There was a time when issues concerning women were near similar for all classes across the social spectrum. The uniting factor was the economic condition which more or less was on par. It was only later that class demarcations began tearing the social fabric asunder and with them the concerns began diverging too, so much so that the various classes could be populating different planets. I am sure you will be able to relate to this aspect after reading the post.
To repeat the disclaimer: This is not a sociological study of the times but the eye-view of an average Gen X woman.
Do read the first part here.
In the decades after Independence, there was tremendous enthusiasm to rebuild the country on various fronts like education, industry, healthcare, housing…As for the society, it was in a flux. Except for rich landowners and those who held high posts in the government agencies and the bureaucracy, or public sector undertakings, everyone more or less was economically at par. I would call it the Great Indian (lower) Middle Class.
To get an idea: Bicycles were the usual modes of transport, with the odd scooter or an even rarer car. My father and brothers used them just as the peons and watchmen in their offices/colleges. What we consider basic necessities today like the fan (an AC more likely) was a luxury for many households back then — we didn’t have one, a fan, that is! My mother cooked on a coal stove just as our neighbor who was a goatherd and might have even cooked on a wood stove had it been possible in our house! The only ‘luxury’ we had in comparison with them was that we had our own bath and toilet while they shared theirs with several other families or used the fields. But then they owned the land their hut stood on, while we lived in a rented house. So you could say we were sort of even economically!
This is one thing that has remained unchanged over the decades: The priorities of the middle-class were focused on education, improving one’s living standards, acquiring of two and four-wheelers — and only after satisfying all these needs did they invest in a house/land. But for the poor, land was and still is everything. They didn’t mind living in a hut or taking a bus or riding a bicycle if the land belonged to them. They bought more land when they had disposable money instead of improving their lifestyle. Even today, one can see more middle class citizens living in rented accommodations than the poor who own their own land whether in a slum cluster in the big city or in their villages.
The remarkable thing then was that class consciousness as it is known today was more or less absent as far as I can remember. We kids played with everyone and went to each other’s houses, rich or poor. Some of our friends’ fathers were in senior positions in government departments, while others were in lower positions than ours, some had businesses, and other were in class four jobs. But the social interaction was remarkable nevertheless. No one pulled ranks and bosses and subordinates inside the office were friends outside it especially while participating in religious and community programmes.
How often do we allow our children to mingle with those of our maids/drivers/presswala? Of course, such clear class demarcations didn’t exist then as they do today.
The welfare state of the post-Independence era envisaged an equal society when all classes would rise to reap the benefits of development. This was especially true of education. Private schools and convents were the preserve of the privileged few, but government schools and government aided schools were excellent too. The Kendriya Vidyalayas and the Corporation schools and schools started by many dedicated educational societies and Trusts vied with each other to provide quality education. In the 60s when many state governments made education free up to secondary school level, everyone got a chance to go to school including the poorest of the poor. I remember having as classmates, children from all walks of life as also from all religious backgrounds.
The mid-60s to 70s saw this group of school children coming to college and that was when economic backgrounds began affecting the education of those belonging to the poorer sections of society, since it was expensive as compared to school education. In many middle-class families, when it came to a toss-up between sending a son and a daughter to college, the former won, mainly because he had to assume the role of the breadwinner later in life. For instance my elder sister didn’t get to go to college because of this reason. So one of the first things we fought at that time was for the right to get higher education on par with the boys.
The concerns affecting us all at that time were very similar. So whatever social inequities existed vis-à-vis women applied to all classes cutting across religions and regions. We were all fighting for the same things: a better life, better sanitation, better and higher education, a better future, right to land and property, and a say in the patriarchal system of society. Women took part many movements like the Chipko Andolan in the North, the anti-alcohol movement in Andhra Pradesh, the anti-price rise stir in Maharashtra, the anti-dowry movement in many parts of the country. One of our idols in Maharashtra was the paniwali bai Mrinal Gore, the socialist leader for her rolling-pin wielding agitations to bring water to the Mumbai suburb of Goregaon.
