off the cuff

The freedom to ‘be’

It is not about feminism or flexing muscles against anybody, it is about women’s liberty

Navanita Varadpande,Special to Gulf News
16:35 September 9, 2017

I didn’t know her name. She was just known as “Rishabh’s granny” to me. Cuddly and grandmotherly, always donning a smile, she would be seen walking back to the building with bags of grocery. One day, as I was driving to my son’s school I saw her, trudging along the road in 42 degrees Celsius of heat, to pick up her grandson. That day I decided to speak to her. I enquired as to why she had ventured out? She replied: “I want to carry the heavy school bag for my grandson. I cannot let him walk with such a burden, in this heat and just watch ...” So that day onwards, I insisted that I would pick up her grandson along with my son, there was no need for her to torture herself in the scorching afternoons. The first day I told her to come along with me, I felt pangs of shock and pain at the fact that she did not want to sit in front, beside me, in the car. She said that she was used to sitting at the back, with the maid! Her voice laced with years of servitude. She probably knew no other way of life. She strived to be useful in some way or the other to her son and daughters lest she be disposed of. Or maybe she wanted just a few drops of love in return.

During my morning walk, I would meet Mrs Deshpande daily, at the bus stop when she would come to see off her grandchildren as they went to school. She wore a temperament that was sunny and positive all the time. The best part of her day was this, when she would take a break from the mundane and come to walk with her friends, all retired and well-educated ladies. They would chatter and even up the mood of some of the brooding youngsters like me. That morning, Mrs Deshpande seemed to be different from what she was, her smile had vanished. The reason was that her mother had just passed away. I was surprised that she still went around doing her routine duties with stoic resoluteness. I asked her why she didn’t go for the last rites to Pune? She answered in a very matter-of-fact style: “What is the use of going now, she is no more. I have never been ‘allowed’ to go to my parent’s house after marriage ... not the norm in our patriarchal family ... my work lies here, to look after my family and take care of them.” With a rusted smile she whispered: “I have hardened a part of myself. Or else it would pain me more.” Not allowed to see ones parents after marriage — is that a rule? I was appalled. I suggested that at least now she could go as her daughter-in-law, a very efficient friend of mine, was there to take care of things. “No, it’s okay.” And then she broke down. “What if she takes my place. I am scared. I tried to be indispensable, slaved to please a husband who kept me on tenterhooks all these years.” Thus she, an educated lady, has tied the noose of indispensability around herself and others have been tightening it gleefully as they laid down the laws.

Megha, a student of mine was growing up to be a tall and pretty girl. I observed that she began stooping consciously. I told her not to slouch and she blurted out, “My grandmother says that girls cannot be growing so tall. No boy would like a wife taller than him.” She later added with a shaky voice, “or better than him ... in other words.”

Leena, a very good friend of mine, a talented writer had just got married. The first morning when she woke up, she reached for the newspapers as was her wont, only to be court-marshalled at the end of the day. “The newspaper is to be kept crisp and new for your husband and father-in-law. They prefer to read virgin (sic) newspapers! So stop your feminist ways. And no writing about political and social issues. What you write has to be approved by your husband,” quipped her mother-in-law, who was now used to years of the ridiculous task of leaving the newspaper untouched, fresh and ready to be devoured by the men. Well, from then on, Leena got hooked onto epapers.

I wonder, what Wonder Woman would say to this? Is the Island of Themyscira where the Amazons live, for real, where women live sans inhibitions, sans the guilt of being intelligent. Well, I wish it was. It is not about feminism or flexing muscles against anybody, it is about the liberty to just ‘be’. To be allowed a life that one deserves, without laying selfish conditions. “On the day when it will be possible for a woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself — on that day love will become for her, as for a man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.” — Simone de Beauvoir

Navanita Varadpande is a writer based in Dubai.