Archive for the ‘Rajasthan Village Diary’ Category

The foregoing story says a lot about the gender scene in this region, a landscape that is increasingly dominated by men’s alcoholism and delinquency.  When combined with the grossly unequal gender norms rooted in culture and tradition, these factors are making for widespread domestic violence against women, something that is becoming the new normal.  Alcohol abuse is rife, and  men’s withdrawal from the workforce is becoming an ever-commoner phenomenon.  Its visible evidence is abundantly available in the huge numbers of women who now go out to work regularly, and the clusters of idle men lounging in tea shops and along the road side in every village in the region.  These men have become the public prosecutors of the reputations of the working women of the villages: passing comments on them, spinning stories about alleged misdemeanours, and egging each other to assert their masculinity and chastise ‘errant’ or ‘potentially-errant’ wives. These features are more common in villages that are relatively more ‘developed’, i.e., have roads that connect them to the highway, markets and nearby cities and villages,  and that are also relatively prosperous with symbols of modernity like cars, jeeps, tractors, TV sets, refrigerators etc.

The story says a lot about the deep roots of the patriarchal family and the fundamental inequality that it imposes upon women.  For women, inequality sets in at birth, and their unequal status in the family gender-and-age-hierarchy only intensifies when they marry.  Through the long early years of their married lives spent at the bottom of the conjugal family hierarchy, they work hard to try and craft a closeness with their husbands.  But much of the rest of their interactions within their conjugal families is devoid of even a notional closeness.  What sustains them emotionally is their bonds with their distant natal family, bonds that they are extremely reluctant to jeopardize by stepping out of the severe boundaries of approval and disapproval that have been drawn for them since childhood.  In this region, girls are still taken out of school at puberty to be married off soon after they enter their teenage years, by parents who feel a compulsion to wash their hands off them at the earliest.  Once married, their natal homes become for them just temporary halting places for the occasional visit, with no real practical support forthcoming except perhaps of an episodal or symbolic nature.  Women therefore know that it is up to them to make their peace within the husband’s family.

It is thus hard to over-emphasise how much the prevailing social formation shapes women’s consciousness and their life conditions to place the highest value on the husband as their source of self esteem, and on their natal family as the ultimate emotional bulwark.  Socialised into living their lives by these two lodestars, they remain unequipped to face eventualities that might force them to fend for themselves, were things to go wrong in their marriage.  Without meaningful education, employable skill sets, financial savvy, or understanding of how the real world operates, they are therefore in no position to detach themselves from dependence on men and their worlds.  There are those among them like Sita who learn to play the game from within, by skillfully subordinating themselves to powerful men and manipulating others in their immediate environment.  And there are those like Susheela who lack the savvy to operate within the predatory and mercenary materialistic aspirations that are fast becoming the basis of competitive relationships within the joint family, dooming them to remaining mere pawns.

The story also says a lot about the absence of women’s solidarity for each other, whether within the same neighbourhood or even within the same family.  Why is it that such solidarity for Susheela was nowhere visible?  Not from her own sister who was also her sister-in-law. Not from her sister-in-law who was also the Sarpanch of the village, and who had won her seat by virtue of being a woman.  Not from her mother-in-law or mother.  Not from her women neighbours. Not from her women colleagues at her workplace.  All of the above were witness to – or at least in the know of – the steadily intensifying violence that Susheela faced daily, which culminated in the death threat on that fateful day.  Stories abound in the region of widespread domestic abuse fuelled by male alcoholism, and women whose husbands are alcoholics and do not go out to work but do not beat their wives, actually consider themselves fortunate.   Given that women operate under severe ideological controls that could easily tip into physical violence, the whispers among the women in the village  following what happened to Susheela was that her fate could become theirs were they to speak up for her.

Under what conditions, then, would women be willing to take steps to change their life circumstances, and also help those of their sisters who are in need of support?

The story demonstrates that the home and the world are mirror images of each other.  Having a Constitutionally instituted Panchayati Raj  (system of local self governance based on democratic elections), or affirmative action for women in electoral politics, does not by itself bring about a progressive change in  the mind-set of and towards women, or in the way politics works at the grassroots.  And least of all does it magically transform the women who become the elected beneficiaries of seat reservations, since they merely go on to become instruments for their husbands’ ambitions, ambitions that further strengthen the prevailing masculine norms.  In an earlier post I had told the story of two sisters Rekha and Vinita who were victims of domestic violence (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/indian-political-economy-a-worm%E2%80%99s-eye-view/).   There, the constitutionally elected village panchayat had denounced the sister who had filed a police report against her violently abusive husband.  The panchayat had led the village in passing strictures against her, and had thrown its weight behind her husband’s family in restricting the sisters’ mobility and choice of workplaces .  One could have argued that the panchayat did what it did because it was composed of men and led by men.  But what about Susheela’s case where the panchayat was led by a woman?

One is tempted to conjecture at this point that absence of exposure to modern education among women in general in Rajasthan, and in rural Rajasthan in particular, might be a factor in keeping them shackled or inhibiting initiative towards gender solidarity.  The region meets the bottom line;  the village in which Susheela and Sita live has four schools and all the children from the village attend these schools, fresh-faced and neatly dressed in smart uniforms.  And there also colleges in the neighbouring villages. But education is more than simply ‘going’ to a school or college.

Other factors are at play here, both in the home and the world.  Even today, families continue the practice of pulling girls out of school by age 12 (class 6 or so), to be married off and sent to their husbands’ homes by the time they are 13 or 14 or, at the most, 18.  They go on to spend the rest of  their lives shouldering the responsibilities of housework, marriage, motherhood and care of  families-in-law, with nothing to open up their narrow and circumscribed worlds.

The fact also is that even where girls/women have ‘access’ to education beyond class 6,  the abysmal state of school and college education,  plagued as it is by low standards and rogue educational institutions, ensures that even those who do spend years at these institutions achieve little by way of developing critical intellectual abilities and the ability to take independent decisions about their own life choices.  These institutions never afford students the exposure to the diverse social and intellectual stimuli that are such an integral component of education, modernity and the whole discourse on rights. There is also the phenomenon of ‘correspondence’ schools and colleges that abound in the villages and small towns of the region.  As institutions that students never even have to visit and that provide no instruction whatsoever even of the third rate variety, these places offer an easy option for aspirants  who are only looking to acquire a ‘degree’.  Their questionable academic standards and exams – it is even possible to hire someone else to sit and write your examination on your behalf masquerading as you, for a fee – ensure that ‘graduates’ are turned out that are barely literate.   Many families permit daughters to go through this kind of education where, basically, they never have to leave home or seriously read a book.  My previous post on how Panchayati Raj actually works had an ‘educated’ young woman at its centre in willing subservience to her husband and family.  She had been through such a correspondence college.  Education – without minimal quality – is thus no guarantee for the emergence of sisterhood around common social issues.

Would the weakening of the traditional family structure create conditions for women’s individuation, particularly by postponing the age at marriage of girls which in turn helps them to stay on in school? Perhaps.  In an earlier post, I had told the story of Sonu, a relatively free spirited girl who was able to get some control over her own life because her family was somewhat ‘dysfunctional’, i.e., her father did not oppose her wishes, even if he did not actually facilitate them. And her elder sister had opted out of a bad marriage and was looking to remarry  (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/for-girls-in-rural-india-even-token-education-is-better-than-no-education-at-all/).  I had argued there that for girls in rural and small town India, even a token education is better than no education at all (Michelle Obama reportedly recently advised black girls in her country that it was important to go to school, even if it was a bad school; that even a poor education was better than no education at all as it opens up opportunities and choices).  But cases like Sonu’s are one-off.  For change that can impact ever-larger numbers of women, not only must the ‘home’ liberate girls so they can access education, the ‘world’ must create possibilities for them to access good quality education.

But what of the boys in the region?  Every new generation of boys socialized in the values of the extreme form of patriarchy – and masculinity – described in these posts retards the possibility of women to come into their own.  More important than the default weakening of the traditional family structure is its purposeful and fundamental transformation into a more gender equal institution, where boys are brought up to be gender sensitive and respectful of women as equal actors, and girls are brought up to be more aware of and committed to their own personal growth  needs and aspirations.

For this to happen, in addition to good quality education, gender sensitization and persistent counseling must happen all the way through school and college for both boys and girls, because educational institutions are the only available environments we have for nurturing new generations in democratic values.  Education in the region – as in large parts of India – is presently sunk in the pits of unregulated private enterprise which has come to fill the yawning non-functioning of the government school system.  This area of gender sensitization requires concerted action.   Energy, focus, resources and imagination are required to train and continuously re-train ever-newer generations of teachers and, equally importantly, counselors, who can transform schools and colleges into nurseries for moulding newer generations of citizens into sensitive, compassionate and democratic human beings. Until that begins to happen, Susheela’s story and countless other untold stories will continue to haunt the silence that hangs over women’s lives in this region.


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The story I tell is about women’s condition against the backdrop of growing economic prosperity, political emancipation of lower castes, the coming of age of Panchayati Raj,  and reserved electoral seats for women for their purported political and social empowerment.  The story is about dalit women belonging to the relatively higher echelons of the dalit hierarchy,  in a region where dalits in general and the creamy layer among them in particular are numerically large and politically powerful, land owning and therefore not economically disadvantaged overall  and, due to all of these reasons, not victims of social discrimination.  It is a region that is in the backyard of the state capital where the state  legislature houses are located, where dalits play the games of competitive electoral politics just like any other politically aware social group/caste.

