Glimpses of Women in India by Elizabeth Cunningham


Recently I traveled in India with my husband who did doctoral research there 48 years ago. I had no goals of my own other than to be open. Back only a short while, I am still pondering the journey. Here are glimpses of the women I saw, often only from a distance, with gratitude for so much kindness.

“Welcome to the City of Joy,” says our guide when we step out of the airport into the warm Calcutta night.  “You have arrived on Maha Shivaratri, the Great night of Shiva. This is especially a holiday for women. Every woman wants a husband like Shiva.”

Source: Alamy; used with permission

The streets of Calcutta/Kolkata are thronged with people and every kind of vehicle imaginable. Temporary temples to Shiva have sprung up on every corner, strung with blue and yellow lights (Shiva’s favorite colors) garlanded with marigolds. The pale blue god is often featured entwined with the goddess Parvati, his bride, who in her other aspects is Durga and Kali. Both goddesses favor red. Red and green lights also festoon the streets. Later we learn that the goddess and god figures are made with Ganges river clay mixed with straw (by artisans who are almost all men). When their day is done these clay deities will return to the Ganges who is the Great Goddess.  

(In Varansi we’re told that only men attend the funeral pyres at the ghats. “Women might weep and distress the spirit of the dead person.” Women do go out on boats to release the ashes to the Ganges. Brides also come to the river the day after their wedding and immerse in all their finery.)

Overwhelmed by the intensity of communal life, I write in my journal: “The human world is not what I thought. It is a susurration, a murmuration…pressed up close together, close as minnows or bees or starlings….”

But it’s not that simple. People, maybe women especially, yearn to fulfil individual dreams and talents. Lena is our daytime guide in Calcutta, a brisk, friendly woman in her late thirties with a passion for her city. Over lunch she tells us her story. She worked eleven years for a doctorate in history, completed her dissertation only to be told that to be awarded her degree she must pay an astronomical fee that she could not afford. “I gave up marriage and children for my studies. Now I am nowhere.”    

Our guide in Darjeeling expresses surprise that we had a woman guide. He also voices disapproval of some young girls who’ve dyed their hair pink. “Destroying their natural beauty!” He has one daughter, clearly the apple of his eye. He put her through college. “Then I told her to come home!” Instead she stubbornly remains in Delhi where she is training to become an airline stewardess. He is full of exasperated pride at her ambition and daring.  

“Ninety percent of women in India do not work,” our guide to the Taj Mahal informs us. “My wife, she has an easy life.” My arguments that she must work hard for the family are to no avail. “No, no,” he insists. “She doesn’t do the marketing or cleaning. She watches television all day while I work in the hot sun.”  From this guide, I learn that Shah Jahan built his great monument to love when his wife died in her fourteenth childbirth, a fact that along with running sexist jokes and the food poisoning that is overtaking me, colors my view of this wonder of the world.  

Other men confirm the ninety percent statistic, confiding with a mix of anxiety and pride that they are the sole support of their families, in some cases several generations. Many men work far from home in order to make enough money to keep the family going.  

Yet we are also told, “only women can pick teas leaves. Only women have hands small enough to harvest spices.”  In the rare times we are outside of cities, we see women in the fields doing stoop labor, dressed in bright saris. It is also largely women who sweep the streets with twig brooms. The ninety percent may pertain to jobs in cities that are largely unavailable to women.

Source: Alamy; used with permission

With the exception of Lena, all our guides are men, as are the drivers, who tell us much more about daily life in India. (Note: one driver has a fourteen-year-old daughter who wants to be an aeronautic engineer!) I find myself missing women. Whenever I can, I talk to women who also seem willing to connect. There is the kindly woman waiting with us at 3:00 am to exit a train. She has just returned from visiting her daughter in London. She is concerned about my obvious illness and wants to make sure I am brushing my teeth with bottled water. A woman in a waiting room at a hospital where I’m being tested for acute pancreatitis also reaches out, saying she had noticed I was upset.  Almost every woman I encounter wants to know if I have children. I always ask in return, though one young woman is shocked that I cannot see that she is unmarried.

“Happy International women’s day,” I say to a receptionist at a beach hotel in Kerala. She shakes my hand and takes me on a tour of the butterfly garden. She tells me she is walking several miles every day and doing pushups so that she can lose enough weight to be an airline stewardess. She has just gotten her training certificate. Another young woman who wants to fly.

