HER WORLD Sunday, February 15, 2004, Chandigarh, India

Woman of the subcontinent
Ramesh Luthra
RECENTLY the media flashed the photograph of a frail woman clad in a suit and a brown shawl wrapped around her. Her eyes were fixed on the ground as she stood holding her daughter’s hand on the zero line. A mute picture of helplessness indeed. The photograph must have moved many a heart.

Granny’s for all ages
Inderdeep Thapar
RANDMOTHERS are an integral part of any child’s life. Dadi ke nuske. Or nani ki kahanian. No childhood is complete without them. Like most things, the granny too has evolved with the times. From the illiterate nanis and dadis of yore to the Net-savvy grandmoms of today, these matriarchs have come a long way.

Star tracks: Signposts for wannabes
Vimla Patil
ELEBRITY women sometimes unwittingly set trends for other women to follow. The tidal wave of new actresses and models in the film, television and fashion industries, which has landed up in Mumbai in recent years, has illustrated to millions of ordinary women how they too can live alone and navigate their careers towards success.



Woman of the subcontinent

Shehnaz Parveen, a resident of Abuwala village in PoK, had strayed into India from Malni village in the Bhimber area of PoK and jumped into the Neelam river in 1995 to commit suicide, following a family tiff. She was spotted by the personnel of the Indian Army and taken into custody. Later, she was lodged in the Poonch jail on charges of crossing the Line of Control. In prison she was raped by a Kashmiri constable and her daughter Mobin was born. Even though Shahnaz was released from prison along with her daughter in 1996, they could not be repatriated due to official wrangles and the fact that her daughter was an Indian. She had to return from the joint checkpost in Wagah on June 21, 2002. Shehnaz’s brother, Mushtaq Ahmed, had taken up the matter with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. As a result of the thawing of relations between India and Pakistan, it became possible to repatriate Shehnaz and Mobin. Ramesh Luthra reconstructs the story of this woman.

Shehnaz Parveen with daughter Mobin
Shehnaz Parveen with daughter Mobin

RECENTLY the media flashed the photograph of a frail woman clad in a suit and a brown shawl wrapped around her. Her eyes were fixed on the ground as she stood holding her daughter’s hand on the zero line. A mute picture of helplessness indeed. The photograph must have moved many a heart. Perhaps a few sensitive souls would have shed a tear or two.

The woman in question was Shehnaz Parveen who was returning to Pakistan, her native country, after a number of years. An occasion to be celebrated indeed. Neither excitement nor joy were visible on her face. Her eyes did not have a glint of anticipation. Instead, fear and anxiety were writ large on her face. Her distressed countenance betrayed an unknown fear lurking in her mind. Her woebegone eyes spoke of unbearable suffering. If one looked closely enough, one could even see the tears shimmering in her eyes.

Three years ago she had stood exactly at this very place along with her daughter Mobin. The authorities of her country of origin gave her a shock when they refused to take her back along with her ‘Indian daughter’. That means Pakistan was ready to take her back but not the child. An ironical situation. The mother within her must have shed copious tears. This illiterate woman must have questioned in her simple rustic manner: Why these harsh rules and walls between neighbouring countries? With a heavy heart she returned to Jammu where she did menial jobs to bring up her child.

The poor woman’s tryst with India started in 1995. Endless harassment at the hands of her husband had ultimately driven her to jump into the freezing waters of Jhelum. The wretched woman thought it would be an end to her miserable life. Fate willed otherwise and hardly did she know that it would be the beginning of her miseries.

The strong current of the river propelled her towards the other bank of the river which forms a part of India. She was rescued by the Indian Army from the river and hospitalised. However, she landed in jail for illegal entry into the Indian territory. She had asked for death and landed in jail. As if destiny had mocked her effort to escape the travails of life. "Does pitiless fate play with human life so ruthlessly?" As if all this wasn’t enough, the warden of the jail supposed to protect prisoners, especially women, raped her at night. It seemed as if relentless destiny was pursuing her. One can imagine the trauma she underwent. She must have cursed the day she left her home.

