Portrait of A Woman

I met a woman today.

No, let me correct myself.

I didn’t really meet her.

I saw her in passing.

I glanced at her.

I brushed by her.

For one infinitismal moment in time, the curves of our lives were tangetial to each other.

I was intrigued by her.

Not in a romantic way. Not intrigued by her own self.

Intrigued by who she was.

Her dress was unremarkable. A salwar kameez. Perhaps a bindi on her forehead. I fumble for details. It is easier to remember the outrΓ© than the commonplace, easier to remember the strident than the somber.

But I remember some things about her. She wore a perfume. It was a strong one. The odor was familiar to me. How many times have I smelt its heady form on the streets of this country? The fragrant essence of duty and responsibility, taken head on. The sweetly toxic fragrance of unfairness accepted and discharged to the full. The misty fumes of guiltily held desires melting into the tortured smoothness of a worldview inculcated since birth.

She stooped a little, I think.
As though carrying something vast. Carrying something no human was ever meant to carry. Carrying something that someone just thrust upon her, without her even knowing it.
Carrying something vague and indefinable, that everyone insisted on defining anyway.

Carrying society’s honor on her back.

She strained under that load, pearl drops of perspiration on her face. She labored under the burden. But she knew of no other way. The gilded bonds of patriarchy bound her to her load, and she could not put it down. She must carry it as her own.

Her eyes were a striking black. They hid her soul behind the curtain of duties and responsibilities, to a husband, to a family, to a child, to a world. They hid the symmetric charm of a fundamentally good person. They hid the vagaries of her own personality under a crushing veneer of uniformity. She was a stone, crushed into a brick, to fit her place.

There was still a light in those eyes. A sparkling, shining, dancing, flicker of fiery flame.
The sparkle of dreams. Dreams she saw for the future. For her husband. For her children. Maybe for herself.
They would overcome.
She would learn to carry her load.
Perhaps someone would share it. Oh, how unbearably heavy it was! But she was young and she had the strength. She would do it.

In a few fleeting years, the light would go out. Extinguish. Forever.

The dress would be the same. Her perfume would be different. Oh yes, I’ve smelt that fragrance on the city streets too. The bitter musk of a cheerless existence. The dark mists of broken hopes making the world oddly wet in a chilly misery.

She was no feminist. She would never be one. Never be anyone significant. She would never go down in the pages of history. Never be toasted. Never even be seen by most of us.

And yet, in her own quiet, invisible way, she is important.

She is not just a she.

She is legion, for she is many.

She’s just an Indian woman. And yet she is so much more.

In a few seconds, she walked away.

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28 thoughts on “Portrait of A Woman

  1. Yes, the story of most Indian women, the scent is familiar, maybe I exuded it too. I am one of those lucky ones who managed to break those bonds, it was scary but exciting but ultimately highly rewarding πŸ™‚ It’s hard for women for break those bonds unless she gets support from members of said patriarchy and / or oodles of support from fellow womenfolk.

    But loved your article, it makes its point very sensitively.

    • True. Breaking through the rot requires a tremendous amount of willpower AND steady, patient support from a lot of people. It’s hard to break through a lifetime of conditioning.

      Very glad you liked it, Jolly!

  2. What strikes me is that this could be the story of, let’s say, a Haryana woman from the lower middle class OR a story of a very woman from a very rich but traditional family. I watch this show in NDTV Goodtimes called Big Fat Indian Wedding [mostly features weddings of the very rich] and the sentiments of the bride are so…fueled by patriarchal crap that has probably been hounded on her since her birth. I’m thinking, here’s this woman, wearing diamonds that are probably worth more than a million dollars, but she is NEVER going to have a voice. And she seems to be happy about it!

    I met my fiance’s friend’s grandma who is 86 years old on Sunday, and her thoughts were a million times more progressive than those rich women on the show. But I do realize that while there are women like the grandma–most Indian women, even from THIS generation, will never have the chance to even develop such views.

    • Absolutely. It’s not too much of a generalization at all.

      From what I’ve seen of North Indian families, the old money types can be EXTREMELY patriarchal in their ideas. It is a myth that upper class India is “modern” in its views. They might shop in Rome and collect French wine, but their thought processes often remain stuck somewhere in the Eighteenth century.

      My own mother is more liberal than half the women of my own age. I think it’s slightly easier to be a liberal person today than it used to be a generation ago, but for most women, it’s still too hard.

  3. I’m going to crawl out of my shell and de-lurk today , since your post was EXCEPTIONALLY close to my heart today:)
    Speaking of my own experience, I think of going off college was the ‘game changer’ that helped me break out of my conditioning- it wasn’t that my college was in a major metropolitan city, or that the campus was extra- cosmopolitan- what it WAS , was FAR FAR away from family, and that made all the difference!

    My ‘advice’ to Indian school going youngsters ( guys and girls) would be to pick a college where you’d have to stay in a hostel/dorm- for a 18 year old, the time away from family can really help you grow and become your own person, and shake off the last vestiges of conditioning.

    • Please do de-lurk more often, windfearie! πŸ™‚

      I agree that college can be a game-changer. There are people who are brought up from the very beginning to be independent and responsible, but for many others, college is the first taste of living one’s own life. Staying away from family and handling all the little hassles of life on your own definitely makes you more independent.

      On the other hand, college is no panacea either. I’ve previously written a post about a classmate who does not plan to use her engineering degree for anything beyond getting married to some rich dude. Some people can just never snap out of it.

  4. //She was no feminist. She would never be one. Never be anyone significant. She would never go down in the pages of history. Never be toasted. Never even be seen by most of us.//
    How I would like to change this!!

  5. wow!! thats so brilliantly written. it encapsulates everything. good job!!! what are you doing engineering for!! you should get into writing!..:D

    • Cheers, AS! πŸ™‚

      I do love writing, but it’s by no means my first love.
      Computers are what I’m really, REALLY passionate about. I could sit on a chair and write meaningless code all day and it wouldn’t bore me one bit.

      Once a geek, always a geek. Heh.

  6. OMG, I never even thought a guy could write like that! Specially an Indian guy.

    Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?

    And I know you have a girlfriend but will you marry me? Pretty please? πŸ™‚

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