This story is a sequel  to stories I had told in earlier posts about two women, Susheela and Sita:




Both Susheela and Sita are related to each other;  their husbands are brothers, and the two families live in adjacent compounds.  Recently, Susheela’s already unfortunate  life, riddled with domestic violence, became further interlinked with Sita’s in tragic ways.   Seeing her own life descend dramatically from bad to worse, Susheela  attempted in one brave move to change her life condition.  But she failed.   Not only did Sita not show solidarity with her sister-in-law in her struggle for a better life,  she manipulated her misfortunate to her own benefit.  She also failed to use her public office as elected Head of the Village Council (a Constitutional body) to stop violence against her sister-in-law and thereby highlight the scourge of domestic violence that is rampant in the village.  Through her actions, Sita chose deliberately and cynically to align herself  with the powerful male norms that dominate the social ethos of this rural region.

To recap briefly:  Sita and Susheela  were both formerly agricultural labourers. Their husbands – two of four brothers all of whom live next to each other –  inherited agricultural land from their father in their joint names.   The husbands of these two women preferred to sell their respective shares rather than continue the hereditary profession of their forefathers.

Sita’s husband – the older brother –  opted for  a job as a driver to a rich jeweler in the city, and sat tight on the money earned from the sale of his share of family land,  while Sita continued to earn wages as an agricultural labourer.

Susheela’s husband  – the younger brother – chose to become a layabout and alcoholic, drinking away his share of monetary assets from the sale of his share of family land, leaving his wife to single-handedly run the home with her earnings from agricultural labour.  Unable to make both ends meet in addition to having to finance her husband’s daily  liquor expenses, Susheela was forced into a state of indebtedness.

Five years ago, both women  ceased to be agricultural wage labourers, and transited to roles that brought  them more income and local public visibility.  Sita successfully entered the field of politics as the elected head (Sarpanch)of the  village council (Panchayat), when the seat came to be “reserved” for a woman who was also a dalit.   Together with her husband  – who used part of his land sale assets to finance her election campaign, campaigned for her, and after her victory promoted her among powerful individuals in the area,  and acted on her behalf in her political role since she is illiterate – she used her five year term to  learn to use and manipulate the levers of power to enhance her family’s economic status.  She has since become an adventurer,  consciously looking to build patron-client networks with powerful property sharks and politicians in the area, as a long-term measure to not let go of the gains she has made in political office these past five years.   As head of the village council, Sita (and her husband)  also built enormous wealth by appropriating a share of every land sale in the village as her ‘commission’.  Sita’s story shows how even dalit women can use the system to their advantage, particularly when actively assisted by their husbands.

Susheela’s progress – unsupported by anyone in her family – was less dramatic economically, but had other positive fallouts.  She was promoted from agricultural labourer to salaried domestic worker and then to housekeeper-cum-manager of the estate where she worked, with  responsibilities that entailed managing a largish domestic and gardening work force. This opened up opportunities for her to learn new skills in managing things and people within an organizational framework that was both modern and ecologically responsible,  something  whose  import she does not fully understand and cannot explain to others, but which she vaguely knows to be more elevating than what almost everyone else  in the village does.  As an elementary school dropout she felt motivated to try and advance her schooling as a private student. She was also able to build a relationship of trust with her employers which made her eligible for a flexible work routine so she could attend to her young schoolgoing children,  as well as for periodic interest-free loans.  Her employers put her through driving lessons and gave her exclusive use of an old car, both to run local errands relating to the management of the estate and to drive herself to her home and back and do her own local errands, making her the first woman in the village to drive a car.  In comparison, Sita remains illiterate.  Nor  does she drive.

At the time of the last writing of her story, Susheela still owned a tiny plot of land in the village that her father-in-law had made out in her name as a social security measure, knowing that his youngest son’s alcoholism might jeopardize his family’s welfare.   The house in which they live was also  in their joint names, thanks again to the father-in-law’s foresight. In that story, I had written about how Susheela’s  husband was pressuring her to allow him to sell that piece of land, and Susheela was resisting that pressure, knowing that it was her final bulwark against possible destitution.  Susheela’s resistance had set off a trail of psychological manipulation by her husband that oscillated between loving congeniality and drunken violence.

Since the writing of that post,  that final remaining parcel of land, too, has been sold. Fatigued by the constant struggle with her husband,  Susheela  caved in to the pressure.   The buyer was brought in by Sita who was still the Sarpanch at the time, and therefore the first port of call for every land deal.  It was she who set the price,  on which she claimed her own commission of 30 per cent.

Even as she saw herself being manipulated by her husband and sister-in-law, Susheela  consoled herself that she would try and get a few things out of the sale for herself. While her husband took away the lion’s share for himself, she used a part of the money to make some improvements to the house like adding a latrine, and building two shops in the front.  Her long-range plan was to rent out one shop and to covert the other into a women’s fancy goods store; these shops  would be her long-term economic security.  She also naively imagined that she would keep her husband gainfully employed in that store.   Finally,  the sale afforded her the possibility to simply enjoy herself a little,  after years of want.

For about a year following the land sale, Susheela did go through a phase of happiness.  Her husband was now socially  active, holding regular drinking parties in their  house, and distributing large chunks of money – in tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands (lakhs) – as unsecured ‘loans’ to all and sundry, in order to boost his own prestige in the area.  In this euphoric state he also willingly took Susheela to places that she wanted to visit on his new motorbike – social occasions in the kin group, pilgrimages and temples – and for a few months Susheela was able to bask in the glow of his attention.  Susheela also found that she had suddenly become everybody’s darling; her  social  popularity soared, her house now had a regular stream of visitors and house guests, and she got invited to marriages and all manner of social occasions. With such an active social life and more disposable cash than ever before,  both her job and  salary seemed a needless distraction and she virtually stopped going in to work.   She rapidly gained weight – a socially accepted sign of prosperity – and took to wearing high heels and make-up and plenty of jewellery and sequined saris.

By year’s end there was virtually nothing to show for all the money that had come in apart from the investment in house upgradation  and the shop space.  While Susheela’s husband had drunk up most of it,  a large chunk was tied up in the ‘loans’ to his drinking companions (who had probably never intended to repay the money to begin with).  In fact, even the shops remained only half constructed, since the money ran out before the doors and windows could be put in.

Not to be done out of his buzzing social life,  Susheela’s husband now began  prodding her every day for money with which to keep up with his drinking parties, suggesting that she return to her former employers and ask if she could have her job back.  Susheela did return to work.  But salaries do not physically accrue from the first day of rejoining a job, and very soon he took to beating her every day – even more viciously than even before – when she came home empty-handed during the initial month of being back at work.  His rages also led him to frequent and often violent quarrels with neighbours and relatives,  and  soon these neighbours were calling in the police to have him arrested, since it was now clear that he was on the road to pauperization  and there was little to be gained from tolerating his mercurial behaviour.

The first few times that he was arrested, Susheela paid the bail amount, each time with borrowed money.  Soon she was borrowing to treat his illness episodes brought on by over drinking, followed by  episodes of hospitalization, visits to holy men, pilgrimages…all in a desperate attempt to boost his  sagging morale, and to restore him in the eyes of the people around him.  But nothing brought back that brief flash of social acceptance.  Instead, the debts mounted. When there were no more creditors left for Susheela to take recourse to and his desperate behavior deteriorated further,  his drinking buddies started paying  the bail amounts to get him released whenever arrested,  telling him that they were repaying  the money that he had loaned them, and making him feel additionally obligated to them for the favour.  They bought him his daily fix of liquor – and bought their own quota as well  – and sat and drank with him,  again toting up the expenses as going towards loan repayment.

Through all of this, Susheela continued to struggle to keep the house going, while fending off his unceasing demands for liquor money,  and caring for him each time he fell sick with over-drinking.  She had her old job back which was what kept her household running .  But now she had to also prove herself worthy of retaining it, and restore some of the trust and self esteem that she had earlier enjoyed with her employers.

Frustrated that he was now becoming dependent financially on the same people  whom he had until recently  grandly patronized – his fellow villagers – Susheela’s husband now tried to sell off the last piece of property he still owned, the  house.  But Susheela, as the joint owner,  refused to comply.   The daily violence against her grew steadily to an extreme where she often went to work with bruises to show for it.  There were days when he would lock her up in the house,  and accuse her of being disloyal to him and more loyal to her job, days when he would come to her workplace and insist that she return home with him to minister to his needs.  With  no money in the house anymore to pay for even the daily food expenses, and loans piling up everywhere, giving up her job was a luxury that Susheela could barely contemplate.  Gone was the extra weight on her body, the strings of gold, the glittering saris.  She was back in her village woman’s skirt and veil.

The final blow was yet to come.  The four brothers still owned – jointly – a small parcel of land.  With Sita’s term as Sarpanch drawing to a close and regular access to commissions about to disappear, Sita and her husband hit upon the idea of engineering the sale of the land so that they could pick up the  commission for Sita’s role in authorizing  the sale and drawing up the deed.  They also eyed Susheela’s husband’s share; in his state of extreme alcoholism and Susheela’s  consequent vulnerability, he presented an easy target for fraud.