Was she rescued by the Indian Army to face this humiliation? The so-called ‘Indian daughter’ of hers was born.

The rather odd name coined for the little one must have always hurt Shehnaz and reminded her of the darkest moment of her life. After a prolonged struggle, the intervention of Pakistan Human Rights Commission made the repatriation of mother-daughter duo possible. That is how she stood on the zero line. Once again she stood there, surrounded by men in Khaki belonging to both India and Pakistan. Shehnaz held her daughter’s hand tightly lest destiny snatch her only child — the sole ray of hope in her otherwise gloomy life. Hundred and one bitter memories must have flashed on the retina of her mind. Acountless thoughts must have nagged her mind as would have doubts and fears about the days to come.

Will returning to her country end her suffering? Will the people accept her daughter willingly? Undoubtedly, strict Islamic rules of her country are bound to prove a deterrent for her. The fundamentalists might inflict the harshest possible punishment on her for having borne an illegitimate child, that too by an Indian. In a society where woman is considered a lesser being and honour killings are common, how will she survive? As far as her in-laws and her husband accepting her back in the family goes, she must be sceptical. What about Mobin who is blissfully ignorant of the ugly episode in the jail and her future? How her daughter will be treated by society is her main worry now. Will humiliation be heaped upon Mobin too all her life for no fault of hers? It seems as if uncertainty has become her way of life. Keeping all these doubts and fears to herself Shehnaz has gone back to her country. Her pitiable tale raises many questions about the inhuman treatment meted to women in our society even in the 21st century.

Her traumatic life may be a good ‘masala’ for a film as one Pakistani film maker intends making one. But that won’t comfort her at all and wash the stigma faced by her.


Granny’s for all ages
Inderdeep Thapar

GRANDMOTHERS are an integral part of any child’s life. Dadi ke nuske. Or nani ki kahanian. No childhood is complete without them. Like most things, the granny too has evolved with the times. From the illiterate nanis and dadis of yore to the Net-savvy grandmoms of today, these matriarchs have come a long way. Here’s a peek at the granny, then and now:

The unlettered granny

This granny was poor in bookish knowledge but rich in practical and moral wisdom. Though she couldn’t read, she would pore over pictures in mythological books with her granddaughter. She spouted moral platitudes as she oiled the little girl’s hair, churned the butter or prepared a pickle. As both downed a glass of home-made lassi topped with a blob of butter they chanted homilies like: "Paroge-likhoge banoge nawab" (If you study hard you will become great).

Both were partners in fun and leisure. Munching roasted grams together, they were a cosy picture of togetherness. Plucking bers or guavas for granny was the ultimate high of the child’s life. But explaining maths to granny was an utterly frustrating experience. She could not understand the xyz of algebra but she was quick to grasp the child’s moods, her troubles and little desires.

The holiday granny

As the joint family started breaking up, the constant companionship gave way to holiday meetings. Granny was to be seen only during vacations. She was no longer around to chant homilies. Or to share the everyday highs and lows.The visiting granny didn’t have long hours to spare. She only had tall piles of gifts to give. She thrust G-I Joes or Barbies into tiny hands to make up for the lost togetherness and affection. She didn’t waste the short visits admonishing the little ones. The grandchild had a free run of her money and indulgence, not time. She let the child watch the idiot box, unrestricted, and eat junk food, unlimited. This was her way to maintain the lure of future visits.

The feminist granny

This granny is a liberated, self-absorbed, working woman. Though she loves her granchildren and they’re always welcome, there is a limitation on the time and energy she can give them. Her social life, her personal growth and space are of paramount importance. She doesn’t believe in being "tied down" with "demanding relationships". She doesn’t mince words in letting her children know that changing diapers and singing lullabies for their kids is their job, not hers. The feminist granny is caring but not a selfless, all-giving soul.

