The Bundle of Contradictions

Written by Reshma Jain, Be Movement issue 4 – INDIA, published August 2014

Women from the Indian upper-class and affluent families form a sizeable section of society about which feminists stay silent except perhaps to scorn. I am talking about Indian women from families that drive the country’s economy – business families, families of top bankers, CEOs, entrepreneurs. They include the “old money” families and those that post the 1991 liberalisation wave have joined the ranks of the coveted.

One aspect is pretty obvious to the observant: the mothers, wives or daughters of wealthy men do not necessarily, in fact often do not, command the same power or “respect” that the men do. Sure, they receive the bowing and scraping that is bestowed on them as mothers, wives and daughters of these successful, confident men, but there is no doubt in anyone’s mind, least of all those who must genuflect, that these women are merely well-groomed appendages or arm candy.

Monitored and Restricted

Some of my observations of Mumbai’s wealthy families make me realise that perhaps an educated middle-class woman has more control over her life than a woman from the caste I am highlighting. A woman from a rich family may enjoy every luxury, but her freedom to decide on what and how much she will study, when and who she will marry, whether she will go out to work (and I do not mean just assist in the family business) and who she will make friends with is precarious. It is totally dependent on the whims of the family elders, mainly men of course, because like most Indian families even of this social rank the woman is “the honour” of the family. She has to be monitored, guarded and restricted.

Many of these women, intelligent and creative, may have followed higher education, but that is a part of their grooming and only adds to the prestige of the family. It is not meant to prepare them to earn filthy lucre to support themselves or their children. They might be stuck in as bad and violent marriages as the poorest women, but continue to remain in them for a host of social and cultural reasons. Women like Chhavi Rajawat are few and far between but the very fact that Indian society allows them to function is a positive sign.

So the plight of these women made me pen these lines below:

She owns solitaires but has no liquidity.
She signs cheques without ever stepping into a bank.
She has a surfeit of bonds but certainly not the power to break them.
She is the upper class woman who knows insecurity every step of the way.
She possesses a lot but rarely owns anything.
She is given in abundance without ever being asked what she wants.
Her rights are overlooked and given back as privileges.
She dines at the most expensive restaurant, but must account to her husband about every Rs 500 spent in the home.
She thanks her mother-in-law for another emerald and ruby studded jewel set even as she furtively slips Rs 50 note aside for that handbag she really wants.
She is driven in the latest BMW but asked to explain her high mobile phone bill.
She entertains with any number of plastic cards but is told to be thrifty with her groceries bill.
She holidays in Monte Carlo but has to think of a thousand ploys to get him to buy her a Parisian hat in the flea market.
She hides in high rise buildings but shines in company.
She takes up training in Montessori or aerobics just so that she can make Rs 50,000 or even Rs 5,000 of her own.
That money offers her a tiny sliver of independence.
The crisp notes which could be hers to splurge, to save, to dream on, to hoard, to bite heads off, to buy trifles.

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Is she worth writing about, this woman who is as Indian as any other Indian woman? Her tribe is growing as India’s middle and upper middle classes try hard to claim their place under the liberalisation sun. She must be written about because she must realise that work may be an option but the freedom to take control of her life is not. And that freedom need not be “earned” and she need not be grateful for every token of love. Perhaps what she needs is not an equal number of shares in the family investments, as much as equal opportunities to learn the ropes that will give her the power to earn her own living. Diamonds may be devalued, but security can never be. Highrises can come crashing down, but resentments generally fester and spike.

Rising Up to the Call

Chhavi Rajawat now lives in a small village in Rajasthan state, called Soda. She is the village head (sarpanch) with an MBA, who gave up an extremely well paid corporate job to be where she is now. Her grandfather, an army man, had been the village head decades ago and, when the villagers realised that they needed a dynamic young leader, their representatives kept coming to the Rajawat home in Jaipur city to persuade the young woman to stand for the panchayat (village council) elections.

Many parts of Rajasthan suffer from severe water shortage and the rural culture is decidedly patriarchal. Would a young woman brought up in a wealthy family, educated in the Rishi Valley School, the Mayo College Girls’ School, Delhi’s premier Lady Shri Ram College (all well-known prestigious institutions) and an MBA earning a big salary want to go to an arid, backward village?

She did and not only has she put Soda on the international map (she addressed the UN’s Infopoverty World Conference in 2011), but she matched wits with the bureaucracy and overcame significant barriers to create water reservoirs and a computer training centre in Soda.

More importantly she is a role model not only to the young girls and women in that part of Rajasthan, but also to the young women from other well-off families who feel a tug towards public life but are restrained by inhibitions and restrictions, both internal and external.

So, yes, there are always exceptions to the rule and where we are today changes are happening more rapidly than ever before, yet we have a long way to go.

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