significance
of either the mantras or the rites to me. It was a rite of passage that I
could not comprehend. Yet, there was a certain solemnity to it. Especially when my father recited the Gayatri mantra in my ear. It was
like a surge of power, uniting me with a very old racial past. Later, I
had to pretend to go around the village begging. My cousins were the
first to give me bhiksha or alms. They washed my feet and gave me
goodies to eat. There is a picture of me in a dhoti, with a cap and umbrella, doing what was supposed to be a round of alms-seeking. When
I returned to public school after the ceremony, my friends teased me
about the sacred thread. Mr Browne, the Anglo-Indian Physical Training instructor, called me and said, No discrimination in this school;
youre just like anyone else. I had no clue what the fuss was about,
but I took off the jenou. It was only many years later that I understood
not just the inner significance of that ceremony, but also the sad
inequalities that had dogged the system, and the sordid politics that
subsequently took advantage of it.
While I was still in undergraduate college, my grandfather died in
1979. I never went to his funeral though I would have liked to. Instead,

Small-Scale Reflections on an Ancestral Home 337

my father, uncle, and other members of the family paid the obligatory
visit. My grandfather was our main link with that house. He died at
85, fairly sturdy and active till the last two or three years of his life.
He was a good looking man, with an air of almost regal dignity to
him. He was also widely known and respected not just in Umbergaon,
but all over Western India, especially in family circles.
I still remember how we as children vied with one another to press
his feet when he returned from our farms. I was quite a cheeky
grandson, not at all intimidated by him. I asked him, Whom does
this benefit? You or me? He said, You. You will get punya by serving
me. I retorted, Or is that only a trick to extract service from others?
He smiled benevolently, but once or twice I did succeed in rattling
him. The family legend was that my grandmother died of repeated
child births. She had borne seven or eight children, of whom six
survived. Apparently, the doctor had warned my grandparents that
more children would pose a serious health hazard to her. In the family
circles, my grandmother, who died when my father was seven or eight,
was almost a saint. Her pictures were in the pooja room and elsewhere.
Everyone said what a lovely person she was, quiet, confident, dignified, and loving. My dad told me how she was the only one whod
loved him. He had tears in his eyes when he spoke of her: After she
left us, we grew up more or less on our own, tended to by aunts and
other relatives. Those were really bad times. The family fortunes were
on the decline. There were debts and litigations. One by one, we all
left Umbergaon to make our way in the world in Bombay, Baroda, or
Having heard these stories, I once asked my grandfather why he
persisted in having so many children. He looked at me surprised and
annoyed. His usually magisterial demeanor now appeared creased.
He said, What do you mean? I replied, What about birth control?
He was taken aback, but replied, In those days, what did we know
about these things. I persisted, Then how about self-restraint? He
said, Easier said than done. The conversation ended abruptly, but I
never ceased entirely to feel that my grandmother was somehow a
victim of this mans lusts.
My grandfather was also a bit of a reader. Our house had all kinds
of English books. Usually they were popularor what used to be
popular in those days. Alexander Dumas in translation, for example,
or The Song of Hiawatha by Longfellow. I remember reading The
Count of Monte Cristo in one day, sitting up all night to finish it.

338 Makarand Paranjape

My grandfather, after briefly acknowledging my feat, also chuckled,
Did you get the moral of the story? Never trust a woman. Another
book I remember reading is John Reeds Ten Days that Shook the World
about the Bolshevik revolution. Though I went on to study literature
later, I never read these books again.
After my grandfather died, I think I must have gone there just once
before leaving for the U.S. The family priest looked at me much before
Id even started applying to universities abroad, You will become a
Doctor. I said, How can I? Ive opted for English. He retorted,
Isnt there another kind of doctorate? The one you get after studying
lots? I was eighteen then, with no intention whatsoever of pursuing
a career in academics.
My last visit to Umbergaon was in 1986. A few months earlier I
had returned from my stint abroad, armed with a Ph.D. Somehow
the family priests prophecy had come true. Now I wanted also to take
my wife to the house, which with all its associated lore was the source
of my knowledge of my paternal family and thus a large part of my
identity as well. We only stayed for a few hours, then were back to
Bombay. My daughter, who was born a few years after, has never
once visited Umbergaon.
So much has happened in these twenty or more years. Not just my
two elder uncles, but my father also passed away. There were both
emotional and economic convulsions which shook up the joint family.
One cousin and my youngest uncle still live there, managing what is
left of the family lands. In fact, I dont feel like going there partly because it is in such a tender place in my heart. I would rather it existed
for me as I remembered it rather than as the real place it still is, changed
by all these years.

Paranjape, Makarand. (2001). My Buried Youth in Umbergaon, Used Book,
pp. 2527. New Delhi: Indialog.
Ramanujan, A.K. (1976). Small-scale Reflections on Great House, Ten
Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, pp. 10205. New Delhi: Oxford University

Indian Families in the World 339

Chapter 22

Indian Families in
the World
Forty Years in Manitoba
Uma Parameswaran

I come to this topic of Indian Diasporic Families Today from a nonacademic perspective. I am a writer and this chapter is about my
thoughts on Indian families in the diaspora. I am hardly qualified to
talk about Indian families in India. I grew up in India of the 1950s,
and have lived in Canada since 1966. My view is not only through a
diasporic lens but through the astigmatic lens of time. I am now where
I saw earlier immigrants as being when I first came to Canada, namely,
quite out of step with contemporary India. So, I shall confine myself
to the Indo-Canadian experience, with brief forays into reminiscences.
Some years ago, when I showed the script of my play Rootless but
Green Are the Boulevard Trees to a colleague in the Theater Department,
he said every scene was written very evocatively but in total he did
not know what to make of it since it did not have a major protagonist.
I explained to him that precisely was my point, that the whole family
is the protagonist, which is why each of the seven main characters in
the play occupies center stage for about an equal length of time.

340 Uma Parameswaran

So, when I expanded the play into a novel titled Mangoes on the
Maple Tree, I used as epigraph a statement from Clark Blaises Days
and Nights in Calcutta, Family, family, family. In India, all is finally
family. India and the Indian diaspora do not have a monopoly on
this, of course. I have always found the double-edged words of
Faulkners Ab Snopes (in Barn Burning) very powerful: You got to
learn to stick to your own blood or you aint going to have any blood
to stick to you.

Definitions and perceptions differ not only between countries but

within generations in the same country.
When I was growing up in central India, my uncle came down
from the U.S. for a visit. My friends couldnt believe I was niece to a
famous scientist and would ask, Your mothers real brother? Your
mothers own brother? Sagga bhai ? In a culture where a brother of
a wife of a second cousin twice removed by marriage was considered
part of the family, one needed to make some hard distinctions to get
the coordinates right between a birth-sibling or uterine brothers (a
term popular with my grandfathers generation) and other brothers.
Now, as many of us in India lament, families have become very small,
not only due to drastic population control policies (which magically
made families smaller without halting the sub-continents exponential
population growththis is what Naveed in Rushdies Shame is all
about) but because urbanization has affected the way we see family.
I now live in a culture and country where the extended family is
not the norm and the nuclear family is rapidly changing its parameters. The nuclear family (which at one time meant father-motherchildren) is getting larger by the day. Time was when a wedding
reception-line consisted of the bride and bridegroom, and their parents
who numbered a maximum of four. Today, in our age of amicable
(and some not-so-amicable) divorces, the reception line consists of
two or three step-parents for each of bride and groom, not to mention
three of four offspring of each by earlier marriages. And of course,
there are the siblings and half-siblings of each of bride and groom,
with their present and ex-spouses and their own children and their
present spouses. Not to forget, in especially amicable divorces, the
two or three exs each of bride and groom.

Indian Families in the World 341

Time was when we got our family identity by tracing our lineage
to one of the sages, and by being associated with some ancestral
village, or some sub-caste of a sub-caste. In other parts of India, the
family name was a clear signifier, but not in the south. A point about
my Tamil Nadu Brahmin sub-culture: traditionally, we had no surname as sucheach has his/her own given name as his/her last name
with two initials. The extended family shares the same first initial
(for the name of the village) and siblings share the same second initial
(for their fathers name) as well, thus compacting in the name itself
everything one needs to know about a persons identity and family.
In days of yore, we had sonorous, polysyllabic names for which one
needed long breathsTiruvenkateswaran, Vaitheeswaran, Parameswaran, Brigajambal, Mangayarkkarasinow you know why
pranayama was prescribed as a must for everyone childhood on.
Consider the hoary custom of preserving family lineage, which
can be seen at a traditional marriage ceremony where one can hear
Sanskrit mantras majestically enunciated by the priest as he leads the
bridegroom through his vows. Build your own example by inserting
long traditional names: I, (put in your favorite polysyllabic name
here), the son of (put in another good polysyllabic name here), and
grandson of (another and longer name here), great-grandson of (you
can put in one of the same names as above, since it was common to
name a son after a grandfather or great grandfather) of ABC gotra,
(and of the village of DEF in the district of GHI,) do promise etc.,
etc. Now, as anyone who has sat through a traditional ceremony of
marriage knows, these identifying tags are repeated many times over,
and it is small wonder that everyone agrees that though they might
not understand a word of the vows that are being taken (which is one
reason we so blithely enter the holy state of matrimony) it sounds
very impressive. Poetry scores over practicalities, and that is not such
a bad thing. It is said that James Joyce, psyching himself for his
morning hours at his writing desk, would read aloud what he had
written the previous day. His cleaning maid would stand by the door
and listen, because, she said, though she could not understand anything, it sounded like music.