Sita took to pampering and coddling Susheela’s husband providing him with his daily liquor and generally making him feel special, and taking his side when he turned against his wife in his rages.  Her home now became an alternative refuge for him.  Emboldened by her show of support,  he began to urge Susheela to leave his house forever.  He no longer needed her, he taunted, she could go where she wished with the children. What he needed was money and she was not bringing in enough.   Besides, he wanted to sell the house as Sita’s house was now available to him. Susheela was alarmed and hurt.  But she did not see any need to retaliate.  The house was the one anchor that she still had for herself and her children.  And she had always known anyway that she was in for the long haul.

The only way now was to shame her into leaving.  Besides occasionally intercepting her on the public road as she walked back from work and thrashing her in the presence of the men clustered at the teashop, for supposed sexual misconduct, he now took to offering her for ‘sale’  to anyone in the village who was willing to buy her – for the price of Rs. 8 lakhs – and take her off his hands.   Susheela had to suffer the ignominy of people in the village speculating on how much she was ‘worth’ to her husband.

Finally, on the evening of Diwali 2014 after darkness had set in and people in the village were celebrating the festival, he dragged her out into the street and threatened to strip her publicly and set her ablaze. By now enraged beyond control, Susheela phoned  her brother to come to her aid and together they beat up the drunken husband with a stick.

For Susheela, there was no question of staying on after this turn of events.  By his threatening to kill her and her own retaliation with violence, both of them had crossed the line.  Also, Susheela now genuinely feared for her life; it was not beyond the realm of possibility that she might be trapped and killed – perhaps while she slept – if she stayed on, and there was no one whom she could see coming to her aid.  Escorted by her brother,  she left with her children that very night for her parents’ home, with just the clothes on her back.

At no stage in the run up to Susheela’s traumatic departure did anyone from among her husband’s family members or her neighbours come to her help, despite her cries of terror.  The brothers and their wives – including Susheela’s own sister who is married to another brother, and Sita the Sarpanch of the village council – were all present when he screamed out his threat to strip and burn her,  but had looked on with indifference.

In fact, village sympathy on the part of both women and men was in support of the husband in this ‘private’ matter; they drew the line at a woman beating her husband  whatever the provocation.  Also, knowing that the husband was being backed by the village Sarpanch, the neighbours were keen to be on the right side of the prevailing power structure in the village.   The husband’s sisters to whose homes Susheela’s husband then fled to nurse his wounds and stay out of the public eye,  declared that had they been present at the time they would have urged and even assisted him to pour  kerosene over Susheela and set her alight,  thus driving her out of his life forever.  In such a manner was patriarchy and its upholders on both sides of the gender divide ranged against Susheela.

In the weeks following the episode, Susheela’s husband ran amok.  Unhampered by his wife’s stubborn presence,  he sold off the motorbike, refrigerator and TV set that they had bought, and resumed his social life with his drinking companions.  When he again ran out of money he wrote promissory notes about the house to many buyers, in lieu of some token money to meet his alcohol requirements.  Once again, the drinking companions reassembled in his house.  And neighbours came to squat,  to use up Susheela’s grocery stocks that she had painstakingly garnered, invade her cooking and sleeping space, and  ransack her trunks of all her personal effects.

Sita and her husband, too, did not waste any time.  They found  a buyer for the plot of land jointly owned by the four brothers.  Of the sale price of Rs. 60 lakhs,  they gave Susheela’s husband only Rs. 2.5 lakhs out of what should have been his share of Rs. 20 lakhs.

As news of these developments reached Susheela, her parents began to urge her to return to her husband, whatever the terms.  They told her it was imperative that she secure at least the jointly owned house.  They reminded her that in any case, she could not think of staying with them forever.  Her place was in her husband’s home and they made it clear to her that she was an unwanted embarrassment for them. If her husband did not come on his own – and indeed, he showed no signs of wanting to, since he had a supply of money for liquor and the support of his eldest brother and sister-in-law – they would go and plead with him to take her back.

Alarmed, Susheela turned to her employers for advice.  They urged her to look ahead and remake her life on the basis of dignity and independence.  They had witnessed her caving in in silence for far too long.  Now, by walking out of an irremediably abusive situation, she had opened up the possibility of another chance for a better life for herself.  They assured her that they would give her all the financial, legal and emotional support that she would require to fight for her rights to the house, the security of her job, a home for her and her children on their own estate, and physical and social security once she had obtained legal separation from her abusive husband.  They reminded her that she had the option to complete her school education and skill herself further.  They arranged  legal aid so that she could explore the option of divorce or at least a legal separation in the interests of her own and her children’s physical and mental well being. The lawyer in turn assured her that under the provisions of the Domestic Violence Act,  she could not be legally thrown out of her marital home, and could exercise her right to sell her portion of it to be able to buy a new house for herself and her children which would be under her exclusive name.

Susheela’s parents, however, refused to permit her to follow up on the legal advice that she had received.  They reminded her of her duty to them; their family’s honour and her reputation required that she surrender to her husband’s authority.  If she failed to heed their advice, she would lose her natal family forever.  They took away her cell phone and cut off any communication she might have with persons outside their house.

Finally, at the end of three months of waiting, Susheela returned to her husband.  Although he had earlier threatened that even if he took her back he would never again permit her to return to her job – which seemed to be giving her more ideas than was good for her – she did eventually go back to her employers without any opposition from him.

She spoke nothing at all about all that had transpired.  It was as if nothing had actually happened.  She seemed to have had made her peace.  At least for now.

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Some time ago – quite some time ago – I told a few stories about the condition of dalit women (women belonging to the lowest castes in the Hindu social hierarchy) living in rural eastern Rajasthan (see the category Rajasthan Village Diary).  My stories were based on close observation and interaction with people over a considerable length of time, living as I currently do in a village in this region.  The main theme of those  stories was the  daily – and often brutal – psychological, verbal, and physical violence suffered by a majority of dalit women at the hands of their husbands, violence that is often abetted by the sisters or mothers of these husbands.  In some of the cases that I had described, patriarchy had closed ranks behind the abusive husbands in the form of democratically elected Constitutional bodies like elected village councils (Panchayats),  most of whose members tend to be male or males acting on behalf of women.  Nor did women in the village – family members, neighbours –  either individually or in groups free themselves of the hold of patriarchy to express support or engage in action in favour of the rights of the abused women to lead violence-free lives.

In taking up stories of dalit women, I  was not trying to imply that the weight of either patriarchy or domestic violence sits heavily only on women of the lowest castes. Far be it.  Patriarchy in this region is all-pervasive, and is ever-present whether in subtle or overt ways.  My reasons for focusing on the condition of dalit women were three-fold.

In this region, dalits – belonging to a wide range of communities, all of which coexist in nuanced hierarchical relation to each other –  are numerically the largest social group.  Affirmative policies over the last few decades since Independence have brought them into the social and political mainstream and have given them a public voice.  Changes in patterns of behavior  among them, therefore, take on significance.

Secondly, dalits in this region almost universally own agricultural land.  Due to historical reasons of feudal modes of landownership (jagirdari), small communities of high caste (Rajput) big landlords needed  armies of tenant-tillers for revenue generation.  When land reforms were enacted and implemented in the 1950s following on the country’s Independence,  all the hitherto-landless tenant communities acquired property rights.    The rising prices of land in recent years have motivated many to seek  dramatic economic prosperity through land sales.  This has resulted in unprecedented consumerist behaviours,  a feature that dalits share with intermediate and higher castes in the region.

Finally, dalits have a long tradition of hiring themselves out as wage labourers.  Today, with the growth of urbanization, spread of industry, and launching of road and other infrastructural projects in the region, there has been an  explosion of non-farm employment opportunities for semi-skilled and unskilled labour.  Both men and women go out for wage labour,  making them the largest ‘working class’ in the area, in both agricultural and non-agricultural spheres.

For all of the above reasons, dalit women are more accessible to an observer like me.  They also tend to be relatively more articulate about their lives than women of higher castes who are invisible and whose ideological conditioning makes them more reclusive about their views.

A dominant strand of academic thinking has for long held that while poverty carries its own disabilities for both men and women belonging to historically disadvantaged groups,  the compulsion to go out of the house to work for wages gives poor women a double-edged advantage over their better-off sisters belonging to higher social echelons.  It brings them into contact with the outside world, which is the pre-requisite for self awareness denied to cloistered women.  And their tangible economic contribution to the family in the form of wages  enhances their social value within the family, i.e., it gives them  a greater say in decision making regarding budgeting and allocation of resources, children’s education and their futures etc., and also confers on them the self esteem required to negotiate greater autonomy for themselves.   A lot of economic analysis, policy initiatives and social activism have, therefore, focused on how to create conditions for increasing women’s ‘gainful participation in the labour force’  with its attendant ‘visibilisation’ of women as economic agents.

My observation in rural eastern Rajasthan is that stubbornly-persisting cultural factors rooted in feudalism continue to militate against women’s autonomy even within the current changing economic and political scenario.  And under the weight of consumerist aspirations and men’s sense of entitlement to these aspirations, these cultural factors take on added forms.  Women’s employment outside the home, far from enhancing the family’s economic base and conferring higher status on the women wage earners, is actually causing the reverse.  Men’s  heightened sense of entitlement has also gone hand in hand with the weakening of extended family structures, most notably the authority of the supreme patriarch and traditional norms that upheld men’s role as providers. There has been a distinct generational shift in this regard.

