“Bhaiya aapki biwi bacche kaha rehte hai, wo yaha nahi hai?“ (Brother, where does your family live? Are they not here?)
Having not seen many humans for months, I was feeling a bit more talkative. I chose to strike a conversation with my building watchman.
“Madamji, family toh gau mein hai. Mai yaha akele aaya tha tees (30) saal pehle.” (Madam, they’re in the village. I came here to the city 30 years ago).
“Unko nahi laye kya?” (You didn’t get them?)
“Unko kaun layega. Meri biwi maa bapuji ke saath hi theek hai, ladki saath ghar ke kaam sikh rahi hai. Beta school jata hai, bada hoga tab Dilli le aunga,” he replied without the slightest hesitation. (What’s the need? My wife should live with my mom and dad only; my daughter is learning to do household chores and my son goes to school. I’ll get him to the city once he’s grown up.)
“Ladki nahi aayegi Dilli?” (Won’t you get your girl to Delhi?) I couldn’t stop myself from asking, sounding borderline intrusive. He looked up at me and gave me the most surprised look like I had asked something ridiculous.
“Kya bol rahe ho madamji. Sanskari ladkiya itni door thodi aati hai? Wo toh gau mein hi rehti hai, unki toh shaadiya hoti hai na.” (What are you talking about, Madam? Well mannered girls don’t come this far from their home. They stay in villages and get married thereafter.)
“Unki toh shaadiya hoti hai na“, the second half of his sentence came out so naturally that I froze for a minute. Like her fate had always been decided, moulded-in iron like she was born with the sole objective of getting married. That was the normal he had grown up to see and believe.
I wanted to say a lot more. But being on the more privileged side of the table, where my parents had sent me to Delhi around 15 years back, despite my being a woman hailing from a tier-2 city, I realized a debate with him would prove completely inconsequential at that moment. But the question lingered on my mind. Who was the victim here? He, of the social yardstick, or she, of her father’s adherence?
A report by Chinmay Tumbe titled Urbanisation, demographic transition, and the growth of cities in India, referred to in a recent article, talks about the economic reasons why Urbanisation in India is still slow and ‘masculine’ in nature. Apart from cultural factors, it cites expensive housing infrastructure and low availability as one of the prime reasons for this gendered approach.
While a lot has already been written and said about the economic implications, the artistic side still remains in the shadows. Though over the years, the influx of women migrators from tier-2 and tier-3 cities has seen a sharp uptick, the contribution of semi-rural and rural areas to this rising sex-ratio has almost been skewed.
Strangely, for these women, the reluctance of stepping out from their thresholds is most of the time a voluntary phenomenon, deep-rooted in the pages of conservatism and conformist ideologies that have been established and are followed sincerely for centuries in our country.
In our language, the word sanskari was meant to define a person who understands the sanctity of culture and clings willingly to the ideas established by a revered fraction of our population. When coined by its creator, the word had no inclination or attachment of gender to it, and it could be applied to both males and females, or perhaps it had. I don’t know.
But over the years, they made it into a cliched movement. It started gaining significance in the vocabulary of arranged marriages and like a parasite stuck along with the qualifications of the female candidate. Unabashedly, we also went one step ahead and drew an image of this sanskari woman. You either fit in it, or you don’t. There is no in-between.
Losing her virginity to only one man — her husband — staying at home and taking care of her in-laws, not stepping out of her house without her pallu, not rebelling, accepting everything with a nod and eating the leftovers after her husband had finished his meals are some of the prime strokes of this portrait. Anyone who refuses to comply with these norms is termed as asanskari or uncultured and is treated as a social outcast. This image doesn’t end here. In fact, the canvas is much wider and broader.
Since childhood, a woman is taught that being a female in society is synonymous with making sacrifices for the family. Therefore, the brother gets the larger piece of the bread, gets to go to school, and migrates to the sheher (city) for his career. She is supposed to learn all the household chores because tomorrow she needs to marry a man, take care of his parents and children, while he will be away from home, staying in a room with five other men, toiling hard to earn bread for the entire family.
For this man’s entire working age of 30 years, he will have no respite and break. He will have to move around alone with the family’s financial burden on his shoulders, working day and night to make ends meet. Soon, he will either be joined or replaced by his son, who will take over and in all probabilities become the same watchman his father was. He will eventually migrate back to his village, weak, tired, and old.
Having had no partner to support him economically all his life, this man would unquestioningly pass on the same orthodox and parochial cargo to his son, who will continue with the heritage. And the cycle of unwittingly becoming victims to the fangs of this invisible social serpent will continue, burdening each with their own.
Beyond the obligations of sanskari’ism, there is another overwhelming image of “Ladki bigad jayegi“(girl will get spoilt and mannerless) laced with age-old legacies. It is fueled with the constant influx of news and ignited with grapevine conversations that have a role to play in discouraging migration of our female population.
The threat of the phrase, like in its literal meaning, comes from all directions — elders in the family, relatives, neighbors and sometimes even parents whose daughters have fallen into traps of love marriages, as per them, or have eloped with their boyfriends because they were handed out this priority pass of excessive freedom.
If a girl is allowed to have wind beneath her wings, is not controlled and dominated, and starts befriending boys, it inevitably means the end is near.
It can only go two ways, either she succumbs to smoking and drinking or indulges in pre-marital sex, both of which, in their opinion, are the evils of modern new-age Western liberalism. Therefore, they successfully use this picture of the “modern bigdi hui ladki” (a modern, spoilt girl) to implant the right amount of fear in young girls’ minds, resulting in their systematic deprivation from a progressive career and an independent life.
As per data, the gender ratio has, in all likelihood, improved as compared to the early 20th century. It’s now 500 to 600 women for 1000 men. However, in a metro like Delhi, it continues to be 868. This shows that with increased awareness and transparency of lifestyles in metros through social media and other news platforms, a quantum leap has definitely been observed.
Women from tier-2 and tier-3 cities are increasingly stepping out, moving into nuclear households, sometimes assuming roles as sole breadwinners, thus, living financially independent and un-interfered lives in these cities. To further decelerate the bias, I believe the recent launch of the “vocal for local” campaign could be a great stepping stone in the long run. It might open up more employment opportunities, and capabilities across spectrums would start getting prominence.
The campaign is already gaining a strong foothold amidst the current bilateral tensions, and a lot of local business ideas are germinating to see the light of the day. With this, the demand for both genders is bound to rise in both service and factory led jobs, thus, clearing up space for more women wage earners in the economy.
Another initiative to improve the bias might need us to look at culture through a profound and fundamental glass — one where it’s just an inherited set of laws prepared by the ones in power to oppress those who are not blindly being passed on between generations.
It’s entrenched conditioning that we are all brought up with, not easy to let go, especially in the rural scheme.
Therefore, it’s essential to alter the basics, look at it from a grassroots point of view. Even if one girl from each village is allowed or encouraged to migrate and becomes an independent individual, others might eventually follow suit. It might be a long shot, but worth a try.
If successful, it can change the fate of a hundred other girls in that same village. Then, the slogan will slowly but steadily shift from “Ladki bigad jayegi” to “Ladki Nahi Bigdegi, Aage Badegi“, marking the beginning of India’s collective confidence.
The day that happens, we will know the future is bright. Until then, our job remains undone.