Friday, May 3, 2013

The toxic temptations of patriarchy

A few months ago, I set up office on my hotel bed, with the television for company. Rajshri’s ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’ was on, a film I had first watched ages ago on a scratchy video print in Oregon, unable to tell who was getting engaged or married to whom. I have since “watched” the film now and then, usually in the background. It’s an easy watch. It’s an easy film. And it seems to me it’s an easy life.

Take the plot. One couple. Three sons. One daughter, dutifully married off early. Sons romance and get married in the course of the film. Daughters-in-law are essentially waiting in the wings, able and willing to make perfect tea, perfect laddoos, perfect halva or whatever. Even the doctor only seems to have studied medicine in order to administer medicines on a timely basis to family elders. Everyone is well-fed, well-groomed, well-loved, smiling and at leisure to sing and dance and entertain when they want. There is conflict but its source is also patriarchal—whose son should be the main heir to the family property (which is actually plentiful).

I enjoy watching this film as I bend over reports and academic writing on conflict, sexual violence, injustice and politics. In a messy, horrid world, it’s the relaxing pleasure of passing your hand over a crumpled bedsheet and watching the wrinkles smoothen out. I have enjoyed the film, sometimes watching from the middle, many times before.  

But this last time, I thought: why did some of us make choices that make our lives so difficult? It could have been this easy. I look at ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’ and think of how simple life could have been. This is not to say that joint families don’t hold challenges and that real women working full-time in real households don’t work extremely hard. But if I just accepted patriarchy lock, stock and barrel, maybe I would not notice, and therefore, would see only the good parts. As I grow older and tired, the art direction, the endless tea and the smiling people beckon to me. Almost.

Unfortunately, I know that outside of the movies, the chiffon sarees wrap around a lifetime of emotional and physical abuse for many women. I know that women in patriarchal households (and most of ours are) work longer hours than anyone should, all for the convenience of others who could well take care of themselves. All their jewellery and comforts dress up the reality of economic dependence which confines them to a certain domestic universe and limits their real choices. I know that even within patriarchy, most women do not inhabit this world but that almost all of them ‘service’ it in one way or another. Patriarchy also demands that women subdue their talents and hide their intelligence, that they shrink their claims to life, to space, to voice, to air, in order that the sense of entitlement it bestows upon men, remains unhindered.

Just think of the last time you sat next to a man in a cramped aircraft row, and he thought nothing of resting his elbow on the armrest, letting his legs spill into your little leg-room area. And the ads that suggest that stay-at-home mothers are less thoughtful and well-informed than their brattish (usually male) children. That’s patriarchy, too, and unlike the smiling ladies of ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain,’ I glower, not glow.

And the men. The ones who want to sing and dance but have to get real jobs. The ones that are dying to watch the puris puff up and the mysore pak form into perfect consistency. The ones who want to be friends with women rather than their stalkers and conquerors. Patriarchy has no room for them, really, does it? Nor for the men who like men and the women who like women. Patriarchy makes for a simple life because it simplifies the world into simplistic categories.

And the housework! I have long held that the cruellest twist of patriarchy might well be the expectation that women should do and enjoy doing housework. Nothing else can grind down the human spirit as efficiently as the day-in-day-out housework (and this is why cheerful homemakers deserve both respect and compassion), that the endless tea and besan ke laddoo and sumptuous thalis involve.

On television serials, patriarchy creates a zero-sum situation between male and female protagonists. When the hero is wonderful, the women around him just cry and simper and seduce. The heroine can only shine at the expense of the hero—patriarchy is inverted, with the heroine taking pot-shots or lecturing at the hero who loves her so much he doesn’t care. Where have we seen this before?

But still, I am sometimes weary enough I do think: would my life have been much easier if I had gone with the flow, not asked any questions, not found small and large battles to fight at every turn, deferred and submitted? If I had got married at 20? Had all my children, preferably boys, by 24? Not had or cultivated interests outside my family? “Got” my children married at 20, in turn, been enjoying grandchildren by now? Essentially been free at this age to be relaxed about things. Maybe. And popular culture would not be a mined landscape of infuriating ideas and images. Going with the flow conserves so much energy, and that sounds very good these days.

It might have been simpler in some ways. But it would not have been my life, would it? The easy road would have led to a certain kind of hell and the indulgences of patriarchy been a slow-working poison. And how can one not see the iniquities, the injustices and the violence? And when one does see, how is one to ignore them?

Patriarchy is fine in small cinematic doses, administered as sound and light and beauty in the background of real life. That’s quite enough. More than enough. Thank you. 

And yes, my petition to end it is still in the queue, and still holds good. Can we have the adrak chai, the laddoos, the chiffons and music, the love and the happiness, without the patriarchy, please? And equality without exhaustion.

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