The net effect is that men are dropping out of the labour force – or working only fitfully – leaving their wives to single-handedly support the family on their sole incomes.  When men do work, their tendency is to keep much of their earnings for their own pleasure and recreation rather than contribute to the family’s  expenses.  In addition, men are using violence to ensure that their wives’ apparent economic value and greater mobility due to employment does not translate into greater autonomy for them.  The surveillance of working women by men in general – in collusion with their female allies in the family, neighbourhood and village –  can take many forms.  Clusters of men idling at street corners and in ubiquitous chai and liquor shops along roadsides, or playing cards under clumps of trees,  have become the new symbol of women’s collective oppression by the male gaze.  ‘Stories’ about the imagined misdemeanours of local working women as they travel to and from work are spread via these idle clusters, as parables that advise men to control their wives.  These  culminate in violent domestic  abuse of women by their  men,  who feel their ‘honour’  and  marital rights wronged in the public eye.

Women, thus, not only do the double shift of domestic work plus paid labour; they also do a third shift where they become punching bags for the daily doses of domestic violence doled out by their men.  This has its own negative health fallouts, both  physical and mental, which add to the burden of disease and chronic debility already carried by women.

The obvious questions that arise are:  why do women put up with these conditions?  Why do they not fight back? Why do they not simply walk out of abusive situations to rebuild their lives on their own terms? If most women are facing domestic abuse, what comes in the way of women making common cause to work out ways of dealing with such problems? Is this a problem of all women in eastern Rajasthan,  or only of rural dwelling women?

I try to address some of these questions through the next story.

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The state of Rajasthan has just concluded its elections for all local level bodies at the village, block and district level.

A week before the elections, in the little corner of rural Rajasthan where I currently live,  we had some unexpected visitors.  A man leading his aged sister and young veiled wife walked in, all of them bowing low with hands folded in namaste.  They were introduced to me as being from our village, and that the visit was to solicit our votes for the young woman in question.  I perked up instantly.  I had heard that this time round, the seat of the Sarpanch in our village was  reserved for a woman.

In a long line of thinking on the subject of grassroots democracy in independent India that started with the 1948 Constitutional debates on Gram Swaraj (“Self Rule”), followed by the enactment of Village Panchayat Acts by different state governments in the early 1950s, and  the many Committees that sat through the decades of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s to “remove inherent weaknesses” and “strengthen decentralized democracy”, the Constitution of India was amended  in 1992 (73rd. Amendment) to institute elected bodies at the village, intermediate and district level as Constitutional bodies, and strengthen them with financial resources and decision-making powers.  Further, the Amendment ensured that these bodies would have sufficient representation in them of “weaker sections” like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Women.

The system is that once every five years, a system of lotteries determines for which villages and wards within villages seats for Sarpanch and Panchayat members will be “reserved” exclusively for candidates who are Women or who belong to a scheduled caste (SC), or scheduled tribe (ST).  The Women category is further subdivided into “women general”, “women SC”, and “women ST”.

The young woman before me was a beneficiary of this affirmative action in favour of women in general.

After having ‘shown’ her to us the husband rose to leave folding his hands, and the two women accompanying made to follow suit.  I couldn’t believe that this was all that an electioneering visit consisted of.  In all my years of living in Mumbai, no candidate had ever come to my door, and I was determined to make the most of this visit. I invited them to stay on for a cup of tea, excited by what seemed to be an opportunity to engage with the candidate and find out what her agenda for the village was going to be should she win the election.

To my great surprise, the young woman said that she had no agenda at all.  She laughed a tinkling laugh and looked at me playfully through her veil, as if to imply what a silly question that was. I stared at her pretty face in disbelief and asserted that surely she must have some “vision” for the village?  Hadn’t she walked around? Hadn’t she met the people of the village?  Hadn’t they told her stuff? Hadn’t they wanted stuff done by their political representative?

She heard my questions with respectful indifference and silently glanced towards her man. He in turn now looked in a definite hurry to leave.  The older woman –  her sister-in-law – glanced at me in alarm as if I was being preposterous. Clearly they were all being called upon to go beyond the call of duty.

Aware only of the sudden freezing of the atmosphere in the room, but still continuing in my characteristic metropolitan, bookishly ignorant manner – the kind of attitude you encounter in English language TV political talk shows every evening, the kind of shows I watch -, I asked the young candidate to tell me why I should not have asked her the question.   “My vote is precious”,  I said, thinking I sounded cute and coy like her although I couldn’t quite bring out the same kind of tinkling laugh.

Her response this time was more spirited with an undertone of sarcasm.  “Everybody’s vote is precious”, she said.

I blundered on.  “Then you will have to convince me that you are the right person for me”.

By now she looked as if she really didn’t care about what I thought of her. “I don’t even live here”, she exclaimed.  “How would I know anything about this village?”

“Where do you live, then?”, I asked. “ If you don’t live here, why are you a candidate from here? What brings you to politics anyway?” I tried to show a kinder interest in her.  Besides, I was really curious.

“I thought I’d make a career for myself”, she said.  “My children have grown up.  I am literate and want to have something for myself and this is a good field to be in.  If I win, then I will think of what to do”. The honesty of a novice.  Once she became seasoned, she would know the right things to say.

Then, a little aggressively she went on, “And so what if I live in the city? I am from this village.  We have a house here”.

“Which belongs to her husband’s family and is kept locked up!” my husband laughingly injected.  He turned to me, “Surely you don’t think that they are going to leave their city base where her husband works, to come and live here!”

They all smiled and nodded as if a great joke had just been cracked. A little bit of bantering with some kind enquiries thrown in. A few smiles. A few bows and namastes.  That was all that this encounter was meant to be, something that both they and my husband – who was familiar with the local culture – had understood from the start.

But none of them had reckoned with me and my unwillingness to give up!  My simple mind which had kicked in and its simple bookish reflexes did not grasp the subterranean political consciousness that was on subtle display before me.  I was being kindly, politely, asked to mind my own business. And I didn’t get it.  I was already thinking that what the young woman needed was some assurance of moral support.  A boost to her self esteem.  I thought I could be of help in this.  “Why don’t you come to live here, at least for the next week before the election.  Walk around, talk to people.   You could talk to the women, take up their cause plagued as they are by their mens’ alcoholism.  And the cause of their children, who are having to witness domestic abuse everyday in the home.  There are so many issues in this village crying out to be addressed which even I, as an outsider who lives on the periphery, can see. But even if you take up the cause of only women and children, you will be making a dent.  The previous candidate from this village who won on a reserved seat for a “woman SC” did nothing for the village during her five year tenure…”

“But I am a Rajput,” she protested feebly, “and Rajput women are not expected to be seen outside the house nor are they allowed by their families to do so.  I cannot very well go around the village.  First let me see if I win.  Then I will think of something to do”.

I eagerly offered help in framing a manifesto, in defining issues, in helping brainstorm.  My husband, who could see my suicidal journey into nothingness, nevertheless felt compelled to support my stand.  “We will both help you,” he said.  “Become a candidate worthy of an election.  One of your opponents is a formidable Jat family and they might well win, and you must be prepared for that.  But even if you lose, go down honourably as a thoughtful candidate, as a person who did her best. As a woman who tried to make a difference.  As a clean person who did not try to buy votes with money or liquor.  Then you can make a comeback the next time when elections come around, on the basis of better familiarity with the issues in the village, with better contact and communication with the women of the village. But let the village know that there are people in it who want to work to set high standards for public office.”

By now the visit had extended to an hour.  It was a Sunday, probably the only day that the husband had earmarked for such visits.  They patiently heard us out, we who sounded far more passionate about the election than any emotion that the candidate or her husband were able to bring to their faces or words.  Finally, they bowed low with folded hands and left.

Ten days later the election results were announced.  The young Rajput woman had won.  The real story behind the whole thing was unraveled for me helpfully by Gopal who lives in the village and who hires out his camel cart to those who need things transported – grains for the market, bricks and gravel for house construction, etc.

The reason why she had sauntered into the village just a week before the election was not due to any neglect or near-sightedness on their part.  She just needed to be ‘shown’ to some influential households – and presumably we were one of these –  like the decorated bulls that are shown to people on the streets by mendicants when soliciting for alms.  For, it is not the women who are elected, but their husbands.

I learnt that the lowest common denominator for acceptability as a candidate is that the man must be seen as a decent sort.  It is he who has to work for the elections if his wife is to get elected.  After an election, it is again the husband who performs all the functions of the elected office, with his wife in mock attendance.  When important politicians visit the village or when elected representatives are expected to present themselves at the district or state headquarters, the women are escorted by their husbands and are generally expected to be visible but remain silent.  We learnt that our new Sarpanch’s husband was known to be decent.

Also, of all the candidates from the cluster of four villages in the constituency, he had spent the most money –  Rs. 14, 00, 000 or fourteen lakhs – on buying votes.  He had paid Rs. 4000 per vote across the four villages in the constituency, plus liquor for men who looked stubborn or who had an alcohol addiction (which must have accounted for a sizeable section of the constituency).

Thirdly, there was the caste factor.  The previous term had seen the election of a dalit woman, since the seat was then reserved for a woman who was from a scheduled caste.  And the term before that the Sarpanch had been a Brahmin.  Both belonged to our village, which has had a tradition of unspoken agreement that every caste must get its turn, since elected positions are seen, pragmatically, as nothing more than avenues to reap the spoils of office.

This time round, the two main contenders had been  a Rajput and a Jat.  Even before a rough consensus could be worked out, a powerful Jat from the village had gone over to the neighbouring small village – also part of our constituency – which had put up a Jat candidate, and promised to bring him all the Jat votes from our village in return for a payment to him of Rs. 400,000 (four lakhs).  When news of this deal leaked out, our village apparently decided to close ranks behind the Rajput candidate.  So, the notion of competitive village supremacy also played a role alongside caste.  With our village presenting a united front, the Rajput candidate was able to win over the undecided votes from the other villages in the constituency, where the presence of multiple candidates was splitting the votes.

