Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Feature: The Anonymous Woman

She’s the best, now and forever

Her looks are deceptive. She always looks calm and collected, and content. If not happy, well then, not unhappy, either.

This look, it has come from long years of practice, of perfecting the art of being the still center of all the gathering storms. And apart from practice making for perfection, it has also become part of what she is now. Part mask, part reality, she makes all the clichés come alive.

Look at her at the construction site. She is dressed in colourful cotton, smiling at a raggedy child sitting on a heap of cement, even humming as she carries a tokri of bricks with all the grace of a temple dancer.

Grace under pressure

Sometimes she is walking back after a hard day’s labour and laughing raucously with her gal pals, all of them smeared over with sand and cement dust. You look at her and this is what you won’t see: the drunk, layabout husband, the increasing line of malnourished children, the worries that gather when one isn’t sure about roti, kapda or makaan. But she doesn’t wear her woes on her tattered sleeve.

Look at her now, the other one at the same construction site. She is dressed in fitted western clothes, her hair neatly tied back, a beige-coloured folder in her hand. She has designed this building and takes obvious pleasure in the fact.

You look at her and this is what you won’t see: the shadowy fear of a fast-approaching middle age, of being alone and lonely. The dead-end relationship she is in, the bad marriage she has walked out of, her concern over her eight-year-old son fast acquiring a reputation of being a juvenile delinquent at school.

She doesn’t know how to juggle all those balls she has up in the air but she does know better than to let her worries show. At work or anywhere else.

Following her own drummer

Look at her in the disc. She is swaying to the beat of what else, ‘It’s the time to disco’; she epitomises youth and beauty. Is she the ‘New Woman’ of our liberal, liberalised age? Well, her future holds a morass of doubts.

Her parents want her to tread one path, while she wants to take another Her parents would kill her if they knew she was smoking, drinking and seeing a boy from another community. So she is living in the moment; she’ll sort it all out another day. She dare not let her cares show, either on that petal-smooth cheek or on her non-existent sleeve. One crack and the whole edifice of ‘Girl Shining’ would crack, you see.

Look at her, she is all around you. Young, not so young, beautiful, serene, carefree, serious, enthusiastic, jaded. Laughing, always laughing. She is an actress, a sex worker, a pilot, a dress designer, an engineer, a chef, an aanganwadi worker, a bar dancer, an art historian, a doctor, a socialite and a social worker.

She is dressed in designer and street-wear, drinks café mochas one time and filter coffee another. She holds down her job competently, plays the stock markets, invests wisely and saves even more wisely.

She cleans houses, washes utensils, and sweeps and swabs competently. She travels and takes in new experiences all the time. She plants her feet firmly on the road she has chosen to travel, or sometimes has been forced to travel.

In adjust mode

She is always in ‘adjust mode’. Adjusting to circumstances, to the odds stacked against her. Because even in 2004, the odds continue to be stacked against her. For all government authorised celebrations of the girl child, for all the bank loans on offer for women, for all the seats reserved on buses if not anywhere else, she continues to be part of the ‘Second Sex’.

Her birth is not met with unalloyed delight, even now. Her marriage is, more often than not, arranged for her. She is still under the protection, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, of her father, brothers and then her husband.

Her little flights of freedom must always be within the white picket fences of domestic and societal restraint. She shares her time, money, privacy and skills. She is oppressed in the name of religion, society and family.

She is revered (Jai Mata Di) and she is burned for not bringing dowry. She is revered and sometimes burned as a sati so that she can continue to be revered. She is harassed if she dares to speak up against seen and felt atrocities against her and her sisters.

She is branded a witch if she displays her midwifing skills. She is raped in moving buses, cars and trains.  Once in a while, her unborn foetus is ripped from her and thrown into fire. She is derided if she tells her story in unvarnished language. She bears the brunt of it all, man-made wars, man-made rules, man-made checks and balances.

The great survivor

And you know what? She survives it all. She lives life with all the zest it calls for. She treads gingerly at times, boldly at other times. She meets challenges head on. And when her world crumbles, as all too often it does, she picks up the pieces and moves on. She is hardy, resilient, can draw upon reserves of courage and fortitude that most people, sometimes even she, doesn’t know she has.

And amidst the business of surviving, she mines for diamonds of joy. What’s more, she finds it, too. Because she is the Woman, species Indica.

This ran in the DECCAN HERALD sometime in the 1990s.


Sheila Kumar • February 13, 2013

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