|HER WORLD||Sunday, October 27, 2002, Chandigarh, India|
Heart to heart
ARE you an ‘earth’ woman? Do you feel an affinity to the element of ‘fire’ because of your passionate nature? Do you flow serenely through life like "water’? Is your spirit free and elusive like the ‘wind’? Or do you dream of being light as air and vast like ‘space’? As an Indian woman, it is likely that you have a little of all these elements in you and that you combine all qualities of the five elements. If this is so, you should not be surprised, for all Indian women carry the legacy of their icons, the most celebrated panchkanyas of mythology.
As inheritors of the panchkanya concept for centuries, Indian women are unique, to say the least. Like their icons, they have dual personalities. They are bound by the strictest norms of society, on the one hand; yet, on the other hand, they are left free to prolifically use the chinks in the armour of social and traditional laws made by a staunchly male-oriented pecking order. Within the scope of social boundaries, they can still express their personalities and design their own life-graphs.
Among the feminine icons of Indian mythology, five epic characters stand out prominently. These are Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana and the wife of King Rama of Ayodhya; Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata and the wife of the five Pandava princes; Mandodari, the wife of Ravana, King of Lanka; Ahilya, the wife of the sage Gautama and Tara, the wife of Bali, the tyrant monkey-king who usurped the kingdom of Kishhkindha.
In fact, the five women have such a powerful hold over the hearts of millions of Indians that they are called the panchkanyas (five women) whose very names ensure salvation and freedom from all evil. It is not uncommon for devout Hindus to recite their names each morning in a Sanskrit shloka to remind them of the power they symbolised because of their spiritual strength.
An interesting aspect of the lifegraphs of the five women is that all of them are legendary beauties in their own right. Their lustre and beauty caused kings, sages and sometimes even minor gods to kidnap them or covet them. The epics describe gigantic wars that were fought because the beauty of Sita and Draupadi made evil men like Ravana and Duryodhana lust after them. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that Indian tradition links each one of them to an element.
The life-graph of each of these women is somehow replicated in the lives of millions of Indian women even today. It is clear that Indian society, at its deepest core, still thinks that man is born to rule and woman to be ruled!
Janaka, the King of Mithila, as is well known, found Sita while his fields were being ploughed. She is the wonderful daughter of the Earth, stable, forgiving, patient and pure. The story of her kidnapping by Ravana, and her suffering at the hands of the people of Ayodhya is read every day in millions of homes and it continues to inspire devotion and compassion among all women. Because of the suspicions of his subjects about her purity, Rama banished the pregnant Sita to the forests on the banks of the Ganga. Here she lived in the ashram of sage Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, where she bore her twin sons Luv and Kush. When she was finally re-united with Rama, she chose rather to return to her mother, the Earth, than go back with her husband as his empress. In this last defiant gesture, she showed her inner strength and rejected the continued injustice she had suffered all her life.
Yet, Indian men are quick to say that she asked for all the suffering she was subjected to because she did not stay within the Lakshmanrekha drawn for her protection by Lakshmana, her devoted brother-in-law. She, they say, was punished by fate for overstepping the authority of the men who were her familial lords. Today’s women are similarly expected to observe the unseen but clearly delineated Line of Control drawn for her by the men in her life. Her career, her social activities and her behaviour must be governed by strong male-designated social and familial rules. If she disobeys these rules, trauma and abandonment become her certain fate.
Draupadi was the copper-toned beauty born of fire. Fiery, gorgeous and strong-willed, Draupadi was born out of her father’s prayer for revenge from his enemies. She personified this quality throughout her life. Her burning passion for revenge against the Kauravas, who disrobed her in a full assembly in the presence of her five husbands, caused the epic war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas in Kurukshetra. Draupadi’s oath that she would tie her long tresses only with bloodstained hands is symbolic of her personality. Her anguish while being disrobed and humiliated in the Kaurava court led to her curse that a country where women are reduced to such ignominy would never prosper.
Even today, many Indians believe that women’s anguish and their cries against monumental injustice has left India with centuries of suffering, slavery and bloody conflicts. Draupadi’s anguish and anger are a commonly used theme in many dance ballets, music renditions and poetic compositions in all Indian languages. Famous research scholars like Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy and Dr. Irawati Karve, who believe that gentleness and vengeful anger are just two sides of Indian womanhood, have juxtaposed her character with that of Sita. Here too, orthodox Indians and researchers believe that Draupadi asked for the humiliation piled upon her because she not only rejected Duryodhana as a suitor but ridiculed him by calling him "the blind son of a blind father. "Most Indian women would agree that like this passionate heroine of the Mahabharata, millions of women are publicly humiliated and even raped as a punishment for challenging the male will or for ‘talking back’ at a man. Many men are known to use violence against wives merely because they ‘back-answer’ !
