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Archive for May, 2011

My readers may have been wondering why the stories of women and men in the foregoing blogposts were all about dalits, members of the lowest castes, the erstwhile “untouchables” in the traditional Indian caste hierarchy.

Generally, it is the dalits’ condition of poverty and social/cultural disabilities vis-à-vis higher castes, that are privileged in journalistic / academic / political references to them, with everything else seen to be following from there.   Inequalities and tyrannies  within dalit communities – particularly those that are gender-based – get less mention.  It may come as a surprise to readers that the scenes of domestic violence  that I have described are taking place within an unfolding scenario of growing prosperity among dalits. And this prosperity is in fact exacerbating the oppression of dalit women by their men.

Prithvipura, like most of the villages along the Ajmer road just beyond Jaipur, has a significant dalit population.  And, as is typical in these parts, it is an agricultural village.  These traditionally jagirdari (big landlord-dominated) villages were once led by small communities of Rajputs who were the jagirdars (big hereditary landlords).  The actual work of agriculture was done by tenants belonging to the traditional agrarian communities of jats, gujars, bagaras and, to some extent dalits (who more often served as agricultural labourers, and as village artisans, preparing ropes, baskets, earthenware  etc.)The numerically largest community among the dalits of this region are Regars, traditional leather workers whose primordial leather-working skills were eclipsed by the alternative opportunities afforded by agriculture.

With Indian independence and the abolition of landlordism by the democratic Indian State,  Regars and other dalits castes, too, became empowered with land ownership.  Given the region’s characteristics of large availability of land and relatively sparse population,  viable land ownership – an average of 10-12 acres per household –  by even the lowest castes,  became the rule in immediate aftermath of land reforms.  While the Rajputs steadily declined in social, political and economic status, and are today an insignificant and toothless minority at the village level,  jats and gujars who were traditionally skilled agriculturists went on to prosper on their family-owned farms.  Over the years, they also organized themselves politically to wrest political and economic concessions from the State.

Although empowered with land ownership,  the dalit castes lacked the traditional farming skills of the other agrarian castes, and the wherewithal to invest in assets such as tubewells and tractors, and they continued with the practice of seeking wage labour.  They have also been among the most active in selling their lands. Affirmative action policies calculated to empower scheduled castes and tribes have enabled the Regars to be active in participating in Panchayat (village-level elected bodies) and state level politics in the region, and today these institutions have  come to be strongly represented by them.

Although Rajasthani society is severely casteist in nature, outside of politics which operates on the basis of caste identities and caste vote-banks, caste considerations operate stringently only in matters of marriage.  The old-style obvious daily symbols of social, cultural and ritual disability that were once the lot of the dalits, seem no longer to be in evidence.  In Prithvipura, for instance, the pucca (brick and mortar) airy houses of the Regars surround the somewhat decrepit looking mansion of the erstwhile jagirdar. And in speech, dress, deportment and public social interaction, there are few signals to mark caste differences.

In the recent period –  not more than the last five years –  other symbols of equalization are to be seen.  These relate to a new surge in  prosperity in this region, driven by the rising prices of agricultural land.  The last few years must have witnessed a record number of land sales in this region, and still counting.  For those dalits who still had land to sell – and there are many such – ownership of TVs, electric connections, cooking gas, motorbikes, private school attendance by children (including so-called English medium schools) and the like, have been have become commonplace.

Besides dalits, the prosperity from land sales is also spreading among all caste groups.  There is also the back-up of the new availability of multiple employment opportunities.  I have already described the conditions for women’s employment (mostly taken advantage of by dalit women).  Almost every unskilled man who chooses to work also seems to be able to get a job as a welder, painter, rudimentary electrician,  mason, helper, watchman, etc..     New workshops, factories, industrial zones, townships, and SEZs (special economic zones meant to attract foreign capital)  are mushrooming along the highways leading out of Jaipur.  Jaipur city,  too, is growing by the day.

A  lot of the job opportunities, both in the city and along the highways, are related to the construction industry.  The boom in construction is driving up the values of agricultural land along the highways.   The six-lane highways that constitute the ‘national project’ of linking the major cities of India through super highways – of which Jaipur is a part -,  and  the arrival from Delhi of land developers who are looking for ever-newer pastures, have also acted to push up the price of agricultural land on the outskirts of  Jaipur as never before.   Indeed,   whole villages are selling their agricultural land and retaining only their homesteads.  Agriculture, after all, is hard work with uncertain results.  Farmers know that they can never hope to earn from agriculture in their own lifetimes anything even remotely approximating revenues from land sales.  Television screens relentlessly bring into every rural home seductive images of the life of leisure and ease enjoyed by urban residents, and for the first time, villagers too – particularly the youth – feel entitled to dream the dream.

