Book review: The sense of a woman through Deepa Narayan's 'Chup'

CHUP: Breaking the silence about India's women by Deepa Narayan, publisher: Juggernaut, pages:304, price: Rs 699
The biggest driver for choosing duty is moral behaviour as defined by society. Simran, 25, a research associate, says, ‘The term I have heard the most in my home is be socially acceptable. Be the one that society wants you to be. Don’t involve yourself in situations that are sin[ful] or illegal as judged by society. Like talking with a boy.’ What will people say?...

[Women] study, become an engineers and suddenly whoosh . . . they are married and everything comes crashing down.’ Many women said that to be a woman is ‘potential unrealized’. Maya, 29, a high-achieving lawyer, says, ‘It takes a lot of courage to give up your aspirations, to be somebody you don’t want to be, but what somebody else wants to see you as. And do it with a smile. If you ask a guy to make even a 5 per cent change in his lifestyle, he will do it under protest, be unhappy about it, sunate rahenge, they will always remind you about it, and not be ready to change the rest of the 95 per cent.’ Women, on the other hand, become masters of compromise. ‘I am expected to compromise all the time. One example, when my mom’s chemotherapy started, it was as a matter of right that my dad asked me to stop my job for two months so I could take her to the hospital and back and take care of her, my brother went for even longer hours to his job on those days. I could never have done that, and even if I had been defiant, it would have been nipped in the bud, they would not have let me go, very simple. If I come late from work, tired, at 10 p.m. everyone is upset; my brother, even if he comes at midnight, he is welcomed and everyone is happy.’ She earns much more than her brother. She says firmly, ‘You have to fight for years before you get even a little of what you want.’…

In reviewing the words women use to describe themselves I found they choose many more ‘negative’ words to describe their lives than neutral or hopeful words. The negative words include: ‘sacrifice, disadvantageous situations, defenceless, vulnerable, heartache, constant pain, struggle, difficult, unfair, not independent, judged, careful, rape, bound, fight, compromise and adjust’. Men do not use these words to define themselves as men….

In fact, when men are asked what three words come to their mind when they think of themselves as men, the words they choose, across social classes, are strikingly bolder and positive. Tarun, 21, openly claims, ‘I am God’s favourite child.’ The words men used most frequently include ‘bold, visionary, leader, adventurous, fun, lively, sports enthusiast, personality, trustworthy, determined, responsible, intelligent, risk-taker, independence and power’. When men use the term power, they mean the power to decide, to act and to take leadership so others may follow. Women rarely mention power. Of only five women who did, four feel powerless. For them, power is an aspirational goal. All four have salaried jobs but that did not seem to make any difference to their personal sense of power.

When the cultural framing is so singular and strong that women exist only in one of the three sanctioned relationships, everything associated with a woman gets redefined and changed to fit into this frame. So it is with jobs. Jobs are not framed as sources of respect, power, freedom, knowledge and ambition for women; in fact, the personal desire for any of these outcomes is made bad. Women are warned that they will be ruined if they have dreams or if they become ‘too career-oriented’, meaning ambitious.

Except in motivational speeches, ambition in women and ambitious women are viewed as troublesome and ‘dirty’, because such women do not always put the family first and start thinking of other things, including themselves. No woman used the word ambitious to describe herself; it is still a dirty word even for women who have taken a strong intellectual stance on equality. There are many ways of defanging work outside the home. Working is made safe by framing it as ‘time pass’, till a girl gets married or has a child. Many young women described it as a temporary phase to bring in additional money. It is also safe if it is a practical strategy to attract a higher-earning husband. Women who earn money are good as long as they do not change in any other way. They should continue to live and work under the cultural tyranny of the garam phulka, hot roti, made by them every night. Men’s expectations, too, often remain unchanged. They  simply add the vocabulary of equality to their cultural framing of non-existing women. They are not to blame, they too are cultural products, but they need to wake up to the unequal world they prop up while telling themselves that everything is equal.

Nipun, 25, is completing his MBA and by his own definition is a ‘cool guy’, a liberal who believes ‘there should be no gender discrimination and women should know that they are equal’. He sees no contradiction between his belief in equality and his expectations of his future wife. This is what his ‘equal’ looks like. He says, ‘My cousin Pooja lives with her in-laws. She gets up at 6 a.m., cooks for her children, sends them to school, packs lunch for herself and her husband; she then cooks food for her in-laws, then she reaches her garment shop at 11, she deals with clients; by two thirty she goes back home when her children come back from school, she cooks food for them and helps them with homework; by four thirty she goes back to her showroom, starts her work, leaves by 8–8.30 p.m. to come home, then she cooks food for the entire family, then she takes some rest. She even does the dusting of the whole house and mostly buys the vegetables and fruits. She carries the duty of both work and home for the past twelve years without speaking a word, no complaints. So I want my wife to learn to manage everything . . . to fulfil both duties at the same time, it is not impossible.’ Nipun wants an allrounder wife. Like many progressive men, he perpetuates a system that keeps women as partial humans. It is hard to see privilege and power when you swim in it and when nobody speaks up.

Reproduced with permission 

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel