Home >Opinion >The three wives and the water well

Rarely do you chance upon an Indian short film which isn’t a deadly mixture of being too arty, intellectual and just plain boring. The Wives manages to not possess any of these wonderful qualities. Also, the fact that it was 5 minutes and 30 seconds long is a charm. After 2 hours and 45 minutes of Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo, film duration has gained in great significance in my film-viewing life.

Launched digitally last Friday, The Wives is written by Swati Bhattacharya and directed by Jaydeep Sarkar, for Action Aid. The film is about an old man in a village and his two wives—an older woman closer to his age, and another woman a few years younger, who is heavily pregnant. He is a Hindu—you gather that from the accoutrements at home as well as the mangal sutras on the wives—so we know these marriages are illegal. He comes home and is asked by the older wife whether the deal has been finalised. The second wife, the pregnant one, looks furious, but he explains that this deal is for everyone’s betterment. The deal, as we learn, is that he is getting married to a third woman, much younger than the others. After he gets married the third time, upon reaching home, the eldest wife plays a maternal role to the new recruit, directing her to the hut, shutting the room door and so on, while the pregnant wife takes a while to warm up. The film ends with the newest and youngest wife setting out in the morning with two urns and a plastic water container to go fetch water. The film ends with the words: They exist everywhere, in our homes, our workplaces, in our minds. Where a woman is unpaid, unheard and unrecognised. Fight inequality and injustice wherever you see it.

But most importantly, this is a story based in fact. It’s about the concept of water wives in drought-hit villages in Maharashtra, especially Denganmal. In these villages, where there is no water available for over a 100 km., men have come up with a novel idea of marrying two to three times, so that these “water wives" can carry water and bring it home. According to Reuters, “the government estimated last year that more than 19,000 villages in Maharashtra had no access to water". A wonderful state of affairs.

The wives are not ill-treated—or not ill-treated any more than most Indian wives in rural or urban areas are. Apart from Reuters, Guardian and many other media publications, have spoken to a few families and the women seem to be living in a modicum of harmony with each other, clear about their roles in the family. And at least they know what their job description is because the concept of water wives is so ingrained in these villages.

But to me, the film was much more than a commentary on gender inequality. To me, it was also a commentary on the injustice and inequality encouraged by our governments. That a country, with the kind of wealth which India has and the kind of absurd expenditures India sees especially by politicians across party lines, cannot provide basic necessities like water to all its citizens is reprehensible. It almost makes a case for letting companies and even individuals adopt villages and provide basics such as water and toilets for them since our government can’t. Nothing is more unjust and unfair than governments which refuse to provide for their people. But look, there’s a statue of Sardar Patel and another of Shivaji looking down on hundreds of starving, thirsty people. I digress, apologies.

I’m not saying that by providing water, patriarchy will disappear. But economic disparity is bound to lead to unequal social structures. If the people in these villages had access to water, they would not need to indulge in polygamy to carry on their daily lives and run their homes. Of course, thanks to our many centuries of patriarchy, women make for good cheap labour. They—across rural and urban India—have been told men will provide for them in return for looking after their homes, giving them babies and warming their beds (not necessarily in that order). It’s like a job. In urban India, some women write articles to ensure they have a roof above their heads, other women teach or work in a company, and some others just get married to do so. It’s a social and economic construct of marriage and a woman’s role in it which cuts across rural and urban India.

According to Swati Bhattacharya, whom I spoke with, the inequality cuts across homes and workplaces. The three wives reminded her of an office structure—the eldest being the HR head, the middle one the manager and the youngest the management trainee. The husband is the CEO who, like most good CEOs, doesn’t micro-manage. He identifies and invests in a solution, and it is up to the senior management to use the solution effectively. It’s a hilarious, but apt analysis.

Watch the film. It really packs a punch when you sit down and realise the many messages it delivers and commentaries it makes. And the saving grace is that it’s not some high-falutin intellectual exercise in nothingness. You can simply appreciate it for being a short poignant extremely well-made and enacted film on relationships. Or a critique on governments and patriarchy.

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