The demonstration effect of the first-time warmth of unbelievable amounts of cash in the hands of rural families has been far-reaching.  And it would appear to be  ranging itself along the gender and age axis.

On the face of it, whole villages are prospering.  Villages have transformed from mud and thatch  to large single and two storied ‘bungalows’, each with its own compound wall, tube-well, and motor bike/car/truck parked outside.  Where, earlier, owning a tractor had remained a mere aspiration for most, now almost every male  owns a motorbike, and several males also own cars or SUVs.  It is almost superfluous to say that ownership of mobile phones – mostly still by men but now slowly extending to include working women with stable partners –  is near-universal.

Dowries have increased in magnitude, and social celebrations have increased, both in number and in the scale and length of festivities.   Older women – still to be seen in Rajasthani dress – are much more heavily bejeweled than before.  Young married women by contrast are switching to cheap synthetic saris (modern symbols but more affordable than the traditional wear), and unlike the matriarchs, their necks and wrists are near-bare of gold jewellery.  Cheap artificial trinkets are all that they can afford, since the gold jewellery given to them by their parents has long since been taken away by husbands looking to feed their insatiable consumerist desires.

On the face of it, private educational institutions in the villages – schools and even teacher-training colleges – are increasing in number.  These institutions are slim on educational infrastructure and quality teaching offerings,  but they have invested in shiny new buses which ferry in droves of students from an ever-widening catchment area of rural and semi-urban settlements.

School-going – by both girls and boys – has become near-ubiquitous and, indeed,  is seen as the perfectly right thing to do.  But it has remained more of a symbolic activity, rather than anything even remotely resembling education.  Bare literacy is passed off as a completed school education, and aspirations for a good job as an ‘educated” person begin to take wing on the basis of this.  Such aspirations in turn become good fodder for political activism for ever-larger quotas for government jobs.  The quality and efficacy of the education received is so pathetic that to speak of the culture of education seems like a travesty.  I have never seen a person with a book in these villages.  Children never seem to be required to do any homework.  There is nothing anywhere that even looks like a school library. The schools themselves are run like shops, to make money for barely-educated entrepreneurs.     Children and grown ups watch TV for hours on end, but it is an opium of Bollywood and soaps, and nothing else.

In every public space, men appear to be in a state of leisure.  Older men sit in clearings under shady trees, playing cards in view of idling onlookers, or outside the chai-ki-thadis (tea shops) that do roaring business going by the number of male patrons crowding them and the dense litter of small plastic glasses along the roadsides (earthen khullars (biodegradable glasses)  of my romantic notion of villages have long since gone missing).

Younger men – by virtue of their gender – also get to enjoy some of the cash warmth  generated by land sales. When they are not zooming around on their motor bikes or cars, they are socialising with friends at one of the numerous dhabas (cheap restaurants) and bars that have come up along the highways in response to men’s demand for leisure and entertainment.  The more literate among them desultorily try their hand at sub-brokerage of various sorts, prominently real estate, which has become an attractive income option.  Or hire themselves and/or their SUVs out as private taxis.

The power to spend money has also had disastrous implications for civic conditions in the villages. Quite clearly, rural prosperity also means being in a permanent state of construction… Each new-looking house has piles of  rubble still lying outside…All this adds up to the main village road being lined with mounds of bricks, stones and gravel, the untidiness of it all undoing the picture of relative prosperity exuded by the new-looking houses.  With house owners having universally forgotten to provide for drains outside their homes,  household sullage stagnates along the street sides mingling with the rubble, and pigs forage in the rubbish trapped in the murky slush. As cars, SUVs, and trucks hoot their way through streets that once barely witnessed a tractor, young unmarried girls in salwar kameez and boys in jeans and tees scamper to the street edge, barely being able to avoid the rubbish and rubble. What once used to be sparse, relatively neat and idyllic settlements are fast beginning to look like poorly-serviced extended suburbs of a city.

