Save rapes, there has never been a better time in history to be an urban Indian woman. Alongside them, young metropolitan Indian men can be seen unpretentiously sharing domestic chores, albeit some more, and others less – unthreatened, when labeled “domestic” or “sensitive”. Nonetheless, the domestic tapestry two generations ago, was full of other variants of the Indian male. “Aspirations” for the fairer sex back then meant cooking, birthing and competing to be more puritan. Between these two contrasting worlds, graced a brand of women, least appreciated and most under-rated in India – career women of the 70s and 80s. Women, who ventured for the first time in search of a modern career-job, progressive in aspirations yet compelled to be apologetic, doubling as traditional wives saving compromises for none – these were ordinary women in extraordinary social situations. In this day and age, with ready-made dosa-mix, ingenious dubbawalas and internet shopping, most of what they achieved may appear unremarkable. But, what if we were to peek into a wonted day in their lives ? Would we think differently of them ?
In 1986, there were only two cars most middle-class Indians could afford: The Ambassador and the Fiat. Maruti 800 had avariciously entered the scene but for our family that was too small. I had been hurriedly squeezed in the rear seat of our Fiat, between two fairies of silence – my paternal and maternal grandmothers. The former was a short, wholesome soul, clad white, utterly fluffy like snowball teddy bear and consumed half the rear seat. The latter was tall, fluent in three languages, moulded in mannequin proportions, draped in somber pastel shade, and yet disarmingly elegant. Her thin frame leaned so hard against the window to fit me in the middle, given our space deficit, that I was scared she might be blown out through the open window and my mother orphaned. Mom was stearing like a soldier on mission, towards our home. It was quite unusual for women to be driving in these smaller Indian cities in the mid-80s, but she cared less for perceptions. That was least of her problems that day. Like most gluttons, I did not understand, why in Gods name must we fetch these two senile souls, forgoing my normal dinner time ?. An hour ago, just as we had left to fetch them, my father was lavishing himself on the culinary delights my mother had laboured. I was angry and jealous. I knew, those dishes extraordinaire were veritably intended to make my last day of summer vacation memorable. Why then, had my mother dragged me along to import these two creatures of self-entitlement ? That instant, the desire of food far outweighed my love for grannies. My 8 yeared brain constantly worried if there would be anything left to salvage from those delicacies, as we returned. I was hungry and in equal measure indignant at not being placed in the front seat. Yet, I could sense this was no ordinary trip, this was a “mission of sorts”, more important than U.N can ever envisage today. My parents had had a difference of opinion earlier that day over the finances of my education -nothing potentially disastrous. Nevertheless, hard to resolve rationally, given the Indian male-ego characteristic to that age. This trip, as I learned later that night, was my mother`s strategem to allay dad´s antipathy to expensive residential schooling. He was convinced it was an unnecessary liablilty. Mom drove in to the rather narrow parking of our home.
My father was surprised and elated to see granny and so was I at the prospect of dinner. Servient, my mother set down dinner, cleared the dishes, cleaned the kitchen, ironed dad´s clothes for the travel next day and innocently joined the post-dinner conversation, as though nothing in the world had changed. The expenses of my education had by then emerged as a bone of contention between the fairies of silence. They suddenly had discovered sounds and words and were quite happy to hurl them at one another, pitching themselves in opposite camps. My father was visibly irritated at this tug and verily wished its end. I noticed that my mother was lovingly caressing his hair, as though she sensed his urgency of itch amidst this din. She inadvertantly offered to resolve this engineered crisis with a casual solution that may suit all. She could shoulder my over-bearing fees as well as the house-hold expenses, out of her salary. Consequently, leaving my father´s pay-cheque wholly free for commitments to “his” home. The aged women looked rather disappointed that they had suddenly nothing more to tussle over. Dad´s gleamy eyes were thankful to be fished out of this melee. Not surprisingly, this same idea that was unacceptable to him earlier that day had by now become a most welcome bail-out !!. Ignorant that my mother had just saved my education, I was mostly excited at the thought of seeing my friends back at school again. Dutifully, mom made the bed for all of us, re-checked the dough and fermenting batter for the next morning, drafted her´s and dad´s leave application and tucked me into bed. I had over-eaten as was the norm and quickly fell in to slumber. Years later, I woke up from that slumber an educated man.
Working women in India has always had it thorny, to get the balancing act together and to navigate the two opposing worlds in one go – modern and traditional. Yet, they champion, to this day, holding on to whatever is dear, in family, profession, propriety and goals, they field on all fronts. One must admit, it has, to a degree, become easier today for women to strategize against the odds of social contrasts. But, it was never always so. There wanders among us a species, a brand, whatever one may choose to call them, of women, who had no rules to begin with or to play by and had to make it as they marched on. Courage, I reckon, was their best cosmetic.