There is an infectious cheer in India at the moment and we owe it largely to women. Three of these are Olympian sportswomen—shuttler P.V. Sindhu, wrestler Sakshi Malik and gymnast Dipa Karmakar who have returned home from Rio to kudos. A country where a majority of families still berate women for wanting to be “like men” and find ways to domesticate or subdue them when they indeed become so, is celebrating womanhood and girl power. It’s the undeniable triumph of perseverant, gritty women, inspiring some like cricketer Virender Sehwag to assert that here is what happens when you don’t kill the girl child. None of these young sportswomen are avowed feminists in the political sense, yet they have become the poster girls of what feminism must look like. Not embattled or scarred but glowing, clear, determined and combative as their natural identities.
What enamours me the most in this tide is that badminton star Sindhu, wrestler Sakshi and gymnast Dipa haven’t been pushed to prove something by desperation or as a fight or flight response to endangered female aspiration. Instead, they were enabled by men—fathers, brothers, friends and, most significantly, coaches and gurus—to achieve what they have.
There are other nuanced aspects of this women’s spring. Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila’s decision to shift the site of her activism from a 16-year-old fast that she ended earlier this month to join electoral politics is one. Sharmila has layered her identity to move from a largely silent protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to become a dynamic mover and shaker. It’s something to cheer for as she negotiates anger, even resentment from a section of her supporters who had enshrined her former choice as the only and forever choice. Sharmila though has chosen, again.
Then there is the painful smile of Sabita Ghosh, the 58-year-old mother of Delhi techie Jigisha Ghosh, who was brutally murdered in 2009. Sabita smiled after seven years when two of her daughter’s killers were awarded capital punishment earlier this week. Her smile was not one of joy, it was of acceptance of life’s harshest turn, the loss of an only daughter to a ruthless murder. Justice helped her smile. That is a smile we must all cherish. It reminds us of the constant existential interplay of darkness and light in life.
Not all is lit up around contemporary Indian womanhood even as the cheerful march towards its celebration quickens in pulse. There has been a scary outpouring in recent news cycles about little girls being raped, their lives destroyed, their psyches vandalized. There are mounting cases of unpunished rapes, even a repeat gangrape of the same girl by the same bunch of men. Some victims are thrown away after assault in misogynist disgust, others burnt or hacked. Sahitya Akademi award-winning Malayali writer K.R. Meera’s recent article in Open magazine that ruminates over Malayali patriarchy (and I had never realized that Malayali patriarchy would be a variant from Haryanvi patriarchy for instance), made me rattle with unrest. “Is patriarchy such a viscerally wounding issue even in this day and age?” I found myself rhetorically asking a female colleague. I knew the answer, of course. It has just been convenient to overwrite it because personally for me, there is nothing and nobody to fight my feminist battles against. In the past, I broke the door that wouldn’t open, but once I went through it, I have forgotten that many compatriots remain in captivity. That forgetting has disabled me.
The “Indian woman” narrative, as many years of reporting and talking to women continues to reveal, remains a jumble of forward and backward movements. Meera’s powerfully provocative voice that pounds through her writings and Sakshi Malik’s fabulously captivating smile after winning the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics wrestle in my head.
Just as well. These perplexing paradoxes of Indian womanhood are a reminder to not let the flame douse in one’s mind and heart. Sindhu-Sakshi-Dipa are feminists by success, goal pursuit, relentless work and excellence. They are as crucial to stoking ideas of freedom and will as is Meera, the disturbing interpreter of maladies. The laughter of one side will, some day, extinguish the wrathful tears of the other, or so I believe. Quoting lines from her book Hangwoman, Meera hangs this grim truth: “Women should not laugh. That is a bad omen. The house where a woman’s laughter rings—it won’t be long before it collapses.”
But imagine “India” as this house for a moment, if metaphorically. A rephrase of the above lines looks entirely probable at least in August 2016, 69 years after Independence. The house where a woman’s laughter rings—it won’t be long before it becomes the house where everyone wants to live.