A few months after Alan’s arrival and our trek through Ladakh, I read an International Labor Organization report stating that two-thirds of the world’s wage earners are women. Women workers earn only 50 percent of the world’s wages, however, and own only 10 percent of the world’s assets.

This report was on my mind one beautiful morning. Alan and I were driving through the small towns and villages of Rajasthan with Alan’s parents, who had come for a three-week visit from New York. There, on the crowded roads, these statistics became pictures for me. They became the faces of the women I saw working, women who till the fields, attaching the ropes of a water-pulley system to buffalo to irrigate the land; women who harvest acres of mustard, onions and sugarcane; women who carry children straddled on an out-thrust hip, along with baskets of mud bricks, fodder or fresh dung on their heads.

As we drove onto the Udaipur-Jaipur Highway, we saw groups of men and women retarring the road. My husband and I counted, time after time, a ratio of women laborers to men laborers of at least two to one. The women, often with children clinging to their legs, transported mud and stones to the roadsides and dug into the road to tear up existing potholed patches. Many of the “women” were girls who could not have been more than thirteen or fourteen years old.

And while the women worked, what of the men? The men were the “supervisors,” pointing a hand here or there to show where the piles should be made. The men sat under the shade of a tree and watched the women working. In one place women marched back and forth with baskets, children and shovels, while a hundred yards away, four men sat in a small circle, drinking tea and laughing, shading their eyes from the bright afternoon sun.

Private contractors in India like to hire women laborers, because they do not have to pay women as much as men. Women are also less likely to strike, protest or demand higher wages. Men, however, are always hired as supervisors. It is not that men have a wonderful life in India. Poverty is equal opportunity, striking men and women. But gender discrimination exists among the poor and among the rich too, among illiterates and educated, lower caste and upper caste.

The condition of women in India follows naturally out of the society’s perspective that men are superior to women. Female infanticide, dowry deaths, poor nutrition, less education for women all stem from the perception that women are the lesser sex, to be apologized for rather than celebrated. Emotional and physical violence against women is not only accepted, sometimes it is even enjoyed. Almost always, the perception seems to be that women must have done something to deserve this violence.

Night Video Coach
Just a few weeks before, I had taken an overnight “video coach” from Bombay to Aurangabad in the northern part of Maharashtra state. Video coaches are the current craze in India: buses with videos that blast out Indian films over loudspeakers scattered above passengers’ heads. Luckily for those of us who cannot stand the video coaches, many of the video machines have broken down since they were introduced some years ago, and the bus owners are generally too miserly to repair them.

Unfortunately, on the particular bus I took to Aurangabad, the owner had actually maintained the video machine. It worked a little too well for comfort, going at full volume when I boarded the bus. The movie that was playing was obviously popular. The entire bus (filled with men, except for one or two other lone women) sang along to the songs, clapping their thighs with their hands and wobbling their heads around in time to the music. I watched the movie half-heartedly. The screen was in front of me and my neck felt strained looking out the window the whole time. Plus, it seemed from the light-hearted nature of the songs that the movie would be a typically inane but amusing Hindi movie.

The heroine of the movie, a “modern” woman who goes out with groups of men and wears slightly more daring sari blouses and salvaar kameez than the “traditional” heroine, was laughing loudly and constantly. As the dark of outside began to envelop the bus and we entered rural country, there were fewer lights to watch, fewer interesting roadside events to focus on. I was lulled into a semidozing state, almost forgetting about the noise blasting from the video. Out of my half-closed eyes, I watched the slightly fuzzy screen.

In one scene the heroine is at a bar with a group of men. They are all laughing and joking, gulping shots of whiskey, the heroine included. After being encouraged to drink more than even the men around her, the heroine sees the scene in front of her grow cloudy. The room spins around her, as she is dragged by four men into another room, that also contains a swimming pool. The men begin ripping her clothes off, as she screams and tries in vain to escape. The men in my bus were clapping, singing along with the music that accompanied the scene. My eyes were now fully open; I was transfixed not only by the scene I was watching, but also by the obvious enjoyment of the crowd around me.

The heroine is then thrown into a swimming pool. She cannot swim, she fights with the water to get further from her predators. They surround the pool now. As she scratches at the poolside to get out, she is grabbed by the men. They throw her down onto the floor, and the four men, standing like vultures around a fresh kill, unzip their pants, still laughing. The screen blacks out.

