Where are your Sahibs?

As has been the tradition for the last few years, here is a GUEST POST by my aunty Dr. Bindu on the occasion of International Women’s Day.

In mid-November, 4 of us women toured Madhya Pradesh by car beginning in Jabalpur and via Bandhavgarh, Khajuraho and Orchha wending our way to Gwalior. Several things occurred during this tour that set me thinking. We drove along main roads and an occasional National Highway.

Many a woman could be seen walking by the side of the road. Overwhelmingly in colourful polyester sarees with a Ghunghat (a headscarf used to cover the head and often the face) and to my dismay quite a few without footwear. I wondered about their nutritional state which a physician friend, who works in rural MP, described as abysmal.

We spent two days in Orchha – a town with many magnificent medieval monuments. The first day we spent an afternoon at the fort complex. Our guide, a Mr Awasthi, showed us two of the most prominent structures in it – the Jahangir Mahal and the Raja Mahal. Several sites outside the fort remained to be seen but as we were tired having driven from Khajuraho earlier we said we would see these the following morning.

The next day we were waiting for Mr Awasthi when lo and behold he came on a motorcycle with a young woman, stylishly dressed in a black and white printed cotton salwar kameez, riding pillion. Mr Awasthi told us that the lady – a Premvati Devi – would be our guide that morning. Showering praise on Premvati Devi’s abilities as a guide, he excused himself and roared off.

We drove away in our van with Premvati Devi who was an animated and well-informed guide. We visited the Laxmi temple full of painted walls and ceilings depicting scenes from the Ramayana. Then we went to impressively elaborate Chhatris or cenotaphs where the Rajput rulers of Orchha had been cremated. Waiting for the 4 of us to assemble in the shade so she could tell us about the Chhatris, Premvati Devi suddenly asked me “Where are your Sahibs?” Taken aback momentarily I told her that the 3 of us had no Sahibs and the 4th had been widowed. She absorbed this quickly without a change in her expression and proceeded to tell us about the chhatris.

Our last stop was the Chaturbhuj Temple, and as getting to it meant a steep climb of 70 odd narrow steps we told Premvati Devi that we were content to see it from below. A little while later we saw 2 women with ghunghats walk by. I remarked on the number of women in the region who wore ghunghats. As if a boil had been lanced Premvati Devi erupted. She too had to wear a ghunghat covering her entire face when she was with her in-laws. “It gets very hot under the ghunghat” she exclaimed, “I sweat away and do not dare remove the ghunghat or ask for water.” “Our society gossips about women all the time” she continued, “a woman cannot work without tongues wagging.” She, Premvati, could work as her husband supported her and she was proud of what she did for a living. As we bid her goodbye I first thought how modern she was, riding pillion with a man to come be a guide for us. It then struck me that most likely the man was her husband.

Later in Gwalior waiting for the flight to Bombay I saw a few women elegant in beautiful hand-woven sarees. Intrigued I inquired where they were from. Cell biologists, from the Centre for Cell and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, was the answer. They had come to Gwalior for a conference.

As the aeroplane flew towards Bombay I reflected on how India had changed for women since my childhood in the 50s. It had changed a lot, but what remained constant was the very different and unequal lives women led. From barefoot women, to the ubiquitous ghunghat of rural North and Central India to the Cell Biologists of Hyderabad, to my own life – a highly subsidized state education enabled me to become a physician and earn well.

Though my mother covered her head whenever her elder brother-in-law came to visit, she never wore a ghunghat; indeed the ghunghat was not a custom in our part of South Gujarat. All my adult cousins wore a saree yet by the time I grew up the salwar-kameez then known as the ‘Punjabi Dress’ was becoming popular. ‘Sahibs’ appeared to be a given and were either arranged for or decided upon by my cousins. My eldest sister never sought or had one. Neither did many of her friends, so I grew up thinking it most natural that there were 2 sorts of women, those with Sahibs and those without.

Seven decades later the absence of a Sahib had aroused curiosity in an educated working woman. The term Sahib itself conveyed the power equation and proprietary rights of the husband. Just as I mull over her inquiry maybe she too is pondering this. Is it possible for a woman to live, indeed thrive without a Sahib? Perhaps she could allow her daughter that option should the daughter want to?

Ripples from the world she gets acquainted with in the course of her work. Who knows where they lead to? But this March 8th so much to be achieved from enough food to footwear for myriads of women to choices in life for those with enough of both.

Happy International Women’s Day!