Almost every house along the main village road finds it profitable to build shops fronting the road.  And where, a few years ago, there might have been two or three shops in a village,  now there are bold signboards in Hindi and English that announce the sale of everything from groceries to mobile recharge cards to readymade clothes.  Silvery lengths of ghutka (tobacco)  packets festoon entrances and counters (every male in sight  – other than children and pre-teens – seems to be chewing the stuff).  Hair-dressing saloons are busy virtually round the clock,  displaying men being neatened and malished (head-massaged) in full view of the street.  Tea shops abound, and liquor shops must abound too – selling both bottled and pouched liquor, the latter made affordable like the Re 1 ghutka packets – going by the huge problem of male alcoholism that seems to have engulfed rural society in this region.

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Sita is an illiterate Regar dalit woman.  She is the sister-in-law of Susheela, in the earlier story.  Sita’s story illustrates how women from the same background as Susheela, Shanti and Meera, but with more daring, fewer scruples and stable, supportive and ambitious husbands, are turning the system to their own advantage.  Sita is one of a handful of women who have entered politics in the wake of availability of cash in their hands from land sales.

Until last year, Sita was a farm labourer, just like anybody else, earning Rs. 3000 a month.  Sita’s husband worked as a driver to a Jaipur jeweler.  As the eldest of four brothers, he had used his position of seniority just the year before, to corner a larger than fair share of the proceeds from the sale of the agricultural land that the brothers had jointly inherited from their father.

It was around this time that the position of Sarpanch (Head of the Village Council) in Sita’s village came to be ‘reserved’ – under one of the Government of India’s affirmative policies in favour of ‘depressed’ social groups – for a woman who was also a dalit.  The confluence, for the first time ever in this area, of three favourable factors for a woman entering politics – a seat reserved for a woman and a dalit, and the availability of ready cash to invest in the electioneering process –  was too good to pass up.

Sita dropped out of her job and took the blessings of  her former employer for her new career.  With the help of her husband who, too, gave up his job in order to be able to handle her election campaign, she plunged into the election process.

She had a powerful rival in Gita,  also a Regar from the larger neighbouring village which constituted another ward of the electoral constituency for this Panchayat.  As it happened Gita,  too, had once been an agricultural labourer on the same farm as Sita, and she, too, came to her former employer for his blessings.  Like Sita, Gita  too had access to large amounts of cash, from her family having sold off all their agricultural land to a developer from Delhi, who had bought off the whole village and is now constructing a township there.  She also had a supportive husband and grown-up loyal sons to work for her.  Most importantly, Gita had a few years earlier won a seat in the Village Panchayat as a member, on a ticket reserved for a woman.  That  experience of electoral success and access to local levers of power had emboldened her to take this next step to being Panchayat President.  Her village is nearly all Regars (unlike Sita’s which has a mix of castes),  and she expected her past political success and present wealth to help her win the votes of her fellow-caste members by a comfortable majority.

But Gita had not contended with the ambitions of the woman MLA from her own village, also a Regar (an MLA is a Member of the state Legislative Assembly) who had won the recent state-level elections on a seat reserved for her caste and gender, on a Congress Party ticket.  Wanting to extend her sphere of influence, and having already made a lot of money from both land sales and from using her access to political power, this lady set up her daughter-in-law as her proxy candidate.  This act, however, had the effect of dividing the Regar votes in the village;   the two women candidates (backed by their respective men) launched on an expensive war,  their glossy coloured posters carrying their respective photographs covering every inch of the walls in the village.

Common knowledge has it that all three women – with their husbands solidly behind them – spent money like water, bribing voters to vote for them.  Common knowledge has it that voters took money from all three candidates, but voted for the person of their choice.  Common knowledge has it that the MLA’s proxy candidate – her daughter-in-law – was rejected by the voters, and in a smaller way, Gita too had repelled the voters, for the reason that these women rivals’ prior experience of political power lent a certain arrogance and raw display of money power to their campaign;  the voters decided to teach them a lesson.  The Regar caste vote was, thus, not only divided by the presence of two rival candidates from the same village;  the vote for Sita was a vote for a politically untainted person who was also appropriately more modest.   The general consensus was that Sita, who won by a comfortable margin,  had spent the least of the three women on bribes.

Within a couple of months of the election, Sita’s image as a modest and humble person underwent a makeover.  Rumours began to abound that Sita had started making money hand-over-fist.  With Panchayati Raj, and the devolution of control over village development finances into the hands of village-level elected leaders, the democratization of corruption was afoot.  So, yes, hurrah for that!  At least government money was not all being eaten up at the Centre, State or District levels, with only a feeble trickle into the villages.    But I did not hear any “hurrah !  here is a woman making money whereas earlier the privilege was being cornered by men!”  Because, everyone saw Sita’s money-making as really accruing to her husband.  And as a  proxy for her family.

