I always loved reciting nursery rhymes as a kid and would always find ways to sing them out loud in front of my relatives, teachers and friends. Even when I grew up and entered high school, I did not stop humming some of my favourite rhymes (both Hindi and English) without trying to understand the ideas that they were subtly hinting at. I remember singing out loud “Papa ke paise gol gol, mummy ki roti gol gol” to my young cousins without even realising that poems like these were only strengthening the existing gender-based roles reinforcing the idea that ‘paise’ belongs to ‘papa’ and ‘rotis’ to mummy.
Unaware of these subtle allusions, I continued believing the same while flaunting my poem recitation skills for so many years. However, in 2014, my inherent patriarchal values were shaken to the core when I came across Kamla Bhasin’s unconventional book titled “Housework is Everyone’s Work: Rhymes for Just and Happy Families” on nursery rhymes which did not show mothers as perpetual sweepers and cooks but as people who read newspapers, played football and went out for work.
At first, I was stunned to see such unconventional illustration of fathers changing nappies and drying clothes and mothers coming back from office with big black bags in hand because the rhymes I had read always showed fathers and mothers in altered frames. However, after reading further, I realised that my abhorrence towards stay-at-home fathers during that time emanated from the poems I had memorised as a kid. It is interesting that I never tried to pay attention to the words of the poems as much as I twiddled with the poetic rhymes that it generated.
For me, poems were something which was not supposed to be questioned or critically dealt with but was only meant for entertainment. But after reading Bhasin’s re-written rhymes, I began to question all the poems, stories, comics, TV shows and films that I had keenly watched all throughout the time and tried not to take everything for granted. And I was surprised to find that except for some, most of them imparted the idea of patriarchy and gender-based prejudices.
In one of the poems, Bhasin writes –
“Fathers like a busy bee,
Making us cups of hot tea,
Mother sits and reads the news
Now and then she gives her views”
Contrasting these lines with a previously mentioned poem on ‘papa ke paise’, one can notice the distinction in terms of how gender roles are projected in general discourse. The above lines clearly convey the idea that fathers and men are not to be always looked upon as someone whose sole occupation is to blurt directions to people around him. Furthermore, she tries to raise the issue of sharing the load of housework asking why only mothers are asked to do all the work when everyone in the house can contribute –
“Not a moment does she stay
Mothers work all day
Don’t you think this is unfair
Shouldn’t we help and do our share?”
I used to abhor doing housework and other daily chores before but after reading this, I understood the value of it and made sure that I start helping my mother with housework in whichever way possible so that she doesn’t have to bear all the burden.
While reading these lines did change my attitude towards my mother, I also tried to further look into other stories, rhymes and movies that I had read and watched over the years to analyse how women and girls, in general, are positioned in the general discussions. Since then, I have been vocal about media representation of women in different spheres and how it has been normalising the patriarchal values in more than one way.
I have been writing extensively on how we see women in mythological stories, how popular culture perceives the idea of women and how we can use creative means (like the one used by Kamla Bhasin) to alter the existing practices. My journey from being an ignorant and insensitive person to being a socially aware feminist was triggered by Kamla Bhasin’s hard-hitting poetry (especially the illustrations) which not only made me think about my own wrong perceptions about gender roles but also the society’s false assumptions towards women in general.
While it is extremely difficult to altogether overthrow the patriarchal values deeply embedded in our social fabric, we sure can use creative means to at least show what ideally should happen and what shouldn’t. If we cannot alter the existing realities which are problematic in more than one way we definitely can work on the ‘reflection’ of these cultures in advertisements, films, nursery rhymes, short stories and many such creative outlets by owning the narrative.
It is interesting that the popular culture we rely on for everyday entertain is dominated by men. This can only change when more women get to talk about themselves. Some use doodle art, wall painting, documentaries, etc. to dominate the common discourse. I use writing as a tool to do so and shall continue doing the same. (All thanks to Kamla Bhasin.)