Women as a group emerged as a force to reckon with and made a difference to their lives and that of the society. Even ‘Bhagini mandals’ (ladies clubs) did social work and helped the poor in their respective localities, conducting classes for women, both literacy and skill training, organizing cultural events and running playschools. We all joined in their work in some capacity or the other, volunteering our services. Social consciousness was very much there in the air. They had not yet become the fashionable ‘Ladies Cubs’ which spawned in later years with their dainty ‘social work’ culture.
There are thousands of NGOs today which do a lot of work for women, but the general fervor that pervaded the very atmosphere then is somehow absent today. If we had been working together as fellow women to better our lives then, it is more of a ‘benefactor-beneficiary’ exercise today, with paid executives and well-to-do volunteers, many of whom have not seen hardships to be able to empathise with those they are seeking to help. This is not to pull down their work in any way but merely an illustrative observation.
Activist literature also coloured our thoughts or rather robbed them of colour! True to activist axioms, we tried to reduce everything to two shades – black and white. If your freedom is curbed, fight and/or bolt. Bad marriage? What are you still doing there? Walk out! Feeling discriminated as a woman at work by the boss? Just slap him and resign from the job! Black and White – that was life. Where was the need to complicate it? At least that is how we chose to see it in the beginning.
It took a while to realize that things can never be simplified to such an extent in real life. For while issues could be in black and white, relationships come in thousands of colours. Problems have hundreds of shades and unless we can see them as such, we would be the losers in the end. For to break something or throw it away is so easy, while nurturing and making it thrive took hard work but was so worth the effort.
Changing lifestyles and increasing incomes saw another phenomenon in addition to creating social classes – outsourcing of housework and other chores. This created a new job market. rising cost of living meant that extra money made the difference between eating one meal and starving for the poor who didn’t see anything wrong in sending their daughters to work in houses instead of to school. Some were sent to work in factories as child labourers. Erstwhile neighbours were now employer and employee and the change began cleaving the once near homogeneous fabric of society. If poverty had bound people, development drew them asunder. It was a sad thing that the very same benefits which were intended for everyone in the society was slowly being appropriated by the privileged few.
Slowly and almost imperceptibly the concerns of the classes began changing and then completely diverged. The social classes got established too: the poor class, the ‘middle class’ which was emerging out of its ‘lower middle class’ status and the upper or rich class. While we were fighting to go to college, take up jobs and postpone getting married, our downtrodden sisters were still struggling to go to primary school, get out of child marriages and escape the hell of abusive marriages, even as they worked to eke out a living and support their families.
The divide that began in the ’70s has widened today to an unbridgeable chasm, with no apparent meeting ground of the two in sight. The worst ignominy for this nation is that the poor women have no access to even basic sanitation. Naturally the concerns are different and there is a huge difference in the demands for empowerment from the women at the two extremes of the social spectrum. Tell me, can there be anything be more demeaning than the denial of this basic dignity for a poor woman? How can she be expected to be concerned with the woman who is demanding the right to go safely to a pub late at night?
And now, back to the past…
We wanted answers to a lot of questions that were baffling to us about customs and traditions, beliefs including religion and the place of a woman in the society, starting within the family. Very few families supported their daughters in their quest for answers and sometimes didn’t even understand what the noise was all about. It even upset them that the girls were asking questions at all about things that had been accepted hitherto meekly by their predecessors. At least my mother kept throwing that line at me! But our minds had been opened and we began thinking about the status of women and other things that affected our lives and so continued asking questions.
Today things seem to have come a full circle here too, but with a twist. It is now to do with extreme individualism tinged with radicalism. Traditions are junked as being retrograde, with the danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water ever present; compromise is seen as weakness and a blow to one’s self-respect (ego?) in relationships — even close ones between spouses and parents and children. One wonders how far Gen Z is going to take their individualism. And then what? The decimation of the family as a unit and the unraveling of the very social fabric in the not too distant future?
The next part of this post will deal with the way we coped and emerged strong/weak/accommodating/rigid, according to our individual natures and circumstances — to shape the next generation, Stay tuned!