A couple of months into her Sarpanch-hood, Sita  and her husband began to be spotted driving around in a brand new car which could not have cost anything less than rupees 4.5 lacs (Rs. 450,000).  Sita switched to wearing silk saris (from her former traditional simple Rajasthani skirts and veils), and could be seen at all times hobnobbing with the better-off families in the village and with the powerful political bosses at the district (Zilla Parishad) level.  Less than five months into her tenure, Sita  and her husband launched on the vacation of their lives:  a Bharat Yatra or grand All-India Tour,  that covered Delhi and Mumbai, Tirupati and Benaras, Goa and Gwalior…

It is now rumoured that Sita and her husband are making serious money from a public works project that has been approved.  Sita  already feels emboldened to contest for one of the reserved seats for women in the elected District Council (Zilla Parishad) and the Mandi Committee (Committee that controls prices in the wholesale vegetables and grain market for a group of villages in this region).

Everybody in Sita’s village speaks about her with respect…and agrees that she is doing very well for herself…After all, she has captured power, and what else does one enter politics for, if not to make money?  they ask.  She has became a role model for other women in the village…and those who have begun to dare to dream of rising above their dreary daily lives visit her to pay their respects and solicit her opinion on what government-related job opportunities at the village level they ought to be working towards…

I recently ran into Sita,  and in the course of conversation asked her what projects she had taken up for her constituency.  She replied that she had managed to get the government to sanction a water connection (a hand-pump) for the village hunter.  Was that all? I wondered to myself.  What about sanitation, the general cleanliness of the village streets and the common areas, I asked her?  How about working with the local schools to raise public awareness against the throwing of plastic bags and tea glasses and other wastes into open spaces, and bring in practical environmental education into the schools’ curricula so that the villages could look forward to a cleaner, brighter future?

Sita folded her hands respectfully and bowed to me, saying “Satyavachan” (“nothing could be truer…this is a job crying out to be done”). But she apologised for lack of time…she was going to be very busy for the next few weeks in preparation for getting her nomination approved for the elections to the Mandi Committee and Zilla Parishad (I assumed this meant visiting the powerful figures involved, etc.).  Even as she spoke, with a respectful smile playing about her lips, Sita’s eyes looked at me pityingly, as if to say, “Are these itty-bitty things all you can think of, lady?  Can’t you see that I am on to much bigger things in life? “

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Susheela, a  dalit Regar, is the youngest sister-in-law among four brothers.  She and her husband have their  own house – two rooms – in one part of the family homestead, where they live with their two intelligent-looking bright-eyed children, Gulaab (7) and Shankar (4).

Susheela herself is a pretty and petite young woman in her mid to late 20s, her full traditional skirt swirling around her ankles as she walks making for an attractive and graceful picture.  She is soft-spoken and demure under her artfully arranged veil, quick to break into a friendly smile, and careful in building good rapport with others in her little world of work and home.  Susheela is too undernourished and weak to do agricultural labour, so she is happy to do domestic labour in better-off homes in the village.  Despite the traditional stigma attached to this kind of work, she knows that it is the kind of light labour that suits her capability, and since there are not many competitors for the job, she gets paid on par with agricultural workers.  She also prefers not to travel too far from home for a job, since she feels the need to pop back home at lunchtime to make sure that her children are back from school and are eating the food she has cooked and left for them.

Behind Susheela’s demeanour lies a life of utter hopelessness.  Her husband is a wastrel who has never done a day’s work in his life, drinking up his share of the money accruing from the agricultural land that he and his brothers have been selling off steadily over the years.   He is now such a confirmed alcoholic that his day begins with liquor instead of tea, and he has liquor for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  He has run up near-unrepayable debts with all the liquor shops in his own and neighbouring villages, and whenever he is asked to pay up, he promises to do so from his  share of  the last remaining piece of land that has still not been sold, something that temporarily satisfies his creditors, since it is known among village folk that land sales take a long time and go through many failed negotiations and other uncertainties.  Sometimes, when a particularly exasperated creditor turns up at the house to demand his money back, the husband disappears for a few days – continuing to drink all the while, shamelessly turning up at his wife’s parents’ home or visiting relatives for money – hoping that by the time he returns, his debts would have been temporarily forgotten.

