GOWANUS Summer 2002
A Review by Dana De Zoysa
Imprints: Daughters Write on Fathers
Edited by Priti T. Desai, Neela D'Souza, Sonal Shukla
Foreword by Neera Desai
Stree Publishers, Calcutta
137pp, US$ 12.50
Ann Landers famously summed up her view of boy-girl relationships as, “There are good boys and bad boys, and unfortunately the bad boys are more fun, more exciting and often appear to be more interesting.” Apparently fretful of the consequences of this enticing bit of bait, she hastily added, “And in any boy-girl relationship if any one ever suffers it is usually the girl.”
One wonders what kind of boyfriends Ann Landers managed to land.
Most any Asian parents would approve of her words. They do not have to worry about the quality of their daughters' boyfriends, because they choose them. In almost all cases they choose with one goal in mind: strengthened family power through marital alliance. The result is often obsessive restrictions on daughterly freedom, since it is not only the girl who suffers from a trespass, it is her family via the mechanics of “honor.” Except in a few matriarchal tribes in Indonesia, Malaysia, and South India, and despite the persuasive alternatives provided by TV, an Asian girl is still raised to believe submissiveness goes hand in glove with her sex. A daughter is to become a mother, and her upbringing is to prepare for that. On one side of the marriage feast her role is to submit to her parents; on the other to her husband.
Many Westerners do not realize it, but Western child-rearing and psychological terms are fairly meaningless when applied to Asian behavior. This is especially true in India, whose cultural theater is far more literate and antiquarian than the costumery provided by psychology. Forget Freud, the fundamental myths aren’t the same. Entirely different patterns exist that explain why Indian parents and husbands think so differently about authority, security, responsibility, and freedom.
The Indian baby is typically indulged, nurtured, and constantly handled. Every sound brings a caring response from the whole family. Infants soon learn that the surest way to get attention is to cry—and later, when they learn the difference, to say something cute. The result is assurance there will be a gratifying response to every wish. In the West this might be called narcissism, but in India it is the natural state of having been born. Boys are led to feel that they are the center of the universe and deserve to be there. The mother is all-nurturing and all-attending. (Indians term their country “Mother India” and symbolize their bharat, nationhood, with the sacred cow.)
The next baby brings a considerable shock to the first. This typically happens about the age of three, since most mothers breast-feed until then, partly for nutrition and partly for birth control. Being almost totally abandoned for a younger sibling is all the more bitter because the child is simultaneously thrust out into the community—starting with the extended family at first and then school—so the mother can devote her full time to the new one. The child’s specialness evaporates. Clamoring for attention gets nowhere.
The commonest reaction is withdrawal into being alone, which is more satisfying than the disappointments brought by others. This reaction is reinforced by—or is perhaps the cause of—Hinduism’s primordial belief that desire produces suffering. The only worthy goal is to escape desire altogether. The forest hermit and wandering ascetic are partly childhood rejection re-engineered into a quest for enlightenment.
Relations between daughters and fathers are even less satisfying than between sons and mothers. Indian fathers/husbands tend to be demanding, not easily satisfied, critical rather than supportive, remote, and authoritarian. The punitive downsides for a daughter not submitting to her father are a powerful force. She might cry around her mother and aunties, but she will not reveal dissatisfaction around her father. Hence, while authority produces escapism in boys, it all but vanquishes girls.
The historical Indian solution has been escape hatches from reality. If the parental—and later the marital—world is filled with uncertainties, the spiritual world must be where one finds peace and bliss. Indian boys mature yearning for a guide, called a guru, who is nurturing, sympathetic, and harmonious—everything the father so often is not. The guru is a wise and kindly teacher who has himself escaped from the world’s turmoil and now reveals how devotees, too, can find their desired inner calm.
No such luck for the girls. As soon as they are able to carry a water pot or whisk out the insects, their days are ever longer successions of toil. Given the elaborate details that accompany so much of Indian taste, be it food or religious devotion, popular art or the convolutions of family filiality, the girl is trained to exactly adhere to minutia. She knows she had better learn well, for after the relatively forgiving apprenticeship under her mother, she will have to meet the exceedingly rigid, usually waspish, and all too often brutal, standards of a mother-in-law. The mother-in-law went through this herself, and now can hardly wait to extract her revenge. Only after the children are raised and married off does a woman begin to enjoy the fruits of love—from the children, now parents themselves, who gratefully realize what she gave them, and from a husband whose years if not his attitudes force him into co-dependence as his body gets frail and tired.