For a member of the Indian diaspora, there are three families, the
first one in India, and the second and third outside India. The second

342 Uma Parameswaran

family is the family in ones city of residence, which consists of South
Asian Canadians, that is, people who trace their origins to India,
Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and not just those from India.
The third family is the desi diasporic family, which comprises people
from India who live in North America or are connected through
We, the diaspora, are a user group and our families in India are
very user-friendly, as most middle-class people in India know by now
since almost every family has at least one member who is an NRI
(non-resident Indian.) We rush back into the arms of the family, and
exploit them to the nth degree. I say this through one of my characters,
Malini, in a novella titled The Forever Banyan Tree, which I have just
Malini was married into the Silicon Valley.... [and came for three weeks
every other year.] It was always the same. She would arrive in time for the
Music and Dance season, and be chauffeured from one sari store to
another, from one craft complex to another, from the store to the tailor to
the place where they stitched falls for the sari.... In between, she would
make rushed visits to family and friends, and to her in-laws, all the time
bemoaning how little time she had, how hot the weather was, how she
had to work so hard back in California, weighed down, what with the
house (3,200 square feet) and work (both she and her husband earned
six-figure salaries) and children (they were long past the age of heeding
their parents). She would attend one or other dance concert in the evening,
dressed to the nines, though somewhat out of step with the current fashions
and colors. She would bring her old saris and blouses and give them away
to the servants, who waited on her hand and foot, and then she would go
back with two bulging suitcases full of new saris and blouses and beautiful

The family bonds that develop outside India, as I said, are with fellowdesis in this part of the world. The bond we desis feel in cyber-space
recognizes no national boundaries. I am on several internet discussion
groups, and it feels good to talk to people on the same wavelength; as
a writer. I feel I have a more discerning readership among the desis
south of the border or as far away as Europe and Australia than among
non-Indian fellow-Canadians. A.K. Ramanujan has a poem where
the persona tells his wife that there are things they cannot enjoy
together because they did not share the same family background and
childhood spaces. The shared space for members of first-generation

Indian Families in the World 343

diaspora is their common childhood in India, regardless of the region,

religion or economic status.
In practical everyday life, this shared bond between desis is often
an anchor for the diaspora. M.G. Vassanji, in The Gunny Sack, speaks
of how any newcomer to any East African town had only to go to the
house of the mukhi and all his problems of settling down would be
solved. When my husband and I first came to Winnipeg, (about forty
years ago), there were fewer than eighty people from India, but mukhis
could not have helped since it was a very diverse group already, from
different regions and religions of India. The mukhis place, however,
was taken by the telephone directory. In those days, there were no
organizations within the community, but since the telephone directory
was there, I use this ploy in my story, The Door I Shut Behind Me,
where Chander looks up the phone-book for names common to his
fellow passenger Agrawals home state in India. Today, phone books
of bigger Canadian cities can direct one to the community organization, or place of worship, of ones choice. In the 2006 Winnipeg
phone directory, there are four listings starting with India, one with
Hindu, four with Islamic, and two with Sikh. The restaurant
guide lists nine restaurants with sub-continent cuisine. A newcomer
has only to go to any of these places to find help or company to see
him through the first year of his arrival in the country.
When I first came to Winnipeg, though there was no grouporganization as such, by word of mouth alone we found each other
and felt a togetherness that anyone who was from India was part of
the family. Students from India, who lived in groups of three and
four in apartments, were regularly invited for weekend dinners by
those of us who were married.
Very soon after I arrived, one of the early pioneers, the Sarwates,
left Winnipeg. I heard that during the Diwali weekend they hosted
everyone in Manitoba who had come from the sub-continent. I looked
up their house out of curiosity. It was small. In those days, insulation
materials were of poor quality and houses were small in order to save
on heating charges, since the temperature is below zero for five months
of the year. I could imagine sixty people crowded into it, without
much elbow room but happily celebrating. After we arrived, the Sarwates place was taken by one Rev. P.K. (Kodanda) Raman, a Tamilian
who had walked from Rangoon during the exodus of the Second
World War, and been befriended by missionaries, who converted him.
Christmas time at the Ramans had everyone from India at their

344 Uma Parameswaran

apartment on Langside Street. Other weekends, it was business as
usual, a dozen guests for dinner.
As the population of those from the sub-continent grew, divisions
grew based on language. Though the numbers within Families did
not decrease, the parameters of identity did. Malayalis (many of
whom were Christian nurses who had sponsored their husbands) lived
close to each other. Ive heard that in another city, not Winnipeg,
most of the nurses from Kerala lived in the same apartment block,
and baby-sit each others children, car-pooled to work, and often
cooked together.
Then came Bangladesh, and Bengali-speaking people became a
tight-knit family, and they still are, such is the strength of linguistic
bonds. About the same time (Idi Amin, remember?) came a huge
influx of Gujaratis from Africa, and they are the most organized subgroup from India in North America. Today, not only do they have
language and bhajan classes, Navaratri dances and very well established routines for rites pertaining to births, marriages and deaths,
but they have directories by caste and sub-caste for all of North
America! Not necessarily a good thing, but talk of family-sense
where language supersedes country. There is another new family
in the making in the city where I live. A group of South Asian
Canadian professionals, doctors mainly, formed a group so that their
children could socialize, the ulterior intent being that the younger
generation could find marriage partners in the same doctor-caste.

Now, with a population of at least ten thousand1 from the subcontinent in the city of Winnipeg, ones heritage language is still the
strongest bonding factor for the adults. Most recently, though, this
glue is in danger of drying out, and religion as a bonding factor is
getting stronger and stronger. The implications and deductions from
such observations need to be charted by sociologists, not by a writer
or literary critic that I am. However, it is clear that there is no unifying
factor that anchors the Indo-Canadian community.
While it seems that the intensity of family bonds is inversely
proportional to the number of people from India, there are two other
factors as to why this strong identification and empathy that the first
generation of Indian immigrants had for fellow immigrants and their
own families is weakening. One factor is that there is a divide between

Indian Families in the World 345

new immigrants and those who came earlier. India has changed greatly
in the last thirty years, but we who came earlier remember only the
India in which we grew up, not even the one we left as an adult. I say
this in one of my first stories, The Door I Shut Behind Me (1967).
They spoke of old films, while Saigal sang on in the background. There
was deep nostalgia in the air. What astounded Chander was that they
spoke of a distant past. To some of them trams still trundled by on the
streets of Madras and Lala Amarnaths double century against Don
Bradmans eleven was still the greatest event in cricket history.

The disjunction between such memories and the realities lived by

the more recent immigrants becomes a barrier in intergenerational
communication, as I point out further in that story.

In the mid-1970s, Canadas Family Reunification Policy opened the

door for the sponsorship of parents. While it had many positive aspects, I briefly wish to explore the negative aspects, mainly the intergenerational disjunction within the extended family where the parents
have been sponsored. It is not uncommon to find, in the province of
British Columbia especially, families that consist of a married couple
with basic education who emigrated from India, two sponsored
parents from India, and two or three Canadian-born youngsters. Traditional family roles take a beating in this kind of situation. The grandparents lose their traditional position of authority and power, since
they are financially dependent on their adult son unless they find a
job. Moreover they are not proficient in English. In colder provinces
such as Manitoba, add the factor that they have to depend on their
adult children for transportation (it being too cold for walking to busstops), and you see how the cards are stacked higher against them.
The parents learn functional English fast enough, but their accent
and grammatical expertise fall way behind their childrens within two
or three years of the children starting school. (Two days ago, I was at
the Pharmacy counter, where the womanfrom the Philippines
had to speak through her six year old son to explain what she wanted.)
Indian families are known for spoiling their children, and these other
factors exacerbate the weakening of parental authority.
I have no empirical data to substantiate my theory, which is that
while parents in lower income families manage to keep their control

346 Uma Parameswaran

and authority over younger children despite language-lack, the
grandparents often lose out in a big way when they come as sponsored
parents. No doubt, this phenomenon of lost authority is growing in
India as well, but I sometimes feel that sponsored parents are exploited
to be cooks and babysitters in return for a roof over their heads and
the emotional satisfaction of being near their son.
Sadhu Binning is a writer who lives in British Columbia. He has
dealt with such family situations in his plays. In one, there is a man
who sends his parents to a fruit-harvesting camp so that he can rent
out their basement room and get some money. The exploitation often
goes furtherthe sponsored parents become a source of income once
they have been here for ten years, because anyone who is over 65 years
of age and has lived in Canada for ten years after the age of 18 is
eligible for Old Age Security cheques. To have a cook and babysitter
who works for free and pays for her board and room! I personally
find it absolutely abhorrent that parents are made to live in the basement, and are expected to stay there when their adult son is hosting a
party upstairs. No doubt it happens all over the world in all types of
families, but I find it so abhorrent that I have not been able to write a
story about it. The reasons are peripheral to the topic I am presently
dealing with, and have to do with a diasporic writers dilemma of
portraying the negatives of my ethnocentric family, and thereby further feeding negative stereotypes that exist in the average Canadians
However, make no mistake, despite losing the position of authority
with the grandchildren, the proverbial in-law oppression is often as
strong in Indo-Canadian families as in India. With the increase in
Indo-Canadian population, and the self-ghettoization that goes with
it, all the negatives of India are alive and compounded in Canada. It
might change, and one hopes it will, but given that new sponsored
parents are coming from India every year, and that a great many
Indo-Canadians have arranged marriages with brides from India, one
cannot hope for much. I would not be surprised if the ratio of in-law
oppression is greater among the diaspora in Canada than in India.
Vassanjis The Gunny Sack has a wonderful metaphor of Scherazades
box of memories and artefacts that Indians carried to East Africa.
Regrettably, some of the contents of the boxes of modern day immigrants cannot be romanticized away. There is something toxic about
carrying traditions in ones immigration suitcase.

Indian Families in the World 347

The tendency of fellow Indo-Canadians, when such instances are

suspected, is to turn a blind eye, and to mind our own business.
I develop this in The Sweet Smell, which is about a young woman who
comes to Winnipeg to join her husband and is thrown out by her
in-laws from the extended-family home. I have made the in-laws
sponsored parents, but they retain their authority in this particular
household. Their demand for dowry after the wedding is not met with:
Taruns parents sent between-the-lines messages through go-betweens that
they wanted a cash settlement. Just what was traditional, they maintained.
Their familys airfare, for example; five of them had flown at their own
expense from Canada at high season fare, and they had assumed, so said
the middleman, that Pappaji would reimburse their fare. And then the
clothes for family members; they had explicitly said they did not want
any because Indian clothes and fashions were unsuited for Canada, but
they had implicitly assumed that Pappaji would give them cash instead,
three suits for the men at five hundred dollars each. And the wedding
itselfwhat a small affair it had been, certainly not what they had assumed
an old established Jaipur family would provide for them and their guests.
But what was past was past. Never mind. But they did expect a cash
settlement, ten lakhs surely was not unreasonable for a foreign-based sonin-law. There were minor confrontations, and then a major one just before
they returned to Canada.

Namita, the main character in the novella, goes to the temple, thinking
she could get some help. She meets Charu, another abused woman,
who has this to say:
All these ladies, not one has any real empathy. Men are like that, they
said. Theyll come around, they said. Dont wash dirty linen in public
thats their favourite line. Which makes me wonder how many of them
are putting up with horse manure and not letting on.
Not one will help?
Not that I know of.
I came here thinking Id get some help from someone whod understand
our culture.

The C.B.C. (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) has several documentaries on the oppression of South Asian Canadian women by
their in-laws. These are documented cases of dowry-oppression, of
murder while on a trip to India (taking the young woman to India to
kill her so they can return without a trace of their crime) or murder

348 Uma Parameswaran

here in Canada. The in-laws take possession of the young womans
passport, making her a captive, to live in slavery here or sometimes
to be killed in India. A bride, in an arranged marriage, usually comes
as a sponsored immigrant. A sponsor is required to swear to assume
all financial responsibility of the sponsored immigrant for five years,
but those who renege are never brought to justice. Within two years
after the first wife literally or figuratively disappears, a new bride
arrives from India.

