The Left-Over Happiness: The Paradoxical Status of Indian Modern Women

A few years back while working in Chennai, I often felt lonely. Less because I was in a new place and more because I really missed college life. Most of my other colleagues were either much younger or much elder to me. However, I managed to befriend some female colleagues who were already married and had kids. It was a new experience, having mature people as your friends. They cared a lot for me and they taught me the virtue of patience. They brought tiffin for me and they admired my fashion sense and a free spirit (which I thought I never had). However, they never hung out with me outside the office.  

I often wondered why until now. Its when my young single colleagues started complaining to me about my absence in the office parties. No, it is not about age but the changes that marriage often brings to women in India. Once, I had a peek into my elder colleagues’ daily routine. They woke up at 5 am, prepared breakfast and lunch for their children, husband and in-laws. They got their children ready for school and they also got their husband ready for their office. After a full day office, they got back home and without taking rest, prepared dinner for the family, serve them, clean the kitchen and then go to sleep. If someone was lucky enough, there was a maid at home present at the wee hours in morning to support. And these are not women doing odd jobs, they all have managed to make a successful career, working hard for the last 10-15 years. I often asked them if they received any help from their husband? “If my husband has to lift a glass of water, my in-laws get angry”, was what one of my colleagues answered. I often asked them, don’t they want to relax or chill or anything? They said sometimes, they wanted to leave it all and take a break. But then, they would lose the lifestyle they are used to. Most of them had a home and car loan and required both husband and wife to work. But house-chores are the responsibility of women alone. They often got nostalgic about the time before they got married- their life, their fashion sense, their hobbies, their friends, etc. What happened to them? “They got lost with time”.

“My husband wants to help but my in-laws do not like this.”

“My mother-in-law tries to help me but she’s old.”

That’s the excuses they made when Igot angry why their families don’t help them out. And I still get angry when I see ads like these:

Elders always advised me- Time is money. Spend it wisely. I have always tried to imbibe this value but when I look at these women, I feel it’s a race against time for them. I happened to have a male old-school manager who sadly believed that the efforts you put in your work is directly proportional to the number of hours you spend in the office. On days when he had to submit reports to his seniors, he commanded his entire team(including female colleagues) to stay back till his work is done. Of course, it used to be nearly impossible for my female colleagues to manage at such short notice. But, for some, it became much more serious. One of them got a call from her husband asking her not to return home. Another one had to switch off her phone to avoid verbal abuses she was getting because of staying late. And on days like those, one or two women often faced breakdown. The next day, gossipmongers would say, “She couldn’t handle the work pressure, or she was scolded by boss”.Only the people at the receiving end knew how sometimes, their mind was nothing less than a pressure cooker. Interestingly, at the same time, we also complain that only 27% of women in India have a “Job” to do.

So, who do you think is the villain? The men? The in-laws? The women? By disempowering men, would we be able to empower women? Some wise man said, “Everything is fair in love and war”.Is it a war? In my opinion, it’s love crippled by the systemic oppression. Of course, men love their woman. In-laws adore their daughter-in-law. Kids worship their mother. Then, why are women suffering? It’s because of the ages long gender-based stereotypes that have been tied to tradition, history, heritage, and religion. Outside the home, women fought a war and won. But inside the home, women had to give in to love. In most of the families, there are only two kinds of daughters-in-law: calm, submissive and loving and; rebellious, outspoken and arrogant. One can either conform to the family norms and become the first one or be different and become the second one. And no, don’t think I am one of the victims. I am a part of this same system. I am neither on this side nor on the other. Because there are no sides. I am one of the daughters who was made to believe that I can achieve everything I dream of. But I am the same daughter who thought- “my mother knows nothing”, “I can throw my wet towel anywhere because it’s my mother’s job to pick it up”. I am also the same colleague who didn’t mind staying back till late in the night because all my home chores were taken care of by my roomie (ironically, roommates are better at sharing responsibilities than husband).

The point is, by nature we humans love convenience. That’s the precise reason we have developed so much while monkeys still must survive by snatching things from us. At the same time, we tend to develop patterns and knowledge and we transfer it generation to generation. Unlike animals, we don’t discover most of the things. It’s not that I don’t love my mother. I just happened to think that this is how mothers, in general, are treated by their kids and it should not be a big deal for them. Had my mother behaved any differently, I would have just called her “a bad mother”.And my mother would do the same at looking at her neighbor. In the same office, I had seen men trying to reach out to women for help, but they were shut off. One of the colleagues wanted to help his wife during her fast but when he asked his boss, he was laughed at. “It is women’s things. What would you do?” Another one asked for a leave to babysit his kid. He was mocked at too. It’s not about our position. It is about the rigid patterns installed in our mind.

So, what’s the paradox about it? Why should women suffer? Who’s stopping them? Let’s look at a very basic example. After a very hectic week at the office, a woman wants to sleep till late on the weekend. Her husband is happily snoring. But she wakes up after she realizes that her mother/mother-in-law has started cooking a five-course meal for the family. What should she do? She has already got up from the bed and is about toleave her room. She is tired, sleepy and stressed. Her husband is not going to wake up for the next 3-4 hours. At the same time, the old mother is working hard in the kitchen. If she doesn’t join, people would say she’s not a gooddaughter/daughter-in-law. Even if she doesn’t care about people, she loves her family and wants them to love her back. If sacrificing an hour of sleep canmake them happy then be it. If she joins, then she would merely be fulfillingthe duties of a good wife. But if she joins then her son would learn that it doesn’tmatter if his mother was tired or sick, she still woke up to prepare food. Hewould carry this impression for years and would expect the same from his wifewhile he would be sleeping till late just like his father. How does one changeanything in such situation? Would she give in to her family’s expectations orto an ideology which is yet to strike an average Indian household?

And that’s the paradox I am talking about. That’s the paradox that stresses me out. What’s the correct behaviour? What is more important? Being selfless for eternity and lose oneself or being selfish occasionally and lose one’s peace of mind. It’s like living on left-over time, left-over opportunities and left-over happiness.

If one video could capture all the emotions, it must be the following advertisement.

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