A feeling of guilt washes over me the moment I sit down to write. Especially when I am at home. It seems to me that that the kitchen has tentacles, that I cannot afford to take my eyes off the household and that, if I do, things are going to fall apart. For a large part of my adult life, I have struggled with the feeling that writing is not real work. I am convinced that what I am doing must appear like non-work to most people.
For one thing, it is not paid work—or even if I am paid, I am paid peanuts. But more importantly, the work of writing does nothing for the household. It does not result in hot, sumptuous meals. It does not stand between the kids and that pathetic Maggi lunch. It does not declutter a couch covered with unfolded clothes and assorted items. In short, if you are a woman, writing is not the work your ought to be filling your time with. At least, it is not your primary work. Or so that sneaky, godawful, little voice in my head tells me. And this despite the fact that I have had the privilege of an education and the good fortune of a supportive, progressive family, a spouse who does more than his fair share of the house work and is, in fact, a vastly better cook than I am (for cooking has never interested me). But that voice, nevertheless, will insist on tormenting me. I ought really to be putting away the laundry. I ought really to be checking on my daughter who seemed, last evening, a little under the weather. But more than anything else, I ought really to head to the grocery store for our rice stocks have gone into reserve mode.
Two pages into Nilanjana Bhowmick’s book Lies Our Mothers Told Us and I knew she was telling my story—that, in fact, she was telling the stories of many middle- or upper-class privileged Indian women from relatively progressive families. Bhowmick’s own life story seemed eerily akin to my own. She describes the burden she carries despite the fact that she has a supportive spouse: “The days our domestic worker is on leave, he cleans the dishes. He was also a very hands-on father to our son when he was born. He changed more diapers than I ever did…. These actions shouldn’t stand out as some kind of an achievement on his part and I shouldn’t feel extraordinarily fortunate that he is doing his half of the work…”
In a brilliant moment of self-diagnosis, she argues that the reason she ends up taking on so much of the household work and caregiving, the reason she does not let her husband help, is because she feels so grateful for his support. Taking on the entire load, she says, is her way of paying him back. Bhowmick writes about the burden of trying to be a superwoman and the invisible jury to which she has been performing all this while.
Superbly researched and wonderfully argued, this bombshell of a book feels like a diagnosis of our unequal society, a compassionate explanation for everything that is messed up for women in India. Of course, these arguments have been made before by feminist scholars, writers and historians. But Bhowmick contextualises the argument about women working the double shift, the invisible nature of that work and the impact it has on their lives.
She moves deftly and seamlessly between accounts of her own life, of the lives of her mother and her grandmother, of the lives of child brides, water wives, domestic abuse victims, young girls burdened with housework, middle class homemakers and rural women. Interwoven with hard facts, statistics and commentary, this makes for an interesting narrative pastiche. Bhowmick is never boring. Her narrative is compelling and persuasive and moves the reader to tears and to anger, but mostly to recognition.
Bhowmick contends that the enormous burden shouldered by women and the invisibility of the double shift (which means that they don’t get the help they deserve) often means that they are forced to give up their hard won financial independence. Many women drop out of the labour force altogether. While women have re-fashioned themselves as co-workers, Indian men have not made the transition to being co-caregivers.
Bhowmick makes the important point that merely having constitutional rights is like window shopping. Unless domestic work and unpaid care work is distributed equally, one can’t hope to bring or to retain women in the public sphere. It is simply not sustainable. She makes a case for public spaces that are fashioned in ways that account for the needs of women. Period leave and flexible working hours, she argues, should be part of the deal.
Her argument about the cognitive dissonance that comes from growing up in a relatively “progressive” family with an awareness of women’s rights on the one hand and holding on simultaneously to certain patriarchal value systems on the other is very compelling. This internalisation of patriarchal values and biases is a difficult and toxic prison to escape. Lies our Mothers Tell Us states the problem exactly as it is.
Among the most moving portraits in the book are those of Bhowmick’s mother and grandmother. Not surprisingly, Bhowmick returns to them again and again. Her mother is a policewoman, and therefore an “anomaly”. She is not particularly interested in cooking. All she wants to do is to read. Her husband is controlling and abusive and her autocratic mother-in-law tries hard to mould her into a good housewife. The latter is her only support system and when she moves out of the joint family set up she finds it really hard to balance her domestic chores with the demands of her job.
