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A New Indian Woman?
by Kusum Choppra Bookmark and Share
 

Have you ever heard of a woman called Sitaram ? Or Radhakrishna or Radheshyam? Why?

The names sound feminine enough. Then why does one only hear of men carrying those double-barreled names? Legend has it that these double-barreled names are the outcome of a "vardaan" from the Gods to two women, Sita and Radha: that their names would always precede the man's. This was because their steadfast loyalty and pure love had raised them head and shoulders above their communities, even their men, Ram and Krishna, respectively.

For Krishna had dallied with dozens and married two, but Radha, a married woman defied home, family and society, to abide by her steadfast love for her Lord.

Sita too proved her mettle, in banwas, in imprisonment, in the agnipariksha and ever after, to place herself a cut above the Maryada Purushottam, against whose later days and apparent lust for power, question marks still stand.

Yet it was the men who were named Radhakrishna, Radheshyam, Sitaram or Shivaramakrishna.

The issue here is the usurpation, by the male of the species, of the double-barreled name, which was the vardan of the Gods for the females of the species.
In earlier times, and often in our times too, men were conscious of the threat of being out shone by their women. Hence the girls are never christened Sitaram, Radheshyam or Radhekrishna; only plain Sita or Rama, Radha or Krishna. It is the boys who get the double appellation.

The oldest cultures saw the woman as the Life giver, the Nurturer. Hence the personification of earth, nature and the rivers etc. as female deities and the matrilineal communities. At some juncture, when a crisis erupted when the woman was going through her reproductive cycle, the Man used his brute physical force to meet the crisis and to take over.

What proof is there that the Cave Woman did not accompany the Cave Man on his hunting expeditions? Or that Cave Man actually slung Cave Woman over his shoulder to cut short the wooing process? Except the buffoonery of some Western writers? Where brute force takes the day. In the Orient, female deities held sway longer - in fact, almost until the precursors of the Occident arrived, after the Occident had outgrown its own female deities with the advent of Christianity.

The precursor of the ghunghat was the purdah of Islam, while ancient India celebrated its women in the carvings of Mohenjadaro and Khajuraho. Now Hindutva choses to opt for aping Christianity and Islam in imposing uniformity in organized religion, where rather than reap souls, religious leaders prefer reap real estate riches from their devotees.

In recent times a new Indian woman has emerged.

There are two ways of looking at it. The New Indian woman can be termed a very nebulous creature populating the hyper active mind of writers only; for there remain to this day millions upon millions of women who might dress like the new Indian woman but mentally and physically remain steeped in the post partition era and mentalities.

Or she can be a many splendored creature, super woman, ranging from the 'done that, seen that, type of person' to a well-rounded personality who combines profession with personal admirably. It all depends on the spectrum of society you interact with.

The New Indian Woman is in fact a many splendored creature, more educated and aware than her predecessor, although very large segments of the New Indian Woman seems to be losing out on the massive store we have as heritage. This is because parents, more especially mothers, push daughters towards careers so vigorously that earlier 'feminine' arts such as embroidery, knitting, cooking, more temperate housekeeping, even child and health care is left by the wayside as women climb rapidly up the career ladder. Housekeeping becomes cursory or relegated to a housekeeper who is also a professional, a career woman perhaps lower down the ladder than the corporate executive whose house she looks after. But then, the housekeeper too is a new Indian woman.

So it is, that you win some, you lose some for the New Indian Woman who scales new heights, crashing through all the glass ceilings. More than the urban woman whose heights were scaled even before Partition and regularly thereafter, in today's India, it is the rural woman who is more deserving of the New Indian Woman categorization.

Statistics confirm that the number of families headed by women is rising dramatically, especially in the rural areas. And thousands of women are making their mark in panchayats and other local self-government bodies and organizations across the country working at the grass roots levels, with startling results.

Another aspect is the New Indian woman depicted in media, especially electronic media and films'generally a more feather headed person than may be actually the case. In the current crop of serials, the New Indian Woman comes across very sorry. Tulsi and Parvati are hardly new Indian women, for all their glamorous homes, they are as hectoring as any old time Nanad or Sasuma, and as regressive.

But for all the hectoring and the ruling that the women do, they will still do the perfunctory know-towing to the male and forgive them all their sins, although each and every single digression of the woman becomes an earth shattering event for the entire joint family.

Rare is the woman in any of those popular soaps ever does anything except dress to kill; even a supposedly professional like Prerna is never seen working as one, although she does dare to take on issues as rapid-fire marriages and divorces and recently, rape and marital differences. A symbol like Jassi, despite her hi-fi career and transformation remains a creature of her father, and then family, rather than her own.

