One feminist academic once asked me a very interesting and pertinent question: “While scarcity of water remains a perennial problem in rural India, why it is the women who always go to fetch water, sometimes walking miles and miles under the scorching sun in some places? Why don’t men ever fetch water?”
I came up with a sound answer: “This is because despite everything the human civilization has achieved, we still follow the hunting-gathering structure our forefathers followed. Men are hunters and women are gatherers. Today, earning a living, earning the currency is hunting while collecting stuff to run the household is gathering. Men are breadwinner, women are housekeepers.”
The feminist academician smiled at my scant knowledge and said, “You may be correct, but it is not the answer to my question. The answer is this: “Men would not go to fetch water because of the shape of the pot. The pot invariably reminds men of the womb, and men are mortally scared of this womb, of women, and the ability of the woman to give birth to a new life. The man knows that without the woman, he is nothing. He is afraid of the power of the feminine. And, this fear has led the man to find ways to subjugate the woman. Hence, the systemic oppression feminist histories tell us.
The man recognized the power of the woman much before the woman herself did, hence the plot, hence the categories of women, from mother, wife, daughter to vixen, whore and witche. Hence, this system of recognizing the child by the father.
If we look at Mother Nature (that’s why nature is called Mother, not Father; God is father and he does not exist), we would observe that power lies with the one who can create. In the human world, the women are the creators. Without the woman, a new life is not possible. Even when the science now can create artificial babies in test tubes, it still needs a woman and her ovaries to give birth to the baby.
There’s something inherently unnatural about the modern patriarchal system of family, ownership and inheritance rules. It is the woman who gestates a child for nine months. It is the woman who gives birth to a child, to a new life. How then the man claims township of the baby after it is born. Why? To what end? Why the baby is given the father’s name, not the mother’s?
This despite the fact that without the woman there won’t be any child and without children, the civilization as we know it will come to an end. The film ‘Children of Men’ (2006) explores the possibility of such a world. The future that the film, based on a novel by P D James, depicts is on the verge of collapse simply because no child has been born for the last 18 years. We live for the future. We live for our progeny. When all the women in the world went barren, the future itself was sterile.
Literature has attempted to understand this connection between the woman and her right to her ability to give birth.
In renowned Assamese writer Bhabendranath Saikia’s ‘Antareep’ (‘The Cape,’ translated into English as ‘The Hour Before the Dawn; also adapted into a film ‘Agni-snan’, ‘The Ordeal’ by the author himself), the heroine choose to avenge her husband’s betrayal by manipulating this very ability and subverting the idea of inheritance.
Mahikanta is a small-time zamindar in rural Assam in pre-independent India. He is married to Menaka and they have several children, the eldest being Indra, a teenager. That year, while travelling from village to village collecting revenue, Mahikanta meets a young girl. He is smitten, and soon, he decides to marry this daughter of a poor farmer. In society, this kind of bigamy is not uncommon, if not popular. Menaka is angry. She tries to dissuade her husband, but to no avail. The marriage is done, and the young, demure bride comes to live in Mahikanta’s house. In a classic scenario of this tale, involving co-wives, these two women should now be at each other’s throat, with Menaka blaming the young girl snaring her ‘innocent’ husband. But, Menaka understands the politics, and she decides to play by the man’s rule. She welcomes the new wife to her household, and on the very night, she bars entry of her husband to her bedroom. Mahikant must have one wife at a time, Menaka argues.
Soon, the new bride is pregnant, and Menaka is filled with jealously. In a classic tale of this kind, at this point, Menaka should welcome back her husband to her bed, again, and that was something Mahikanta was expecting as well. But, Menaka had other plans. One evening, she meets the village loafer, also a small time thief, and is impregnated.
When she announces her impending pregnancy, Mahikanta is besides himself. Whose child is this? He demands to know. It is your child, his first wife tells him, and you cannot say otherwise, or people will call you a cuckold. Mahikanta suspects everyone around him, including his playboy brother, but, finds no clues. He cannot imagine that his wife would sleep with a thief. When he cannot find who the father is, he demands that his wife abort the child. Menaka is adamant; she’d keep the child no matter what. It is her right. And, Mahikanta would give the child her husband’s name, despite knowing full well that it’s not his own, that’s the price of her husband’s infidelity, Menaka decides.
A similar theme was explored in Aruna Raje’s underrated and proto-feminist film ‘Rihaee’, where the Hema Malini character decides to keep the baby she conceives after a fling with village lothario, played by Naseeruddin Shah, while her husband, played by Vinod Khanna, was in town earning a living. In a bid to a happy ending, however, the film ends with the husband accepting the wife with the baby which is not his own. It’s not an easy thing for the man to do.