There is yet another factor that is shaping the Indo-Canadian family

intracultural marriages and inter-racial children. This is a vast area,
and I shall limit myself to listing two possible areas of exploration.
In my generation, a great many more men than women came out to
study in North America. It was to be expected that many of them
would marry white spouses. The inter-racial children of these unions
usually marry whites. This browning of Canada, as I call it, can be
celebrated or it can be mourned as a loss of Indian identity. A study
that cries to be done is whether inter-racial marriages are more common among people from certain regions of India; my totally hypothetical theory, arrived at from the Winnipeg sample alone, is that
south Indians tend to marry non-Indians more readily than do those
from other parts of India. The new diaspora (I exclude those who
came before the 1960s) have not lived long enough for valid surveys
on third generation Canadians of part-Indian origin. But there just
might be a smaller ratio (ratio, not numbers) of inter-racial marriages
as the increase in the community population supports a growing trend
towards intracultural (that is, between Indo-Canadians of different
regions/languages/religions of India) unions. This is probably what
a diasporic family thinks of as a happy ending or a happy beginning.
Such is the tendency to cling to old concepts of family, that most
parents I have talked to hope to have a sense of continuum as the
family moves through lines of regional, linguistic, and religious, differences, a continuum that they fear is absent in inter-racial marriages.
The theoretical bases of such assumptions stand on shaky ground,
but anecdotally I have heard Hindu parents express their pleasure
that their son or daughter is marrying a Muslim or Christian from
India or the Middle East, and not a white person! They feel a cultural

Indian Families in the World 349

Language, culinary preferences and religion are three traditional

bonding factors in the nurture of family sense. There are the two
old adages: the family that prays together stays together, and the family
that eats together stays together, and as Ive said earlier, a common
language is a bond that scores over a common nationality or religion.
However, all three are eroding even where the parents are both from
the same Indian background. The erosion accelerates with each generation, and/or with interracial unions. Take a fairly typical IndoCanadian family. Language: Pre-school children learn the mothers
language. However, once the children start going to school, they
rapidly move towards English as their first language. This might be a
little different in British Columbia where the Punjabi population is
very large.
Eating together: Whatever the reason, in more and more families,
we see two types of meals being preparedone for children and one
for adults, and two different times for the daily dinnerone for the
children and one for the adults. It could be that the father comes
home much later than the children and so the children eat early and
the parents late. Or it could be culinary preference, that children prefer
a western or more hybrid kind of food while the parents prefer regular
Indian dishes.
Religion: Attendance at places of worship has increased dramatically in recent years, and this is not necessarily a good thing, especially
considering the politicized roles taken by some gurudwaras, and more
recently by some mosques in Canada. Today, there are six gurudwaras, two mosques, four Buddhist churches, and four Hindu
temples in Winnipeg. Two of the temples are run by the Hindu Society
of Manitoba and one by Caribbean-Canadians.2
Someone really needs to study the curious phenomenon of Hindu
offspring of the diaspora in Canada who, while not knowledgeable
or interested in Hindu practices, nevertheless opt to have a Hindu
wedding ceremony, in addition to a church wedding if they marry
Christians. Even more curious is the willingness of the Christian
partner to participate in a non-Christian ceremony.
Canada is a multicultural family. Repeat the slogan often enough
and it might happen.
In Winnipeg, the Hindu wedding as ceremony and as event has
been fairly standardized. There is an evening of sangeet, in addition
to various bridal showers organized by different parties (brides friends
at work, old school friends, and friends of the parents). The marriage

350 Uma Parameswaran

service, complete with sacred fire and music, is conducted in Sanskrit,
with English translations, usually at a particular hotel that seems to
have cornered the Indian clientele by having an Indian chef on their
staff. We even had a wedding where the street was closed to traffic
(by order of the Mayor) for the bridegroom to come on a mare, to
shehnai music. Winnipeg, being still a small place compared to Toronto
and Vancouver, draws a fairly large segment of the desi family to
most weddings, with a minimum of four hundred guests. The nonIndian guests are a small minority, and often see the event as rather
chaotic and exotic because guests chat all through the ceremony,
unlike in a church wedding, where the whole service is solemn and
well rehearsed. The reception is equally loud and chaotic, with illfunctioning stereo systems and endless lines at the buffet table,
followed by a dance with a yakking DJ or emcee, and music from
Bollywood. An Indo-Canadian wedding is a regular festive event in
full-fledged desi tradition. It is a social event one cannot afford to
miss if you are part of the desi family.
As definitions and perceptions of what constitutes family changes
with increasing numbers of Indians in Canada, we just might be losing
the all-embracing sense of family that existed thirty years ago, that
anyone who had roots in undivided India (even if they arrived via
other parts of the world) was part of family, to be of help and to be
helped. Also, because of the felicity with which natal families from
India get to visit Canada, and because of various natal family members
being strewn all over North America, we might be moving back to
seeing family as restricted to those related by blood or marriage.
But as far as social events go, the desi family is a strong unit where
family festivities flourish and family gossip thrives, even if there are
very few resources for members who really need help.
Because new immigrants from India are coming into Canada every
year, bonds to India, and local self-ghettoization, will continue at the
collective level. However, as more and more of the succeeding generations shed their hyphenated status, and prefer to call themselves
Canadians rather than Indo-Canadians, it will be interesting to see
what happens to the Indian family in Canada.

Indian Families in the World 351

1. The mini-census of 2005 records the population of the province as
1.2 million, of whom 670,000 live in Winnipeg. In the census of 2001,
there were 12,135 East Indians in Manitoba, 6,440 of whom were born
outside Canada, and 5,485 of whom are Sikhs, and 3,835 Hindus. Six
thousand said their heritage language is Punjabi, and 3,250 that it is Hindi.
It also records that there were 5,095 Muslims and 5,745 Buddhists. One
needs to note that not all of these people have come directly from India,
or are of South Asian origins. For comparison, note that there were 31,120
Filipinos in Winnipeg in 2001.
2. Raj Kumar Hans has written about the role of gurudwaras as cultural
sites in British Columbia (in Fractured Identity, 2003, 21733) and Harold
Coward about Diaspora practices of Hindus (in The South Asian Religious
Diaspora in Britain, Canada and the United States, 2000, 15172).

352 Uma Parameswaran



354 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

A Dialog with Amartya Sen 355

Chapter 23

A Dialog with
Amartya Sen
Sanjukta Dasgupta
Malashri Lal

Questions from Malashri Lal and Sanjukta Dasgupta and answers from
Amartya Sen
In your chapter titled Women and Men in The Argumentative Indian you have made a categorical distinction
between well being and agency. Do you think it is
at all possible for the average Indian woman homemaker to become an active agent of social change?
There are many instances where we have come across
our students securing jobs in schools or colleges, who
are being coerced into surrendering their salary cheques
to their husbands for domestic peace and harmony.
Amartya Sen: The circumstances are often extremely adverse for the
exercise of agency by women, but nevertheless the answer to your question is, I think, yes. First, even when
the freedoms that a woman (or for that matter, a man)
can exercise to make deliberate decisions are constrained and even when the power to carry out those
decisions is also restricted, these freedoms and powers
Question 1:

356 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

are not typically entirely absent. Renegade women have
rebelled courageously against masculine authoritarian
order in all kinds of extremely difficult circumstances
and some times have had achievements of considerable significance, against many odds. Even though it
is, ultimately, important to be realistic about what can
be achieved, we must also take into account the fact that
sometimes we fail to exercise our freedoms by taking
our decisional powers to be even more limited than
they actually are. Fear is sometimes more crippling
than reality.
Second, what people in adverse positions can achieve
depends also on whether they act entirely alone or in
conjunction with others. There is strength in the unity
of the deprived and underprivileged. This is the basis of
working class agitations, womens movements, and
organized protests by social underdogs in general. A
single family to be displaced by a huge dam may not
be able to get anywhere in protesting about this, but when
many such persons join together, there is power in voice
and volition, whether or not they ultimately win. This
is why womens organizations are right to press for these
joint actions against shared adversities, and also why
feminist theorists are also correct in emphasizing the
importance of class action.
Third, it is extremely important to acknowledge and
focus on the constraints that bind women and keep
them in little boxes. The removal of these constraints
and captivity has to be, in itself, a major goal of political
action and social agitation. To take something as desirable but completely impossible can be a prelude to
losing the fortitude to fight against injustice. The possibility of change is also a part of the manifest reality of
the world in which we live.
Question 2:

This mornings newspaper (The Statesman, March 23,

2006) has a first page news with the title When glory
brings abuse at home referring to Commonwealth
Games gold medallist in pistol pairs Saroja Kumari
Jhuthu being served an ultimatum by her husband,

A Dialog with Amartya Sen 357

a Major in the Indian Army, to give up the sport. When

interviewed by a Melbourne TV channel about this
matter of family discord Saroja reportedly said that
being an Indian woman she could do little to save
herself from such abuse. Both Saroja and her husband
belong to the educated cultured Indian middle class.
Does this suggest that education can contribute to a
liberal outlook up to a certain degree and centuries
of patriarchal oppression are responsible for gender
Amartya Sen: Saroja is pointing to an on-going inequity, and this
is where the value of her statement lies. But just as
people were surprised by the fact that an Indian woman
can win an international competition in a field linked
with arms and warfare, they may also be surprised that
Indian women, if they are not as resigned as Saroja
seems to be in that statement, can change the on-going
inequity, through courage and defiance. Saroja is evidently an excellent user of the pistol, and maybe her
success andif she so choosesher determination not
to take things lying down can have some impact on the
social picture as well. Her education should help her
in this, rather than hindering it. The need for enlightened and reasoned social understanding is very important in the fight against inequalities in general. And
surely education cannot but be a major ally in this battle.
You have referred to the inequality within families as
cooperative conflicts. This apparent oxymoron that
has been internalized within the family system denies
agency to women and other dependents in a family.
However, recently a counter discourse seems to be
emerging about men being equally disempowered
within the patriarchal system and are tortured and
exploited by self seeking women. Your comments
Amartya Sen: I dont know from where the counterstatements you
cite come, but one need not be very surprised by the presence of essentially reactionary arguments as a response
to forces of change. This surely is a sign of progress,
Question 3:

