She has seen and survived abuse. But Nilanjana Bhowmick refuses to believe that women are lesser than men in any way. In her search for the truth, she has dispelled all the lies that the women were told by their own mothers about how pleasing and serving their husbands and taking care of their children is the only aim of their lives.
Her mother was a detective police officer. Her father was a businessman. Every month, her mother would hand over her salary to her father who would then give her mother a monthly allowance. Every time he did not like the vegetable or dal that her mother or her grandmother cooked, her father would throw the utensils in a fit of anger. The witness to this exercise were the permanent stains of the dal borne by her living room’s walls. Though her mother was a detective police officer (one would think that she knew the law and people would be scared of her), she was constantly abused by her father. He did not want her to continue her job and for her mother, job was the only outlet she had, so she refused to give it up. Her father did not let her mother have friends or invite her colleagues home and constantly suspected her of having affairs with her colleagues.
These are not words out of a novel or a story. This is the life story of Nilanjana Bhowmick, an independent award-wining journalist from New Delhi and the author of Lies Our Mothers Told Us. Nilanjana has worked with a variety of well known media publications for the last two decades including BBC and the TIME Magazine. She was awarded by the European Commission and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK for her work on gender and social justice and has been featured in the 2019 Women of Impact issue of the National Geographic Magazine. Her book Lies Our Mothers Told Us talks about the gender equalities inside India’s middle class.
Meeting Nilanjana Bhowmick at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 is a revelation of sorts into the human nature. It is difficult to believe that behind that candid demeanour and full-blown laughter lies a childhood of abuse and love. The interesting bit is that she could have escaped all that when she landed a gig with BBC. Yet she chose to come back to India. The conversation that ensued was quite riveting.
When one asked her why she chose to come back to India, she said, ‘I had to come back to India as I believed that my true calling lay here. I know in a developed country there is security, there is money but I wasn’t happy in my work. I felt a lack of challenge. I came back to India in 2002-03 and I joined The Times of India Newspaper because I wanted to learn print journalism and my first assignment was to write about an old age home, which was being run by some minister. So, I went and met these old people living there. Most of their children were living abroad. Physically they seemed okay but I was struck by how lonely they all were. All their children were doing well in life but the parents had nothing to look forward too. When I came back home, I couldn’t sleep for three nights. I kept crying and I couldn’t forget the emptiness that I saw in their eyes. My mother who has herself been a cop said that as a journalist I couldn’t be that empathetic with my subjects otherwise I won’t be able to work. Over the years, I realized the wisdom of her words. It did take time to develop a thick skin but despite that I still get affected by the people I talk to. My therapist says this is because I am an empath or a person who tends to be acutely perceptive of the feelings or emotions of other people.’
What inspired her to write Lies Our Mothers Told Us? ‘Apart from my mother, I have seen a number of women being subjected to these kind of abuses and neglect. But most of them glorify it. Some of these women feel ‘lucky’ that they were ‘allowed’ to go outside and work so they show their gratitude by working hard inside and outside the house. For Indian parents, marriage is the be-all and end-all of their lives. They bring up their daughters to think that if they don’t get married at the right age, their lives aren’t great. Secondly, a lot of women want to get married because they want to escape patriarchy at home. Most women are always told that they are ‘paraya dhan’ and they can only live their lives the way they want only once they get married. For them, their ultimate aim of life is to get married. Some of them feel lucky enough to find someone who accepts them and loves them for who they are (at least in the courtship period) . But some are not so lucky and get boyfriends who mistreat them but still they get married to such abusive boyfriends just to escape the patriarchy of their fathers or brothers.’
But don’t you think Indian women have progressed a great deal in the past few decades? ‘Yes, to an extent that is true. But even today, most parents and even relatives feel that the only job of parents is to marry off their daughter at the right age. I remember when I had first got a chance to study abroad, my mom was very proud. My aunts had come over and were trying to dissuade my mother from sending me since they felt that sending me abroad won’t do me any good since ultimately my place is in the kitchen of my husband!’
But then is thinking about marriage wrong? ‘No, but don’t make that the ultimate aim of your daughter’s life! Educate her, let her explore the world. Don’t start saving for your daughter’s marriage. I had a friend whose mother used to gift my friend’s daughter some gold ornament on every birthday, so that she could build a substantial dowry for her.’
A BURDEN OR BOJH
Most parents would say that it is the societal norms that compel them to marry off their daughters. A single girl in the family is looked down upon. ‘Yes I know but then the change has to come from the parents themselves. If you see in most families, it is the mothers who start worrying about their daughters’ marriages. The change will only come when the mothers will stop thinking that the marriage is the end all of the world and will start instilling confidence and a sense of belonging in their daughters instead of making them feel as if they are an unwanted burden or just a guest in her own house. I think we should normalize ‘being single’ for women.’
But there are people who say that we consider our daughters like our sons. Statements like ye hamari beti nahin beta hai are quite common. Many parents have encouraged their daughters to work and live an independent life. ‘Some people do tell me that they are very ‘progressive in their thinking’ and they treat their daughters like ‘sons’. But what they don’t realize is the amount of mental trauma that they put on their daughters by labelling them as ‘sons’. A daughter looking after her parents should be treated as a daughter, not as a son. Just imagine, what kind of a mental trauma does a girl go through- when she cannot do anything for the parents, she is labelled as a burden or bhoj. When she does something, she is called a son and not a daughter. In a way, she is not acknowledged as a daughter no matter what she does. Don’t you think that is unfair? As far as the women who achieve are concerned, I feel they are still in silos. Those who achieve something are mostly thought of as those who are intellectually better off, more privileged. Yes, there are women who are educated working professionals. But do you see the kind of pressure they have to bear? They are not just expected to take care of their job, earn money for the family but also take care of the children, attend the parent teacher meetings, make the children do the homework, take care of the home. Most of them are ‘allowed’ to work only if they promise not to burden their husband or in-laws with any of their ‘household’ responsibilities.’
Have you faced any discrimination at work? ‘Yes! All my life I have faced discrimination. When I had first come to India after my stint at BBC and joined the Times of India, I didn’t know what salary was norm, so I took whatever salary they offered me since I wanted a footing in this field. After three months, a new guy (who is now my husband) joined at the same level as me and I came to know that his salary was fifty percent more than mine. I went to the HR and inquired but they said that I should have brought this up when I had joined and they made it very clear to me that if I am not happy, I could leave. Women have always been dispensable part of the workforce. My mom was also of the opinion that I was lucky enough to get the job and I should just do the job and not get into these salary discussions because she felt that if I lost my job, I would have to be dependent on some body. In my life, I have been pushed out of every newsroom that I have worked in because I tend to speak my mind and the ‘boys’ clubs in most organizations didn’t like that. I make no bones about the fact that I am ambitious, a go getter with new ideas, I have been open about my ideas and that has not gone well with most people. So, eventually, I have been a freelancer for most of my life.’
Looking at the current scenario, don’t you think achieving equality for women is quite a tall order? ‘ I think we can achieve this. Just look at the progress that has been made. My husband is a man who says ‘why not’ instead of ‘why’ whenever I want to do something new in my personal or professional life. Men like these also exist. Earlier women weren’t allowed to vote, today they vote, they weren’t allowed to drive or work in offices. Today the scenario has changed. So, I completely believe that there will come a day when ‘being single’ will no longer be an anomaly for an Indian woman. If we keep talking about it, if we keep having these discussions, I am sure there will be a day when being single will no longer be a cause of concern for a woman. I believe that there will be a day when parents will say ‘our daughters are not our sons, they are much better than our sons!’
This article by Shailaza Singh appeared in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on Sunday March 5, 2023