All this is magnified enormously by the lens of arranged marriage. Most young people have no idea who their parents (aided by marriage brokers, astrologers, and nosy relatives) will hook them up with. They do have the liberty to get to know each other socially and to reject wholly unsuitable candidates, but by and large they haven’t a clue about each other’s mannerisms and tastes until they have to live with them. Lucky are the marriages that follow the idealized path of “growing to love each other.” Countless were the moments when I empathized with my Bombay neighbor’s wife who wept not just grievously but in soul-baring agony under the slights and insults of a husband who even by Indian male-forgives-male standards was a dork. She was 73. This had been going on all her life. She knew no one would care. Until I came along untouched by local traditions, she gnawed herself near to death with it.
So how to square all this with the supremely self-assertive twentysomething I recently saw jaunting down the Colaba Causeway in Bombay wearing a SUPER-tight tee-shirt emblazoned with, “I’m the girl your mother warned you about!”? How to square it with the Indian women’s magazines like Femina and Verve; Indian fashion designers like Hemant Trevedi, Ravi Bajaj, Anamika Khanna, and Suneet Verma; and Indian writers like Anees Jung, Anita Desai, and even Shoba De, all of whom cut no cloth from either the polyester bolt or the Kanchipuram loom? How to square it with the young women who opt for career instead of husband. Or who, like a gay Delhi artist I know, looked away from my eyes when I suggested she let go of her denial and seek a woman she could love, and finally whispered, “God I’m so glad someone finally said it.”
What happened on this behavioral railway from the anterior to the present tense?
In Indelible Imprints
we meet twelve women riding those rails. All are middle class to middle
upper crust. They span from 43 to 87 years of age—no tee-shirts in this
lot. Some of the fathers were quite the notables—the artist K. K. Hebbar;
Shuksampatrai Bhandari, the compiler of first modern Hindi dictionary;
Bimal Roy, an early maker of art films. Some fathers were quite successful
in their careers, others not. The daughters are all educated, some of them
abroad. Yet Shyamala Ramayya Raman’s remembrance “Mixed Signals” hints
just how little these meant:
There never was a consideration that marriage was a union for the flowering of each partner for the good of the newly created joint unit. It was unilaterally expected that no matter how well the girl was educationally endowed, she was there for the convenience of the ultimate decision-maker—the man. It takes about twenty years into such marriages to realize the unequal nature of the relationship and all the heartache that it entails.
Each story reveals that the teller was accorded a sense of individuality above the norm. What have they to say about their fathers not as figures but as real people?
For one, each father radiated just enough psychic ancestry to march his daughter through tradition before her footprints faded into the present. They were almost all born in the early years of the 20th century; all but one of the daughters were born in the period 1931-–48. This was a forward-looking time when many were drawn to Gandhian ideals of selfless love of country. Yet it was a political, not behavioral, future. The fathers controlled everything from the household finances to the amount of education a daughter would receive. Mannu Bhandari hints how her father was split between tradition and modernism: "Despite his modernism, he was totally a tradition-bound father, overbearing and commanding, a man of refinement but, nevertheless, a patriarch who distanced himself especially from his daughters." Despite all this, he was proud when she joined a protest movement against British rule.
One doesn’t sense the air would have been so cozy around the house had Mannu unfurled the flag of feminism.
Like many other of the other authors in the book, Mannu's father rarely revealed feelings of affection. She relates a childhood unfathomable to those who don’t comprehend the Asian value that the female be dyspersonal: “Every family had half a dozen children who grew up with each other in their own world, separate from the adults....” The sense of lofty apartness cultivated by so many fathers in this book was replied to in kind: Iqbal Monani’s mother “never referred to him except as ‘your father.’”
The recipe of paternal aloofness inevitably served up the taste of ideals gone rancid: “Living with my father at the time was a Shah Saheb, one of the wolves-in-saints’-garb, whom my parents, particularly my mother, fell prey to from time to time. The wretched man made advances to me and I was too embarrassed to tell Abba [Father]. Sometimes I wonder how Abba never noticed. I was not yet fifteen and spent the vacation in a turmoil of distress.”