358 Sanjukta Dasgupta and Malashri Lal

dialectically speaking, since such counter-discourse
would not have emerged but for some success of the
transforming discourse.
Contemporary regional literature, films, TV serials
and even advertisements very often consolidate the
stereotypes about ideal Indian womanhood though
exceptions exist. Cultural representations instead
of trying to interrogate gender inequality seem to
romanticize the self-effacing role of woman as homemaker, caregiver and the nurturing role of mothering
all members of the family, irrespective of age. Therefore
concerns about dowry deaths and female feticide do
not feature as a social problem that needs to be engaged
on an emergency basis in both the print and visual
media and literary texts, though it has to be admitted
that the culture of silence and voicelessness perhaps is
no longer total. How can change be instituted in such
family dynamics?
Amartya Sen: Certainly public discussion and social agitation can
play big parts in the process of social change. I do not,
however, entirely agree that dowry deaths and female
feticide do not feature as a social problem. In fact both
have received some considerable exposure in the media;
we should not deny positive developments in the media
if only because such denial only makes people more
frustrated about the possibility of change and encourages them to be fatalistic and resigned to the continuation of inequity.
As you say, the culture of silence and voicelessness
perhaps is no longer total. On the other hand, we cannot
be satisfied with what has been achieved so far, and
without denying the progress that is already occurringwe have to work for more recognition of deprived
and discordant voices and for speedier social change.
You are right that romanticizing the self-effacing
role of women can be a very retrograde move. Aside
from its negative practical implications, it also produces epistemic confusion by turning disadvantage and
Question 4:

A Dialog with Amartya Sen 359

deprivation forced, directly or indirectly, on people into

an alleged case of willing and noble self-sacrifice. It is
only with the real freedom to choice that the idea of
sacrifice and of self-effacement can make any sense.
Tolerating injustice is more a sign of docility than of

360 The Indian Family in Transition

About the Editors

and Contributors
Malashri Lal is Professor, Department of English, University of
Delhi, and Joint Director of the University of Delhi, South Campus.
She has earlier served as Director, Womens Studies and Development Centre, University of Delhi (20002006). Professor Lal is the
recipient of several fellowships, including the Fulbright, the ShastriIndo Canadian Institute, the British Council and the Rockefeller
Foundation. She is a former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and has served on international juries for literary
prizes such as The Commonwealth Writers Prize, London.
Professor Lal has authored The Law of the Threshold: Women Writers
in Indian English (1995, reprinted in 2000), edited a collection of essays
titled Feminist Spaces: Cultural Readings from Canada and India (1997),
and co-authored Female Empowerment (1995) and Interpreting Homes
in South Asian Literature (2007). Her recent co-edited publications
include The Home and the World: A Window on Contemporary Indian
Literature (2002), Womens Studies in India: Contours of Change (2002),
and Signifying the Self: Women and Literature (2004). She is currently
engaged with a research project titled In Search of Sita and a book
on Womens Writing in Asia.
Sanjukta Dasgupta is Professor and Former Head, Department of
English, Calcutta University. She is a poet, critic and translator and
her articles, poems, short stories and translations have been published
in distinguished journals in India and abroad. Her published books
include The Novels of Huxley and Hemingway: A Study in Two Planes of

About the Editors and Contributors 361

Reality, Responses: Selected Essays, Snapshots (poetry), Dilemma (poetry),

First Language ( poetry), Her Stories (translations) and Manimahesh
Professor Dasgupta has been the recipient of numerous awards
and grants, including the British Council Charles Wallace Scholar
grant; Fulbright postdoctoral research fellowship; Fulbright Alumni
Initiative Award; Fulbright Scholar in Residence at State University
of New York, Oswego, New York; Australia India Council Fellowship; Visiting fellow at the Centre for Womens Research and Gender
studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada; Associate Fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; and Visiting Fellow at the Women Studies and Development Centre, University
of Delhi.
Professor Dasgupta is Deputy Coordinator of the UGC DRS (SAP)
project; member of the advisory committee of the Womens Studies
Research Centre, Calcutta University; Chairperson of the Calcutta
University, Undergraduate Board of Studies (English); member of
The West Bengal Central School Service Commission; and a member
of the Calcutta University Senate and co-opted member of the Board
of Undergraduate and Postgraduate Studies (ENGLISH) of Assam
University, Silchar. She is also Associate Editor of the Journal of
Womens Studies, Calcutta University.

Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar teach English at the University of
Hyderabad. They have been working in the areas of Translation and
Comparative Literature. Their recent translations are Mohana! Oh
Mohana and Other Poems (Sahitya Akademi, 2005), Beware, The Cows
are Coming! (Sahitya Akademi, 2003), and Ayoni and Other Stories
(Katha, 2001). They have helped edit special volumes of Indian Literature and The Book Review on Contemporary Telugu Writing. They
were awarded the Rentala Memorial Award for 2005 for their contribution to translation of Telegu literature.
Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University and was until recently
the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. His books include Rationality and Freedom (2002), The Argumentative Indian (2005), and

362 The Indian Family in Transition

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006), among others.
His research has ranged over a number of fields in economics, philosophy, and decision theory. Sen received the Nobel Prize in Economics
in 1998.
Arpa Ghosh is Senior lecturer in English in Vivekananda College for
Women, Calcutta University. Her areas of interest are Western and
Indian literature, films and creative writing. Her short stories have
been published in The Statesman.
Bonita Aleaz teaches Political Science at the University of Calcutta.
Her publications include Emergent Women: Mizo Womens Perspectives;
Struggles of Indian Federalism Case of Punjab; and Ethnicity, Nations and
Minorities: The South Asian Scenario (co-edited with Lipi Ghosh and
Achintya Kumar Dutta). Her collaborators in the writing of her contribution are Amenla Aier, a lecturer in Bishops College, Calcutta;
and Anshely Sumi who runs a prominent NGO looking after the
welfare of women and children in Nagaland.
Esha Dey is a novelist, short story writer, critic, and translator. She
was a former associate professor in the Department of English, Utkal
University, Orissa. She now resides in Kolkata.
Irma Maini is Associate Professor of English in New Jersey City
University. She is co-editor of a collection of critical essays, Multiethnic Literature and Canon Debates (SUNY Press, 2006). Her articles
have been published in MELUS, Families: A Journal, The Literary Criterion, Modern Language Studies, and The Commonwealth Quarterly.
Jayita Sengupta is a Senior Lecturer and Head, Department of
English in South Calcutta Girls College, under Calcutta University.
Her areas of research include gender studies and translation. Her
publications include: Relationships, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyays short
stories in English translation and In The Other Bengal: A Creative
Travelogue. She has also edited The Muffled Heart: Stories of the Disempowered Male. Her most recent book is Refractions of Desire.
Judith E. Walsh is professor at the History and Philosophy Department at State University of New York the College at Old Westbury,
and a Research Associate at Columbia Universitys Southern Asian
Institute. She is the author of Growing Up in British India (1983), Domesticity in Colonial India (2004), and a textbook on India, A Brief
History of India (2005). She has also published a volume of her own

About the Editors and Contributors 363

translations from Bengali language domestic manuals, How to be the

Goddess of Your Home (2005).
Makarand Paranjape is a widely published literary critic, poet, novelist, and professor of English. He has authored and edited over twentyfive books and has more than hundred scholarly papers to his credit.
Currently the Chair of the Centre for English Studies at Jawaharlal
Nehru University, New Delhi, he is also the Principal Investigator of
the project on Science and Spirituality in Modern India and the
Coordinator of the UGC Special Assistance Programme on IndoCentric Approach to Literary Studies. He is also the founding editor
of Evam: Forum on Indian Representations.
Mary Mathew is an associate professor of English and interim associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts in North Carolina Central
University, USA. She has written several books and articles on diasporic literature and has presented numerous papers at conferences
in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom.
Meena Alexanders poems have been widely anthologized and
translated. Her works include Raw Silk (2004); Illiterate Heart, winner
of the 2002 PEN Open Book Award; and Shock of Arrival: Reflections
on Postcolonial Experience (1996). Her memoir Fault Lines (1993) appeared in a new expanded edition in 2003. She is the editor of Indian
Love Poems (2005). Currently she is working on new poems and a
book of essays. She is Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter
College and the Graduate Centre, City University of New York.
Meghna Gulzar began her career as a freelance writer for The Times
of India and other publications in 1989. Her poems have been published in anthologies of the Poetry Society of India. Her first feature
film, Filhaal (2002) was based on the subject of surrogate motherhood. Because he is her biography on her father, esteemed poet
and film-maker Gulzar was published in 2004. Meghna Gulzars latest
feature film is Just Married.
Mukul Mukherjee is an economist. She did her doctoral studies in
Delhi School of Economics. After her retirement from Delhi University she has been associated with research and teaching at the
Womens Studies Research Centre of Calcutta University. Her recent work includes A Situational Analysis of Women and Girls in West
Bengal and Marketable Skills in the Wake of Globalisation, both published
by the National Commission of Women.

364 The Indian Family in Transition

N. Venugopal Rao is a trained economist who has been working as
a journalist for the last twenty five years. He is also a poet, literary
critic, translator and public speaker. He has over ten original Telugu
and ten translated books to his credit.
Naina Dey teaches at Maharaja Manindra Chandra College, Kolkata,
under the University of Calcutta. She has translated works by
Rabindranath Tagore, Ashapurna Devi, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Anita
Agnihotri, and other noted Bengali authors. She has also several miscellaneous publications in a number of esteemed academic journals,
newspapers and magazines to her credit.
Nonda Chatterjee is Principal of The Cambridge School in Kolkata.
She is an educationist and a counseler with an interest in literature,
history, music, teaching and gardening Her first book,The Strawberry
Patcha collection of short storieshas been published by Penguin
Books in 2004.
Pushpa Bhave has taught for thirty years at Ruia College in Mumbai.
She is a renowned drama critic for Marathi theatre. Her areas of
interest are dramatic aesthetics, Marathi theater and social history,
subjects on which she lectures at universities in Mumbai and Pune.
Sarah Lamb is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Her books include White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender
and Body in India (2000), Everyday Life in South Asia (2002), and a
work in process, Aging Across Worlds: Generations, Gender and Ambivalent Modernities in India and America.
Shashi Deshpande has eight short story collections, nine novels, a
collection of essays and four childrens books to her credit. Her novel
That Long Silence won the Sahitya Akademi award. A number of her
novels and short stories have been translated into different languages.
Her latest novel is Moving On.
Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film critic and author
based in Kolkata. She has authored seventeen books on gender,
cinema, urban history and short fiction. She won the National Award
for Best Film Critic (1991) and for Best Book on Cinema (2003.)
She is currently doing her Ph.D. in the History of Cinema under
D. Chittabrata Palit. She is also writing a book on food as lifestyle.

About the Editors and Contributors 365

Sutapa Chaudhuri, Ph.D., is lecturer in the Department of English

at the Bhavnagar University, Gujarat. She studied English literature
at Calcutta University and linguistics at Wayne State University,
Michigan, USA. She lives in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. Her research interests include Women Studies and poetry.
Uma Parameswaran has held various positions, including Professor
of English at the University of Winnipeg, and member of the National
Council of The Writers Union of Canada. Her recent publications
include award-winning What was Always Hers (short stories), The
Sweet Smell of Mothers Milk-Wet Bodice (novella), Mangoes on the Maple
Tree (novel), and Sisters at the Well (Poems). She lives in Winnipeg,
Vidya Bal is a journalist, activist writer and Editor of the Marathi
feminist journal Miloon Sarayajani. Vidya resides in Pune, Maharashtra.

