Jodha Akbar – a tale of tender love in the jungle of politics ridden with conspiracy, maneuvres and strategy where marriages were more like business deals and kinship ensured loyalty. Despite the glaring liberties with historic accuracy, I loved the film and wished it were true. It seemed so right for Hritik Jalaluddin to have a wife like Aishwarya Jodha. Not that I wanted to believe that she was the woman behind all that made Emperor Jalaluddin earn the title of ‘Akbar’; but because they seemed so right as a couple united by a love that made nonsense of every difference in their union to start with.

Then I read ‘The feast of roses’ by Indu Sundaresan – a story based on the lives of Jahangir and Nurjahan – how the emperor surrendered himself and all his authority at the altar of love for his twentieth wife Meherunnissa. She was practically the ruler for the next 16 years of Jahangir’s rule. While the work itself is fiction, it is a fact of history that Jahangir depended on Nurjahan’s advice on every matter of administration and she was the most powerful empress among the Moghul dynasty.

And then Shahjahan whose name is readily recognised for the monument he built as a dedication to his Love - a tomb for his wife Arjumand better known as Mumtaz mahal. The Taj has remained on top of the Love charts for over 350 years and has become another synonym for love.

Looking at these Moghul kings, I have wondered what gave them this ability to love with such intensity and devotion, while most other kings were too preoccupied with running their kingdoms while paying little attention to their love life or even to their wives. And it seems natural too, given their responsibilities. Do we even know the names of the wives of Ashoka, Harshavardhana or Chandragupta Vikramaditya? Or Babur and Aurangzeb?

What made these three men different? Was it something in their genetic composition - a romantic streak? Were they men who cared more for their women and hence knew how to make them feel special with their love? But then one remembers that they all had several wives and singled out one special wife for all this special attention. How come we remember them for their one special love while we do not think of their neglect of or indifference to all those other wives? In fact singling out a wife for such extravagant attention and love must have been terrible, even cruel to all their other wives, some of them princesses and women of great substance perhaps. Imagine not getting so much as a footnote in history while one wife gets 20 pages!

Or perhaps the credit should actually go to these three women who were so special that the kings could not treat them like just another wife? I am sure that one has to do a lot more than just bear 14 kids to an emperor to merit a Tajmahal. So what was she like? Any thoughts?

This is a regular scene at certain vantage points in our layout in the afternoons. Maids who have finished work at the respective houses drift towards these points where they exchange betel leaves and areca and plenty of gossip. This is perhaps their equivalent of blogsphere, where they recount,share,counsel and of course, gossip. Nothing is sacred, no privacy restrictions - whether it is about their private lives or that of the people in the houses they work. Their network is a source of more detailed and authentic news than the ladies' club or the men's network where information is shared in bits, implied rather than explicitly stated and where everyone likes to gossip while seeming to be least interested in the private business of others. I do not know if it is because I am not part of any of these networks that my maid feels the need to relay local news to me every now and then. Most of them I switch off after the headlines except when it is about a birth or a death or illness. But it is never just the news as it is always padded with their views and opinions and I am fascinated by the simple set of rules they have for everything to decide if it is good, bad or awful.

This morning she told me about another maid who was working in the next lane. She worked all day in their house and very often a person calling himself her brother used to visit her. Last night she went away with him leaving her family. She called her employers to inform them that she had resigned from work! She is married to a person with one dysfunctional leg and has three kids. My maid was furious and peppered the whole narration with many curse words and finally pronounced "With this kind of behaviour does she really think she is going to be able to live happily? she will starve without anything to eat and she will die of a horrible disease for doing this to her husband and children."

I asked her if she knew if that woman was in an abusive marriage and if she was very unhappy. My maid did not know but said that all this was irrelevant after 3 kids and the woman should have stayed back for the kids and thrown out the husband if he was abusive. 'Why did she need another man?' was her question.
My maid herself was abandoned by her husband a few years after their marriage and has had to bring up her 3 children all alone. She never had another man in her life for the past 20 years. She accepts it as her fate and the correct way of life. So I totally understand where she is coming from. And having grown up in a milieu with similar values and norms, I cannot pretend to be shocked or surprised by her take on the woman.

