Wednesday, 30 May 2012

One Woman's Choice

She is shy. She never looks me in the eye when she talks, but neither does she look away either, just tilts her head to one side, looks down, then up and asks some oblique question. Often when I addressed her, asking her to do something, she’d nod silently in a way that made me doubt my request had registered, but it would be done without a fuss. And it took a year for me to understand how much she processed in her mind, without articulating, or letting you know what she is feeling.

The other day, when reprimanded for taking too much time off from work, she revealed she had been sick for the better part of the month, but had come to work nonetheless. I felt guilty; knowing her temperament I should have realised there would be good reason. It was about ten days later that I was apprised of what was troubling her when she said “mera pati mujhe pareshan kar raha hai, vo kehta hai ke naukri chod do, kisi ne shikayat ki hai, ke mein aur mardon se zyada baatein karne lagi hu![i]”He had apparently been pestering her for a while and she could not deal with the tension anymore.

Her husband Ranjeet works with the local municipal department as a sweeper and earns a modest salary of about four thousand rupees. He and Priti live in Shankar Vihar, on the periphery of Palam Vihar, across the railway line that comes down from Gurgaon to Bijwasan. Isha, her neighbour, had brought Priti to work for me. Ranjeet had accompanied them for the interview and seemed a decent sort of guy, so I was surprised at the things I kept hearing about him.
 A few months ago, the cook’s temporary replacement Neha, had been making erotic calls to Ranjeet while Priti listened in. This came to my knowledge because of some other issue When Ranjeet discovered that I knew, he demanded that Priti leave the job. She didn’t want to. I suggested she assert herself and not refer to the incident again, as most likely he was not proud of what he had indulged in. She never brought it up again and work continued as per normal until this morning, when she said that someone had told her husband that she was cavorting with Mahipal, an old hand who has worked with me for twenty years.

I was as surprised to hear this as she was, not because Mahipal is a saint, but because Priti was reserved and I had not heard her speaking much to the other staff. There had been an incident a couple of years ago when Mahipal and another maid had got romantically involved, creating a major upset in my household and his marriage. But I thought that I had given him such a hard time as had his wife, so he must have learned his lesson, at least as far as my maids were concerned.

Priti is petite and pretty, is about twenty years old and her daughter is four. She dresses decently in clean and colourful salwar kameezes with matching dupattas. I’d see her walk into the complex, alone, every morning while Mahipal rode in on his ‘Scooty’. They came to work independently but at the same time. However, Priti left earlier and the chance of anyone seeing them chatting together, except those who work inside my apartment, was really an off-chance. It troubled her because she said, “Mein toh kisi se baat nahin karti hu”[ii], all the other women chat up the drivers and guards, but I just sign in and take the lift up.”

She also revealed that Ranjeet would drink and beat her up in his inebriated state, and often walked around the colony in dirty clothes even though she had new ones stitched for him. The neighbours would taunt her by asking what his problem was, why he behaved this way, citing that she earned as much as he did, kept a good home and they ate well too. I too thought the same: Why would any man do this?

Why was he insecure? Did he think she was too beautiful for him? Today, he finds fault with a male employee in my home, even though he had no qualms about flirting with another woman under his wife’s nose, indulging in erotic sexual tele-talk. Tomorrow he’d find fault with someone or something else. I asked if my talking to him would help, thinking I could explain that these situations could come up wherever she works and that he had to find the capacity to trust her. But is the problem really about trusting her, or his lack of confidence?

She kept saying, “Aadmi toh aadmi hota hai, guzara toh karn hai[iii], I’ll have to do what he says” elaborating that “my mother says phir koi kaam nahin karna, ghar pe he baithe rehna[iv]I asked if she was okay with this and she responded saying, “Last month, I saved my salary to pay for my daughter’s school admission. How will I educate her, if there is only one income? He’ll send me to the village to stay with his mother and in all probability my daughter will not be educated in the way that I want her to be”.

I asked if she’d talked to her father. She said, “Mein toh papa ke samne kuch nahin keh sakti hu[v] There was a tattoo on her arm that said ‘Priti and Ranjeet’ in Hindi, prompting me to think that she had married him of her own choosing but she revealed that he was twelve years older and her parents had arranged the marriage. Ranjeet apparently sported the same tattoo on his arm too. I could see a gentle blush on her face and glint in her eyes as she shyly recounted when the tattoo was inscribed. They had clearly shared some special moments despite it being an arranged marriage.