366 The Indian Family in Transition

Aakrosh (film), 283
Aastha (film), 286
Aastha (old age home), Kolkata, 89
Aayojan, 226, 227
Abduction, 73, 75
absent father, phenomenon, 256
access, to housing by women, 69; to
money in rural areas, 69; to resources
by women, 66
Acchamamba, Bhandaru, 205
Adalja, Varsha, 180, 181, 185; women
characters in works of, 182
Adarsh Nari, women as emblems of, 175,
176, 177, 183
Adhav, Baba, 305
adoption, of children, 251
adultery, by women, 47
adulterous wife, 39
Advaitam, 234
advertisements, on television, 26, 27
Agarkar, Gopal Ganes, 303, 305
Agarwal, Bina, 12
age, and erosion of agency, 6972
aged women, illiteracy among, 71; living
in rural areas, 71; risk of death among,
71; widowhood among, 71
ageing, forms of, and family, 82, 99;
population in India, 82
agency, 23, 62; age and erosion of, 69
72; denial of, 24; women and, 6178,
355, 357
Agewell Foundation (NGO), New Delhi,
aggressive male behavior, within home, 74

Agneepath (film), 287

AIDS-related deaths, in Nagaland, 108
Ainaa, 235
Akaaler Sandhane, 272
Akadanu Phool, 183, 184
akhuaye, 106
Akjon Bhalo Swamir Jibne Ekti Raat, 155
Akshar-sparsha, 298
Al Hidayah, 128
Alcoholism, 189; issue of, in Dattanis
plays, 200
Aleaz, Bonita, 23, 103
Alexander, Meena, 29, 295
alienation, suffered by women, 211
Alladi Uma, 25, 231
Aloino Centre, Nagaland, 114
Altruism spirit, 106
Amar Jiban, 20
Ambedkar, Babasaheb, 303, 305
American family, transformation in, 12
American modes of aging, and family, 93
Amrita, 176
An Anecdote to Boredom, husband-wife
relationship in, 13940
Anandamath, 129
analysis, and exploration, 2089
ancestral home, reflection on, 3318
Anderson, Benedict, 215
Angami, Neidonuo, 115, 116
Angami Nagas, land holdings among,
Anglo-Indians 31112
Ankur (film), 285
Antarmahal (film), 262

Index 367
Anubhav (film), 286
Anurupa Devi, 148
Ao Baptist Tetsur Mungdang, in Nagaland,
Ao Nagas, 119; behavioural disorders
among children of, 107; women, relationship with family, 118
Aphale, Sunita, 301
Appa Rao, Gurajada, 203, 205, 210
Appadurai, Arjun, 213
Ardhanarishwara, concept of, 126
Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 110
Arth (film), 289
Ashapurna Devi, 24, 134, 142, 148, 201n,
226, 229; fictions of, 22130; novels
of, 191
Ashok Kumar, 286
Ashon, 136
Ashwanam, 237
Asookh (film), 261, 2679, 275
Assault, 73
Atharva Veda, on women, 127
Astitva (film), 286
Ato Tuku-Swargo, 156
Aum, as mystic logos, 126
Aurat (film), 282
authority, exercise of, 62; and power of
women, 67
autobiography(ical), as contested category,164; critics of, 166; history of,
165; studies,165; theory,167
autonomy, assault of womens, 67; of
women, 63, 66, 68
Avaiyar, 129
Avishkar (film), 286
Azmi, Shabana, 285
Babu, 312
Bachchan, Amitabh, 281, 282
bachelors quarters, of Naga/ Mizo communites, 106
Bage, Asha, 302
Bal, Vidya, 297
Balachander, K, 287
Bandipotlu, 232
Bandyopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan, 221
Bandyopadhyay, Tarashankar, 221
Banerjee, Ranjan, 81, 96

Banerjee, Somnath, 258

Bannerjee, Tarun, 257
Bariwali (film), 2702, 275
Barjatya, Sooraj, 281
Basu, Bani, 136, 142
Basu, Chhabi, 229
Basu, Pratibha, 148
Batiwala, Srilatha, 66
Batris Putlini Vedana, 181
battered women, 75
Bawarchi (film), 286
Becker, Gary, 64
belief systems, 20
Benegal, Shyam, 285
Bengal, family life in the 20th century in,
Bengal School style, 316
Bengali fiction, 25
Bengali men, relationship with wife, 51
Bengali society, respect for elders in,
96; Hindu society in the nineteenth
century, 51
Bengali women, discourse on nineteenth
century, 52; need for reform and
adaptation by, 48; reeducation of, 36
7; writings of, 148
benevolent dictatorship, of male head,
Beteille, Andre, 19
Bhabha, Homi, 216
Bhadramahila, 129
Bhagwat, Vidyut, 301
Bhakti movement, 127
Bhansali, Sanjay Leela, 284
Bhattacharya, Basu, 286
Bhattacharya, Suchitra 70,265
Bhave, Pushpa, 25, 164
Bhirbhum District, in West Bengal, village
study of, 82
bigamy, in films, 285; punishment for,
bindi, and status of women, 178
The Binding Vine, 139
Binning, Sadhu, 346
bisexuality, concept of, 126
Blaise, Clark, 340
Boltu Maun, 183

368 The Indian Family in Transition

bonding, emotional, 11; factor in family,
306, 349
Bowley, Agatha, 255
Brahamans, on women, 127
Brahmin sub-culture, of Tamil Nadu, 341
Brahmanical order, patriarchal, 24, 128;
rigidity of, 128
Brahmo Samaj, 36, 37, 53n, 128
Brahmos, 22; and social reform of
women, 38
Bratakathas, 146
Bravely Fought the Queen, 188, 189, 197,
199, 201; approach to hypocrisy of
upper-middle class, 190; characters in,
1901; male chauvinism in, 194
Breslin, T.D., 255
bride burning, 143
bride price, in Telugu literature, 203
British colonization, impact on socioeconomic structure in India, 127
British judiciary, 21
British rule, in India, influence on state
apparatus and cultural development,
Bront, Charlotte, 217
Brown, Linda Keller, 160
Buddhism, 127
Buniyad (TV serial), 287
Catherine the Great, of Russia, 36, 38
Census, of 1991 on age group, 70; of 2001
on life expectancy at birth (LEB), 70
Ch. Usha Rani 237
Chaka Chakini Adhunik Bodhkatha, 179,
Chakra (film), 283
Chakravarty, Uma, 129, 130
Chalam, 204, 229; on family institutions,
Chandlano Vyaap, 178, 186
Chandrabati, 147
Chandrannu Ajwalu, 185
Chani Bor, 182
chastity, female, 65
Chatterjee, Bankimchandra, 129, 130,
Chatterjee, Basu, 286
Chatterjee, Nonda, 29, 309

Chatterjee, Shoma A., 26, 243

Chattopadhyay, Saratchandra, 223
Chaudhuri, Nirad, 311
Chaudhari, Raghuvir, 176
Chaudhuri, Sutapa, 174
Chchinnamasta, 2229
Chen, Martha Alter, 24
Chhoti Bahu, (film), 285
child/children, abuse, 22, 72; bride,
plight of, 21; care, 16; illegitimate,
257; labour, 72; marriage, issue of, 36,
42, 46, 306; molestation in plays of
Dattani, 193; in Naga family, 118;
prostitution, 72; psychosomatic
problems among, 10611; of single
parents, 2546
Children Film Society of India, 261
Chodorow, Nancy, 166
Chokher Bali (film), 22, 271
Chopra, B.R., 286
Chowdhury, Sutapa, 25
Christian culture, 313
Christian missionaries, old age homes
run by, 85
Christianity, in Nagaland, 117; and transformation in Naga society, 120
Church, role of, in child development in
Nagaland, 107
Cohen, Lawrence, 84
collective Indian identity, 13
collectivism, 105
colonial India, 312
colonial legacy, conflict with Indianness, 315
Committee of the Status of Women,
observation on widowhood, 71
Communist ideology, 208
communitarianism, in practice, 1036
community/civil society, institution of,
17; life of Nagas and Mizos, 106;
participation in Nagaland, 116
community senior centers, in USA,
Indian aging in, 82
compassion, virtue of, 36
conflict, co-operative, 29; generational,
84; of interest, 17
conjugal, intimacy and friendship, 52;
relationship, 19

Index 369
consumerism, 84, 246; role in domestic
tension, 211
Coolie (film), 287
Corbett, Jim, 313
Corsini, R.J., 254
counselors, for elderly, 89
cruelty, to women at home, 73
Cry the Peacock, 139
culture(al), 12; collusion, 216; generational divides in, between parents
and children in USA, 90; identity, of
immigrant families, 214; shock, 16
daasi, wife as, 177
Dabydeen, Cyril, 219
Dadaji vs. Rukhmabai, 21
Dahan, 70
Dahan (film), 261, 262, 2657
Dahar, narrative of, 275
Dalal, Bharti, 186
Dalit women, autobiography of, 164;
consciousness of, 1667
Dance like a Man, 189, 193
The Dark Dancer, 219
The Dark Holds No Terrors, 139
Darshak, Manubhai Pancholi, 176
Das, Jibananda, 221
Dasgupta, Sanjukta, 11, 355
Dattani, Mahesh, character portrayals in
plays of, 201; joint families in plays
of, 25; study of plays of, 188201
daughters, devaluation of, 65; economic
consequences of educating, 24851;
as economic liability, 251
daughters-in-law, era of, 97; honored
place for, 327; and mother-in-law and
sharing of the son, 24; voice and
authority of todays, 84
Davidar, David, 75
Death Be Not Proud, 325
Debi, 272
Debi, Jyotirmoy, 131, 132, 148
decimated family, in Rituparna Ghoshs
films, 26174
decision-making, exclusion of women
from, 778; power of women, 63,
209; womens agency in, 669
Deewar (film), 281