One distinct trend in Panchayati Raj dynamics that is becoming clear with successive elections, is that the margin of victory is getting steadily thinner. This year’s Sarpanch election in my village,  for example, was won by a mere margin of 250 votes, illustrating that the overarching and unreformed framework of our national political elections, with caste (ever-widening concentric circles of competitive caste identities) and money (in burgeoning volumes)  at its core, has taken firm root at the grassroots.  Any romantic notion that might have existed, of villages as oases of relative innocence, is forever dead.

What is reverberating more distinctly as an outcome of the unreformed political ethos is that women’s invisibility is intact, even from the seats that are “reserved” for them.  Everybody in my village talks about the young woman’s victory as her man’s victory.  The woman’s name and her face on the posters on every wall in the village were – and are – the only connections with her.  She has no intention to move to the village and will remain an absentee Sarpanch.  Her spoils will come to her and her husband mainly from the finances that the Panchayat receives from the government, and from the contracts that she will periodically be called upon to give out for roads and other public works including MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme).

So much for those who believe that the way to women’s empowerment is paved through their token participation in village-level political institutions like Panchayati Raj.  Patriarchy, ever-present, trumps again and again.  Whether it is through the dowry they bring in, their physical labour at home, their income from employment, the sons that they bear, or their candidature in elections under the protective political umbrella of “reservations”, women still remain instruments for men’s sense of entitlement.

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Sonu is a 20 year old college student in the village where I currently live, the younger of two daughters in a family consisting of parents and four siblings.  Her father works as an unskilled labourer in a cement pipe manufacturing factory along the highway, about 6 km away; he has been steadily employed there for  nine years and brings home Rs. 5000 every month.  Since he does not drink, almost all his money comes into the family kitty.  His work requires him to leave home early in the morning and it is late by the time he returns.   He is a mild mannered man, and Sonu suspects that he keeps long hours so he can escape being harangued by his shrewish wife.

Sonu’s mother is the virtual and tyrannical ruler of the family and holder of the purse strings, in which she is ably supported by her older daughter who left her husband after a quarrel and has since returned to be a permanent resident of her natal household.  One would imagine that, having experienced an unhappy marriage and having freed herself from it, she would be a source of support to  her younger sister in her life aspirations.  But that is not the case. While Sonu has the support of her father in her decision to go to college, her mother and sister – both illiterate – are determined to wean her away from such dreams, and either get her to work and contribute to the family, or get married to a person of the family’s choice.  Sonu contributes to the family what she can from her earnings, and for the rest does most of the housework, rather than engage with her mother and sister who spend their free time stretching their legs and gossiping after their return from their daily wage labour.  Since the family’s earnings are controlled by the  mother who objects to her college admission, Sonu has been earning her college fees every year, doing daily wage labour on farms in the area.  This is how we met her, when she came to work for us.

Since she introduces herself to me as a college student, I am naturally interested and find myself warming up to her as she slips into her work routine.  In a region where girls and boys go to school ritualistically, and drop out in relief along the way, Sonu definitely stands apart.  She arrives for work on time, listens to instructions and executes them efficiently, and asks questions and gives suggestions pertaining to her tasks.  Definitely a rare phenomenon in these parts, where work is simply a way to earn money by being reluctantly present but actually doing virtually nothing.  Her movements are brisk, and she doesn’t hesitate to run between tasks.  And she takes pride in finishing each task quickly and asking or more work.  I certainly find her refreshing.  She is different from her peers in other respects as well.  She looks different; wears her hair tied back at shoulder length, a soft fringe falling over her eyes, and comes to work in neat salwar kameez and occasionally in jeans and a T shirt.

Sonu, however, seems reluctant to have a conversation with me beyond the disclosure of the fact that she goes to college.  The reason is that I seem to ask too many questions.  I learn that apart from the day when she went to pay her fees, she has hardly ever been to the college to attend classes.  I can’t help asking why?  What was the point in joining college if she never ever went there?  She says that it would cost her close to between Rs. 50 and Rs. 60 a day to make the trip to the next village where the college is located.  It requires changing two buses which run to erratic timings and could take up to two hours each way.  Once in college, it is anybody’s guess whether the lecturer concerned is present for the day, or willing to take the class.  At home, she is expected to be back before dark, and help in the housework both in the morning and the evening.  Where does all this leave her with the time or money or flexibility required to lead the life of a college student?

The fact also is that Sonu’s college is a private one, where the main interest of the management is in her fees.  Once she pays her fees for the year, she is assured of being marked present even if she attends only on the odd day, and at the end of the year she will be allowed to sit for the exam.  For most of the students of these private colleges, this is the pattern – full fee payment in advance, laissez faire attendance by students, absence of teachers, and hardly any evidence of actual teaching and learning.

I am sympathetic to her plight but am nevertheless totally mystified that she persists in being “college going” in the face of such blatant non-performance by all concerned in the educational system that she inhabits.    I change the topic to asking her what her subjects are…”English Literature, Political Science and Sociology”, she announces.   I know then that she is doomed.  This is  region where even the economically and socially better-off and better-educated youth, and school and college teachers, can barely speak or write correct English.  So Sonu’s  B.A in English Literature is quite a bit of a slippery slope.

My enthusiasm for and interest in her makes me insensitive to the panic in Sonu’s  eyes as I continue to ask questions…Would she tell me what books she is reading for  the subjects she has mentioned?  If she doesn’t attend college, she surely must be studying on her own?   “Books?” asks Sonu, her face a picture of total incomprehension.  “I don’t read any books.”

My husband who has been watching this charade with growing sympathy for Sonu’s discomfiture, and pity for my inability to understand, steps in here to rescue her.  “Run off, bitiya (child)”, he says to her.  “Don’t take it to heart.  Madam here doesn’t understand.  She doesn’t know that in this region, students don’t read books in college.  You must be having some guides that will help you pass the exams, don’t you?”  Nodding vigorously in obvious relief, Sonu shoots me a final  alarmed look and flees while I try to arrange my face to look understanding and wise despite feeling totally depressed by this raw evidence regarding the state of higher education in the country, outside of a few elite metropolitan pockets.

Sonu’s aunt, Pooja,  who also works for us but on a regular basis, tells us later that the big issue in Sonu’s  family at the moment is not so much her insistence on “going to college”, as her new insistence on marrying a young man of her choice.  She has announced to her family that she has met a young man whom she has grown to like.  They have known each other for three years, and although they have not met since that first encounter, they have been talking with each other on their mobile phones and have found the desire to marry each other.  Sonu thinks that since he belongs to her caste, her family ought not to object.

It transpires that Sonu  has come to work on our farm only out of the compulsion to get away from her mother and sister, who taunt her day and night about her “boyfriend” and her dreams of marriage.  They taunt her because he is an orphan and has no one who will show up for the marriage.  They taunt her that because he lives near Delhi, she will be leaving home to go into the “wilderness” – a place beyond their ken, certainly –,  and they warn her that if she comes to grief she should not count on them for support.  Sonu’s  mother declares that she cannot allow such a marriage to take place, to a man who has no one to call his own, and if it takes place inspite of her objections, she will not attend.

Sonu’s sister has her own objections to Sonu’s decision to get on with her own life.  Since the family are dalits (former untouchables), remarriage is an accepted norm in their community.  Sonu’s sister is hoping to remarry and would like the family to spend money on her marriage before exhausting resources on Sonu’s.  One night, she even got one of her suitors to come into the house and beat up Sonu as she lay asleep.  For this reason of her own safety, Sonu has moved in with Pooja and has stopped talking with her mother and sister, although she continues to do all the housework in the family home every morning and evening as her part of the contribution to the family.  Couldn’t she expect support from her father?  Sonu says she empathises with his plight; there is no way he can get a word in edgewise with his wife.  He has given his implicit consent for the marriage by not saying anything in support of his wife’s objections.  But that is about all; Sonu  knows that he will not take any positive action on her behalf.  In fact, she tells me, one reason why she would like to marry a man of her choice is the lesson of her father’s marriage to her mother.

I realize that Sonu has indeed fought quite a few battles.  She has finished school in an environment where most girls drop out.  She has gone on to enroll in college and sees herself as becoming a graduate, of whatever quality ( for she is not to be blamed for not having the wherewithal to be more discerning in this regard).  And she has been able to formulate a notion of a consensual marriage on her own terms.

And that is not all.  Sonu aspires to be a working woman for all of her life.  It is a positive affirmation of identity and not a choice born of economic helplessness.  Towards this end, she runs around tirelessly, ferreting out information about possible exams she can sit for, jobs she can apply for.   I know of at least three professions she has in mind:  Village Health Nurse, Police Constable, and Village Patwari (government appointed village revenue functionary).  The fact that she has opted for higher education makes her dare to believe that all these life choices are open to her and that it is her right to exercise them.

From a position of opposition to anything that is not good quality education, I am beginning to see that for the girls of this country even a token education is better than no education at all.


Sonu dropped out of work after a month, without notice.  We learnt that she had gone away to an uncle who had promised to get her married to her boyfriend.  We learnt that she swore, when leaving home, that she would never return there.  Eventually, Sonu did get married in her uncle’s home to the young man of her choice, with neither of her parents present.  Pooja and her husband officiated as parents to give away the bride.