Mandodari, the wife of Ravana, is associated with the element of water, turbulent on the surface yet deep and silent in her spiritual quest. She tolerated the misdeeds of Ravana till his death. Ravana, it is said, abused numerous women and kidnapped Vedavati, daughter of a sage, whom he wooed with vigour till she, in disgust killed herself, saying that she would be reborn as Sita, who would be the cause of his annihilation. Mandodari was a woman of character, virtue and relentless faith and tried her best to make Ravana mend his ways, though she was unsuccessful in the end. Mandodari’s fate is shared by millions of women today. A staunchly male-oriented society overlooks the affairs and illicit liaisons of a husband and expects the wife to love and honour him despite his misdemeanours.
Ahilya is the beautiful wife of a Sage Gautama, whom Indra, the chief of the gods, coveted. He cheated her by assuming the persona of her husband and seduced her. Angry beyond reason, Gautama cursed her and turned her into a rock. Upon hearing the truth, he pronounced that Rama, during his banishment in the forest, would touch her with his sacred feet and would bring her back to life. Ahilya, admired by women for her forbearance is likened to the freshness and active nature of the wind. Though Ahilya’s seduction was a fraud, she suffered for eons by being turned into a stone. This story, too, applies to modern Indian women, whoever, falters or is offended in the family — husband or children — she is held accountable and bears the brunt of the misdeeds.
Tara, wife of the monkey-king Bali, was also a woman of great virtue. Bali was a tyrant who usurped his brother Sugriva’s kingdom and abducted his wife Ruma. He died a valiant death at the hands of Rama and left Tara to live piously for the rest of her life. Tara is associated with space and has the quality of intelligence, compassion and large-heartedness. There are two other Taras in mythology. Taramati, the wife of king Harishchandra and Tara or Rohini, the consort of the Moon god and mother of the planet Mercury or Buddha.
The theme of panchkanayas may include any of these three women, all equally lustrous and virtuous. All that these Taras show that women were considered the ‘property’ of men in India for millenniums. They were kidnapped, punished, abandoned, left to live miserable lives as widows and even sold as slaves by powerful men. Things are not much different today. Women suffer the same humiliations even in modern India.
In spite of this, the panchkanya theme has inspired Indian women for eons. They believe that even today, they have great affinity to each elemental woman by the way they look, feel or react to the world around them. Most Indian women believe that they tolerate and accept the worst kind of injustice like Sita and remain steadfast in their duty and devotion to their husbands and families.
Yet, surprisingly, like Draupadi, they also hide storms of anguish anger and revenge in their hearts. They believe that the curse of a virtuous, strong woman can ruin the most powerful of men. Like Mandodari, they live a life of duality, with the turbulence of varied experiences on the surface and a deep, silent core in their souls, where wisdom originates. Like Mandodari, they have an inherent gift of distinguishing between right and wrong. In a crisis, they know how to insist on doing what they consider right. Like Ahilya, they have a dormant power buried deep down in their psyches. They have the strength to move like the wind and the compassion to forgive wrongs done to them. Like Tara, they seek a special lustre of their own. They seek a sacred place—which is their right—in the vastness of space. From this niche, they spread their compassion and tenderness.
It is for every woman to
study the life-graphs and personalities of the panchkanyas and
decide which element they empathise with. However, in truth, every
Indian woman has shades of all the panchkanyas within her soul!
Heart to heart
THE thirties is hardly the stage to take stock of one’s life. There is, hopefully, a long innings yet to be played. But interestingly, mid-life is the phase in which women juggle the maximum number of roles and their responsibilities peak. So caught up is a woman in straddling the roles of wife, daughter-in-law, mother...and so on, and measuring up to the great expectations of her kith and kin that she barely has time or energy to focus on herself. Even if her identity as an individual is not totally lost, her small needs do take a backseat. A little bit of stock-taking at this juncture is thus not totally out of place. In fact, it can do a whole lot of good to her and those around her.