Demonising Homosexuals in India, 195

dependent women, 16
Desai, Amrapali, 181, 183
Desai, Amrita, 139, 142
Desai, Tarini, 178
Deshpande, Gauri, 301, 304, 306
Deshpande, Sarita, 139
Deshpande, Shahi, 29, 139, 142, 322
desi diasporic family, 342
Dvasia, Amrita, 138
Devdas (film), 284
Devdasi life styles, 127
Devi Chaudhurani, 130
devoted wife, 43
Dey, Dipankar, 272
Dey, Esha, 25, 145
Dey, Naina, 24, 221
Dharma, 50; fulfilling, 176
Dhurjatiprasad, 221
Dialog, 29
dialog form, use of, 4950
diaspor/diasporic, books, 214, 215, 339,
320, 3423; communities, 213; experience of immigrants, 218
Diddubatu, 204
Dignity Foundation, home for elderly, 89
Dikri nu Dhan, 183
Dilip Kumar, 282
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (film), 288
Dishantar, 177
Distances, 219
divorce, economic implications of, 245
8; rise in, rates, 252
Dixit, Madhuri, 289
Do Bigha Zameen (film), 282
docility, female, 65
Doctorow, E.L., 19
doing gender, concept of, 140
domestic, disharmony, 207; harmony,
20; tension in Telugu stories, 211;
violence, 22, 63, 189; analysis of, 73;
and negation of womens human
rights, 728; work, participation in, 62
domination, between members in family,
62; dyads and, 435
The Door I Shut Behind Me, 343, 344
Dooram, 234
Douglas, Mary, 157, 160

370 The Indian Family in Transition

dowry, deaths, 75, 358; as economic
liability, 250; problems of, 22
Dr Madhurika (film), 284
Drze, Jean, 72
drug abuse, by Nagas, 1078, 121n
Dukh ke Sukh, 179
Dumas, Alexander, 337
Duniya Na Mane(film), 283
Dutt, A.K., 38
Dutt, Sunil, 286
dyadic relationships, 52, 54n
dyads, and dominance, 435
Dym, Barry, 253
economic decision-making authority, 68
economic self-reliance, by women, 78
education, as active agent of social change,
15; and changes in family, 20; and
emancipation of women, 132; in
India, 320; in Naga society, 121;
spread of, in nineteenth century, 128;
of wife, 44; of women/female, 20,
22, 78
egalitarian relations, between men and
women, 64
Ekaal, 156
Elangtsr, Naga womens participation in,
elderly, care facilities of, 22; population
in India, 70
Eliot, 221
emotion(al), commitment, 14; security,
17; space, in Rituparno Ghoshs
films, 275; ties with children living
abroad, 90
empowerment, of women, 65, 66, 77,
1545; issue of, 22
Engels, Dagmar, 22
Engels, Frederick, 12, 22; on womens
status, 64;
English, fictions, 139; use of in Mahesh
Dattanis plays, 189
Englishman, 313
equality, notion of, in Gujarati writings,
Etzioni, Amitai, 105
eavesdropping, as an issue, 46, 47; by
women in Satyacarans texts, 48

exiled life, books on, 215

expatriate Indian fiction, 215
exploitation, of women in Gujarati
writings, 182
extended family, 306, 341; concept of,
extra-family aging centres, 84
False Documents, 19
family, as agency, 12; aging and emerging
forms of, 99; -based soap operas, 280;
bond, 306; outside India, 342, 344;
concept of, 12, 175; contesting the
ideology of, 183; definition of, 11, 12,
243; disintegration of, in Gujarati
writings, 179; feminist critique of, 63;
and freedom, debate on, 17981; and
gender in Gujarati womens writings, 1778; and household, 61; as
gendered structure, 646; imagined,
145; institution of, 307;/kinship
structure, institution of, 17; lineage,
preserving, 341; as mainstay of elderly, 66; as part of womens experience,
1667; portrayal in Ritupar no
Ghosha films, 262; power structure
in, 145; as primary institution of
human society, 62; relationship within,
323; as site of resistance, 178; as a
social institution, 63; and society, 19;
space, contemporary, 29; studies, 14,
15; system, categories of, 18; evolution of, 20; trees in India, 17; and
unity, 15; values, 243; and women
in Telugu literature, 20311
Family Reunification Policy, Canada,
female, disempowerment, 198; feticide,
22; identity, debate on, 180; infanticide, 72, 358; male-male ratio
(FMR), 70; ratio, decline in, 249;
selfhood, concept of, 166; space, 197
8; victimhood, 16; vulnerability, 63
Feminine Identity, 127
feminine obsession, with body, 148
feminist economics, 14
feminists, 3056; politics, influence of,

Index 371
fertility decline, 248
festivals, purpose of, 318
feudal Indian family, in Hindi cinema,
fiction, English, 13; society, family and
self in, 12543; women as victims in
immigrant, 218
films, representation of families in, 26,
finance(ial), empowerment of women,
151; independence of women, 2478
Fire (film), 289
Forbes, Geraldine, 18
Forster, E.M., 218
Forever Banyan Tree, 342
freedom, family and, 17981
freedom for women, ideas of, 182
Friedman, Thomas L., 320
Gandharbi, 136
Gandhi, Mahatma, 54n, 303, 305; concept of Ramrajya of, 314
Gandharbi, 140
Ganeshan, Indira, 217
Ganga Jamuna (film), 282
Ganorkar, Prabha, 304
Gender,12; based-sharing of resources,
62; categories of, 178; discourse on,
180; equality, 30, 182; equity, 64;
importance of, in Gujarati families,
175; inequality, 223; issues in Telugu
literature, 203; justice, 30; patriarchal
notions of, 178; and personalities in
Gujarati womens writings, 174, 177;
portrayals, changing profile of, 181
4; position, 17; and power relations,
13; relations, 26; social construction
of, 14; stereotypes, 112
Gellner, Ernest, 214
Gerontologists, 84; on institutional
means of support to elders, 94
Ghar Ek Mandir (film), 287
Ghare Baire, 22
Ghosh, Amitav, 216
Ghosh, Arpa, 25, 188
Ghosh, Indranil, 269
Ghosh, Rituparno, 26; family in films of,

Ghosh, Shailabala, 148

girl child, discrimination of, 193, 2089;
unjust treatment to, 189
Global Politics, 214
globalization, 84, 210, 320; and diasporic family dynamics, 21319
Goddard, Jean Luc, 272
Goldman, Anne, 158
Gray, Edward, 311
Griha Lakshmi, 38; romance in, 49
Grihapravesh (film), 286
Grihashutras, on women, 127
Grihini, 155
grand-mother, role of, 18
group identity, security of, 11
Gubar, Susan, 139
Gujarat no Nath, 176
Gujarati families, in fictions, 25; real and
imagined, 17487
Gujarati fiction, 175
Gujarati women, family as integral part,
179; gender in the writings of, 174
Gulati, Sunil, 249
Gulzar, Meghna, 26, 280
Gumrah (film), 286
Gunther, John, 325
Gupta, Smita, 254, 255, 256
Gupta, Tapati, 223, 225, 226
Gusdorf, Georges, 165
harassment, of women, 74
harmonious family, in Telugu literature,
Hart, Gillian Rosemary DCosta, 258
Hema Mailini, 285
Hejmadi, Padma, 216, 217
Hindi cinema, 280; era of angry young
man in, 287; feudal Indian family in,
2846; impoverished families in, 282
4; non-descript middle class in, 286
8; the rich in, 28891; story plot on
family in, 281
The Hindu Family and Development, 125
Hindu law, Brahmanical version of, 128
Hindu patriarchy, 147
Hindu social institutions, impact on
social and economic development,

372 The Indian Family in Transition

Hindu wedding ceremony, in Canada,
Hirer Angti (film), 261
HIV-patients, in Nagaland, 1089
home, and food in Interpreter of Maladies,
157; and house, 312; thoughts on,
Home for senior Citizens, Kolkata,
Homosexuality, 189, 194; issue in
Dattanis plays, 200
house, and home, 312
housework, by women, 46
Hum Aapke Hai Kaun (film), 289
Hum Log (TV serial), 287
Hum Saath Saath Hai, 281
human rights, womens, and domestic
violence, 728
Hunting (poem), 29
Hunting for Fish, (poem), 2956
husband, as head of Naga family, 117
18; supreme position of, 45; and wife,
and earnings by, 2514; relationship, 50
Hymavati, Mandarapu, 232
Ibsen, 199
ideal Indian family, 13
ideal woman, 175
identity, 28, 178; denial of, 24; relocating, 1403
illiteracy, among women, 71; among
rural women, 71
Ijaazat (film), 289
Illalkagaane, 211
Imaginary Homelands, 158
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the
Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 215
immigrants/immigration, 320; cultural
identities of, 214; food habits of, 160;
identification and empathy among,
imperialism, cultural aspects to, 215
impoverished family, in Hindi cinema,
incest, 72
inclusion and exclusion, politics of, 328
independence, 315

Indian families, in transition, 13; in the

world, 33950
Indian Penal Code, section 498A on domestic violence, 73
Indian-ness, 13; conflict between colonial legacy and, 315
Indianization, 314
indigenous communities, 105, 108
individualism, 84, 192
individuality, 18
Indo-Canadian community, 3467
Industrialization, 84
inequalities, in family, 14
inter-racial children, 348
inter-tribal violence, Naga womens
intervention in, 111
interdependence existence, concept of,
International Year of Family 1994, 12
International Womens Decade, 209, 299,
interpersonal relations, within domestic
space, 14
Interpreter of Maladies, politics of home
and food in 15763
The Intrusion and Other Stories, painful
moments of women in, 139,140
Jabeen, Mahe, 234
Jainism, 127
Jasmine, 216
Jaya, 148
Jaya, S., 233, 235
Jayaprabha, 234
Jayaraj, 81
Jejeebhoy, Shreen J., 67
Jher to Pidhan Che Jani Jani, 176
Jhuthu, Saroja Kumar, 356
Jogini, 237
joint family, 66, 150; breakdown of, 83
5, 246; in Mahesh Dattanis plays, 25;
and retardation in economic growth,
132; system, 16; hypocrisy and
hollowness in, 188201
Joseph, Sara, 138, 142
Journalism, 298
Joyce, 221
The Journey, 217