I have no idea what will come of Sonu’s college enrolment.  She will probably go on to give her exam as required.  She may even acquire a B.A. degree, without having read a single book.  Like millions of graduates in our country, who are uneducated and unemployable in any real sense, but whose dream of education has changed them forever in terms of the way they think of life choices.

In Sonu’s case, the dream gave her the courage to persist through school and go on to college,  resist being married off at a pre-sentient age, refuse to be married off without her consent, and decide to engage with society as a working woman.  Staying unmarried until 20 is still very rare for girls in most rural areas of this country, but Sonu achieved it.  If nothing else, she will have her first child when her body is mature enough to carry the child to full term, and she is mature enough emotionally and mentally to be a worthy mother.  Who knows, the knowledge that her/his mother was a “college graduate” might even motivate her child to go in for real education.

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1. The Demographic Dividend Tipping Point – Not There Yet

Rekha and Vinita are two Regar dalit women of Prithvipura in rural eastern Rajasthan who are in their mid-20s. Both are illiterate, two sisters married to two brothers also in their mid-20s who are barely literate themselves. Their lives illustrate something of rural dalit women’s disabilities. In larger terms, they typify how already-skewed gender relations in this region are becoming further distorted in the wake of the new prosperity that has come to eastern Rajasthan.

This story is about Rekha and Vinita’s discovery of the amazing power conferred on them by the Domestic Violence Act of 2005. And about how they voluntarily ceded this opportunity to start making a change in their lives.

It is also a story of how patriarchy not only operates at the level of the family, but is also backed by the Panchayati Raj system. You don’t need rabid Khap Panchayats when democratically elected village panchayats can themselves be coopted by patriarchy.

Finally, it is a story that raises many issues regarding the complex dynamics of economic growth and social change. Particularly the issue of: what is required for a set of positive circumstances for change to reach a tipping point? In this case, the demographic dividend.

The story of Rekha and Vinita has been recounted in an earlier post (June 26 2011). Here, I talk about their brief dalliance with the Domestic Violence Act of 2005 and the possibilities and obstacles to its implementation, and some of the implications that gender relations have for a discussion on political economy.

When Rekha and Vinita came to work for us as farm labourers and, in time, graduated to doing housekeeping work, they came with the baggage of daily domestic violence. Purple cheekbones, torn eyes, scratched faces, painful arms, red welts on their arms, back and abdomen starting to turn black…. Either coming to work every day sobbing heartrendingly, or asking for permission to sleep through part of the afternoon because the husbands had either singly or jointly not allowed them to sleep in the night.

Gradually, we found their stories becoming too painful for us to listen and not do anything about. We asked them if they wished us to intervene on their behalf. They said yes, tearfully. They seemed grateful that there was someone to listen to their story, but it was clear that they had no idea of how the intervention might come to be, nor its consequences. And, to be honest neither were we in a position to predict what kind of turn events might take.

The intervention evolved slowly. In our own wisdom, and keeping in mind the local cultural context, we took two steps.

First, we adopted the two sisters as our “daughters”. In other words, we would henceforth be their “parents” (what anthropologists call fictive kin). They would enjoy special status in our home, and it behoved their husbands and in-laws to recognize that the women were no longer alone in their marital home, but had protectors who lived within calling distance. Mystified by what this might do for them, the women sought their parents’ permission for this new relationship. Equally mystified, the latter gave their consent.

The day we visited them was a winter afternoon. The evening sun shone weakly on us as we stopped outside their homestead on the main road running through the village. As we walked into their space, I was feeling a little nervous; this was a first time “adoption” experience for me. We were walking through an open courtyard into what looked like a pucca (brick and concrete) house. A large ‘porch’ sort of structure open from the front, that led sparely into two rooms. One, a floor level kitchen, with shelves on the walls that displayed a very small number of utensils. The door to the other room remained closed for the time we were there. Some broken steps led up from the porch to what looked to be the roof. The sandy courtyard had a straggly – but not dirty – look about it. A large khejri tree stood in the centre with a built platform underneath it… a socializing space, particularly for men. A motorbike was parked prominently nearby…a male symbol…males who were mobile.

The women’s husbands, parents-in-law and older brother-in-law were waiting in the porch to meet us. A few children (five noisy boys ranging from 3 to 9, and one silent girl of about 10 (she was the one who “went dumb” mysteriously)) were playing, running between the courtyard and the porch. We were carrying presents of clothes for the sisters and sweets for the family. The adults looked wary. But nothing was talked directly about what had led to our visit. The two sisters were invisible; it took them most of the time we were there to make two cups of tea for us. We drank the tea and left. It was a strange visit.

The husbands immediately tested out the strength of the new development by swaggering up to our house a few days later, announcing that they had come to spend the day there. Ostensibly, it was a return visit. But in reality it was to check on whether their wives’ work environment was a “respectable” one, respectability defined as absence of opportunity to come into contact with other men. The husbands were clearly amazed by the sense of freedom and comfort in the social environment enjoyed by our staff. They returned home that evening announcing that they had seen women staff talking with their male colleagues, therefore opening up the possibilities for liaisons.

As time went by, the husbands continued to feel irked by the totally unfamiliar sight of the many perks that their wives and, occasionally by association their children as well, enjoyed at our expense: winter clothes, a car and driver to make short day-pilgrimages and go to family weddings, escorted visits to doctors and monitored administration of medical treatments etc, perks which they wanted to enjoy as well, but which we strictly barred them from. They contented themselves with at least appropriating their wives’ winter clothes.  But equally, the husbands seemed to feel smug that their families were now being cared for total strangers, and that there was nothing to come in the way of their own total enjoyment of their earnings on liquor and eating out, supplemented by periodic raids made on their wives’ earnings. They even sent out demands for money gifts from us, which we ignored with the contempt that they deserved.

The next step of our intervention was to hire a lawyer with the sisters’ consent. During his visit, the lawyer explained the Domestic Violence Act to the women, its provisions, and the protections and rights that it guaranteed. He then ascertained from them the facts relating to their experience of abuse; these would form the basis of the brief. It was agreed that the next time there was an act of violence, the women would phone us and we would arrange for the lawyer to accompany them to the local police station to lodge an FIR under which the offending husband would be taken to task. The hope we all shared was that this would deter future acts of violence by these men.

The women sounded excited. Vinita, the younger of the two (barely 22 yeas old), couldn’t keep things to herself. She also felt duty bound to warn her in-laws that she was not going to tolerate any more abuse at the hands of her husband. She informed her mother-in-law and anyone else who cared to listen that she was now protected by a lawyer. Overnight, the women found that the tables had turned. An aura seemed to have enveloped them; after all, in India, to have a lawyer at one’s beck and call is associated only with a position of social privilege. The parents-in-law started talking to them in softer voices. Neither of the husbands dared come anywhere near them, nor did they ever come home drunk. And for the next month or more the women enjoyed peace and quiet, were able to sleep uninterruptedly every night, and arrived for work every day looking happy and smiling. We all celebrated what we thought was the beginning of our women staff’s empowerment. Some of the other women, too, timidly asked if similar opportunities might be made available to them, since domestic violence was familiar to them all. We told them that this was going to be a pilot. If it worked…who knew… a lot of change might be in store… for them and others like them.

But our celebratory mood was short-lived. One day, two months after the lawyer was hired, the husbands started drinking again. Days went by and they did not go out to work but continued to drink steadily using up their accumulated earnings. The tension began to build in the sisters’ homes around what might happen; it seemed a matter of time before the violence might resume.  Then, suddenly one night, the peace was breached.

With no provocation whatsoever the storm broke over the head of Vinita, the younger of the sisters. After a whole night of the worst violence she had experienced in her married life, she came to work the next morning beaten black and blue, running a fever, totally traumatized and in a state of complete shock. Obviously, she was in no condition to work – her body ached all over and she could barely speak – and merely slept through the day. But she accompanied the lawyer to the local police station and filed an FIR against her husband, describing the events of the night before. Some men from her village happened to be present at the police station at the time and tried to dissuade her without success. The news of her action flew back to her marital home.

For the next fifteen days, for reasons unknown to us, the police made no arrest (they later told us that they had been called away to do “VIP duty” elsewhere). During that period of delay and suspense, Vinita continued to be beaten every day through the evening and night. And every morning she was allowed to go ‘to work’; more accurately, she was thrown out every morning to go to her workplace, bearing the physical evidence of her husband’s complete power over her. It did not seem to matter to her parents-in-law that she was crippled by pain and trauma, and that her children went neglected. The husband of course, in keeping with the social convention of the region, was oblivious to the children’s needs.

Vinita continued to be in our pay in the safe haven that our home afforded by day, assured that she had our support for herself and her children, come what may. Every day as she lay crouched in bed through the day trying to sleep her way to recovery, we all wondered why the police had still not made an arrest. Would these women who had put a hesitant foot forward to bring change into their lives, receive the support of the State? Or would the police let them down? Would the women be able to go on to reap the provisions of the progressive Domestic Violence Act? Or would it all end in jubilant loss of respect for the rule of law on the part of the village community, which was no doubt watching the unfolding of this drama? During these nail-biting days, Vinita’s mother-in-law taunted her ceaselessly at home, launched a smear campaign against her in the village, and declared that some employers – us – were putting subversive ideas into the heads of young women and causing them to defy male authority. She also accompanied her son to the police station to show fictitious proof of how it was he who had been a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by his wife, and not the other way around. After years of accommodating to her mother-in-law, Vinita found herself treated as an enemy of the family.  They were taking every measure they could think of to irrevocably break her will.

