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In all fairness

J Devika | Updated on January 17, 2018

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What it takes to create a nest that doesn’t rest on gender violence

My younger daughter turned 18 on June 18. Now we are three grown women in the family, and we care tuppence for those who doubt our claim to be a family because it has no male head. Since about a year or so, even the air within the house has been changing, slowly: if it is messier now, it is also more relaxed and nonchalant. In fact, I almost feel that I am back in the old women’s hostel of my college/university days, minus the warden, the security staff and the awful food. I don’t cook as much as, and as regularly as, I used to — and the young ladies do take over quite frequently. Like during hostel days, we have ceased to care much about food. Oh, the fights are louder now perhaps, and arguments last much longer, but that is because we no longer have the parent-child relationship breathing down our necks. I have been convinced over the years that it was as debilitating a fetter for me as it was for my daughters, and we have discarded it now.

I still remember the way I trembled to the deepest recesses of my soul as I stepped out of a secure, traditional, respectable, upper middle-class home some 13 years ago, clutching what was at that time a still-unconfirmed job and two little girls, 10 and five. But anticipating the worst, I had planned to the last letter. The girls were spared the pain of confrontational moments; there was no shortage of money, because I had saved. I announced our plan early enough to the extended family and made it evident that the girls would still see them as family. And most importantly, I gave as dignified an account as I could of the terrible domestic abuse I had suffered for ten long years, all of which remained invisible, so it seemed, to our family and friends, until I decided to break the silence. I was 35. I felt ugly, sick, tired, and old, old, old.

There is nothing like admiring male attention to help you out of the deadness that domestic abuse wreaks. For a victim, her body often feels like dead weight, an instrument that she drags every day through an endless, never-ending cycle of chores, and a burden that makes her vulnerable simply because the abuser can inflict pain and humiliation on it. I decided to run for it when the urge to jump with my daughters in front of large, fast-moving vehicles on busy roads began to grow stronger within me. The desire of another for such a body can bring it to life, this I know. But few ‘admirers’ know what it is to support a woman used mainly to suffering. Often they are looking for some clandestine fun to counter the boredom that fills their stuffy middle-class homes; some look for a bridge to cross their difficult middle-decades. But when I look back, there is not even a trace of ill-will in me, simply because in hindsight they all look so needy and even vulnerable.

We took the idea of creating our own kind of family very seriously. The best thing about children is that they do not dismiss such goals as impossible. We designed our own routines, ways to minimise conflict, conventions of initiating and ending arguments. Another thing that children never fail to notice is the manner in which power becomes most intense when it denies its presence. So even though we did set a line that I was not to cross ever in my anger, we never took the much-peddled advice to parents to not ever show any anger before children and vice versa. I think we did rather well, considering the fact that we crossed several hurdles in all these years, including phases of serious illness, without feeling distraught, unloved, needy and dependent.

Today I look at the two no-nonsense young women I mothered with great pride, but would put down gracefully the mantle of motherhood. Indeed, we have been a much better family than conventional ones that rest on gender violence; we built our nest on precisely its opposite. But I also think of what made it possible for us to not just survive but thrive in such a hostile environment: a steady, high-paid job, a safe home and neighbourhood, enough cultural capital to be respected, a small but loving circle of friends, understanding lovers. Precisely the advantages that a very large number of woman-headed families lack — so evident in the discussion around the murder of a young dalit student, Jisha, in Kerala. There is hence no reason to gloat, but every reason to demand these for all women, all over the world.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on August 05, 2016

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