Since he has sold off all the gold jewelry that Susheela’s parents gave her at the time of marriage, and continues to sell off occasional sacks of wheat that she  manages to procure when prices are relatively low, she too is forced into running up debts for household expenses.   Every month, part of her salary goes towards paying back some of these debts, pushing her into ever newer debts, thus keeping the cycle ongoing.  Through all this, Susheela struggles to maintain her job,  often having to take leave from work, when one or the other child falls sick due to lack of supervision at home.  Her employers remain sympathetic despite her high absenteeism, and continue to give advances to help her pay for food for the family, moved by her stories of hopelessness.  Even though one of her own sisters is also a sister-in-law – they are two sisters married to two brothers, a regular custom in these parts – and lives in the same compound, relations between Susheela’s husband and his brothers (whom he regularly fights with in an attempt to extract liquor money) have soured to such an extent that there is barely any civility between them.  They, too, demand back the debts that they say he owes them.

Her only support comes from her lone brother, who visits her from time to time, helps out with money, and takes her away to her natal home every few months, to give her and her children a vacation.

Right now, all eyes are on Susheela.   And there is an insidious reason for this.

Susheela’s trump card is that there is one remaining piece of wealth that she still retains.  This is a small plot of land in the village that came into her husband’s share, but that her father-in-law, knowing his own son’s record,  wrote in her name as a security measure.  Susheela has been steadfastly refusing to sell this plot, wanting to retain it as a security for her own and for her children’s sakes.  Her husband provokes regular fights  on this score, accompanied by domestic violence and, on occasion, has even imprisoned her in the house so she cannot go to work,  threatening to kill her if she does not sign off the property in his name.

In the meanwhile, he has serially ‘sold’ off this piece of land to several different persons, signing papers as the legitimate owner and taking huge advances from each ‘buyer’, all of which he has promptly liquidated in the cause of his liquor habit (this action of negotiating deals on a wife’s behalf even in her absence, is in keeping with the culture of this region – men taking decisions, signing papers on behalf of their wives, with or without the latters’ knowledge).  Every now and again, a tornado comes into Susheela’s life when a new set of strangers arrive at her house showing documents signed by her husband selling off the land to them.

She is now beginning to face heat  from her eldest sister-in-law as well, who demands  that Susheela allow her and her husband to sell the piece of land, realize its value, and take back their share of money loaned to her husband in the past.  These two persons are already negotiating with yet more prospective new ‘buyers’.  The sister-in-law recently threatened Susheela that if she didn’t give in to their demand, she would file a First Information Report (FIR) against her in the local police station and have her arrested.  Susheela is worried, as she believes that the lady has the powers to do so.  The sister-in-law recently contested and won the Panchayat (elected Village Council) elections, on a seat reserved  for a dalit woman ( one of the many affirmative action policies of the Indian polity).  Today, the sister-in-law is the Sarpanch (Head of the Village Council)).  Worried by all this, Susheela has given what she believes to be  the original papers of this land ownership to her employers for safe-keeping, and against this ‘surety’ has borrowed a large sum of money from them for meeting her daily needs.

But there is no way that Susheela can get out of the bind she finds herself in.  Her debts are mounting everywhere.  The inevitable monthly cut in her salary reduces the money available for her household expenses.   At the same time, she does not wish to sell the last surviving piece of property that she owns.  Nor indeed can she sell it, as there are already too many ‘claimants’  for that property…

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Shanti is a short and rotund young woman, with a broad smile and bright lipstick,  and is always dressed in brilliantly coloured synthetic sarees.  She is at the bottom of the caste heap, a member of the sweeper community.  One of her (and her sisters-in-laws’) traditional jobs is to sweep the courtyards of all the houses in the village, even those of the other dalit families in Prithvipura.  Shanti takes it all as part of a day’s work – most of the time doing a perfunctory job of it – just to retain the goodwill that is traditionally due to her as belonging to the only family of sweepers in the village. This unique position entitles Shanti and her sisters-in-law to food leftovers  (which they use to feed the family’s pigs, supplemented from similar leftovers from restaurants in the vicinity) and old clothes from their patrons. More importantly, they are ritually entitled to new clothes and footwear whenever there is a major family celebration in the village, and on those days Shanti and her sisters-in-law do not bother to report for wage work!

