Privilege, Helplessness, and Choice

In India, labour is cheap. A middle-class family like mine can afford domestic workers. Laxmi (name changed) has been coming home for over three years now, every day. She scrubs the floor, does the dishes and the laundry. She sometimes cleans the bathrooms, and tends the plants.

Laxmi is old and poor. She sits on the floor with some porridge my mother prepares for her every day, and tells her in broken Tamil, stories of how her drunk husband abuses her – the details of said abuse hidden in her descriptions but not in her scars. Of how her son is a “leech” and never contributes toward the family income or chores. Of how distraught she is because her oldest daughter married for love.

What’s scary is that we’ve had domestic workers before and Laxmi’s story is frighteningly similar to theirs. If they wrote books about their lives, the imagery would superimpose so well that you couldn’t tell them apart. And there are millions of such stories. In India, the disparity between the rich and the poor is so horribly wide, the hopes of reconciliation are narrowing down rapidly.
It is reasonably easy to talk to an urban woman about the merits of marrying for love. You can expect her to understand and at least eventually let her daughter back into her life. You can reassure her that she wouldn’t be a bad person if she divorced her abusive husband, and if by any stroke of luck she would agree to do so, you could extend all the help that you were capable of giving. Sadly, it isn’t easy even for women in metropolitan cities like Bombay (now Mumbai) to break free. Societies where on the surface, women seem to enjoy many privileges that were historically denied to them, are still entrenched in deeply misogynistic beliefs. One only needs to scratch the surface to see this. Needless to say, societies and communities where blatant patriarchy is present are all the more problematic. Laxmi and others like her belong to these communities. Where beating your wife is not a big deal. Where marrying for love can altogether erase your chances of being accepted by your own family, let alone your neighbours. And if you marry outside your caste, you can be killed and dumped near a railway track, like a discarded wrapper thrown out of a moving train.

Throughout India, organizations like Love Commandos and Gulabi Gang have been setup to help combat prejudices and secure help for victims of spousal abuse and communal violence. However, even the combined reach of these activists is not enough to remedy our problems. As an English-speaking, educated woman with two degrees and a life free of hassles such as these, I can never understand what it feels like to be in Laxmi’s shoes. She’s a frail old woman raised on harmful beliefs exemplified as noble traits. I have a cousin who has had a much better life, and earns enough to support herself. You would never guess that she is a silent victim of spousal abuse. And she can’t leave because of the roles society expects her to perform. I’ll leave it to your imagination to wonder how difficult it must then be, for Laxmi to walk out of anything.

Education may help resolve certain issues but it isn’t enough. Most people would agree that domestic violence is abhorrent. The chilling realization that accompanies this fact is that even those who vocally oppose such violence may be victims and sometimes even the perpetrators themselves. There’s a tacit rule within the society that it’s all well and good to condemn harmful practices but the decision of actually walking out on your husband, abuse or not, will be met with a cold indifference. I will concede that this is an observation not supported by hard evidence. There is not enough research on horrific crimes such as marital rape which is not even recognized by the law, so implicit prejudices are a long way away from assessment and study. However, even a cursory look at this census which reveals that prosperity and literacy don’t do much towards maintaining healthy child sex ratios is enough to cause bewilderment. *Why* these effects are being observed is still a matter of speculations such as one I’ve made here.

My privilege comes with helplessness because of this very reason. Overly broad categories of widely accepted “solutions” such as “education” apparently don’t help as much as we hope they can. Grassroots methods such as awareness camps and activities are not always feasible and can’t reach many thousands, despite the collective efforts of several good people – which leads us to the matter of choice.

The choice of passive cynicism over active interest and sensitivity. Should I try and “educate” Laxmi? Will it even work? Can I wipe out 50 years of social conditioning by bandying feminist principles with a woman I can’t even communicate with properly?

I should tell you about Swamy (name changed). He’s a driver and he helps run errands around the house. He has had a similar upbringing as that of Laxmi’s but he’s more of a feminist than most people I know. He wasn’t always that way, though. After talking with my brother and me with the eager intentions of learning English among other things, Swamy began to see that women were being treated unfairly in his neighbourhood. He married a distant cousin after she pleaded him to, by facing the risk of being attacked by her family because he couldn’t stand to see her sexually harassed at the hands of her sister’s husband. Swamy once stopped the car while he was driving me back home from work to “rescue” a young couple being tormented by a policeman, because they were out drinking together in the night.

So, despite the unrelenting nature of some people, there are others who are not opposed to change. It is important for Indian Feminism to acknowledge the enormity of this change, even when it happens to one individual. Swamy is one man who effectively changed the society by painfully extricating himself his former systems of belief that were rooted in misogyny. For someone to be cognizant of the fact that a vast spread of their fundamental principles is unhealthy can be quite agonising. I still remember Swamy repeating “What have I been doing, ma’am?” in pure angst. The shock of being aware of how you have been upholding harmful traditions is indeed hard-hitting. But change he did. It was a metamorphosis he never thought he’d undergo. Yet, Swamy now fights against the system whenever he can. That alone is worth the effort. That’s what makes my choice clear as day. Active interest will not change everything overnight, but passive cynicism will never change anything.

And so I kept talking to Laxmi – as did my mother – and she met her oldest daughter’s son last week. When she came to work the next day, she carefully pulled out some pictures from her cloth bag that showed her grandson smiling at her toothlessly, and her smiling back. It took three years for Laxmi to perform the admirable task of acting against her socially conditioned bias, but reason prevailed.