Back then, I was younger and essentially a more patient doctor. I indulged the little idiosyncrasies a rural practice entailed, in fact I enjoyed them. Among my favourites and one that I found endearingly silly was the response to a very basic question. It amused me no end at how women would blush when I asked their husband’s name. If a family member was with them they would coyly nudge him or her to do the needful. On the rare instances when they were unaccompanied and I was in a good mood, the guessing game would begin. On one such occasion the patient made a circle with her hands, and meaningfully pointed upwards. “Sooraj” I suggested, and when she shook her head “Surya Prakash” I said and then, not giving up I offered “Ravi” another synonym of the sun. She shook her head vigorously indicating that I was on the wrong track. “Chander Prakash” I said doubtfully and she nodded excitedly, “ Haanji, Chand Prakash, Chand Prakash” and then realising that she had taken her husband’s name not once but twice, hid her reddened face in her dupatta.
Women of this region have come a long way from those ‘not-taking-the-husband’s- name’ days. Thirty years ago they dressed in drab salwar kameez with a dupatta draped over their head. The older lot still dress traditionally but now the palette is more vibrant, the cuts more form flattering and the headgear occasionally missing. The young have moved on to jeans, kurtis and other indo-western mishmash. It is not just the attire but the attitude that has changed. Women appear more confident, more assertive of their role in the scheme of things.
Back then thumb impressions were the norm. Few women could write their names, fewer still could read their own signatures, a shaky scrawl they had learnt in Praurh Shikhsha Kendras. A fallout of the state’s shortsighted shortcut to literacy, teaching them to ‘ write ’ their names without knowing the alphabets. Now-a-days many sign in cursive English, the ultimate proof of an education. The ink pad is seldom needed, that too, mostly for migrant labour.
In those days a twenty year old girl could, by default be assumed ‘happily’ married. Divorced, separated or remarried women were virtually unheard of. Now, it is common to come across single girls in their late twenties studying, working, building a career, marriage on the horizon but not the goal. Girls with dreams in their eyes and determination in their manner. Girls with a mind of their own. Girls not willing to settle for less.
House work stays unappreciated as does everything else women do around the house. As medical students we did a project on working hours of rural women and discovered that the average village women worked fourteen hours a day cooking and cleaning, fetching water and fodder, tending to children, elders and livestock. In the three decades of my practice I am still irked when her occupation is described as “Kuchh nahin karti” ( does nothing). My irritation grows further when the women seemingly agree. Society needs to recognise women’s role as nurturers, care givers and homemakers but that can only happen when women stop undervaluing themselves.
Home deliveries have slowly phased out. Institutional deliveries are almost universal. Two children are the norm. Some even stop at one,…… if it is a son! Stopping at two daughters is still a rarity. Most will keep trying till they have at least one ankh ka tara. It is a consolation that the need for binocular vision is no longer felt so acutely. Back then the common explanation for the need of a second son was, ‘Ek ankh ka dekhna bhi ke dekhna.’ Daughters didn’t count then, they don’t count now. Not as heirs, legal descendants or carriers of the family name anyway.
It is not uncommon to come across new brides who are obvious imports from other states. Some don’t know the language, some have unfamiliar features. Although cultural and ethnic mixing should be viewed as a good sign for any society their sight fills me with dread and despair. They are a grim reminder of the falling gender ratio in our home state. It is because we have killed our own daughters that we cannot find daughters- in- law. The need to bring brides from far off lands, Himachal, Uttar Pradesh and even West Bengal should set off alarms of the impending doom that is upon us.
On the bright side, sometimes, just sometimes, I come across a patient who confidently, assertively agrees to an investigation without looking inquiringly at her husband. When I started practice even a twenty rupee haemoglobin test had to be sanctioned by a male member of the family. I take this as an indication of their participation in economic decisions. A sign that things are slowly but surely changing. Undoubtedly, the road to redemption is never a linear one. It is more like a dance, one step forward, two step backwards. It is reassuring then, that more and more women are dancing to their own tunes. Patriarchy, khap panchayats, violence, unsafe environs continue to mar women’s potential. Still, men walking ahead, transistor in hand with wife following, baby in one arm, bag in the other and a trunk on the head is a scene of the past. Transistors have been replaced by smart phones, women have become smarter and men, at least the smart ones have noticed!
( Published in the Tribune as part of my column ‘So Ordinary ‘)