In this region, the traditional social prejudice against ‘cleaning’ work – sweeping, mopping floors, cleaning toilets – is still very much alive and well.  This serves to enhance the unique appeal of the sweeper community as the only persons willing to do cleaning work, especially relating to toilets.  In fact, cleaning toilets was  pretty much of an unknown thing in the rural areas of this region; historically, there never was the phenomenon here of a community of sweepers who carried  headloads of night-soil.  The low population density in the rural areas of the region meant that people used  the fields for this purpose.    With better-off families in the villages now modernizing their homes by building new-style toilets, and the newly-opened factories and petrol stations requiring cleaners, the demand for sweepers has increased.  But there is no supply.

Thus, on the one hand modernising forces in the region now work so that Shanti and other members of her community can step out of their traditional roles and take up agricultural or unskilled industrial jobs, and command the same wage rate as anyone else;  on the other, they can also set their own price, if the job also involves any type of cleaning work,  since being a cleaner is traditionally seen as an ‘unclean’ job.

Shanti’s husband – also more or less illiterate – too, has a job as a sweeper in an industrial estate along the highway for which he is well paid.  But he uses his salary to fund his liquor and eating-out expenses.  He also feels entitled to play truant from work ever so often to enjoy a few days of leisure, since he has the security that his wife will bring in the money required for the household.  Every month he keeps a register of the days that his wife works and ensures that the money she brings in at the end of the month tallies with his register. Shanti did not know about this until last month.

On pay day, true to form, Shanti’s husband was dressed and ready to go out for an evening of fun as he waited for her to return home with her monthly salary.  On checking the amount, he demanded an explanation for the shortfall.  This time,  Shanti had planned to hide away a little of her money for herself.  So she told him in her sweetest voice that she had had to suffer a deduction of two  days pay due to absences.  That was when he surprised her by pulling out his ‘register’.  Thrashing her, he extracted the savings from where it had been tucked away deep in her blouse.  Smiling through her pain and tears Shanti put on her most conciliatory tone and tried to explain that she was only trying to work in his interests.  That his need for restaurant meat dishes and liquor were of course justified;  as was his entitlement to her salary.  That she had actually planned  to give him ‘his’ money in instalments, so that he could have several sessions and fully enjoy every minute of his time, by not getting too drunk in one go.

All she got as a reward for this was another round of severe thrashing and confiscation of her entire salary as a warning against future such machinations.

The next day, Shanti’s  body was too sore for her to go out to work.  She has had no alternative but to start running up loans with the village grocer to see her family through the month’s expenses.

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One of the characteristics of the intensely hierarchical society that India is, is that even among dalits,,  there are upper (relatively cleaner) and lower (relatively more polluted and polluting) castes.  Meera is a Balai, one of the upper dalit castes (who in the dim past made ropes and other such accessories of village life, i.e., didn’t handle dead cattle and hides).  She is a widow in her early-30s, and a mother of one little son and two daughters who are barely into their teens.  She is illiterate, and although her children go to school, she has little idea of how to make their so-called education work for them.  She has just come out of a harrowing family experience and has learned to smile again, and now just lives from day to day enjoying her new-found freedom from care.

Meera’s husband was one of six brothers, and jointly with them owned the plot on which the family house stands.  When her husband died suddenly in a road accident a few years ago, Meera was given marching orders by her brothers-in-law – told to leave the house with her children and just disappear, thus forfeiting her and her children’s rights to her share of the family home.  With little alternative at the time but to do as was expected of her, Meera and her children took shelter just outside the house under one of the eaves like homeless people, using the house wall as a support and cordoning off a little space with cloth.  She found an agricultural job, and the daily wages helped pay for food for the little family.

Fortunately for her, the offending truck that had knocked down her husband was caught and fined, and under the court’s orders, Meera became entitled to a sum as insurance.  Overnight, her five brothers-in-law were by her side, applying the sticky balm of kinship…They accompanied her on the numerous trips to the insurance company, with all the necessary and avoidable expenses that these trips involved… She unquestioningly fixed her thumb mark to documents that they asked her to endorse, and they greased palms (in anticipation of the money to come)…When the money was actually realized, they collectively wormed out considerable sums from her on various ‘family’ pretexts, and looked forward to feeding on the rest.

It was a while before Meera became wise to what was happening and gathered the courage to sever her daily links with them.  She moved away from the external shelter and, with some of the insurance money, built herself a room in another part of the homestead.  She put the remaining money into a bank, and now gets a monthly interest from it that supplements her wages.  Not surprisingly, her husband’s family flew into a rage and once again ostracized her.

Meera has continued to work steadily and sends her children to school.  She enjoys her current freedom, smiles and laughs a lot in her shrill voice, and sportingly takes in her stride the aspersions cast on her from time to time by her husband’s relatives.