Unfortunately producers are still rather shy of translating literary works into films, serials or plays. Heroine oriented, author backed roles are a rarity. I cannot recall a recent example, beyond Parineeta. Before the K serials of the Ekta Kapoor's society women genre inundated TV, there was a very interesting series that translated short stories into single episode short TV plays. Some of them brought out the strengths of women much more powerfully than any of the big names in the K soaps. But if I recall correctly, again most were nostalgic rather than contemporary.

Feminism may be big headlines and page three chatter; but hard-core feminism where women think like women, not like men, is still struggling for a voice.

Novels would undoubtedly make an impact, if they managed to get read in the first place. Perhaps in the smaller towns and campuses, where reading has not yet gone out of fashion novels are devoured with some appetite.

In elite circles, it is no longer fashionable to read. And if anyone does read, it is totally incomprehensible for everyone why anyone should read an Indian author, except may be a Shobha De or Jhumpa Lahiri ?

Big-ticket authors find a wide readership. Those who come via an NRI tag enjoy an edge, no doubt. But the impact is limited to much the same elite circles that produce that limited edition of the New Indian woman who populates the soap operas on TV.

Who or what constructs this media image, or what are some of the factors that contribute to this construction?

Unfortunately the construction of the New Indian Woman, who is publicly projected, has been left more in the hands of persons who are out of touch with the reality of most of India. Writers of plays and serials and films today, even the more popular pulp fiction which finds publishers easily, are by and large persons from upper middles or plain wealthy homes, whose exposure to the Other India outside their world of internet cafes, international rock shows, malls, multiplexes and foreign holidays is very very limited. That is why perhaps that their characters act very out-of-character as women from homes other than those that are super rich.

Hence even so-called middle class heroines wear designer outfits and make up and are very rapidly propelled into the hundreds of crores category. Their concerns are rarely down to earth at all. Has anyone seen any really good middle middle class serial in the mould of Humlog or film like Chitchor or Gharonda in recent times? Has anyone seen a serial heroine dressed like the ordinary woman on the street in any of our non-metropolis or if not actually working professionally or at least keeping house like any normal 'real life' woman?

Even writers, it is rather depressing to note, quickly hark back to early, post independence eras for a middle class touch, while most recent writing is devoted to multiplex ma'ams and their counterparts from smaller towns.

Chhote ghar ke log or chhote gaon ke log are a subject of derision, rather than an exploration of their emotions, problems, issues. Glamour, it is felt, sells and everyone goes all out for that glamour, and literature be damned. Kal kisne dekha? Is the attitude. For the big city slick writer, the new woman is a combination of the people he knows, is familiar with, therefore easier to depict in words or pictures.

It is ironic that modern Indian English writers often write in the nostalgic mode. Should it be interpreted that modern writers do not find too much worth writing about the modern miss. Or that the modern miss is already nostalgic about the past when she was not a cutting edge, gizmo driven DINK?

Apart from the nostalgia segment, we have an imitation of the west, whether it is post-Harold Robbins sex driven novels or the Harry Potter imitations. Where is the New Indian woman in these?

She scores, if at all, in the short story genre and in the regional languages. India is a vast country with countless talents waiting to tell their tales. Whenever they get the chance, they present a smorgasbord of the Indian woman's experience in all her harrowing variety. Humor is usually in short supply. Every other emotion aplenty.

Writing in English does give the writer a snob value when interacting with readers of regional literature. Inversely, regional writers do often display an inverse snobbery when meeting writers in English'we're in touch with the real India, tum to angrez ki juthan ho; sort of unspoken vibes are common.

In some ways, one may be tempted to accept the New Indian Woman is a political construction, viewed from the point of view as politics being relationships of power at all levels of society, and not just as government or party politics.
Writers sculpt this female political construction with an agenda dictated in very many cases, through suitable veils, by the presiding deities in India today, the political parties and the Sangh Parivar. Those who are aware of the nuances can recognize the guiding hand quite easily.

The day has yet to come when Woman Power will be truly womanpower and not a creature of its author. There are very few women who think like a woman and move forward. All too frequently, they succumb to that admonish ' think like a man'. Remember that famous quip about Indira Gandhi being the only Man in her cabinet. If women continue down that path already beaten by men, how will they ever bring the world back from the brinks that Men have brought it to?        
14-May-2006
More by :  Kusum Choppra
 
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