304 pages; Rs 699
Indian women are trained to be silent from birth. Speak up and risk being branded “immoral”, “bad” or even a “curse”. Roles and responsibilities are predetermined for us and assigned accordingly. Any change of this pre-approved status has to fall within the parameters of societal judgment. You may want to argue, say that you don’t believe in all this and staunchly support equality whether at home or in public. Have you ever wondered whether your actions justified your beliefs?
It is this thin line of being and nothingness that Deepa Narayan tries to address in her book Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women
. The book that draws from over 600 detailed interviews with women as well as some men across India’s cities and identifies seven key habits that dominate women’s everyday lives, despite their education, success, financial status and family background. Although these may seem harmless in general, each has an insidious and significant impact that underlines just one thing — Indian women are trained to be “invisible”.
As a child, a woman is taught to behave in a manner that’s different from men. From not talking about your own body to how the body evolves as you grow, everything about a woman is hush-hush. From adolescence to adulthood, woman is taught to mind her language — how she speaks, walks, talks, and even eats — and how to conduct herself in front of others. She is told she will be free once she is an adult. What she is not told is everything will come at a cost. The cost, in the name of sacrifice, could be anything — giving up education or a high-profile job, marrying soon and bearing a child even if you don’t really want to or enduring an abusive marriage, relationship etc. Even if a woman is given some freedom — of choice or want — those liberties have to fall within the parameters of what’s acceptable to society. As the author says in her “Closing Reflections”, “Women have been trained and conditioned so well to live without power that they have become afraid of power. The training to focus on serving others and to put themselves last trains women to accept unequal distribution of power. It becomes morally good not to desire or want power.”
All these thoughts and reflections may sound as though they belong to generations ago, that in today’s day and age, all this doesn’t hold true at all. But, if you read the book and the people Ms Narayan has quoted, you will be surprised. No, they don’t belong to some rural society or those who have been brought up in a small town — although there are instances of people from these sections as well — a majority of the women or men who feature in this book come from the affluent classes, who are well-educated and have money to support them and their families. It is often hard to believe that despite so many campaigns being fought for women empowerment, gender equality and so on, somewhere the basic thought process about gender behaviour hasn’t changed significantly. The author does offer some ‘solutions’ or ‘reflections’ in her concluding chapter of the book: “…it doesn’t have to be a war between women and men. Seeing power only as control pits women and men against each other; it wastes both women’s and men’s lives, and it shuts down decency, generosity and democracy…”
I feel that it is easier to imagine but harder in reality. Women have to learn to be allies first. They have to come together, which they don’t and “stand up for each other against unfairness or misuse of power”. Only then will they be able to break “the cultural, social, political and privileges of men and the non-existence of women as full human beings”. I nodded in agreement as I read the following lines: “Women talked about women as if they are deeply flawed characters beyond correction… Women speak about empowerment but they do not embody empowerment in their own lives.”
Reading the instances from various women in the book, you will be forced to think that, somewhere, you too have behaved or still behave in the manner that you think is right – but is actually not. You believe you have the power. You believe you have the say. You believe you can be good at what you do. But, somewhere deep down, you will keep questioning your actions and words. Have you ever thought why do you act so? Perhaps, the book holds the answer to that.
Without going in to too much detail about the examples Ms Narayan has set out, the book is definitely worth your reading time. It is easy to read book, particularly because it deals with topics women face in real life. The reflections at the end of each chapter might be a trifle wearying and could have been avoided, given that the book ends with the author’s closing reflections. But on the whole, don’t be surprised if the book actually “holds a mirror to you”, just as it says on its cover.