Many of the women with whom she works, who know what it is to be victims of domestic violence at the hands of alcoholic or self-centred husbands and who have little autonomy to take major decisions in their lives, say – in moments of resigned hopelessness  – that they envy her her freedom…That they would gladly trade the privilege of being able to wear vermillion on their forehead, for her widowhood…”How I wish I could be a widow!’ is a remark  that I have heard from many young women in this region.

 

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It is not only that young women are being forced to hire themselves out for work to keep households running.  They do not have the autonomy to choose jobs of their liking from within the limited range of options available to them.   Men take it upon themselves to ensure that their wives take up only those jobs that have the stamp of male approval.  This works in many ways.

Collective male social controls as vested in family and community enforce the rule that women must go only to those workplaces where other known women family members or neighbours are also employed.  Employers who ferry women by jeep virtually from their doorsteps and drop them back, are conforming to larger social norms that enjoin the close supervision of women.  When women are not under the watchful eye of family members, they must fear tittle-tattle by neighbours.  Women are often in the situation – that appear strange by modern standards – of having to negotiate a job for a domineering sister-in-law or a particularly nosey or quarrelsome older woman neighbour  – neither of whom might be suited to the job in question, but who act on behalf of the family and community as unofficial ‘eyes and ears’ –  as a condition for their own availability.  Husbands are not above visiting their wives’ workplaces to make it publicly known that they are their wives’ keepers.  Or arriving there on payday to verify the salary amount.

Thus, young rural women may be bolstering the statistics of the ‘gainfully employed’. and may even be the sole effective earners for the family, but they are nevertheless tightly controlled by traditional authorities: husbands, elder male in-laws, senior female in-laws, neighbours, village norms etc.( in that order).

Under these conditions, a nuclear family arrangement does not always work to women’s advantage, particularly if they have small children.  Astute young women build bridges of mutual interdependence with mothers-in-law (even if the latter publicly lean towards supporting their wayward sons).  Older women in these villages, too, take up employment, and in this way incomes are pooled, child care – particularly when children are sick – is shared, and family needs are met.  All this, without making a single demand on the menfolk of the family.

The principal casualty here are the children.  With fights raging among brothers over property and the attendant increasing nuclearisation of families, and with mothers – and even grandmothers – being away at work, small children remain unsupervised at home, and older children return home from school to feed themselves and their younger siblings.  When children fall sick mothers must stay at home – even if the father is also in the house in a ‘state of leisure’ -, and they must mobilize other females in the family or community to accompany them to a doctor if necessary.  Very often, this effectively means lack of prompt medical attention.  It definitely means only haphazard follow up care.  Several children in Prithvipura reportedly suffer from frequent illnesses, including episodes of epileptic seizures, panic syndromes and other neurological and psychosomatic disorders.  It is quite possible that many of these illness episodes are fallouts of past and continuing neglect, and fire-fighting by overburdened young mothers.  The possibility of child sexual abuse – during the long daytime hours when children are left at home unsupervised – is something that has not even remotely touched the consciousness of these women.

Given the above circumstances, it would be a heroic woman indeed who would find the time and will to devote attention to self-care.   But more and more women are going the route of a half-day taken off from work, to take periodic  infusions of intravenous glucose to keep themselves going for a little while.   Each infusion could cost between Rs. 200 and Rs. 300.   Husbands seem to permit this.   Along the main highway, and in villages like Prithvipura, more and more ‘doctors’ are setting up shop almost solely on the strength of this kind of demand.  At a recent medical camp organized in Prithvipura – led by highly qualified doctors, including a gynaecologist from Delhi –  and attended by women  in large numbers, the latters’ complaints almost all revolved around chronic anaemia, self-neglect, lack of sufficient rest, and acute lower abdominal pain, universally expressed as ‘weakness’ (kamjori) and ‘giddiness’ (chakkar).

Since meticulous self care and/or efficacious medical attention and follow-up, for themselves and for their children, is not something that women can manage,  they settle for occasional visits to distant mother goddess temples to ask for boons, or exorcists known to be efficacious in removing the evil eye.  For these excursions they must prevail on brothers for support – if not monetary, then as escorts -,  since husbands’ only responsibility is to grant permission, after first verifying that their own requirements for the day have been duly arranged for.