The bus was full of energy by this time. They wanted to see the next scene. It came in the form of a court case. The woman and her sister have brought the four men to trial. The woman is made to recount the entire story to a disbelieving judge and group of jurors who look as though they may get their kicks out of hearing the story recounted in graphic detail. The cases are made in short order and the jury produces its verdict: not guilty. The men in the movie cheer, and their cheers are echoed by men on the bus. The heroine and her sister cry.

The next scene shows the four men breaking into the heroine’s house to exact their revenge on her for taking them to court. They beat her up and then rape her again. They leave laughing and zipping their pants.

I could not watch anymore. I wanted to run to the front of the bus and turn off the video, scream at the men on the bus to think about what they were laughing at. Disgust bubbled up. I was too afraid to turn the video off in a bus full of men on a dark road in the middle of India. I felt helpless, helpless to voice what I saw as blatant discrimination, helpless to do anything to stop it. I struggled with the battle that had become constant: to determine for myself what an isolated incident says about the attitude toward women in this country, but at the same time to avoid generalizing unfairly.

How Does it Feel??
It is hard to express how I feel as a woman in India. I am often asked this question, and I am always torn in my response. First, I qualify, I cannot answer for the typical Indian woman, because my life has been so different. No, my questioners say. We mean how do you, an independent, strong-willed woman, feel in a country where women are treated so unjustly?

Should I tell them that I am angry that Indian women must go through so much injustice? That my skin breaks out in goosebumps when I hear that a woman is made to stay a hundred feet from her house after giving birth because she is considered dirty — for bearing a child? That a big lump forms in my throat when I ask someone how many children they have, and they respond by telling me how many boys they have, discounting the lives of the girls before they have even been given a chance at life? That sometimes I just do not want to see or acknowledge the injustice anymore, because my brain hurts from thinking about it, and I just want to feel good and comfortable and safe about all the privileges I have in my independent, strong-willed world?

But, if I say all this, I will simply reinforce the many stereotypes that people already have of Indian bride burnings and girls in prostitution. And so, I stop. I work to fight injustice in my own ways, but I check myself from talking too much about the injustice itself. Often I feel I cannot win, because both in my silence and in my words I am betraying my Indian women friends.

Perhaps, I think, I should instead talk about the strength I derive from so many of the Indian women I have met. Perhaps I should talk about those women with whom I connected, not just emotionally but physically — a grasp of hands, a leaning on my shoulder as our bus jolted from side to side, or the brushing of our saris as we walked.

Perhaps I should talk about the fisherwoman I traveled with on a long, narrow boat from Cochin to Vypeen Island in Kerala; how I huddled among masses of women in bright saris gracefully balancing baskets of fish on their heads as we bobbed dangerously across the waters; the complete delight I felt when the boat took an unexpected bump, and the woman next to me grabbed my hand and grinned, white crooked pearls in a sun-darkened face, her touch and smile all-inclusive, generous, open.

Perhaps I should describe my time with Padma in Shingo village, describe how even after our hard work picking potatoes for hours, Padma seemed vigorous, ready to prepare another full meal for the dozen people who needed to be fed, while I collapsed, exhausted, my soft urban muscles aching. Like so many Indian women, Padma was tireless, adept at managing life without identifying its hardships, as those of us brought up in physically unchallenging urban lives tend to do.

Our concept of burden, like any concept, is completely defined by our environment. To a working, independent Western woman, a village woman’s life may be the ultimate burden: hauling heavy buckets of water on her head, incessant cooking and cleaning of the house, tending the fields in the hot summer. And yet, when I leave India and return to America, I see men and women carrying equal burdens of a different nature. We work twelve-hour days, spend an hour or two with our children, replace human connections with efficient but alienating technology, and rush from place to place on concrete highways at such a pace that our hearts rattle from nervousness. Would village women really want to exchange their lives for ours? 

Destinations: India

Leaves and Thorns

India's Complexities





"Like so many Indian women, Padma was tireless, adept at managing life without identifying its hardships, as those of us brought up in physically unchallenging urban lives tend to do."

Reprinted with permission of Seal Press.

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