Feeling the need to widen the support base for the women and deflect attention from ourselves as employers (since we might be seen as having a vested interest in retaining our staff), we approached a city-based women’s rights NGO to act as a source of organizational support. The NGO visited us and talked with the sisters, and promised to help them. They outlined their proposed actions: they would visit the village to talk to village elders and ordinary people, collect further evidence for the case in court, demonstrate outside the family house and thus make the issue public, shame the husbands, and assist the sisters in their onward dealings with the police and the courts. But they also made it very clear that the path would be long and rocky and uncertain, that the sisters would have to be prepared to travel more than half way, stand by their actions, and be consistent in their behaviour even in the face of emotional and other pressures from their marital and/or natal families, give evidence in court, make the necessary trips to lawyers, courts, police as the case might be. The Domestic Violence Bill gave Vinita the right to her marital home for herself and her children; so nobody in the family could throw her out. She thus had the security of accommodation and, with our commitment, the security of employment and income. Additionally, she had our emotional support and that of her brother, and the organizational support of the NGO. She would, in all probability lose social/community support, at least in the short run. But that was a price she may have to pay for ending her life of abuse.

Through all these developments, all was quiet on Rekha’s front. She seemed to gather some boldness from this. When Vinita went with the lawyer to file her FIR at the police station, Rekha had been eager to go too, and file a similar FIR against her own husband. But we had held her back, explaining that there had been no immediate provocation by way of abuse, and that we needed to first try out the efficacy of one case. In the meanwhile, her husband who had hitherto remained aloof, now became increasingly conciliatory in his behaviour towards her. He urged her to give up any thought of rebellion that would condemn her to becoming a pariah like her younger sister. He even offered to start financing her household expenditure, on the condition that she give up her job and become a stay-at-home wife, and sever her links with us. Feeling swept up into the sky and smirking at the prospect that her husband would henceforth be treating her “like a princess” as she described it, Rekha proceeded to distance herself from what was happening to her unfortunate younger sister. Abruptly, one afternoon, she grandly announced that she would no longer be working for us; she would henceforth be a full-time homemaker as her husband wished her to be. She also expressed her disinterest in having anything to do with the women’s rights NGO.

Since their marriage to the two brothers, the two sisters had always been like two peas in a pod, a source of support to each other. Suddenly, now, Vinita found herself totally alone within her family. Only her brother still stood by her, going with her to the police station to file the FIR, absenting himself from work every now and then, and travelling several hours  to visit her at our place as often as he could,  comforting her and expressing solidarity, staying in touch with the lawyer…Her resolve was still intact, but she was beginning to feel terribly vulnerable and fearful of what lay ahead in her life. We on our part continued to assure her of our support for her and her children and urged her to remain strong, stressing that she would not humanly be able to absorb such abuse much longerand therefore must act to stop it.  But we could understand her heartbreaking sense of betrayal and loneliness given that in traditional Indian society all of a woman’s life is lived within the family.

After repeated phone calls by the lawyer, the police finally arrived at Vinita’s house one morning to arrest her husband. It was perhaps insensitive on their part that they should have chosen the morning of Rakhi, a popular social festival that symbolizes the renewal of family bonds, especially that between brothers and sisters. Since it was a public holiday – even for daily labourers and agriculturists – the arrest became a public event.  The police later told our lawyer that they had intended it that way in order to arouse social disapproval against the family.  Indeed the family did face humiliation, as did Vinita.  But her husband spent only one night in the police lock-up. By the next morning the mother-in-law had got him released on bail and brought him home.

On arriving home from the police station, mother and son sat down under the khejri tree in the courtyard, while Vinita cowered in the kitchen in a state of total terror. As if by design, Rekha’s husband  dragged her out of the house by her hair and into the courtyard. There, in a wild fit of anger and drunkenness and in full view of the neighbourhood, he set upon her, jerking her head almost off the neck and thrashing her with an iron rod until she fell down senseless. The two brothers then locked up the sisters in one room and made off with the keys. The watching and confused children of both were left to fend for themselves outside. Before leaving, the men announced to the watching crowd – mainly male in composition that, incidentally, had done nothing to stop the violence – that the sisters would no longer be permitted to go to work for us. Some of the spectators let out a general loud warning that any women of the village who came to work for us – and filled their minds with ideas of independence – would be similarly punished.

None of our other women from that village came to work for us that day, nor the day after. Two quit the job, feeling intimidated by the public condemnation of the brief show of resistance to abuse. But three of our women – all victims of domestic violence themselves – defied the diktat of the crowd and resumed work. They told us that the village panchayat had met and declared that if Rekha’s and Vinita’s husbands did not want their wives to go work for us, they would have to give an undertaking to the panchayat that they would henceforth financially support their wives and thus obviate any need for their wives to go out to work. It was also decided in the presence of the panchayat that the two sisters would henceforth be separated – the family owned two houses close to each other – and not be allowed to meet each other.  Their mutual support system was thus taken away, as well as our support.    These decisions were taken under the leadership of the Village Sarpanch (the Head of the Panchayat), who also used his position to approach the police station to say that the village elders were taking care of the situation and outside intervention would not be necessary: the husbands would no longer beat up the sisters; Vinita and Relha would no longer have to go to work because their husbands would henceforth support the families; and Vinita would be withdrawing her police complaint.

For one week following the episode, the two husbands bought minimal quantities of cooking oil and tea leaves and a couple of vegetables for their wives. Rekha received no medical treatment. Traumatized physically and mentally, neither woman was in a condition to care for herself or her small children. Vinita called us a few days later and gave us her version. We asked her if the sisters would be willing to take further steps along the path of resistance; if so, we and the NGO would support them. She expressed uncertainty. Given her ostracism by all in her marital family, and her own sister’s show of withdrawal of support, her fragile world held together by kinship ties had collapsed. Her parents and brother were advising her to make peace with her fate. They were willing to stand by her, but doubted their ability to sustain repeated practical deterrent actions against her marital family. Vinita admitted to us that she felt defeated. She had been cajoled by the Panchayat to go to the police station and take back her FIR. She could see her life stretching ahead of her as a saga of unrelenting abuse. She so wanted to run away from home. But she couldn’t bring herself to abandon her children. There was no recourse but to simply wait for eventual death.

Thus did the incipient case under the Domestic Violence Act challenging the right of men to subject women to domestic violence, fall through. Patriarchy in the form of family and elected panchayat had won.

Within a week of Vinita withdrawing her FIR, both the husbands resumed their drinking and philandering. They stopped giving the promised housekeeping money and told their wives to go look for employment… any kind of employment, as long as it had nothing to do with association with us.  No censure was forthcoming from the panchayat. Nor was there any wider social support for the sisters from others in the village. The two young women have, since, gone back to square one, hiring themselves out as daily labourers on farms and in local industries. They have gone back to their triple burden: being subjects of domestic violence, the sole breadwinners for their families, and bearing complete responsibility for housework and child care.


What does this story tell us?

Here is a case of primordial socio-economic disadvantage (a dalit identity) suffered by both men and women of this particular community. But there is the new possibility of this being offset by two major developments in the region. One, is the mitigation of caste-imposed social disabilities for this numerically strong and increasingly politically self conscious community due to the emergence of a new-found political relevance through the democratic electoral system. The second is the opening up of multiple farm and non-farm employment opportunities with decent wages for both men and women.

Regars – most of them at least – have already sold most of their land, taking advantage of the widening land market, and now own only their homesteads; so employment for wages is the only option. Money from the land sales and from occasional jobs have brought men good houses, cell phones and the motor cycle, and a television set and a source of film music for families – symbols of modern living. Children (both boys and girls) go to school. Pilgrimages are frequently undertaken. Weddings and social festivals (including modern ones like birthday parties) are more lavishly celebrated than ever before.

Yet, in qualitative terms, there is little prospect for inter-generational family advancement and, particularly, for the playing out of the famed Indian demographic dividend. The main reason is that women are becoming even more disadvantaged in this changing scenario. The men of this community willfully refrain from taking advantage of the available opportunities for upward economic mobility in the form of regular and well-paying jobs, preferring instead to earn just enough to finance extended bouts of epicurean pleasure. Regional prosperity is thus leaving families effectively supported by only one earner (the wife). And, unlike in the days when men were the main earners and women carried out subsidiary occupations like working on the family farm, doing occasional wage labour, tending to the family’s domesticated cattle and benefiting from the milk production, processing food for family consumption etc., today this sole woman earner labours under many additional burdens.

One is that of pre-existing undernourishment and anaemia during childhood born out of low social status arising from their being unwanted daughters (and not sons). Married in their early adolescence and now in their 20s as mothers of an average of three children each, the women are thin and anaemic adults having borne the extra burden of childbearing  in a state of nutritional vulnerability. As young wives, daughters-in-law, and mothers, they are expected to take responsibility for the entire housework : cook and clean for the whole family, meet their children’s basic needs, fill drinking water, secure a supply of firewood, milk the occasional goat or cow in the house, look after parents-in-law, and meet family religious and social expectations.  In addition they go out every day to do a full day’s wage work. For all this, they have to draw on their own scarce energy levels, time, effort and monetary resources. In addition, there is the burden of regular domestic violence at the hands of their drunken husbands who continually seek to demonstrate their social and physical power over them, even as they take away their wives’ little bits of carefully collected savings to fund their drinking habits.