Lest these be misconstrued as the ramblings of one suffering from mid-life blues or be mistaken for the babble of a wanting-to-be heard feminist, let me share the incident that sparked off these thoughts. I was witness to a conversation between a saas and bahu at a wedding recently. when dinner was served, the bahu began partaking of the meal, whilst her toddler son was prancing here and there. This was enough to invoke the ire of the saas. "Pehle bete ko kucch khila de. Khud baad me kha lena?" she muttered. "Aaj kal ki maayein bhi kitni selfish hoti hain," she mumbled in an aside to an age mate seated close by.
For all those who may think I’m being partisan to the bahu, I have this poser: Isn’t a woman’s hunger for food as basic a need as that of any other family member? Why is it that whenever a woman puts herself before another family member, she suddenly earns this reputation of being selfish, self-centred? As long as she is playing the role of a doting mother, a dutiful bahu or biwi, she is considered considerate and looked upon as a hallowed being. The minute she gratifies any of her needs first, she is perceived as an "uncaring’’ monster who is neglecting her familial duties.
This vortex of constant role playing that women are caught in has no correlation to the degree of their emancipation or empowerment. Ironically, this tight-rope walk of role balancing is trickier and tougher for working women as it only adds another role to their performance list—that of an achiever at the workplace.
This certainly places women at a disadvantage vis-a-vis men. The major role expectations that men have to measure up to are those of provider and successful boss or worker. True, they too have to live up to the demands of their family and shoulder responsibilities as a son, husband, father, etc. but the standards they have to match up to are not as exacting. The allowances made for any role shirking on their part are greater and their alibis for non-performance in expected roles enjoy far more credibility.
If a father is unable to attend his child’s parent-teacher meeting or take leave to attend to an ailing parent, how easily is it excused by saying, "He is so busy. There is so much work pressure." If a husband, on returning home at any odd hour, straightaway attacks the food without so much as bothering whether his spouse has eaten a morsel or not, how often it is explained away as, "Oh, he must be so tired and stressed out after a long day."
In all fairness to the sensitive new age guys (SNAGs) practising this, it must be said that they do shoulder a number of roles that were hitherto the sole responsibility of the woman of the house. This sharing on their part does make parenting or homekeeping much easier for females.
Even then, evaluation norms for a woman are more unsparing and the allowances for her are few and far between. Sample this. When the baraat at the wedding of a Sheila’s cousin was being unduly delayed, her hubby dear slipped away from the scene to booze with his buddies. When the miffed biwi pointed out to him, "You should have stuck around here, what will all the relatives think?", pat came the nonchalant reply from the jamai raja. " Come on, men can’t be bothered about these things!" Well said. But just visualise a converse scenario. Had a bahu of the family sneaked away with her friends on such an occasion, all hell would have broken loose!
It is so much easier for the man of the house to find personal time and space. He can leisurely browse through the morning papers with a do-not-disturb expression. An unwritten law runs in the house that his personal time is sacrosanct. And the best thing is that his need for privacy is zealously respected by the family. But God save a woman who even expects a couple of minutes of uninterrupted personal time or unimpinged personal space! The ‘please-myself’ time—when she can simply put up her feet and put any calls of duty on hold— is something she has to strive for and smuggle into her packed routine. It’s not something that’s handed on a platter to the female of the species. I remember how my friend Reena would wake up an hour earlier than the rest of the family just so that she could read the morning papers peacefully before the kids began clamouring for their tiffins or the husband demanded his breakfast. Rare are the times when I too have been able to sip my morning brew in blissful, undisturbed solitude.
Leisure activities, when indulged in by women, if not actually frowned upon, are not looked upon favourably either. Is it not common enough to hear people castigating women who go off to kitty parties? "I don’t know how women can go off to clubs leaving their kids behind?" is a frequently uttered comment. Not that I’m a great votary of kitty parties and I do believe that, carried beyond a point, kitty parties and club going can lead to neglect of home and hearth. But how many times is a man, who chills out with his cronies every other evening, accused of neglecting his family? "The guy needs to unwind," pat comes the justification.
Yes, even family women catch up with friends every now and then, go shopping or to watch movies, but there are strings attached: only after they have fulfilled their daily obligations towards family members. An executive with a multinational, for instance, has to ensure that rations are fully stocked before she leaves on tour. She puts up a list in the kitchen where family members enter the things they need and she calls from outstation to ensure that a caretaker procures these. That’s some role playing, even by proxy!
