the unbearable heaviness of being (indian) – 2

Hallo chikkabiddies! How’re y’all?? Poona is awash in a deluge fit to send Noah into paroxysms of ship-building, as gallons of water tumble from open sluice gates at khadakwasla into the city’s sewers, gutters, streams, and ultimately, to the river mula mutha that slices the city into two. Even as I write, cats and dogs slam into the soggy earth outside my window and a cold breeze runs thru the fanless rooms.

In a few days, I fear we may be into the stage where the river will be swollen to overflowing, and the bridges will go under water.

As part of my continuous series on Indian culture and its albatross-weight, let me go on to my core area of intervention, professionally at least: marriage in adolescent girls. This is, incidentally, the area where I work, so my data is genuine, at least for this corner of the world, my opinion based on true observation.    

Many parts of India still marry their girl children off on the teenaged side of 18. And before you can go on and conveniently blame it on the rural hinterland for this statement’s veracity, the National Family Health Survey-3 pegs the figure for girls married by age 18 as 49% for rural and 29% for urban Maharashtra. Woe betide girls in Bihar and UP.

So there you have a girl, 13-15 years of age, picked up from her hopscotch sessions with her friends and handed over to a young man perhaps ten years her senior, barely 6 months to a year after her menarche. She was probably in school before this, but school is perhaps only upto primary level, and the secondary school is probably in the next village. Since there is a possibility that the character of the girl be sullied if she were to go into the next village for school, if she were to keep late hours, if she were to Horror! Fall in love with some unsuitable boy, she is asked to stay at home and prepare cute tiffin boxes for her brother leaving for school. And then, a girl hanging around the house all day with scarce anything of particular note to do besides help her mom in housework and in the fields is always under risk of being considered for marriage.

So there she is, 14 and married, sent off to a house maybe three villages and a whole universe removed from her own, led away by a callow youth astride a white mare and accompanied by drunk dancing dolts. She leaves with a substantial part of her father’s lifetime earnings with her, never to return again except for childbirth and selected festivals.

At her husband’s home, she often has to share the room with her husband and mom-in-law on the floor, as her pa-in-law occupies the only cot in the one-room house. Peri-pubescent and petrified, she is entered nightly without preamble, with ritual certainty, by her husband, mother-in-law sleeping satisfiedly nearby. There is very little scope for tenderness or playfulness as he heaves in between her thighs for a few times, grunting with the effort, his seed splashing all over the puckered lips of her cervix. Her moans are perhaps muted, her rhythmic movements cut short by a few unrequited spasms as he pulls out of her, his work done, sleepiness washing over him like a wave.

Is there consent in this copulation? Perhaps. After all, marriage implies consent. Is the consent valid? She is a girl of 13 who is doing what her parents ask her to do. But tradition deems that it is. Is her consent informed? Does her mother explain to her hesitatingly before her marriage that her husband is going to stick his schlong into her pussy every other night? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Does she have a choice?

In what way is this different from paedophilia? In what way is this practice removed from a sleazy German in Goa buggering some little girl he has lured away using sweets and playful jokes? Does anyone ever think of child brides when they talk of child-sex and dirty old men?

To my mind, the difference lies in tradition, and in the unbearable weight of culture. Marrying the daughter off at 13, or 15, or 16 , or even 18 (medical advice says that the ideal age for India is after 20) is sanctioned by cultural norms that allow sexual transgression of the most extreme nature, provided it is sanctified by marriage. And while we all may wrinkle our noses at it, there is an implied shrugging of the shoulders and a “what can I do about it?” attitude that prevails. A sort of “these-are-aberrations but India-still-has-the-greatest-culture-in-the-world” about it.

My entreaty is simple. When you think about the glory that was India and swell your heart with pride as you dwell on the various achievements, the enormous corpus of art, the gentle peace-loving nature of Indians and Indian culture, spare a thought for my 49% demographic, and ask yourself this question: Can any culture that treats its women so badly ever consider itself truly great?

the unbearable heaviness of being (indian)

The weight of tradition is onerous, a deadweight around our collective necks dragging us down, and choking us. Usually, tradition is used along with culture, a loose term meant to indicate a way of life that has existed for centuries and a collective approach to problem-solving that derives as much from precedent as to immediate realities.

