Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay is one of my grandmother’s favorite novelists, and she says so with an air of superiority. To like Sarat Chandra is to be acknowledged as a true connoisseur of literature in India.
So it is at the risk of being rebuffed that I say this: Sarat Chandra’s novels, particularly at the storyline level really get up my nose. I have tried reading them through all kinds of lenses—rose tinted, myopic, historic etc. etc. but they seem to always end up in the same place.
The female protagonist is always bovine and sweet-tempered. She has all but trashed her sense of self and individuality, and happily submits to the whims of her male counterpart, her family, and society, serving them all diligently, and allowing them to do with her life whatever they please. The male protagonist is almost a mirror opposite – self-seeking, irresponsible, thick-skinned and narcissistic. He believes that the world – including his family and the female protagonist are there to serve him and submit to his will. This in a nutshell is Sarat Chandra’s idea of an ideal male-female relationship.
Parineeta, continues to be one of Sarat Chandra’s most popular works among Indians as indicated by the huge popularity of its recent movie adaptation. It is the story of a 13-year-old orphan girl, Lalita, who is raised in her uncle’s house and is infatuated with the neighbor’s son, Shekhar. In her relationship with Shekhar she willingly renders herself choice-less. All her decisions and activities are dictated to by his wants and moods. If her going out for a movie with her friends displeases him, then she sulks and sobs but eventually obeys his whim. On one occasion, she garlands Shekhar on a certain day deemed auspicious, when by virtue of that prank she is considered betrothed to him. There upon she begins to regard Shekhar as her husband. Shekhar who seems bored and aloof, however knows that his father would never accept his marriage to an orphan girl with no dowry to her name. Yet, he is smug in the knowledge of the hold he has on her.
Sighing deeply, Shekhar said aloud in a stifled voice, ‘What is to be done?’ He knew Lalita only too well, having all but brought her up himself; what she once decided was sanctioned by religion, she would not go against under any circumstances. Lalita was certain that religion recognized him as Shekhar’s wife.
Of course Lalita’s age could be considered a factor here. She’s a child and he’s a man. But putting aside, for now, this Lolita factor, (uncanny how close those names are), which was a common phenomenon then as it still is in much of rural India even today, it is clear that to all and sundry in the story, Lalita was not a child but a young woman of marriageable age. Indeed her behavior, mannerisms, beliefs, etc are all modeled on the ideal woman image that she and young girls are expected to emulate.
For me, the critical issue is – that this very gender dynamics that we see in Parineeta, its underlying conviction and mindset, is in fact still in place in India even today.
Lalita, the character, comes across not like a person but a piece of furniture. Her uncle, Shekhar and all the other male characters in the novel ponder over questions like: Where can she be put? What is to be done with her? Who will take charge of her? Who can she be married to? Which house can she be moved to next? And this is exactly how girls and women are viewed in India even today! It is as if to be female is to be a non-entity – with no voice, opinions and choices. Her life is not hers to decide what to do with. She does not decide who she wants to be or not be, what she wants to do or not do, and where she wants to go or not go.
Worst of all, it is not like these women are devoid of strength and willpower – ah! the lauded Shakti! Indeed many of them have their own pot of venom and can spit like a cobra when need be. But they almost never use it in self-defense. That strength is used to uphold traditions, defend family honor, and sustain the community, even when those very elements negate them.
Indeed my grandmother, who is 91-years old now, Sarat Chandra’s biggest fan, is very much within this line of Indian femininity. She attended college at a time when more than 90% of India’s women across all class boundaries, were illiterate. As a young woman she played Portia in an enactment of the Merchant of Venice. She was forced to marry the man she did not love – a marriage which was the equivalent of rape. And all her married life she endured the most horrific violence. And at the end of all that she would still raise her head and honor her husband.
I look around at my family, community, and country and bewail that this is the ideal form of womanhood that has now resulted in the killing of more than 50 million women in India – killed at every stage of life. Depersonalized, usable, movable, and disposable objects like Sarat Chandra’s heroines. Sometime back, a journalist questioning me about the 50 Million Missing Campaign I founded, asked how I thought Indian women were responding to this female genocide in India. And I said: Like cows going to the slaughter. Bells around the neck, mooing all the way!
What harbors this grotesque form of femininity in India? What makes the girls and women adhere to it like it were a hypnotic conditioning? The answer is in what Shekhar said: Religion. Hinduism is the ONLY religion in the world where the husband is put on par with god. The Laws of Manu, India’s ancient revered scripture merrily informs women: they must worship their husbands like God and Master, even if he is a brute, is promiscuous, and has no redeemable qualities. The important question is: Will the Indian woman dare to challenge her God?