But the best part is that not only do women have to be the frontrunners in this marathon of role playing, they’re expected not to huff and puff with fatigue in the process. And shame be on a woman who even hopes for any laurels for this ‘role sprinting’. She has to go through the motions with a broad smile pasted on her face. Any mood swings on her part and she’s labelled as being chirchiri. If she isn’t at her perfect best with her sasuralwale or husband’s buddies all 24 hours a day or 30 days a month, she’s being grouchy. Never mind if she’s just plain tired to stretch her facial muscles into even a grin!
This is what Pooja, an old friend, would often tell me, "If I’m not at my cordial and hospitable best with my in-laws all the time, I’m called snooty and snobbish. But if my hubby doesn’t chat up with my family or friends with the same effusiveness and enthusiasm, he’s thought to be reticent!"
This brings us to the crux: Not only are women perched on this see-saw of role balancing, they’re expected to score a perfect 10.Yes, women do derive satisfaction and sustenance from playing the roles that especially revolve around their families, so role playing is not an entirely unwelcome part of their existence.
But even if Shakespeare’s great words, All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players... were to be applied to this role enactment by women, it must be said that even actors get to retire and relax in their greenrooms after playing a part.
So all ye women, forget
about getting a standing ovation or even a muted applause for all the
role jugglery you do. That’s not in your hands, literally. Yes, what
you can do when all the performing gets too energy-sapping is to
promptly recede into the greenroom of your homescape, take in a long
breath and put up a bold do-not-disturb sign. And the 30s are not too
early to begin practising this.
GENDER hierarchies in a society are determined by some universal subject-object projections. In physical terms 'subject' would mean or represent the doer of an action and 'object' is affected by such action or in simple words, subject 'does' and it is 'done' on the object. In almost every society, man is considered a subject and women an object. It is but an obvious model of patriarchal setups. Interestingly these underlying hierarchies, which create domination-subordination, evolve inequitable positions in the society.
Women's objectification has a lot to do with her sexual status. The very act of sex, in its 'penetrator-penetrated' model, places women at the receiving end. Such a model has been centre to ancient societies too. However, the relationship there did not symbolise hierarchies but roles (male with bija and female with bhumi). Today, the societal attitudes are determined by the former (sex-model).
An important outcome of this is seen in the attitudes of men. Despite linguistic and cultural diversity in India, verbally abusive terminology shares a common platform. It gives expression to in-built social attitrudes and sexualises women. The abuse may be directed on anyone but it women who is 'penetrated' and 'objectified'. These symbols find inroads in the early childhood from peer influence. Interestingly, in Punjab and Haryana husbands verbally abuse their wives and children in a similar fashion. There cannot be any doubt about male perception of females in this westernised urban setup. 'Modern' dress codes and physical outlook play a significant role in furthering this perception. Women regard 'mini' clothes as an expression of freedom. Also, the preference for sleek and slender bodies has become a standard. This fits well in the subject-object model. Most men believe that modern dress codes have sexualised women.
Media plays a catalytic role here. Most of the advertisement campaigns are complimented on. Interestingly the gendered identification of cars and bikes with 'she' exemplifies the driver-driven relationship. Although the latest model of a motorbike (Bajaj pulsar) claims it to be a 'truly male', 'the gaze of the bike' replicates another version of subject-object relationship. This brings forth another relationship of 'seer-seen' and it is again taken up by attractive advertisement campaigns. What is seen? Female bodies. By whom? Men.
There lies a paradox in women's perception. Some radical women question this subject-object formula and believe the opposite to be true. They feel that women control men's attention and are the subjects. Men, however, feel that ultimately they 'drive' women. Since this model is based on the sexual projection of hierarchies, it is strongly opposed by many feminists. They contend that women who labour more than men are undoubtedly doers and subjects and men are objects.
This explains us why the women who were revolutionaries and revered have been virgin or single and continue to be such. Both religious and non-religious traditions are full of examples of virgin females. Shakta traditions glorify mother goddess as the creator, sustainer and the destroyer. There are plenty of such examples in the French Revolution.
In the final analysis we see that subordination exists more at the sexual and physical levels. At the emotional and philosophical plains these differences cease to exist. The present societal setup is highly influenced by the sexual model—thanks to the rising consumerism, which owns a greater responsibility for objectification of women. No wonder, we see a sharp rise in the number of cases of sexual abuse and rape.