People who are traditional are often also described as old-fashioned, and the reference can be desirable or offensive depending on the person. Usually, being traditional is admitted to with a sense of self-effacement, a shuffling of the feet, a sort of embarrassed cough, yet there is an attendant aura of deep satisfaction, of societal approval for having followed its tenets.

An extension of the same theory is religiousness. A person described as religious is usually seen as disciplined and philanthropic, “doing good” wherever indicated; this is accepted as a positive character trait even if the religion in question is different from your own.

Yet traditionalism has a particular sense of warmth and comfort about it, a sense of cookies and apple pie, of geometric patterns in front of Brahmin houses as convoluted as the coffee steam wafting to ure nose, of strawberries and cream, of dal-chaaval and cute girls in pretty chadors reading the Qu’ran in unison.

There is a sense that tradition is the way of our childhood, a halcyon age when the world was happy and people were good. Even if this is an exaggeration, being traditional is not a personal trait that is associated with too much opprobrium, a traditional person by definition does not have to face censure for ending the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

I come up against tradition quite a lot in my job. It is almost always stifling, irrational, and frustrating. It fosters hate and bad blood, and creates difficult situations where there need have been none. Let me explain:

In most of rural India, girls are a distant second choice as far as children are concerned, besting only eunuchs and disabled persons in a desirability scale. In most communities, the bloodline is passed on by the male child to his son, and so on, so daughters are a loss-making investment a “paraaya dhan”, fattened and raised only to go to another house after marriage, to be a willing receptacle for some other family’s seed, to bear their offspring, and to perpetuate their line. Again, daughters bring in little by way of monetary compensation to the parents because of their low levels of employment in remunerative work; in fact, they actually demand a greater investment from the parents because of their dowry needs.

Marriage is universal, and the daughter’s marriage is the culmination of a couple’s social life, a duty that they must fulfil, to entrust their daughter in the hands of a suitable man who will feed her, clothe her, and heave periodically in between her thighs so as to deposit frantically wriggling spermatozoa in her uterus.

This is all mainstream tradition, and if you have looked at the way that much of India conducts its activities, dear reader, then this is a not-unfamiliar pattern.

Ok, so we have the daughter who cannot carry on the line, (and thus represents a dead investment) and whose dowry needs are so high (necessitating large amounts of immediate investment: have u ever tried raising 10 lakhs in cash and a 100 sovereigns of gold at short notice?) as to cause families to be plunged into endless debt in their wake.

There is less incentive to feed them well and to educate them, you would say. And you would be right. Just not an effective business proposition. So there is reduced motivation to have girl children.

: The spectre of female foeticide rears its ugly head:

Yet this does not end at foeticide. Study after study has shown that families deliberately feed their daughters-in-law less if she is seen to have a female foetus. So girls are born with a lower average weight across households in rural India, and left to clamour for more as wailing babies, fighting for their mother’s breasts even as the mom in question’s fatigue is ignored and she is asked to get back to work on the field (son-bearing women are allowed a lot more rest and succour post-labour, is it any wonder why women prefer sons too?). And for a household that denies its babies proper food, is it any wonder that girls receive less food and less attention as children?

(so, for instance, the next time u make a “dumb female” pronouncement on a rural/conservative urban/ traditional Indian/ culturally orthodox woman, do spare a thought for the fact that much of what we call intelligence depends on brain growth and development (function of foetal nutrition and childhood food habits), on freedom to move, to question and to study (function of the prevalent cultural mores in a traditional society), and on ability to translate all this into sentient thought and conversation (function of the society’s culture). A girl denied most of this, which we take for granted, really has no recourse, does she?)

I am not trying to make a case for pity, or for sorry “awwww….. poor dear”s, I’m just trying to tell u that this world, this dark underbelly also exists in Indian culture, and that we must be aware, if we are to understand.