There’s a reason dystopian fiction is so addictive to read. Like a ghost story, or a murder mystery, it draws you in. There but for the grace of God, go I. An authoritarian government, the poor at the very bottom, the rich at the very top, measures that you should be outraged about but aren’t, for fear of retribution, or just plain old apathy. This could be us. This could be us today.
The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most quoted examples of this genre, and rightly so. Margaret Atwood, the author, can write circles around anyone else, even when she’s describing female friendship or placing a novel within a novel. But it is Atwood’s dystopia that stands out, whether it’s the more recent Oryx and Crake (climate change in a strange new world) or back to basics, back to the book that defined a female-centric dystopian fantasy: The Handmaid’s Tale.
It seems funny that there was a time I’d never even heard of Atwood, and that it took the urgings of my partner, then in our heady nascent early dating days, to push The Handmaid’s Tale on me, and how when I read it, devoured it, it was an act of falling in love on two levels: one with the man who brought the book to me and the other with the author of this book.
Nightmare come true
Then, I read it swiftly and speedily, as I couldn’t wait to finish and put together the jigsaw. But I re-read it recently, all in anticipation for the television adaptation of the book, and this time I went slowly, and what I read along the way troubled me. Increasingly, the narrative was sounding like a true-life report, something that is actually happening today in India.
The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. I was four when it came out, and now looking back over the years, the 1980s have taken on a sepia-tinged look. Cycling down alleys, organic food before there were any other options, but 1985 was the year Air India flight 182 was blown up over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all passengers aboard.
It was the year the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was passed in India, claiming that a person suspected of terrorism could be imprisoned without a trial or any formal charges, removing a defence of free speech. In the United States, it was the Year of The Spy, because a number of arrests were made on Russian spies in the US.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course [...] but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The news paper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.— 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Maid to order
One of the big issues in the fall of the United States as we know it in the book was the loss of fertility. A nuclear disaster – or something similar – had resulted in infertility and as a result, those up top, in power, could call upon “handmaids” or women who were known to be fertile, to come to their homes, have sex with them, and produce a child for them, after which the women were shipped off to another posting, and so on and so forth until their ovaries died out. Offred, our narrator, so named because she belongs to Fred, who is a “Commander”, is one of these women.
In 2017, in India, there may not be either infertility or a decline in the birth rate, but the RSS is claiming that you can get “customised, fair skinned babies” by following a few rituals. The Garbh Vigyan Sanskar project claims to have delivered 450 of these “specialised” babies so far and has plans to have “thousands of such babies by 2020,” according to their spokesperson.
This involves, among other things, complete abstinence after the baby is born. Compare this to the Ceremony in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the Commander, fully clothed except for the essential part, has sex with Offred, also fully clothed, minus her underwear, while she lies between the legs of the Commander’s Wife. (Also, needless to say, fully clothed.) When there is a birth, the Wife sits above the labouring Handmaid, pretending to give birth as she does. These are aided by certain rituals they all follow – especially the night the Commander and the Handmaid have sex – to ensure fertility.
The Commander’s Wife – and her particular, peculiar sexless marriage – reminded me a lot of the Indian mother-in-law. The Handmaid is in the Wife’s domain, and it is the Wife who decides her fate. “We fought for it,” the Wife tells Offred, when she emphasises that her husband is hers alone.
Many dowry deaths in India have the mother-in-law as the murderer, and in a country where the husband lives with his parents, it is the mother-in-law with whom the bride has the closest relationship. She may not literally be the third person in the bedroom, but her spectre is looming close by. Plus arranged marriages? They abound in Gilead – the book’s fictional world – as well as in real life right here.
It’s closer than we think
I turned to an article in Outlook published in 2013, and found that the women in RSS training camps have similar ideas about their segregation. Motherhood is held up as the ultimate ideal. To quote from the article: “We are not feminists, we are family-ists. We believe in dampatya (conjugality) where a man and a woman together need to bring up a family.”
The modesty that the Handmaids have to always employ is echoed in this other quote by a Samiti member: ““Besides unemployment, there are two major problems that need to be addressed...One is that young girls must be stopped from putting their pictures on social networking websites like Facebook. They risk their honour and then their pictures are morphed into nude ones and circulated.”
Offred is lucky to be a Handmaid, she’s frequently told. Less useful women become Marthas – cooks, maids, general dogsbodies. Others marry lower ranked soldiers and are Econowives. The Handmaids still occupy a higher status than them. The women in the book are not allowed to read, and there are frequent heartbreaking flashbacks to Offred’s previous life where all her freedoms were slowly taken away.
It begins, as these things often do, with constant surveillance. The old government is overthrown, a new one promised, but never delivered, people with differing beliefs asked to leave the country. Do you see the echoes now as I did?
“‘Ordinary,’ said Aunt Lydia, ‘is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.’”
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