Index 373
Kabhie Kabhie (film), 288
Kakar, Sudhir, 127
Kalidasa,150; women characters in plays
of, 129
Kalyug, 281
Kannabiran, Vasanta, 233, 235
Kanyasulkam, 203
Kapadia, Kundanika, 133, 179, 180, 183,
Kapoor, Shashi, 281
Karunam (film), 81
Katju, Justice M., 259
Kedaras, 316
Khabhie Khushi Khabhie Gham (film), 280,
Khan, Mansoor, 285
Khan, Mehboob, 282
Khan, Shahrukh, 288
Khandwala, Anjali, 178, 186
Khanna, Rajesh, 286
Khoon Bhari Maang (film), 288
Kibbutz, 62
kinship bonds, 17, 29
Kipling, R., 21415
Kohima Chamber of Commerce, 113
Kolkata, old age homes in, 85, 100n
Konni Padyalu, 235
Kripa Foundation, Mumbai, 113
Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai (film), 288
Kundera, Milan, 25, 158
Kutumbarao, Kodavganti, 229
labour, gendered division of, 186
Lagaan (film), 284
Lahri, Jhumpa, 15763
Lakkhir Panchali (song), 147
Lal, Malashri, 11, 355
Lal Patthar (film), 285
Lamb, Sarah, 23, 81
Lawrence, 221
Laws of Manu, on restriction on womens
freedom, 1267
Laxman rekha, 174
Layla, 155
Leelavati, 129
Lewis, 4
life expectancy, at birth (LEB), increase
in, 69

literacy, among women in Nagaland, 120

literary and cultural representations, 16
literary texts, families in, 25
live-in relationships, concept of, 25661;
financial framework of, 260
loneliness, problem of elderly people,
Longfellow, 337
Lukes, S., 77
Madan, T.N., 125, 132
Madanes, Cloe, 253
Madras Formula films, 287
Mahabharata, 146; and familial relationship, 17; TV serial, 281
Mahalaxmi, 178
Mahanirban Tantra, 129
Mahasweta Devi, 133, 135, 142, 148, 222
Mahendra, Balu, 287
Mai Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (film), 285
Maine Pyaar Kiya (film), 288
Maini, Irma, 26, 157
Maitri Karaar, 2601
Majithia, Sunita, 182, 183, 184
Majumdar, Bodhisatta, 272
Majumdar, Leela, 148
Majumdar, Matilal, 91
male child, preference for, 249
male chauvinism,194
male domestic oppression, in Dattanis
plays, 190, 191
male head, 64; as altruistic decisionmaker, 62; of families, 18
male machismo, 16
Mallick, Sanjay Basu, 106
man/men, as head of households,
66; idea of new, in contemporary
Gujarati writings, 185; and manliness
in Gujarati literature, 177; status of,
20; and woman relationship in uppercaste/class communities, 15
Mangal Kavya, 147
Mangoes on the Maple Tree, 340
Mani, A.S., 235
Manu, on status of women, 127
Mara Ghar Ne Umbaro Nathi, 175
Marathi Dalit autobiography, family in,
25, 16472

374 The Indian Family in Transition

marital, bliss, 20; infidelity, issue of, in
Dattanis plays, 189, 200; relations, 13
market, institution of, 17
marriage, 47, 256; age at, 39; and companionate, 50; compulsory, 22; concept of, 18; debate on, 180; and family
in Britain, 245; among Nagas, 117,
118; system of negotiated, 140; tolerance level in, 247
Marx, Karl, on slavery and serfdom in
family, 22
Marxist politics, influence of, 209
masculine, aggressive, 195; -feminine
identities, 1412
Masoom (film), 289
mass education system, 24950
materialism, 84
Mathew, Mary, 26, 213
matrishakti, power of, 195
Mazha, 138, 142
McGrew, Anthony, 214
medicare, for senior immigrants in USA,
92, 93, 94
Meena Kumari, 285
Mehd, Swati, 180, 183
Mehendi Streela Vignyapti, 238
Mehta, Dhirendra, 177
Mehta, Ila Arab, 179, 181, 183
Mehta, Saroj, 180, 183
Mehta, Sarojini, 179
Memoir, 29
Menon, N.R. Madhave, 259
Meyeder Moner Katha, 131
Meyemanush, 229
middle class, in Hindi films, 2868; in
India, 13; women, 299
The Middleman and Other Stories, 216
migrant middle-class, cultural shock and
confusion among, 26
Miloon Saryajani (magzine), 297, 298,
299, 303, 305, 306; on womens
issues, 304
Mish, Georg, 165
Mishra, Justice R.B., 259
Mitra, Arghya Kamal, 273
Mitra, Peary Chand, 129
Mitra, Premanandra, 221
Mitra, Satyacaran, 22, 35, 36, 37

Mizos, community life of, 106; spirit of

tlawmgainha among, 106
Moats festival, womens participation in,
modern families, and independent living,
modernity, 83
modernization, impact of, on family, 243
monogamy, 126, 258
Monsoon Wedding (film), 289
moral conduct, 40
Morgan, David, 245
mother, -daughter-in-law relationship,
2234; position of, in joint families,
195; role of, in Naga society, 116, 117
Mother India, 282
motherhood, 104, 234; concept of, in
Nagaland, 11112, 119; and maturity
of women, 217
Mothers Hope, Nagaland, 114
mothers-in-law, and daughter-in-law and
sharing of the son, 24; dominancy
of, in plays, 191; role of, 18
Mt Gilead Home, Nagaland, 115, 116
Mudra, 236
Mudra: Vanitala Kavitalu, 231
Mukherjee, Aveek, 269, 273
Mukherjee, Bharati, 216
Mukherjee, Mukul, 23, 61
Mukherjee, Rani, 288
Mukhta, 210
Mumbai Police, 73
Munshi, Kanaiyalal, 176
Muralavallamma, 211
Muslim personal law, 128
Mussell, Kay, 160
My Buried Youth in Umbergaon (poem),
Nabar, Vrinda, 13
Naboth, 215
Naidu, T. Rama, 287
Naga families, essays on, 23; marriages
among, 117, 118, 119; patriarchal
system among,118; women and, 103
21; access to private and public space,
112; education of, 118, 120; rights
and role of, 119, 120

Index 375
Naga Hohos, 114
Naga Mothers Association (NMA), 104,
11016; formation of, 115; HIV/
AIDS Care Hospice, 115, 116; and
Naga womens organizations, 111
12; Youth and Womens Welfare
Organization, 116
Naga nationalism, 111
Naga Peoples Movement for Human
Rights, 116
Naga society, community participation
in, 106, 117; psychosomatic problems
among children, 10611
Naga Students Federation, 116
Nagaland, conflict between armed forces
and militants, 111; drug abuse in, 108;
HIV/AIDS cases in, 1089; underground groups in, 115
Nagaland Baptist Church Council
(NBCC), 110
Nagaland State Development of Health
Services, 109
Nagaland State AIDS Control Society
(NSACS), 110
Nagaland Weavers Association, 115
Naik, Chhaya, 306
Nair, Mira, 289
Nana Ranger Deen Guli (Bengali television
show), 28
Nandy, Ashis, 132, 225
Nannalni Konali Ratenta, 235
Narayan, Shovana, 94
Nari Samanta Manch, 298, 304
narratives, of elders, 83
National Crimes Records Bureau, report
on cruelty towards women, 74
National Family Health Survey (NFHS),
report of, 68; survey report on domestic violence against women, 75, 76, 77
National Sample Survey (NSS)data, on
aged women, 71
National Socialist Council of Nagalim,
Nationalism, 42, 129
nationalist movement, and change, 20;
spread of, 208; women in, 129
Nations and Nationalism, 214
native women, 45

Navasmriti, 234
Naxal movement, 149
Naz Foundation, 195
Needalu, 233
Needs of Children, 254
Neelimeghalu: Streevada Kavita Sankalanam,
231, 235
Nehru, Jawaharlal, 104
Neidonuo Angami, 104
Nelson, Emmanuels, 213
new patriarchy, and definition of
women, 54n
Nihalani, Govind, 283
Nikanth, Vidyagauri, 180
Nirmala, Kondepudi, 232, 235
Nirupama Devi, 148
Niyoga, 131
non-governmental organization (NGOs),
AIDS programme in Nagaland, 110;
old age homes run by, 85, 89; womens
approach to, 72
North Eastern States, drug abuse in,
nuclear families, 16, 17, 66, 82, 246, 340;
and marital relationship, 150; urbanization and, 132
Nyay, 179, 183
old age homes, 81, 82, 84, 858; concept
of, 96; meals in, 86; in Telugu society,
On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, 189, 194, 199
oppression, of women, 22, 24
organization, 78
Owen, 221
Oza, Suhas, 178, 183
Padki, Sarita, 302
Padma, Kuppili, 205, 210
Pal, Dhirendranath, 36, 38, 40, 44, 49
parallel cinemas, 283
Parama, 273
Parameswaran, Uma, 29, 216
Paranjape, Makarand, 29, 331
Parameswaran, Uma, 339
parents/parental, authority and control
in joint families, 189; cruelty, in
Dattanis plays, 200; of NRI children,
care of, 889

376 The Indian Family in Transition

Paroma (film), 286
A Passage to India, 218
Patel, Dhiruben, 180, 183
Pathak, Saroj, 183, 185
Pather Panchali (film), 333
Patil, Vimla, 252
patriarchy/patriarchal, 128, 145, 152, 233;
British, 24; concepts, 52; control, 127;
discourses of family,178; Hindu, 130;
joint families, 17; misogyny, 35; nature of Indian society, 66; and notion
of gender, 178; old and new, 413;
order, Brahmanical, 24; reconstruction of, 128; structure, 13, 128
Pautraboron, 1345, 142
Payal Sharma case, 259
Pempudu Talli, 229
pension, received by women, 70
Permanent Settlement Act of 1793, 127,
Peterson, 14
Pethe, Meghana, 306
Phule, Mahatma, 303, 305
Phule, Savitribai, 305
Plato, 39
Pliny, 39
Poetry, 25; self and family in Telugu
Womens poetry, 2319
Polyandry, 17
Polygamy, 17
Pooja, 278
Poverty, 129; and care of elderly, 84
power, and authority, 67; relations, 14
Prabhutva, 177
Prapti, 183
Prasenjit, 272
Pratighat (film), 288
Prayogam, 210
Pravabati Devi, 148
pre-marital courtship,13
Premchand, 229
Pringle, M.K., 254
Prostitution, 42, 47, 129
Protection of Women from Domestic
Violence Act, 2005, 74
Psychosomatic problems, among children, 10611
Punaragaman, 179

Purdah, 19; issue of breaking of, 38

Puri, Om, 282
Putlir Kathaa, 149
Qabaddar, 236
Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, 285
Raaj Kumar, 285
Raakhee, 285
Raghuram, Ahalya, 257
Raj style of living, 316
Rajakeeya Kathalu, 210
Rajasekhara Charitra, 206
Rajan, Balachandra, 219
Raje, Aruna, 283
Rajani, Patibandla, 231
Rajee vanalu, 231
Ram Lakhan (film), 287
Ramakrishna, 53n
Ramalakshmi, K., 210
Ramanujan, A.K., 331, 342
Ramrajya, Gandhijis concept of, 314;
theme, 316
Ramayana, 146, 281; and familial relationship, 17
Ranganayakamma, 211
Rangarao, Vani, 233, 235
Rao, Kodavatiganti Kutumba, 204
Rao, N. Venugopal, 25, 203
Rape, 73, 74, 139, 140
Rashsundari Devi, 20
Rath, Humanshu, 89
Rathod, Parul, 1812, 183
Ratulshnakar, 273
Ray, Bani, 145
Ray, Rajat Kanta, 15
Ray, Satyajit, 272
Raychoudhuri, Girijaprasanna, 36, 38
Recasting Women, 129
Reed, John, 338
reel Indian family, 28091
religion/religious, 12; and Indian diaspora, 349; movements, 127
resistance, gesture of, 191
Revati Devi, 234
Rigveda, on life of freedom and strength,
Rihaee (film), 283