Even though she prepares for the sub-inspector’s test she never takes it because she knows that she cannot fulfil her duties at home if she is promoted. Bhowmick speaks of the slow and gradual erosion of her mother’s ambition. This is a story we hear over and over in different avatars. But encountering it up close, in the form of this cameo, makes it special.
Bhowmick also introduces us to her maternal grandmother, widowed at 38, who lay down on a railway track and ended her life. Bhowmick’s mother says:
“Why did she kill herself? I don’t know. She was a young widow with four young children. She worked from dawn till dusk. She had no life. And although I was eighteen, we grew up in a different world, we didn’t understand depression or anxiety or stress....”
Women and clinical depression
Bhowmick pieces together the puzzle of the “mystery” that is her grandmother’s suicide. She wonders if this grandmother she has never met had suffered from depression, a problem, she argues, she herself is battling and which plagues many Indian women, given how difficult and hopeless and filled with endless drudgery their lives are.
She links this to the alarmingly high rate of housewife suicides in India, describing the connection between overwork and depression and between depression, perimenopause and menopause. And even something as heavy as depression, she argues, is something women get used to. They must remain functional through it all. There is no choice. This mental health perspective that Bhowmick introduces is another strength of the book for we learn to see beyond statistics to the slow suffocation that is the life of so many Indian women.
- In this book, Nilanjana Bhowmick contextualises the argument about the enormous burden shouldered by women and the invisibility of the double shift they work
- It also offers commentaries on the toxic favouring of sons over daughters, the syndrome of the unwanted girl child, the poverty that forces certain families to marry off their daughters when they are still children, and the abuse and torture they face.
- Bhowmick has reached out to women from different strata of society. She describes the lives of rural women whose double shift takes an altogether different form.
- Bhowmick’s book drives home the point that different ground realities call for different sorts of interventions.
Lies Our Mothers Tell Us also offers commentaries on the toxic favouring of sons over daughters, the syndrome of the unwanted girl child, the crushing poverty that forces certain families to marry off their daughters when they are still children, the horrific abuse and torture these children face and the brutal subjugation of their sexuality. We meet the usual villains—dowry demands, the practice of caste-based marriages, the fact that emotional compatibility is rarely a factor. Again, familiar though we may be with the story of domestic abuse, it is Bhowmick’s individual portraits of victims interleaved with the larger story that makes it so effective, moving us to tears and anger. Anima’s account of her husband’s abuse of her is a case in point: “I used to have very long hair that reached my knees and at the slightest thing he would pull my hair… I went to get it cut, and the hairdresser asked me you have such beautiful hair, why are you cutting it off? I remember I told him, at least now no one would be able to drag me around by my hair.”
Bhowmick argues that women are forced to stay on in bad marriages because they have no control over money, there is no safe place they can go to and also the fear of social stigma that would inevitably accompany such a move. None of this is new to us but the book reminds us that nothing much has changed. And in that sense, it is a wake-up call. Or it ought to be.
The sneakiness of agency
I found it heartening that Bhowmick has reached out to women from different strata of society. She describes the lives of rural women whose double shift takes an altogether different form. They are required to do agricultural work on top of endless household chores. They rise early and go to bed late. The work they do on the fields is not officially recognised as agricultural work. I particularly enjoyed reading Bhowmick’s account of housewife vloggers who vlog about the minutiae of housework and the online communities they have created. It is a world I wasn’t aware existed and it felt like an oasis in a desert. That sneaky voice may trouble us from dawn to dusk but equally, there is also the sneakiness of agency.
The book comprises chapters about women pradhans (chieftains) who are controlled by their husbands and about water wives. Men in certain districts of Maharashtra and Rajasthan (where access to piped water is often an issue) take on a second wife so that the latter can help fetch water and do the household chores when the first wife gets pregnant. These glimpses into worlds that are off the urban radar serve as precious reminders of the stark gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural.
They are reminders too of one’s own relative privilege. Universalising the women’s question is not the most useful of strategies. Different ground realities call for different sorts of interventions. This is a point that Bhowmick’s book drives home.
My only quarrel with the book is that it gets somewhat repetitive at times. Bhowmick can sometimes labour a point. I also felt the need for a narrative about leisure and rest. That sliver of space between being a superwoman doing the double shift and retreating or even committing suicide—what does that look like for the women in the book? Or isn’t that a possibility?
K. Srilata is a Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Studies at Sai University, Chennai, and a poet, translator and fiction writer. She is currently working on a book of poems based on the Mahabharata.