Picture this setting.
A rough-hewn floor in a small courtyard fenced in by grey walls about 8ft high. The sun has set over another long day and the stars are just coming out to play. A circle of women, aged between 17 and 87, squat around in a loosely formed circle in various states of repose, their purdahs down, their manner relaxed.
A single bulb, hanging by the side forms a halo behind some of them. Impromptu singing breaks out, even as smaller conversations continue in the background. One of them whispers something and someone else laughs. Of course, there is still work to be done; cows still have to be fed, the chulah (stove) has to be set up and homework needs to be finished. But for now, in this twilight zone, tranquillity reigns.
This was where I found myself a few days ago, in the village of Madaar, a peri-urban settlement near the city of Udaipur. I had gone with the intent to understand the role that leisure plays in women’s well-being, in a rural setup. As one would guess, here was my answer. And it was, just not in the way one would assume.
To an outsider, these women would probably look idle, but a closer look reveals a more nuanced story. Conversations flow but the cows are still being fed, the singing forms a backdrop to the tending of the chulah and the gobar is gathered even as the laughter ensues. In other words, the work never stops.
The dictionary defines leisure as a time period when one is not working or occupied; as free time. But here in Madaar, this limited definition was challenged time and again, with every interaction I had, across every class, every community I met.
Leisure, for a fair amount of women in Madaar, is tightly intertwined with work.
Several times, while walking through the gallis (streets), we would spot small groups of women working on embroidery on their doorsteps. When approached, they’d often say that they don’t have the time to engage with us. “Abhi nahi, abhi hum kaam kar rahein hain”(Not now, we’re working right now) was a common refrain.
Yet, upon walking away, you would see them laughing or engaged in quiet animated conversation. It’s hard to define if this is work or leisure. On one hand, it is work (the embroidery being done for Sadhna, a livelihood generation intervention run exclusively for women), on the other, it is a way of de-stressing and recharging. It occupies some in-between zone, much like the spaces these women occupy to do so.
In many ways, their expression is limited by the restrictions placed on them by the male members of their family. Free time or “time-pass” is not seen as a womanly activity. Some think a woman’s life is too busy to accommodate leisure, while others seem to view this as something shameful (but only when done by women).
As one man put it, a woman enjoying herself freely or engaging in time pass would bring shame to the family. “Yeh khelegi ya time pass karegi toh sasuraal ko sharm laayegi”, declared one erstwhile father-in-law (If she plays or passes time, she will embarrass her in-laws).
Many more are bound by their weak economic conditions. Holding down multiple jobs cuts into any sort of free time one may aspire for. Between working in the fields, doing smaller income-generating jobs and the never-ending grind of housework, leisure doesn’t really find a footing. They are just too busy. So are the men. Yet, they seem to be able to carve out time for “time-pass” every day. While several all-male groups dot Madaar’s many chabutras (platforms under trees), joking around in the late afternoon shade, there are no such spaces for women. In a community that follows purdah, it is considered shameful if the women do the same.
Yet, in their own subtle ways, the women of Madaar are quietly claiming spaces for their own. “Mann Ki Shaanti” or quietude is snatched in all the in-between moments during the day.
Women share about meeting in the afternoons at each others’ homes for chaas (buttermilk) and conversations, a moment stolen for themselves while the men are at work or asleep and the children still at school. Stories emerge about sitting on their chatts (terraces) and sharing conversations and songs over rooftops as they finish prepping the vegetables for the day to come; the beats set to the rhythmic chopping of kaddu.
Or of listening to music over the radio while making dinner. Children interject with “Mummy toh masti karti hai kyunki roz shaam ko gaana bajati hai” (Mother enjoys herself and plays songs in the evening). A revolving door of women keeping dropping by, always between chores, to engage with us and as they talk, you detect a sense of longing when they talk about their bachpan (childhood) about playing with gudiyas and gotis and of meeting their friends unperturbed.
The longing persists when the talk turns to visiting their maayka (maternal home), the one place where they can put their feet up and relax for a few precious moments.
An older woman smiles her toothless smile as she proclaims, “the best moment of the day is in the afternoon when you know you have finished all your work for the morning and can rest without any worries.” Rest, of course, comes by very rarely. Most afternoons disappear in a blur of more work. But despite this, the women of Madaar are quietly stealing their moments, creating their spaces and building their bonds. And I’m just grateful to have borne witness to a few such moments.
About the author: Aakanksha Jayasheela is a 2019 India Fellow, placed with Azad India Foundation in Kishanganj, Bihar as a part of her fellowship. She is working with the school administration to strengthen their performance as educators and supporting the team with overall program management. Aakanksha loves to surround herself with children.