Index 377
rituals, performance of, for a good husband, 146
romance, in fictions,13; Indian attitude
to, and family structure, 13; Western
view of, 13
romantic intimacy, 4850
Rongsen, M., 105
Roop Kanwar case, 143
Rootless but Green are the Boulevard Trees,
216, 339
Roots and Shadows, 329
rote-learning culture, 314
Rowbotham, Sheila, 166
Roy, Anuradha, 273
Roy, Bimal, 284
Roy, Nirupa, 282
Roy, Raja Rammohan, 128
Roy, Sudeshna, 269
rural mindset, and children as support
system, 94
rural women, domestic work by elderly,
71; study of, in Tamil Nadu, 68; in
rural Uttar Pradesh, 678
Rushdie, Salman, 158, 218, 340
Saalabhanjika, 205, 210
Saas-bahu soaps, on TV, 280, 290
Saat Paglan Akashman, 179, 180, 185, 186
Sahadharmini, Vedic principle of, 129
Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam (film), 285
Samskar, 21
Saniya, 306
Sansar (film), 287
Sanyal, Sulekha, 148
Saptapadi, 179
Saptapari, old age home in Kolkata, 88
Sara Akaash (film), 286
Saraswati, 148
Saraswati Chandra, 175, 176
Saraswati, Dayanand, on motherhood,
130; on role of Indian women, 130
Saratchandra, 147
Sarika Pinjarastha, 183
Sarkar, Tanika, 20
Sarpa Parishvangam, 232
Sastry, Sripada Subrahmanya, 204
The Satanic Verses, 218
Sath-Sath, 298

Sati, 43, 44, 127, 141; abolition of, 20,

Sati-Sabitri-Parampara, ideal of, 131, 134
Satyabans, women as, 131
Satyacaran, 367, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 47,
48, 50; misogyny of, 52; on redefinition of wife, 39; on reform, 52; on
widow remarriage, 43
Satyarth Prakash, 130
Satyavathi, P., 211
Saugandh, 185
Savitri, 232
Sceats, Sarah, 159, 163
Scott, James, 63
seclusion, female, 65, 129
Sei-Sab Swapnagulo, 154
self-creation, autobiography and, 166
self-sufficienct, of elders, 94
Sen, Amartya, 15, 18, 29, 61, 64, 65, 72,
133; dialog with, 3559; on family,
Sen, Aparna, 273
Sen, Gita, 66
Sen, Keshub Chander, 37
Sen, Mrinal, 271
Sen, Nabanita Deb, 227
Sengupta, Jayita, 24,125
Sengupta, Priti, 186
Sengupta, Rituparna, 272
senior citizens/elderly, care of, 23; clubs,
90; material and social support to, in
joint families, 83; transnational movement of, 903; see also elderly
senior peer organizations, 89
sex, abuse of children in Dattanis plays,
200; preference, 65
sexual harassment, 73
sexual impulses, of women, 47
sexual intercourse, 39
sexual promiscuity for men, 47
sexuality, of women, 47, 130, 131, 148
Shadow Lines, 216
Shah, Naseeruddin, 283
Shakti, 126, 282
Shame, 340
Shankar, Mamata, 272
Shantaram, V., 283
Shastras, 21

378 The Indian Family in Transition

Shatru, 186
Shed No More Blood, 115
Sheela Subhadra Devi, 235
Shelat, Hemanshi, 180, 181, 182
Sheth, Usha, 175
Sherni (film), 288
Shimray, R.R., 105
Sholay (film), 287
Shrimali, Chandra, 182
Shudras, 127
Siddhartha Gautama and Gopa, in
Satyacarans text, 501
Sidney, Philip, 38
Silsila (film), 289
Singh, Amrita Tyagi, 13
Singh, Gopal, 81
Sinha, Mala, 286
Sita, sufferings of, 141
skill-building, by women, 78
Smith, Anthony, 213
Sneharahityam, 232
sobaliba, spirit of, among Ao Nagas, 106
social change, process of, 358
social reform, movements, 128, 307; for
women, 129
social reformers, on reconstructing the
images of womanhood, 131
social transformation, 82
society, in Indian fiction, 125; in NorthEastern Indian, 103
socio-economic structure, shift in, 16
solitary living, by aged, 8890
son(s), preference for, in Dattanis plays,
191; submissive, in joint families, 196
Soti, Binodini ebong aami, 1512
South Asian Canadian women, oppression of, 347
South Asian Indian population, in USA,
Sparsanuraganni Alapistoo, 234
spiritual benefits, family and, 98
Sridhar, 25, 231
Srivastava, Siddarth, 195
Stacy, Judith, 12
Stanodayini, 133, 134
State, institution of, 17; role of, and family, 66; welfare programmes for Indian
aged in USA, 82

stereotypical roles, of women, 182

The Story of Draupadis Disrobing, 142
Stree (magzine), 297, 298, 299, 302, 303,
Streer Patra, 22
Streevidya, 205
Stri Prati Swamir Upadesh, 22, 35, 36, 37,
39, 43; misogyny in, 458; romance
in, 49; wife in, 39
Stir Sahit Kathopakathan, 401, 49; wife
in, 40
strife, in family in Telugu literature,
subjugation, between members in family,
Sukh ke Dukh, 183
Suksari Katha, 146
Suleri, Sara, 218
Sumi Spaces, 216
Sundari Malua, 147
Sunder Rajan, Rajeshwari, 142
Super Mom Syndrome, 211
Superstitions, 45, 46; of native women,
Supplement Security Income (SSI)
Program, for senior citizens in USA,
93, 101n
surrogate sons, 84
Suvarna, 178, 180, 181, 186
Swapno ek Rang, 186
Swarajyalakshmi, Chillarige, 235
Swarnakumari Devi, 147, 222
Swarupa Rani, 237
Swayamvara, in Vedic age, 126
The Sweet Smell, 347
Tagore, Rabindranath, 22, 136, 223, 309;
in Rituparnao Ghoshs films, 268
Tamil Nadu, female infanticide in, 72
Tara, 189, 1923
Tata Institute of Social Sciences, on
aftermath of domestic violence, 73
television, impact of advertisements on,
27; serials, 290
Telugu speaking people, analysis of families among, 25
Telugu literature, reflection of family and
women in, 20311

Index 379
Telugu society, and literature, 204; gender
sensitive approach to, 204
Telugu women, self and family in poetries of, 2319
Thikkaanaa, 1524
Thirty Days in September, 189; child molestation in, 193
Tigers Daughter, 216
Tirachee, 233
tlawmgainha, spirit of, among Mizos,
Tou To Kevu Saru, 178, 186
Towards Equality, 18
tribal/indigenous life, 105
Tripathi, Gowardhanram, 175
Tski, Naga womens participation in,
A Typical Son, 210
Uberoi, Patricia, 14, 19, 23
Ughada Akash No Ek Tukdo, 178, 183
Uncle Monkey, 216
Unishe April (film), 261, 262, 2635, 274
United Nations Declaration on Elimination of Violence Against Women,
1993, 73
United Sates Bureau of Labor Statistics,
on earning by women, 252
United Nations Declaration of International Year of the Family, 1994, 12
United Sates, material and social support
to senior immigrants, 92; migration
to, 320
Upanayanam (thread ceremony), 336
Upanishads, on women, 127
upper-middle class, hypocrisy, 189, 190
urban areas, breakdown of joint families
in, 84
urban India, impact of socio-economic
changes on family values and relationship, 2458
urban lifestyles, 253
urban middle class, sociological study
of, 19
urban women, education and decisionmaking by, 69
urbanization, 84; impact on family, 243

Utsab (film), 2724

Vaidya, Bharati, 183
Vaishnava cult, 129
Vaishnavism, 129
Vanaprastha life phase, 87
Vantillu, 233, 237
Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, comcept of, 16
Vedic age/times, patriarchal joint family
in, 17; society in, 126
Veersalingam, Kandukuri, 203, 206
Veil, 13540
Vidyasagar, Ishwar Chandra, 128
Villette, 217
Vimla, 233, 237
violence, against women, 63,72
Viparyas, 183
Vishwanath, K., 287
Vistaar, 179, 183
Vitantuvu, 229
Voices in the City, 139
Volga, 210, 234
Wad, Vijaya, 301
wada (house), 323, 325
Walsh, Judith, 22, 35
Wats Rogo Mungdang, in Nagaland, 119
Watve, Milind, 304
weddings, and family, 326
Weldon, Fay, 228
Western civilization, 125
Western educated Bengali men, and
romantic love, 50
Western sources, 389
Westernization, 84, 314
When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine, 161
Where Shall We go this Summer, 139
widow(s), 3278; as female-headed
households, 71; as inauspicious, 178;
plight of, 21; remarriage, issue of, 36,
40, 42, 43, 47, 54n, 131; system, 128;
restrictions on, 25; stories of, 245;
vegetarian food for, 24
Widow with Sons, 229
widower(s), living conditions of, 72;
population of, 71
widowhood, 127; among aged rural
women, 71

380 The Indian Family in Transition

Wife, 216
wife, battering, 75, 767; devoted, 41
2; and husband, and earnings by,
2514; redefinition of, in novels of
Satyacaran, 3941
Wifehood, Sati Sabitri Parampara, 127
Williams, Raymond, 167
Williams, Tennesse, 199
Wirth, Louis, 132
woman/women, of advancing age, 70;
and agency, 25, 6178; in decisionmaking, 669; in changing pattern of
Indian society, 12632; condition of
middle-class, 131; dependent status
of elderly, 70; education of, 38; in
Telugu society, 206; emancipation of,
128; in Telugu literature, 206; family
and, 1325; in Telugu literature, 203
11; freedom and power of, 3556; in
Gujarati writings, bondage and subordination of, 179; characters in, 179
80; concept of new, 185; as rebels,
183; home education for, 44; identities and role models, 165; as impure,
127; and Naga family, 10321; as

outsider in the family, 18; poetry by,

family representation in, 25; reform
of social conditions of, 44, 54n; role
of, in family and society, 18, 132;
servitude of, 22; status of, 20, 64,
65; stereotypical portrayals of, 235;
stories on single, 210; valorization
of, 129; as victims of immigrant fictions, 218; vulnerable position of, 63;
writers in Bengal, 20, 147
Woman versus Womanliness in India, 132, 225
womanhood, changing face of Indian,
129; stereotyping of, 358
Woolf, Virginia, 276
working women, and home and work
responsibility, 244; marries, as home
breakers, 28
Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (TV serial), 287
Zakhmee Aurat (film), 288
zamindars, empowerment of, 1278
Zanjeer (film), 287
zhai, spirit of, in Poumai Nagas, 106
Zubeida (film), 285