In India, “middle-class” is a much-coveted term. The 2010 National Council for Applied Economic Research defined the middle class as those with household incomes between 2 lakh and Rs 10 lakh per annum. This is a visibly wide bracket, and those closer to the lower margins have a markedly different lifestyle than those near the upper margins.
Yet, when we say “middle-class”, we mean it more as an indicator of certain kinds of mindsets and convictions rather than income and expenditure. Why else would global superstar Shah Rukh Khan call himself a middle-class Delhi boy despite achieving dizzying heights of success and having outgrown the tag years ago?
The immovable odds stacked against middle class women
In her book Lies Our Mothers Tell Us, journalist Nilanjana Bhowmick examines India’s unique obsession with the middle-class and how upholding some of its beliefs have stifled the personal freedoms of generations of women. In the introduction, she writes, “Middle-class women have no choice but to do it all.” In exactly ten words, she sums up the invisible struggles of women who shoulder a whopping 82% of domestic duties. This means, the women in our homes, on an average, spend 433 minutes on caregiving and domestic responsibilities. This is in addition to the time spent in professional pursuit.
Every day is long and arduous thanks to the cycle of same tasks. If the monotony wasn’t bad enough, the helplessness is compounded by the complete abandonment of institutional help. How many of us remember being deposited to creches or seeing our fathers lend a helping hand as our mothers juggled their careers while ensuring that the family gets to enjoy piping hot, freshly cooked meals every day? The answer to this is clear in the silence that follows the question.
Though women have made progress with each generation – longer years of education, later age of marriage, increased chances of finding paid employment – there’s one thing that seems to be stuck in time: the idea that the responsibility of the family’s well-being (including financial) lies squarely on the women’s shoulders. Bhowmick observes this phenomenon as how “women have become co-breadwinners, but Indian men are yet to become co-carers.”
In Lies Our Mothers Told Us, Bhowmick draws upon her own memories of her mother and stories about her (long-dead) grandmother, her own roles as a mother and wife, interviews with barely literate women in villages of Uttar Pradesh and wealthy socialites of elite circles in New Delhi, and therapists, doctors, and counsellors to illustrate how heavily the patriarchal malady weighs upon India’s women.
Here, I would especially like to admire how candidly Bhowmick writes about the unhappy marriage of her parents and her own struggles with mental health – it takes courage to acknowledge these truths in a society where they are considered taboos.
The right to rest and the right to be
From a sensitive child to a journalist in search of real-life stories, the author’s determination to unveil the hidden lives of Indian middle class women has been a life-long pursuit. In her 20s, she recalls spotting women in Mumbai’s local trains who would deftly chop vegetables in overcrowded compartments in preparation for cooking dinner after a long day at work. A few years later, she would find herself taking care of her child and her career while sleeping only three hours in a day. This would in turn remind her of her mother whom she had never seen resting, or smiling.
Women in India were experiencing the “superwoman syndrome” without even realising it – a crisis that was creating overwhelming expectations for women and giving rise to what journalist Judith Serrin had called “a new malady”. The workload never gets lighter, the rewards remain invisible, and the institutions are abysmally ill-equipped for women to have any other identity outside of a caregiver.
“Middle-class Indians thrive on social status and respectability and it dictates everything”. Lies Our Mothers Told Us scrutinises how the prevalent culture of hushing up abuse and discomfort perpetuates lies that have fatal outcomes for women. From inadequate nutrition, poor mental and physical health, to little or no control over personal finances – and more, –the pretences of the middle class have stunted women and prevented them from living lives on their own terms.
Bhowmick calls out these lies and the urgent need to reform the power structures in our homes. Grand government schemes and long-term community goals have little relevance if women are denied rest, respect, and agency in their own homes. Sending daughters to schools and teaching mothers to open a bank account isn’t enough – there needs to be cultural and mental adjustments in our families where women are seen as individuals and not merely as supporting actors to the men in their lives.
The solution is not to cancel out genders, as liberal feminism might suggest, but instead to make our systems gender-responsive. There’s a need to make feminism accessible for middle class girls and women – a movement that is cognisant of its participants’ cultural and social needs. While our mothers might have secured certain legal and financial rights, it is now time for their daughters to stand up and demand the right to leisure and selfhood.
Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden, Nilanjana Bhowmick, Aleph Book Company.