"why does she need another man?" - the implication was that she was after sex. It is sad that it is still not considered ok for a woman to want sex. It has always been accepted that men needed sex and so even if their wife died, they were encouraged to marry as soon as the grieving period was over. One of the arguments handed out for legalising prostitution is that a lot of men do not have the opportunity to marry or stay with their wives and they need outlet for their sexual desires. A woman's sexual needs are still frowned upon and they are quickly dubbed as nymphomaniac if they are open about their desires or needs.It is even considered something to be ashamed of. The number of children that a couple has had is hardly an indicator of a sexually fulfilling life. Today we know that even without proper intercourse, conception is possible if the sperm manages to reach the egg. A drunken husband using her to satisfy his needs is hardly fulfilling for a woman. Many women still marry early and hardly know their husbands before marriage. It takes a few years for them even to be comfortable about sex and realise whether they are actually compatible at all. By the time they are sexually aware and awake most women have already been married for a few years and mothered a few children. I am not talking about the urban elite here but this is true in most rural and semi-urban settings and lower economic strata and even in the urban areas among conservative families.

Many years ago an incident happened in our extended family. This was a family of three brothers. The youngest died a couple of years after his marriage leaving his beautiful wife and a one year old child. As was the custom in those days, she stayed in the house of her parents in law along with the other brothers and their wives. One of the brothers was attracted to her and she was young too and they ended up in a relationship. When the boy was old enough to go to high school the uncle shifted them to the neighbouring city where he 'visited' them frequently. One afternoon the thirteen year old boy returned home early and found the mother and uncle in bed. That night the boy hanged himself.

This story has haunted me from my teens. I have always tried to justify the woman on the grounds of her vulnerable position and her dependence on the brothers-in-law for financial and moral support. She was not college educated and did not possess qualifications required for an employment. She needed them and hence she could not antagonise the brother in law's advances. This seemed a good version as it justified her behaviour in my moral framework. A helpless woman, a predatory man - that was ok. A woman whose sexuality was waking up and who needed a man to satisfy her desires? NO, that would have been terrible, preposterous. In my books then, "Good women" didn't do such things. And certainly not when they had a child to think of. "Why does she need another man?" that would have been my question too then. But now I know better.
A Tamil writer (perhaps Thi janakiraman) said in a story that there must be a strong reason for a woman to go astray. Is her sexual need strong enough reason, I wonder?

added after 4 comments:
I am not passing any value judgements on the two women as I do not know why they were motivated to act in the way they did.
In the first case, it could have been forced marriage and the children happened because she did not have access to protection and perhaps her husband was forcing her into sex which she never enjoyed. Obviously there was a strong motive that encouraged her to take such a step even while being aware of burning all her boats.
In the second case it happened about 50 years ago. She was in her early twenties in a house where two other young couple lived. She could not even have dreamt of remarriage even without a child. Was it wrong that she had the normal desires of flesh?
If anyone had a business to object, it was the man's wife and she did not. Remember this was a time when men were openly flaunting their affairs with concubines and mistresses as a mark of their virility?
This was also a time when young widows living in Benares were sent to rich zamindars houses in the night. So what exactly are we objecting to? The fact of a widow having sex or wanting it?
Even today if you were to pose the question 'why does a woman need a man?' the answers would be 'for emotional and moral support' , 'to have children', 'for financial support', 'for love' etc but the fact of a woman needing man for sex is never mentioned. Try asking the same about why a man needs a woman and no prizes for guessing the top answer!
One of the regular readers of this blog enquired about the lack of posts for a week now. When I said that I didn’t seem to have anything to write about apart from being a little busy, she said “writer’s block? That must be because of all the drishti. You just boasted about 500 posts and see it has affected you immediately.”
Of course she was joking as neither of us believe in all this kann drishti/ buri nazar/ evil eye theory and find it amusing when not being irritated by it.