The sporty granny

This is the trendy, tech-savvy, new-millenium granny. She is a well-groomed friend, enterprising confidante and well-informed guide. She accompanies the grandchild to book exhibitions, tennis courts and hobby classes. She even attends computer classes with the kids. She is a buddy to the grandchild’s buddies. She’s comfortable sharing a pizza or two with the tiny tots and even organises a burger bash for them once in a while. She ticks off the parents if they’re being too overbearing and cautions them if they’re too liberal. She is generally a sport, a delight to have around.

This categorisation just reflects one worldview and is a random one. The institution of the granny has undergone a metamorphosis, mirroring the cataclysmic changes our society has undergone. Her essential role of a care-giver, mentor and guide remains unchanged though. It has only seen a dilution perhaps, with the emergence of nuclear families and the technology explosion. But not the one to be left behind, the granny has always reinvented herself. And she remains an unshakeable pillar on which childhood rests.


Star tracks: Signposts for wannabes

Not only in mega metros like Mumbai, but also in smaller cities and towns, Indian women are beginning to enjoy noticeable freedom of movement. They live alone or in groups, they attend parties or other functions without a man in tow and walk, drive or use public transport without fear in spite of sporadic cases of harassment and violence, writes Vimla Patil

Smriti Malhotra
Smriti Malhotra: She took a loan from her father and worked in McDonald’s to try her luck in serials
Sakshi Tanwar
Sakshi Tanwar: From a middle class family in Alwar to living alone in Bombay was eventful

CELEBRITY women sometimes unwittingly set trends for other women to follow. The tidal wave of new actresses and models in the film, television and fashion industries, which has landed up in Mumbai in recent years, has illustrated to millions of ordinary women how they too can live alone and navigate their careers towards success. Take the example of Sakshi Tanwar, the popular Parvati Bhabi of Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki on Star Plus. Sakshi, who is in her mid-twenties, comes from a middle class family living in small town Alwar in Rajasthan. "My conservative parents could not believe me when I said that I wished to come to Mumbai in search of a place in the television industry. In fact, I was diffident too. I was ready to return home when Ekta Kapoor of Balaji Telefilms called me back from the airport to take the role of Parvati Bhabi. I was hesitant because it is the part of a mother in her thirties. But I took the jump and the rest is history. I have lived alone in Mumbai for years now.

Ria Sen
Ria Sen: Lucky to have a home in Bombay, travelling alone in buses was a unique experience.

It is often a practice with new television entrants to rent small suburban flats together so that their contribution to the rent does not make a large hole in their young pockets. The rent of our flat was Rs 30,000 and several of us shared it. We cooked together or ate out most of the time. I travelled to my worksite alone and never felt insecure. Mumbai is a safe city and understands that women will live or travel alone for work or pleasure!"

The story of the glamorous Riya Sen is no different. Coming from a wealthy, prominent Calcutta family, Riya had a family home in Mumbai to live in when she came in search of a course in fashion designing and a career in modelling or films. However, she too had to travel alone in public transport at all hours and get used to Mumbai’s fast-track life at a young age. She feels that Mumbai is a safe city for single women because people here accept that women will work and have independent lives. Dipanita Sharma, a model and film star, who came to Mumbai from Assam in search of glamour, also thinks that Mumbai is a haven for ambitious single working women. She entered the Miss India Contest in 1998 and stayed on to work here. She lives alone and is today one of the most sought after models and actresses. "I stayed as a paying guest first and then shared a flat with Bipasha Basu. Now I have my own flat," she says.

VJ Ruby Bhatia and actress Smriti Malhotra Irani have both tasted this freedom in Mumbai. Ruby came to Mumbai in 1994 after winning the Miss India Canada title and won fame as Channel V’s top veejay. She too lived in paying guest accommodation till she could buy her own flat in suburban Mumbai. Smriti came from Delhi, taking a loan from her father. She worked in McDonalds to sustain herself till the Miss India show gave her an opportunity to work in television.

