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The Privilege of Choice

The Jharkhand High Court recently observed that serving elderly mother-in-law is both a cultural practice in India as well as an obligation for women in India. In a country where the court of justice triumphs cultural obligations over individual autonomy and respect, one might wonder where a common woman stands in the status quo. This statement by the court is a clear indication that the world and its systems do not care about its women.

The doorway to Preeti didi's house. Source: Nilabja Das

While I had many thoughts about this statement, I wanted to hear someone who has seen more life than I have through age and experience to put things in perspective. So, I knocked on the flimsy black steel door and walked down a couple of stairs to meet Preeti didi, a 28 year old mother of four, three of whom are students in my school. She was in the middle of cleaning the floor so I decided to stand in the corner and hold her three month old baby girl. She asked me what I would like to eat and added that her mother-in-law was out of town, so she had some free time to cook something other than the usual. What an opportune moment for my questions!

I settled myself in her bedroom and stared at the yellowing walls filled with childish scribbles.

Amidst the wilful clatter, quite natural in a house filled with children, one can find a certain

symmetry to how she organises the room. I gently probed the question when we sat down to eat, a rare occurrence for her to eat alongside the guest in her house. She replied nonchalantly “Court ke bolne na bolne se humein kya faraq parta hai? Wo nahi bolte tab bhi hum kar hi rahe hai, aur ab bhi karenge. Humare liye tou ye choice kabhi thi nahi ki bol bhi de ki ye galat hai.” For many women, the judgment is nothing but comical, for when have they ever been given the choice to not “serve”?

Scenes from Preeti didi's house. Source: Nilabja Das

It is stories like these that compels one to look for stories of resilience, often silent, that women put up. At first glance, Preeti didi comes across as a tired woman, having given birth to her fourth daughter just a few months back. She is hard at work, however, whenever I visit her. A child in her arms and three around her, frolicking and demanding more from her than she can offer.

She got married at the age of nineteen and her husband never “allowed” her to work. She

candidly recalls the days when she would work in a salon in Amar Colony, Lajpat Nagar. She

says, “wo mere zindagi ke sabse carefree din the”, and as she says these words you can see a glimmer of those lost dreams. When she came to Sangam Vihar, a place which she describes as “banta kam hai, tootta jyada hai”, she felt a lack of opportunities, she felt stuck. While she was used to seeing the occasional greenery, bustling markets, and broader roads, Sangam Vihar was quite the contrast with its dusty rubbles, overflowing drains, and narrow lanes.

As a former salaried person, she did not enjoy staying in the confines of the house, spending the day doing household chores, listening to her mother-in-law bicker at her, and waiting for her drunk husband to come home at night. However, she had no escape, it was after all her cultural and moral obligation to “serve them”.

She opened up to us emotionally about the violence she faces at home. Being a mother of four daughters is not easy in an Indian household, despite scientific evidence, it is the womb which is blamed for the gender. She was unwelcome into her own house after the birth of her fourth daughter, who is only three months old. She tells me with a slight smile, as if to hold back tears, how her husband said “tu mari nahi abhi tak” when she came home from the hospital.

When asked about her aspirations for herself, she said, “apni reality batau you, ab waisa kuch dimaag mein aata hi nahi hai”. As harsh as it may sound, it is the reality for thousands of

women in India, who are not allowed to have aspirations both before and after marriage.

However, when asked about the aspirations she has for her children, she has much to say. She wants one of them to be a dancer. Her eldest has not yet decided what she wishes to be but she knows there are years ahead of them to decide. Didi wants her children to be whatever they wish to be. However, she believes that her children need to get out of Sangam Vihar to fulfil their dreams because her dreams could not find a way out of here.

Do not let these realities make you feel pity for her, however. She is a strong woman, one who stands up for herself and holds her ground. She may not be able to fulfil her dreams but she dreams vicariously through her children. She told me, quite frankly, “baccho ke liye jitna ho payega, main karungi”.

Written by Nilabja Das

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