While growing up in our house in Chennai, we had rented out a portion to a family and every friday evening , they had a ritual to remove the effects of evil eyes that may have been cast on the members of the family. The grandmother of the house made them all sit together and held some chillies and salt in her fist and made circles in front of them – 3 times clockwise and 3 times anti clockwise, all the time murmuring something about defusing all bad eyes . During this process no one was allowed to speak. After this, she threw the chillies and salt on some live coal kept in the backyard. While we choked over the pungent smoke that wafted from the backyard into our side of the house, she always commented , “see, so many chillies and yet no trace of any pungency. That is all the drishti (evil eye) that has made the chillies so bland.”

The funny part was that we did not understand what was attracting all these alleged evil eyes to the members of their house – they were very ordinary people in every way, nothing exceptional, no super achievers. Apart from this weekly ritual, there were extraordinary drishti removing sessions if a child was sick or had a decreased appetite or if anyone came first in class or wore something new. Basically it appeared that the whole world had its evil eye focused on that family and every event in their house was something they looked upon with jealousy. The rest of us in the house were even scared to look at them properly or compliment them on anything for fear of being accused of casting drishti on them. Among ourselves though, in our irreverent way we called it ‘eye-putting’ (as a literal translation of the term in Tamil which was ‘kann podradu’ meaning casting eye). It was all so amusing to us that while playing if anyone sneezed or fell down we would make them sit on some steps and pronounce that people have kann potufied on her. Then one of us would imitate the ‘nazar utharna’ process of that old lady and we would all go into silly giggles. We were a wicked lot!

We were chided for this by the older people in our houses too who did not completely dismiss the power of evil eye in bringing distress to the object of the negative feelings but mercifully they drew the line at putting a black dot on children’s cheek or forehead to neutralise anything negative. I considered the old lady of the neighbourhood as a bit of a freak but over the years, I have been surprised that there is a similar superstition in almost every part of the country and across all levels of society – black dots, a string of chillies, crushing a lemon, burning camphor, breaking white pumpkin, hanging a scary face drawn on a pumpkin or made of papier mache and so on.

It is interesting how people fear losing their wealth, health or happiness by becoming the object of jealousy. In all this fear and insecurity they become incapable of accepting genuine appreciation without fearing that they are about to lose whatever it is that invited the appreciation. In fact, sometimes, I am scared to offer open praise about how beautiful and healthy a child looks or even how lovely someone’s house is. I don’t want them to blame my evil eye every time the child sneezes or has loose stools or there is an air- crack on their walls. Why should people be so insecure about what they have earned or achieved? Why do they fear losing something they know they deserve? or don’t they feel they actually deserve it?

At the root of it all, there seems to be a kind of acceptance that misery is a natural state and happiness is temporary even if you have worked for it and earned it; and an inability to have pure happiness with one's successes and prosperity without a tinge of guilt or fear. It seems that there is only so much supply of happiness and prosperity and you should feel guilty about having cornered a big chunk of it! So one fears losing one’s good fortune by flaunting it openly and attracting the evil eye through jealous thoughts. Perhaps these customs evolved to temper overt exhibition of wealth and conspicuous consumption so one did not increase the misery of the have-nots through comparison. It also became a convenient excuse to explain away failures and losses and sudden fluctuations in one's fortunes – ‘it is sombody else’s doing, not mine’.

When my son was about 4 months old he had a severe attack of bronchitis and he suffered from acute wheezing trouble. So his health had its waxing and waning phases every month. And my neighbours invariably advised me to do something to remove the effect of evil eyes. It was tough to resist when the issue in question was my child’s health but I refused to comply. He was cured by homeopathy and I don’t think the medicine had anything to do with defusing the drishti. But my good friends and colleagues often argued why I was so adamant about something so harmless which might, just might, do some good. This is why it is tough to get rid of superstitions because most of them seem totally harmless and if they worked, it was fine; if they didn’t, nothing lost. May be. But I wasn’t going to be party to something that cast a doubt on the rest of humanity as having an evil eye.

So there, I have told you, I do not have any problem about acceptance of your open praises and eulogies. So in case you have been holding them back for fear of being mistaken for kannu pottufying, please pull all stops and bring them on.