The status of women in India has had a chequered history from enjoying equality with men in ancient times to female infanticide and dowry deaths in recent times. Many women were part of India’s freedom movement but many wives, sisters and daughters were also burned alive to protect them from the rape and violence that took place during partition. Annie Besant[vi]  and Sarojini Naidu[vii] both served, independently, as Presidents of the Indian National congress and Vijay Lakshmi Pandit was not just the first Indian to become the President of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953; she was also the first woman in the world to hold this office. Indira Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, of almost fifteen years, is the longest for any woman in the world.

In addition, the current President of the nation and Speaker of the Lok Sabha are both women. However, despite according women such high office and prestige, we also indulge in bride burning, child marriage and domestic violence. The Constitution of India guarantees equality to all women but there is wide gender disparity in literacy between men and women which has a negative impact on family planning and could contribute to women like Priti lacking the confidence to stand up to their husbands. Yet one has also seen women from the same social strata make bold choices to remarry with children from their first marriage. Some even chosing to abandon them to remarry.

There is a great deal of development around us where large tracts of farm land have been sold to build multi-storied urban housing, creating a lot of wealth for farmers and villagers around the metros. Mobile phones have made telephonic connectivity accessible to all parts of the country and all income groups. All of this has brought about a lot of change in the social profile but is the issue of how women are regarded within personal relationships really a social issue or an individual one? And how much does the social environment influence personal choices?

Priti earns, but that’s a threat. She can be financially independent, but does not have the will to leave an abusive husband; paradoxically she has the courage to want to deal with this but not to fend for herself and her child. Yet neither does she seem able to assert herself within the marriage, maintaining her independence and being respected as an equal partner. She has to find the courage to tackle him one way or another. It can’t pay to give into his insecurity, but for someone as reticent as Priti, asserting herself may not come easy. I know from my own experience that this is easier said than done. Personal ‘Mahabharata’s’ are fraught with subtle dilemmas that are hard to unravel. It can get ugly and emotionally stressful. However spiritually enlightening these experiences may end up being, no one comes out of them in shining armour.

 Her husband did not come see me, her mother came instead. The woman seemed intent upon separating them but her daughter was not keen. Priti left the job abruptly, coming to collect her dues a couple of weeks later, when she mentioned to my other domestic help that she would like to come back. When I called, she said Ranjeet had been treating her better and indicated she could resume working, as they do miss the extra income. She then handed the phone to Ranjeet who said he doesn’t mind the money, but the problem was that when Priti was earning “bolti bahut hai![viii]

The dynamics of this equation were complex. I thought it was best to let them sort it out on their own.The woman was quiet but no walk-over. She had a mind of her own and, although generally reserved, I am told she was capable of a sharp tongue and that working here had given her some confidence to stand up to Ranjeet. And when she did, she gave as good as she got. This did not strike me as a woman who had given up her job to sustain her relationship because she was afraid to stand up to him.

She earned as much as he did and if she had walked out of the marriage, she and her daughter would live off the kind of money he was presently earning and one less mouth to feed. Her mother had tended to her child while she was at work, so this too would have been taken care of. When her mother had asked me to ascertain the legalities of her moving out, I called the women’s cell in Gurgaon, but Priti did not want to know what needed to be done. She struck me as a woman who may not like confrontation and contention, but did not lack confidence either. The choice she made was not determined by logic but her heart and this eventually requires a lot of faith. She had talked as though the situation bothered her. She had dilemmas but looking at various options presented and discussed with her, she ascertained what she wanted to do, or rather what she did not want to do.

Can she be faulted? In this day and age when women are encouraged to take a stand and walk away, prove their mettle in the world rather than within testing relationships, Priti was going against the tide. What she was doing could be lot harder than walking away. From what I have heard, she is not keeping well. She is sacrificing a lot and it must be uncomfortable to deal with a choice that defies reason. But personal issues involve personal choices and while social conditioning may play a part, for someone as silently strong willed as Priti, perhaps there could have been no other choice.

[i] My husband is harassing me, says leave the job, someone has tattled, saying that I have become very chatty with other men.
[ii] I dont’ speak to anyone
[iii] A husband [man] is a husband,  have to endure/compromise/make do
[iv] Then don’t plan on working, you will have to stay at home
[v] I cannot say anything in front of/to my father
[vi] 1917
[vii] 1925
[viii] talks to much [is vocal about her feelings]