Other fathers were honest
enough about their maleness to give their daughters some genuinely sage
advice. Shyamala Ramayya Raman’s “Mixed Signals” is a beautifully written
piece describing in part her grandfather's influence on the education of
her father. He in turn was fiercely protective—indeed, overly so. Yet he
encouraged her to nourish her intellect, take up public speaking, debating,
painting, and even driving an automobile (unheard-of until fairly recently—and
then heard very well indeed, as testified to by the legions of young women
on motorbikes who give Bombay’s taxi drivers a real run for the money to
the next stop light). Shyamala describes the lecture delivered by her father
on the institution of marriage the day after the wedding:
My father sat me down and told me that marriage was an imperfect institution at best. Therefore, I should not be totally trusting of my spouse; I should always maintain separate financial accounts and develop interests of my own. ... It is strange that he said this to me because he certainly did not allow my mother to have her own finances, or for that matter to develop her own interests. On he contrary, he stifled many of her interests and never allowed her to reach her full potential This is still the norm with many of he men in my family.
In the India of Indelible Imprints, nearly all marriages were arranged by the families in cahoots with matchmakers and astrologers. Today only about 70 percent are. Younger Indians—urban dwellers almost all—more and more insist on partnering their own way. The divorce rate in India is still less than two percent. This sounds lovely to the religious set, but in fact hides many very unhappy marriages that should have ended long ago. Women are rebelling, and the rounds are being lobbed by novelists and magazines editors.
Over the last three decades India’s women writers have moved away from etching the traditional enduring, self-sacrificing wife toward the complex, conflicted woman searching for identity. Compare the servile, suffering unidimensional women in Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve and Meera Mahadevan's Shulamith to the three-dimensional yet still traditional women in works by Chitra Fernando, Anita Desai, Kamala Das, Sara Suleri, and Anees Jung. These new heroines assert themselves no matter what marriage and family rules say. Chitra Fernando's Three Women and Anita Desai's In Custody portray women who achieve their individual worth by breaking through the suffering that traditional society dictates to them. Kamala Das' My Story and Sara Suleri's Meatless Days describe the educated woman's search for identity and meaning in autobiographical form, and Anees Jung's Unveiling India: A Woman's Journey and Peace in Winter Gardens do it in autobiographical and ethnographic form.
India isn’t the Taj Mahal and the beggars and the cows any more. Research organizations chart India’s social development by looking at what and how much people are purchasing, what they do on holidays, how they adorn their homes. There is an India out there that is almost totally unseen by tourists with guidebooks in their hands, despite its staring them in the face even more ubiquitously than the famous old monuments. It is the India that started hardly a decade ago via selling soaps and toiletries by brand name on television, billboards, and in glossy magazines; proceeding upward to basic foods, branching into motorbikes and household appliances and decorator bathroom fixtures and fashionable clothes; and now—advertisements for low-cost divorces.
Still swathed in old merits and scorning those new, the old ways of India are inexorably becoming specks of dust hovering in the air as a great migration now masses and begins to move beneath. The rise of the middle class is dramatically altering the self-image of women—as it has all over Asia. Depending on how one defines the term, between 50 million and 100 million Indians are “middle class." They are becoming the most influential opinion makers in India because of the number of educated, worldly members in the ranks of the media. Forget the Bangalore tech revolution, which is in reality a bonanza of cheap brains for the West. The real revolution in India is the names on the mastheads of the popular magazines and the doors of TV production studios. These make the middle class, and the middle class is becoming a critical mass. Its values are not godmen and grandfathers, but mediagenicity, substance, ideas, realism, unsentimental truth. India’s political elders are seen as feudal materialists who have neither sense of justice nor true belief in the old culture. Young Indians sum up their leaders with a quip: Yesterday All Over Again.
Whatever India’s future, its urban middle classes are using the economy and the media to desanctify the sacred cow. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru would be appalled to know how much more attractive these things are than the idealistic socialism they thought was the surest way to perpetuate Indian civilization.
Bindu Desai’s “Papa on the Swing” ends on a note as touching as the end of a good novel: “The swing fell from its hinges that day. The shuffle of the right foot being dragged, the open window, the familiar figure on the swing at home—all gone.”
One could say the same for times past all over India.
(Dana De Zoysa has a passion
for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer’s
paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at DanaDeZoysa@aol.com.)