Under these circumstances, the prospects for the next generation (of both boys and girls, but even more so for girls whose social devaluation remains unchanged) seem bleak. With no presence of the father in the lives of the children except as negative role models, and with mothers in a permanent state of work, exhaustion and the compulsion to be  responsive to social demands (periodic day-long fasts for the husband’s well-being being the most notorious, followed by pilgrimages, performance of rituals, and cooking for communal celebrations), small children face manifold disadvantages.

Children grow up barely supervised – nutritionally, health-wise, and in terms of behaviourial and mental/emotional stability and development. Their educational development is even more totally unsupervised. Sure, they all ‘go to school’. But what does this mean in qualitative terms for their educational advancement, when school teaching is of poor quality and there is no culture of regular homework or exposure to books or informed communication/discussion with adults at home to offset that?  Daughters can at best hope to be barely literate before they are pulled out of school (well before they reach 10th. grade) and married off. Sons, pampered at home and often playing truant from school,  most likely drop out.  Then, like their fathers, they look for intermittent work, interspersed with long periods of drinking and fun (we have tried employing young men, but it has not worked due to the above reasons). Young adolescent boys in the region are quick to begin chewing mild narcotics laced with tobacco, joining adult men in carpeting the village streets and commons with empty shining foil sachets of the stuff. Drinking, too, begins early, financed by occasional wages taken in from doing temporary jobs. As early as 14 or 15 years of age, they start dreaming of motorcycles. And marriage. Given that girls are not allowed to finish school,adolescent  spouses are readily available.

In such a scenario, it was a brave step indeed when Vinita and Rekha undertook to file FIRs against their abusive husbands. And some of the conditions were propitious. Both sisters had stable jobs, with informed and progressive employers who financed and identified a dedicated lawyer to take up their case. Thus, they had knowledge of and access to the Domestic Violence Act, itself a crucial factor. They also had access to a willing NGO which offered to take up their case and start the work of social mobilization in their village. The police acted on the FIR and arrested the wrongdoer.  The crucial missing link was the willingness of the women to take the next step of defying social convention and risking their reputation as socially compliant women. This, at the present moment, was the most critical step towards breaking the vicious cycle of abuse.  And possibly setting off new gains in their lives.   But one can also sympathise that the women know that they are illiterate and unskilled for anything more than unskilled labour; what would be their future were they were to give up their village and family moorings?

Conditions on the ground, such as the ones described in this story, have implications for the demographic dividend at the macro level. How and when will the tipping point present itself?  At this point in time, I cannot say.

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“If only I could be a widow!”  Many of the women I have encountered here, particularly those caught in the trap of violent and abusive marriages say this, half in jest.  But knowing the solemn and near-single-minded importance given to marriage in Indian society, I realise that there is a dead seriousness behind the apparently casual remark.

The stereotype of the traditional Hindu Indian woman is of the loyal and stoic wife:  one who prays all through her adolescence for the divine boon of a good husband, and then performs religious ceremonies all through her married life so that her husband is repeatedly reborn as her husband over the next seven lives.  These young married women whom I am talking to are very traditional Hindu women, in one of the very tradition-bound social regions of the country.  Why then do are many of them echoing this wish to be widows?

I probe this with Rekha and Vinita,  two young women in their early 20s. If widowhood is what they wish for, whatever happens to all the fasts and ceremonies that they observe weekly, monthly, and annually, for the welfare of their husbands?

“We are expected by our families to do all these wifely duties.  And, for years, we did  pray for our husbands to reform at least for the sakes of our children, ” they say.   But now they have given up hope of this ever  happening; they admit to me that they would be better off as widows, free from oppression by their alcoholic and abusive husbands.  I look at them with sadness that finds immediate response in their trusting eyes into which tears come welling from deep within.  What kind of hopelessness leaves such young women gazing into such a barren future?

Marriage comes early in the lives of these women, and they are unable to conceive of a life choice of remaining unmarried.  Nor is divorce, separation, or running away from home a realistic prospect.  For one, motherhood comes close on the heels of marriage, and the responsibility for and commitment to the upbringing of their children is theirs alone.  Then there is social insecurity of living lives ‘unprotected’ by a man. And, finally, there is the fear of bringing shame on their natal families.

Rekha and Vinita are two sisters who are married to two brothers, a common practice that poor families in rural Rajasthan adopt for social convenience (of negotiation and building a relationship with a single family), economy (since marriages are performed for both siblings together) and, not least, for some minimal emotional security and companionship for their daughters in the marital home (given that joint families are still the norm).  Both women are illiterate; their husbands barely better off than them in this regard.  They are  dalits,  traditional leatherworkers, but belong to landowning families (in this part of eastern Rajasthan, all castes have viable landholdings);  there is also a tradition among these communities of  hiring themselves out as daily agricultural workers, during the lean seasons on their own family farms.

The sisters were married off when they were barely 15 and 16, respectively, by a father who simply wanted to be done with his duty of marrying them off at the earliest opportunity. The young men he chose for them were known in their village of residence to be delinquents from childhood, drunkards from even when they were boys, who had dropped out of school after elementary level to become layabouts.   If their  father had made even perfunctory enquiries in the village, he would have known that the young men would not make desirable husbands who could keep his daughters happy.  But he did not care; the only criterion that mattered to him was that the family owned agricultural land and  had its own house; a comforting assurance that, at the very least, his daughters would have a roof over their heads in their new homes.

For Rekha and Vinita,  coming face to face with their new lives as married women was a shocking experience.  Brutal forced sex by drunken husbands, early onset of motherhood and repeated pregnancies meant  that within less than four years, Rekha was a mother of two surviving children – a girl and a boy – and Vinita  the mother of three little sons.  Given the acute disease of son preference in Rajasthan (and, indeed, most parts of India) their parents-in-law had turned a blind eye to the drinking and rowdy behaviour of their sons when they were boys. They were now relieved that, with the focus shifting to the new daughters-in-law,  they themselves would no longer be the only butt of their sons’ misbehaviour.  Let down by their natal family, and with no support forthcoming from the elders in their married home,  Rekha and Vinita had no one but each other for comfort and sympathy.

A few months ago the two women came to work for us as farm hands.  With time, they chose to work as regular employees, and also became willing to do housekeeping duties, thus giving us an opportunity to interact with them more closely.   The experience of job stability – as different from their earlier lives of daily wage labour with different employers – and the secure monthly income that this entails;  the perks of employment on our farm – nutritious daily meals; clothes, footwear and winter gear; literacy lessons; medical advice and care, interest free loans, crèche facilities for their children during long school holidays -;  and opportunities for pleasant social interaction with the community of women and men that work on the farm,  are slowly changing their self-perception.  From a situation of low self-worth, they are beginning to feel somewhat self-assured,  stemming  from the fact that for the first time they feel that they are in a social environment that gives value to their labour, and treats them as the vibrant young women that they are.  All these act to encourage them to repose some trust in us.  It is in some such moments of comfort that they openly speak about how even widowhood would be preferable to their present lives.

They point to Meera, another worker on the farm, who is a widow. Meera’s walk is brisk, she is always smiling, and looks serene.  Although her husband died in a road accident he, too, was an alcoholic and abusive husband who was drinking himself to death before the truck knocked him down.  Meera has to support her three children on her single income.  But,  at least she is able to do it in a stress-free environment.

Rekha and Vinita, too, are for all practical purposes the sole breadwinners for their families.  Both their husbands do occasional wage labour as welders in Jaipur city, and on other days use their incomes to enjoy themselves in bars and dhabas (roadside eating places), eating meat and getting drunk.   There are nights when they don’t return home.  On other days and nights, they more often than not turn violent towards their wives, alternating between thrashing them mercilessly for imaginary misdemeanors or plying them with maudlin attention as a prelude to sex.  When the women resist or refuse sex the thrashing resumes.  Kitchen utensils are smashed, doors slammed, locks broken, verbal taunts of sexual misconduct in the workplace hurled at them, after which the men either go into a deep slumber or ride away together on their motorbikes for another few days of disappearance.

The children are a steady witness to this violence.  We are unable to understand whether the behavioural changes the women describe are an outcome of this, but while Rekha’s six year old daughter has gradually retreated into total silence and is today labelled dumb by everybody around, Vinita’s eldest son who is eight gets sudden panic attacks when he is at home, throwing himself on the ground and frothing at the mouth as he shrieks “He is coming! He is coming!” and tries to ward away an imaginary male attacker.

Every now and again, one  or both sisters  have to absent themselves from work, either because the children fall sick or, more often, because the husband is at home drunk and wants to be pampered with food on demand and round-the-clock attention.  Without warning, his mood swing might push him to indulge his male power  through verbal abuse  or physical violence.   Generally, the supposed basis of these bouts of violence is the suspicion that because their wives are ‘exposed’ to men at the workplace, they must be straying from the path of virtue.   When the women began work with us, within a few days their husbands visited to check out the place.  On their return home that evening, the women were thrashed for going to work in a place that had male co-workers.

Of late – whether as a result of regular nutritious meals eaten in a convivial environment, or being in a supportive atmosphere where women’s rights is a regular subject of discussion –  Rekha’s and Vinita’s faces carry a new blush of youth and optimism, and they are learning to laugh again.  In these changed circumstances, their husbands are finding it hard to stomach what they are seeing, even as they refuse to improve their own ways.

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