Numerous social and religious celebrations are commonplace in these communities.  And where in an earlier era they hinged around post-harvest sales of agricultural produce, today the routine availability of ready cash is escalating the number and scale of these celebrations.   All of them draw on women’s involvement and labour for their successful execution, since men limit their definition of their own role to simply being physically present and socially active among their own peers.   On these occasions, again, women must absent themselves from work, with the attendant loss of wages.  But these are the days when women willingly forego wages… among the few happy occasions in their lives when they can dress up and socialize, and feel central to the drama in a positive sort of way.  These occasions also help them draw together their tattered lives into a sequined cloak of dignity and social agency in the eyes of others, and thus reinforce social approval and maybe even evoke some tacit support.

Through all these ups and downs, young women observe day-long fasts when they drink only water and tea (I have noted a minimum of four  days in a month routinely devoted to this activity).  When not offered as inducements to elicit divine intervention for children’s recovery from uncomprehendable health problems, these fasts are for the wellbeing and long life of the husband.  But secretly what they are praying for is his reform… over a long lifespan of drudgery… a hope that they dare not give up, if they are to retain their own sanity.

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Mothers-in-law going out to work

My probes reveal that in this region, the number of young women swelling the ranks of wage labourers is becoming inversely proportionate to the number of young men withdrawing from the work force.

The rise of employment opportunities seems to be evoking an aggressive assertion by males of an entitlement to leisure and prosperity that excludes women and children from the enjoyment and security that these bring.     In fact, men now see a wife as an instrument to realising this entitlement: in addition to the dowry that she brings him at the time of marriage, a wife is also expected to put into her husband’s hands a steady amount of money every month so he can enjoy relative leisure.

The husbands of many of the women waiting in the SUVs are probably still sleeping at home, many of them in a drunken stupor after revelleries of the night before.  Their wives have been up since the crack of dawn:  to cook the day’s meal,  get children ready for school, pack the children’s and their own lunch boxes, and now rushing to respond to the impatient honking from the vehicles.

With jobs aplenty – including of the better-paid heavy manual variety – men are able to earn sufficient disposable income from a few days of employment to finance several days of this leisure.  As they willfully retreat from the responsibility of providing for their families, women are being forced to shoulder the entire burden of household expenses and responsibility.  Child care was always the mother’s sole responsibility;  now even children’s school fees,  illness expenses of children, regular money for housekeeping, and money for meeting social obligations, have all to come from women’s earnings.

But the above burdens of wage earner and home-maker are not all.  Women are now having to cope with yet another burden:   chronic domestic violence at the hands of their husbands.

Men’s main leisure activity involves drinking alcohol. The thekedars (men who run the liquor shops that now abound in every village) give them liquor on credit, thus nurturing a captive customer base.  The day the thekedar refuses credit, men go back to work for as long as it takes them to restore their credit-worthiness, after which the cycle begins again.  Intermittently, they  thrash their wives to intimidate them into giving up some of the housekeeping money to fund their drinking habit.

Most likely, the women being ferried to work in the SUVs began their morning after barely a few hours of disturbed sleep during the night before. My probes reveal stories about alcoholic husbands lounging around in the house, drinking through the day, and then setting upon their wives in the evening when they return from work, relentlessly demanding snacks and attention through the evening and night.  Or, of husbands staggering home late in the night fully drunk after a bash with friends, waking up sleeping wives, and demanding that they cook them a special meal and wait on them until they slip into their drunken slumber. On some days, husbands may even force their wives to stay at home and not go out to work, and just sit with them as they drink through the day…physical objects for their ‘owners’ to gaze upon and toy  with…

Uncontrolled acts of drunken violence accompany much of this behaviour,  particularly when a long-suffering woman refuses to oblige uncomplainingly.  Children wake up in terror night after night to see their mothers being brutally thrashed, a trauma that several of them never recover from.  When women clutch their small children and lock themselves up in a room in an attempt to escape the brutality, men are known to smash open the doors to gain access to  their victims.  The broken locks of every trunk and cupboard in some of these houses stand mute testimony to predatory husbands who also compulsively rifle through their wives’ things to carry away small cash savings or bits of jewellery.  Women cannot store even groceries in bulk, since husbands have been known to sell household provisions and make off with the cash.  Women are, therefore, forced to buy household provisions virtually on a daily basis, and to negotiate with willing persons outside their own homes – a kind neighbour, or even an employer – to hold their small savings for them in safekeeping.  But try as they might to squirrel away little bits of their earnings,  they often find themselves being thwarted; stay-at-home husbands are known to keep a ‘register’ of the days their wives go out for work, and demand accountability of every last rupee when the month’s salary is brought home.

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