On our way home, we change planes in Delhi in the middle of the night. I’ve just gotten an ear infection. Exhausted and in pain, I make a hurried stop in a washroom. When I emerge from the stall, a washroom attendant, matter-of-factly and tenderly, rights the rumpled tunic that I have left in disarray. I have no money with me, nothing to give her but gratitude.

 

Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. She has recently released the 25th anniversary edition of The Return of the Goddess, A Divine Comedy. Her graphic novels The Book of Madge and Madge Returns, having sold out as a signed limited edition, are now available in one volume from online purveyors. She is also the author of three collections of poems as well as the classic cozy mystery novel Murder at the Rummage Sale. She has just completed a sequel. A fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute, she lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley.  

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Categories: Feminism, General, Narrative Essay, travel, Women and Work, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , ,

26 replies

  1. I want to weep when I read about this experience – so many invisible women – so much kindness – so few opportunities. Nothing but marriage – another form of slavery – oh, we have an impossible distance to traverse…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me, too, Sara. There is a feminist movement in India, although I did not come into direct contact with it. Certainly the young women I met intend to claim their wings.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth, I hope your ear infection and other ills have cleared up and you are enjoying good health.
    Your experience is a good reminder of the variety of cultures that make up our world. If we think No. America is the model of perfection we only have to read some comments on-line. There is much work to do before gender is no longer a requirement for equality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Barbara. After three weeks of antibiotics the infection has cleared. My affection for the people I met remains. In this post I wrote about a few glimpses. The whole experience of being in India made me question many of my Western, North American assumptions. I have always been a little miffed with the Buddha for leaving his wife to seek enlightenment right after his son was born. After landing in Calcutta, I understood better his shock of leaving his guarded insulated palace.

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  3. Thank you for sharing these experiences and giving us a glimpse into the lives of the women you encountered. It is so important that women all over the world meet one another one-to-one to form personal relationships and create understanding of both our common experiences as those we do not share so we can all work together in a sensitive and effective way for better lives for all women.

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    • Thank you, Carolyn. I think of the women I met every day and also of the men I came to know. When we were both very ill, our driver took care of us and interpreted for us at the hospital. He is from Bhopal. His father was killed in the 1984 Union Carbide disaster (for which neither Union Carbide, Dow, and now Dupont have ever taken responsibility). His mother died fifteen years later of illness related to exposure to the accident, as many people still are. Ground water is still contaminated. Here are his words, “my mother could only get small jobs. And so food was a problem.” He left school at age twelve to help support his family.

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  4. Elizabeth, as always you’ve whetted my appetite for more of your writing! Very sorry to hear you’ve been ill and hope you have recovered completely by now. Your travels in India sound fascinating, but I’m disheartened to hear that despite all the supposed advances women have made, Indian women’s lives are still constrained by patriarchal rules.

    Last night I started reading a sample of “The Blue Notebook,” a novel about a young Indian girl sold into sexual slavery by her father. It was so horrific I couldn’t go on to buy the whole book. Couldn’t sleep for thinking of it, either. How can men have sex with nine-year-old children? It’s hard not to hate men as a whole. I have to keep reminding myself that I know many wonderful men who are NOT patriarchs, and who do NOT view women as “property.”

    All women have a long, uphill battle to gain the rights that are owed us; Indian women, alas, seem to have even more of a fight. Odd, isn’t it, for a culture that cherishes goddesses, and which has elected a female prime minister?

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    • I have recovered from all illnesses, thank you. I think sexual slavery is a problem all over the world, as is patriarchy. I believe feminism is on the rise in India. A film called the Gulabi Gang by Nishtha Jain has been highly recommended to me as an expression of contemporary feminism in India. I couldn’t find it through my subscription to netflix or amazon but intend to keep looking.

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  5. I just got done watching the documentary “A Suitable Girl” which touches on some of the themes you’ve mentioned here. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for your eloquence in sharing part of your journey (and blessings in your healing) in India. The comments above offer many similar thoughts to mine, although, unlike one comment, I am not disheartened. I’ve spent the past couple years immersed in history and, while global suffering is indeed distressing, I feel an odd sort of optimism. Part of my peace comes from books like Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” … we can appreciate the long view of progress while also doing whatever we are called to so that it continues. And, to recognize that each culture is walking its own path to liberation in their own way — which doesn’t mean we do nothing, but sometimes our pain and frustrations can push too hard, too fast for others, so we need to encourage those women to find their own way out (again, letting them know they are supported in whatever way that manifests from each of us).