Ruby Bhatia
Ruby Bhatia: This Miss India Canada came to tinsel town in 1994 and had to slog it out to find a niche.

These are only visible examples of women living alone and working successfully in India. There are numerous others in all cities of India, who live in digs in groups or company bachelor pads with colleagues when they take corporate or government jobs away from home. Women have no inhibitions in taking jobs or assignments away from their family residences. A look at the flights of almost all domestic airlines shows that thousands of women of all ages travel alone for professional or corporate work and confidently live in hotels or guest-houses. This freedom is not limited to working life alone. Several travel agents now offer special tours for women who get together in friendly groups to visit fun destinations for leisure and adventure travelling. Within cities and towns, college students, married women, working women and elderly women go for walks, to work, to entertainment centres, for shopping and for friendly social visits without fear or a sense of insecurity.

It is reported that following the example of women in the metros, small town women too are venturing out from their homes till late hours. The scenario in even conservative-until-now towns in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and all South Indian states has changed dramatically. The visibility of women throughout the day and even at night in markets, in restaurants, in cinema halls, not to mention at workplaces of all kinds, has increased throughout India. There are several reasons for this brand new wave of confidence generated among Indian women:

Reasons for change

The media — specifically television — has helped to increase the self-confidence of women. Television programmes, whether news or entertainment, constantly project images of women handling authoritative position in the family and outside. They take decisions, right or wrong, and express the spirit of their freedom with a sense of pride. Many women characters are shown as evil persons with criminal intent. But none are shown scared to lead their own lives as independent, thinking people capable of taking action.

Rapid urbanisation in India has made women realise their inherent power. Urbanisation brings population movement, access to education and knowledge and exposure to peers whose collective thinking influences all. In small-town India, more women from the burgeoning middle class are in schools and colleges and a large number among them are seeking careers because they see the wonders women can create when they are financially self reliant.

They have thousands of icons to follow today. The role NGOs working for women’s empowerment throughout India must also be acknowledged here. Their support, their projects and networking connectivity are responsible for creating a bold new awareness of freedom among women. They know that they are no more alone in their demand for safety and security. Notwithstanding sexual harassment and second-class treatment meted out to women in India, the struggle of women to hold their heads high and be secure in Indian society is gaining countrywide support.

Education and continuing efforts of governmental and voluntary agencies have made more women that ever before aware of their legal and political rights. They are somehow aware what they have to do in case of sexual harassment or ill treatment by their families.

The attitude that domestic violence or workplace harassment of a woman is a private affair and others need not pay heed to such instances is now changing. There are many voluntary organisations which are willing to take up cudgels on behalf of victims. Government agencies too, are more open to taking quick action under the pressure of women’s movement groups. Most women are aware of such groups and do not hesitate to take help whenever they need it.

More women than ever before now know the power of earning and being self-reliant. Money and the power it gives is a new gateway, which has offered new options and opportunities for women. Few people would know that among all nations of the world, India has the second highest number of women entrepreneurs who work in every kind of business ranging from IT industries to household catering. These entrepreneurs are spread over all states beginning with Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Such women know that the government is supportive of their dreams and provides training as well as finance for their endeavours. Working and earning brings women into close contact with each other.

This connectivity has taught them that they are not each other’s enemies as they have been traditionally portrayed earlier. Indeed, they are now willing to play mentors to each other and create a network of like-minded people who nurture each other’s ambitions and work options.

No longer to middle class families in Indian cities or towns see mothers, wives or daughters as kitchen maids who must ‘obey’ their men and lead cloistered lives. The family is opening up and flowering as an institution. The result is that it cradles and nurtures women’s ambitions and freedom.

Even in small towns and villages, women are seen to take actions and attitudes, which are different from those of their mothers. They are freer individuals, who expect security from their families and society. They demand the right to design their own lives in a safe and supportive environment.