Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
Mother India to Ms. India
Looking back, the 20th century will be seen as the century of the woman. Sex is no longer destiny. It is a career choice. Like the many armed goddesses of the past, the modern woman can choose to be anything that she likes. The worst fears of the patriarchy have been unleashed. The female force is finally in the ascendant. Centuries of conditioning about the "Second Sex", the weaker sex, the delicate sex, the fair sex, that is alternately venerated and violated only to be kept in a state of passive subjugation, so as to protect the genetic agenda to reproduce and nurture the future generation, have been erased by the power of the Pill.
As far as women are concerned, the effect of the Pill, which is the short-hand term for all the advances in controlling what used to be seen as the central role of the woman, her fertility, has been mightier than the Bomb. For, whereas the Bomb destroys, and hence in theory, cannot be used, the Pill empowers. It sets women free. It gives hope to even the most illiterate woman living on the margins of society because it has been proved to be cheap and effective. That many women have neither the means, nor the will to make use of this revolutionary weapon is not relevant to this argument. The fact is that it is there.
"Anger is perhaps the greatest inspiration in those days when the individual is separated in so many personalities. Suddenly one is all in one piece," wrote Eileen Gray, an architect and a woman, who had once been associated with the famous French architect Le Corbusier and been professionally side-lined by him. As one of the early feminists she recognised the positive force of anger.
The anger of women has been another strong rallying point in the quest for selfhood. It has been mocked at and ridiculed, trivialised and satirised by the endless harping on the "Women's Lib" movement, led by the bra-burning brigades of the Sixties. Feminism has become both a political force and an industry to be accepted by those who feel that they can benefit from it, or forsaken by those who regard it as a dangerous virus, particularly in God-fearing societies where men have been living quite comfortably on the understanding that they are only following "His Will" by keeping woman under the veil, the chaddar, the ghunghat, or behind walls, protected by the incontrovertible load of tradition. It has been denounced as another import of the decadent West that has absolutely no place in the serenely secure societies of the East, brimming with ancient cultural values, whereas we are told all the time, women are actually worshipped.
In Mehboob's famous film, "Mother India" the most electrifying moment comes at the end, when Nargis, Indian cinema's most enduring heroine, picks up a gun and kills her own favourite son Birju, who has become a dacoit, when he comes to take revenge against the moneylender at whose hands his mother has suffered all her life. It is more than 40 years since "Mother India" was shown in 1957, and few people will remember the extraordinary hold that the film had on the imagination of the viewers. It was in part a response to the trauma of Partition, where like the Birju figure, one part of the country had turned against the Motherland. In another light, it was an epic poem to the suffering image of the Indian woman as exemplified in the transformation of Nargis, from a beautiful bride, to the anguished wife, mother, tiller of the soil, a single woman whose body is still desired by the greedy moneylender and finally the saviour of the village, who goes against her innermost instincts to kill her son. You couldn't get more reactionary than that. It's a triumph of the patriarchy where even the most oppressed of victims turns around and supports the old feudal order. There could be no bigger sacrifice than that of a Mother killing her own son for the greater good of society, even a society that has just ground her into the soil.
Do all the different facets of her suffering allow "Mother India" to reach a moment of absolute clarity at the end? Is she exhibiting a healthy anger, or is it the sentimentalised anger of those who like to believe that there is nothing more ennobling than a victim who accepts her fate. These ambiguities, along with the lushly beautiful image of Nargis toiling away in glorious cinematic colour, are what make the myth of "Mother India" so compelling. In a poor country it is almost a consolation to be a victim. Women have been persuaded to play this role till it has almost become a hereditary right to become widows, to become "satis" to become temple prostitutes, to be labelled as "unclean", or "barren" or to be regarded as property to be bartered as the system demands. This type of anger fragments a society and destroys an individual into thinking that he or she is just a helpless plaything for the gods, or economic forces to control or destroy, or the next well meaning NGO to bachao. It is quite the opposite of the positive anger that a Vivekananda, or a Gandhi, or any of the social reformers of the pre-Independence era, were able to instil.
In India, Gandhiji was able to mobilise the latent anger of a colonised society into a weapon of peaceful resistance. By involving the women of the country in the freedom movement he accomplished through the moral force of Satyagraha what the two World Wars had done for the West. Women gained a professional status. They could compete with men on the factory floor in the industrialised countries. While in India they could aspire to the more elite professions such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, writers and cultural activists. For such a rigidly stratified society it was perhaps to be expected that even the liberation of women should take place along class lines.
It is only when a Phoolan Devi appears on the scene with guns blazing, or a Shahbhanu seeks justice from an antiquated system, or an Ameena, the child-bride from Hyderabad, revolts against being sold to a rich old Arab, that the anger is able to focus itself once again with the same clarity of purpose that used to be seen during the days of the freedom struggle. It is true, in all these three cases, the fight has been against the oppression of poverty rather than the suppression due to gender.
Unless there can be economic freedom there can be no real freedom. The true heroines are those unheard of career women who have taken part in the milk revolution that was started by V. Kurien at Anand, the women who have formed part of cooperative societies that roll out Lijjat pappads, or make pickles, or garments, or who shell prawns in icy cold factories for export at remote places like Veraval on the coast of Gujarat.
Or like the woman I met sitting on the open street at Halebid in Karnataka, with a table and a sewing machine. "My husband is a tailor," she said, "But because he is ill I have taken his place. I can do the work just as well. I have been helping him with the handwork. This is the height of the tourist season, we cannot give up our work." She was thin and dark, her head bent over her machine as she talked, but she was neatly dressed with her hair oiled and combed, her face washed and clean, stamped with a red tikka. In some cases, economic freedom comes in the shape of a bar of soap, a tin of powder, a dab of make-up.
It is the price that a woman pays in a market economy to make herself presentable. It is underlined by the devotion that the media pays to the glamour industry. Goodness has been replaced by the fetish of cleanliness. Clean teeth that bounce the light off their surfaces, with little twinkling stars, smoothly polished skin that combats those hidden demons, dust, dirt, air pollution that are waiting to invade the un-moisturised complexion, hair that repels dandruff and is also full of bounce, are some of the essential features of the image of the complete woman. It is almost entirely on these qualities (height and a well stacked figure being added assets) that a Beauty Queen is judged. We are also told in no uncertain terms that she is clean even on those "difficult days" because of her strong devotion to products that zoom around making sure that there are no embarrassing odours, or heaven forbid, stains, that could cause her to be banished from polite society.
Happiness to the modern professional woman is a clean white shirt. Whereas before she would be expected to wash and iron them, today she wears them. The squareness of the crisply pleated white shirt, or white coat, worn by a doctor, a dentist, a scientist, a biologist, or even beautician instil a sense of power. The hair is styled with knife-edged precision to fall in angular sheets framing each side of the face and in the case of those who wear traditional clothes, rather than the Armani suits favoured by the businesswoman in the West, even the folds of the saree, or dupatta are trained to fall in parallel lines.
It is a moment to savour. From Mother India to Aishwarya Rai. No matter how strange and singularß an image that the Indian woman finds for herself, reflected in the cosmetic lens of the media, at least it is one that she has chosen for herself. Or has she?
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