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    • Thanks, Darla, and thanks for the book recommendation. Along with the kindness I encountered everywhere in India, I sensed resilience, too. There is so much more to be said, even about my brief time there, than can be said in a short post. I felt humbled by all don’t know. It is not for a Westerner to push or prescribe anything.

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      • Indeed, and yet so many Westerners do so … we can be so arrogant without realizing it (even when the arrogance may arise out of compassion). I spent a year immersed in studying Ayurveda (the healing system of ancient India) and many of our teachers would fly in from India to share their wisdom; they have a beautiful and unique perspective.

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  7. Agreed!

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  8. Dear Elizabeth, if I may address you, your don’t even know how I loved your post, I am elated by reading it. I am a photographer and by now a single female traveler, as I went to India 2 years ago just on my own. And I have observed the same as you did with Indian women, I have photographed them, even a female business owner in Jodhpur, which is still very rare that women own their own business. In a way Indian women are so powerful, yet they are not recognized as that, yet I can foresee a rise in women’s power. Each single photograph I took, my heart was with them, especially little girls. Parts of my heart belong to India and it’s not about the usual touristy stuff, it’s their spirit and hard work, women in India are the hardest worker. I deeply thank you for your post, your voice totally speaks to me.

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  9. Thank you! My heart, along with yours, remains in India!

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  10. Beautifully and sensitively written.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Very sad, but also interesting. Last fall I edited a self-help book written by a committee, the head of which is a retired professor, Bob, born in India. Bob told me their target reader is female, but there was nothing in the book–except a few makeup tips–about or to appeal to a female reader. The only woman on the committee told me later that she felt like she was the token woman there. I edited the book, but there was no way I could make it more woman-friendly. Bob seems to have brought his core beliefs to California and spread them around his committee. Goddesses and “powerful women” notwithstanding, India seems to be pretty patriarchal.

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    • I think it is, but as noted above, there is a feminist movement in India. The young women I met were vibrant and determined. As you note, there is patriarchy in the US–even California!

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  12. Thanks, Elizabeth, for this short reportage of your trip to India. India has fascinated me since 1977 when I visited there for a month. The country was so utterly foreign to my American sensibilities that I had to dig deeper. I then became friends with one of the most powerful women I have ever met, the 21-year-old Indian childcare provider for my 6-month-old daughter. Sonoo is now an Indian-American, and continues to be a “force of nature,” a highly successful businesswoman, and now administrator at Stanford University. In her case, she was encouraged by a highly-successful father, who saw that she had what it takes and supported her in her every endeavor.

    What I found when I dug deeper into Indian culture and religion after 1977 were several goddesses — especially Durga/Kali/Bairavi — who have become a significant part of my personal pantheon and goddesses I needed to support my feminist spirituality. I find it interesting that women on FAR are confused by the fact that such a highly patriarchal society like India could harbor goddesses (In fact, when you look at Hinduism, the three main gods are Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess). I wonder if this surprise doesn’t arise from our own (Western) experience of the absence of any god symbolism that supports us as women. This is a huge whole here in the West, but obviously from the example of India and other non-Western cultures, not a sufficient force to overcome patriarchy. Reading Carol Christ’s post today gives us a better indicator of egalitarianism: it’s not goddesses per se (many of the egalitarian matriarchal cultures she talks about don’t have any goddesses), but the maternal values of love, caring and generosity that permeate egalitarian matriarchal cultures.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your much more in depth experiences resonates with what I sense. Patriarchal attitudes and structures are there but there are so many layers and centuries and paradoxes in India. It cannot be neatly summed up. Thank you for sharing your experience and reflections.

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    • A lot of feminine energy, ancient and new welling up.

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  13. Beautiful post. The power within women is great as the women of India prove – rising up to care for themselves and their families in the face of such oppression, daring to pursue their dreams. The patriarchy is alive and well – so very sad!
    But on a positive note Are you familiar with the women painters of Mithila? In this province in NE India the women paint – and only the women – pictures which are part of family ceremonies and village festivals.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks for your fascinating post, Elizabeth. It saddens my heart that women are so oppressed in India, but of course we often are in the U.S., too.

    Liked by 1 person

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