“I finally saw myself through my parents’ eyes: a lifelong burden they have carried, which they hope to offload onto another family so they can finally, finally find peace.“
As a final-year medical student, assigned my first medicine case for the year, I trod into the ward that day, wondering which murmur or breath sound I would have to pretend to have heard. I worried about how I’d be stuttering and stammering during my presentation in front of a consultant in just a short while. However, the day took an unexpected turn when I laid eyes on my patient.
‘Abandoned by husband,’ she said. ‘Had four girls’.
For the next two hours, our conversation never once touched upon the clinical aspects as I sat there, listening to this woman tearfully recount all the reasons why she wished she hadn’t been born, while her sister held her hand.
Needless to say, while we only rarely meet people in such circumstances, that encounter with the patient changed something in me. I began keeping my eyes more open in the ward. What I ended up noticing was that when a man is sick, the bystander is almost always a woman, usually his wife. She assists him with everything and stays by his side, wiping away blood and tears and other bodily secretions, dealing with good news, bad news, or no news alike. When a woman falls sick, more often than not, you see her birth family gathering around her and caring for her, while the husband and his family seem to look at her only as an inconvenience at best
Hopping forward to a completely different scenario, I found myself unceremoniously pushed into the waters of the ‘arranged marriage market,’ barely staying afloat, constantly choking, hissing, and spitting out saltwater. I began to notice how, in a flash, the people who spent years educating me started worrying about whether they had made me too career-minded to be likeable.
The moment of clarity came during an intense argument with my mom about the way I dress, walk, talk, stand, sit, cry, smile, or laugh (I can’t recall which, as there were many arguments). She said, ‘I can’t have you fight with your husband like this and end up coming back home, Ammu. I am too old for that kind of responsibility. I just want to get you married and be at peace for once.’
Amidst other questions that fueled my rage, such as ‘What makes you think I, an adult woman, cannot take care of myself?’ and ‘Does this mean you would actually advocate for me to be in a toxic marriage rather than separated?’ I finally saw myself through my parents’ eyes: a lifelong burden they have carried, which they hope to offload onto another family so they can finally, finally find peace.
And what’s the fallacy that connects these two stories you ask?
It’s that patriarchy has ensured that though parents ‘think’ they can pass the ‘parcel of liability’ down to another family/husband, unfortunately in times of sickness and trouble, or in fact any need at all, the parcel gets passed back to them. When the music stops, nobody wants to be seen holding on to that wretched creature who has been made constantly dependent by those very people playing the game.
My elders spent a lot of time advocating the institution of marriage to me, somewhat (read: very) aggressively, with one ever-present recurring argument: ‘We want to see you well settled and secure.’ But unfortunately, if the institution of marriage in India is so indicative of security, then why do you tell women to constantly walk on eggshells, lest they get thrown out, abandoned, beaten up, or killed by their husbands? In fact, an average Indian parent probably spends half their life flitting between being terrified about their daughter’s safety in her marital home and being terrified of her social ostracism should she not be married or separated. So why pretend that getting a daughter married off makes her secure enough that you can finally take that breath you’ve been holding since the day she was born?
Another unfortunate thing parents often do is attempt to make their daughters ‘more oppressable’ in order to increase their attractiveness in the marriage market. During the four suffocating years I spent there before finally deciding to swim away, I learned a critical lesson: any sign, signal, or indication of personal agency is mostly frowned upon. To present their daughters as more desirable, parents dutifully begin to suppress their voices.
The shadow of future marriageability colours every decision a parent makes about their daughter, starting from childhood (but that’s a different story for a different piece). What I’m trying to convey here is that parents unwittingly make their daughters less safe by silencing them, and then they sell them into an already unsafe system, all the while holding onto the myth of her security after marriage
It’s time we opened our eyes and truly acknowledged what we know to be true but often refuse to see. Mothers, every time you read the newspaper and come across horrifying stories of spousal violence, it probably terrifies you, and that fear is entirely valid. However, it’s concerning that you turn around and deny it, all the while teaching your daughter to not take up space, to tread so lightly that her footsteps are inaudible, to shut down and stay silent, all in the hope that these actions will somehow make her immune to making someone angry.
Fathers, each time you sigh, heave, and save penny after penny for a ‘gift’ and then send your daughter away, there’s a nagging worry that this might not be the last time you’ll be called for help, and that concern is valid too. You probably spend nights worrying about whether there will be more and more financial burdens to bear, considering how it’s already normalized for a woman to return to her parental home during childbirth, sickness, surgeries, and the like, right?
Now that we have established mine (and all my sisters’) status as that of a burden, how do we proceed forth from this? While I know that this is an unseen label I will spend my entire life fighting, what about people without similar opportunities/privilege who probably won’t? There’s an answer in there somewhere. But it’s not the one society tells you is right.
Christianez Ratna Kiruba
I am a 28 year old doctor from a conservative Indian family, who by virtue of being a feminist and bisexual, and simply asserting my agency, have stirred uncomfortable emotions within my family. The fact that I am still unmarried only amplifies their unease.