City City Bang Bang, Columns

The league of disappointed women

Over the years, through the course of many research projects, one comes across many kinds of stories. Some of the most striking ones involve women across age, income and social class. There is a powerful change afoot, and this column has from time to time documented some of those shifts. Most of the changes that one observes are of an exceedingly positive kind, but there are a few that give one pause to think.

One pattern that is unmistakable, because it appears so frequently and across virtually every social group, is that of a deep disappointment that many women appear to harbour with some men in their lives. For most part, this is a quiet kind of disappointment, rather than active unhappiness, one that lives deep and burns long, and years of having lived with it has turned into a cloak that women wear, one that protects them from further hurt. A sense of compromise, reeking of failed expectations, laces their utterances. Some expectations were belied, others stillborn, rendered irrelevant in the light of their futility.

A large part of the problem lies in the way marriages get fixed, with the girl having more limited room to exercise choice, and hence getting into a lifelong relationship with only a vague sense of what lies in store. Unspecific hope that exists without a map, shrinks bit by bit, till it shrivels up into a thin point of disappointment, which she manages by continuously lowering her expectations. On the surface, life goes on, in some cases with the appearance of external contentment, but the nagging sense of compromise lies dormant, emerging only briefly, and that too, once in a while.

The biggest issues tend to be the most mundane. The boy’s family has a bahu-shaped hole that is waiting to be filled, but the bahu in question is an individual too. The individuality of the woman is troublesome, and often in the first years, the project of ’rounding off her edges’ is carried out with precision and dedication. Motherhood comes in and acts as a form of rescue, as the woman’s time is whisked away from under her nose, lost in the welter of chores and responsibilities. Being a mother often becomes both a source of joy and an escape. Roles wrap themselves around her, without leaving too much free surface area for her to feel anything much. But the disappointment does not go away, it merely hides deep, and surfaces once in a while, in an argument, a conversation with friends, or just in the freedom of solitude.

A large part of it has to do with the feeling that men do not ‘get’ their wives, even in ‘love’ marriages. They simply cannot see beyond her body and her role. It is not that there always is an absence of affection or care for the spouse, but what is missing is an interest in and understanding of what drives her as a person. It is assumed that the woman and her life are inseparable- there is no room that is left for her, the individual, within this space. This feeling of being invisible while ostensibly being at the heart of the family is a frequent experience and one that struggles to find an outlet for many women. There is an inherent asymmetry in the evaluating gaze; the woman sees the man as a person and has more reason to be disappointed. The man sees her as a role and as long as she does her bit, her happiness is taken as given.

There are disappointed men too, but except in rare cases, they have little need to mask their feelings. The disappointment is advertised loudly and frequently. Culturally, the ability to complain about the wife is enshrined as a fundamental right. The ‘wife’ jokes, upon which so many whatsapp groups depend to provide their regular dose of humour is a time-honoured device which allows men to complain about their wives in an apparently affectionate way. The ‘wife’ joke which almost portrays the wife as a martinet whose word is law, and who the man shows an exaggerated fear of, is a culturally sanctioned way in which men can show their resentment for whatever balance that might exist in a relationship.

There are more aggressive responses to the change in the gender power equation too but the dominant reaction is one of incomprehension, as something foundational is in the process of being redefined. Centuries of slow change in the relationship between the genders does not make it easy for such rapid shifts to be absorbed easily. There is a small but growing sense of victimhood that is brewing among men, as they rail against what they see as the overcompensation that is taking place in the public discourse about gender.

There is another pattern that appears, more frequently nowadays. The pallid presence of a man who has given up. He himself has given up on the quest for self-respect and now resides at the periphery of the family’s consciousness. Across the country, we came across quite a few families where the man has stopped mattering, either because of his failings, or because of his inability to provide value to the emerging aspirations of the family. Women, who were disappointed early and acted fast, showing a brisk and brusque disregard for the spouse. They channel their disappointment into something productive and take charge of their own and their family’s destiny.

On the flip side, one can also witness the rise of coupledom in a much more fully realised way in marriages that are enjoyed, where the pleasure of partnership gives rise to feelings never experienced before. But not everyone is as fortunate and, in a society, where marriage is for keeps, both as compulsion and culturally encouraged choice, the league of disappointed women just finds a way to get on with their lives, one day at a time.

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