Some of us friends were chatting and someone mentioned the film Parineeta. After the initial wows and ahs of approval about how beautiful Vidya looked and how lovely the songs were and the "charm" that invariably pervades stories from that milieu in that era, someone disapproved. She said she didn't like the way women like Lolita and Paro tolerated men treating them like doormats. She said all that doe eyed look and feminine wiles made her sick. According to her these women represented all that women "should not be".And it was a crime against women to romanticise such women.

While understanding her viewpoint, I could not help pointing out that the story belonged to an era when women were brought up to behave like that. There was nothing different about these heroines because all women behaved like that in that era and so the novelist could not be faulted for portraying his heroine so.Their strength lay in the patience with which they handled those spoilt brats parading as "men." And the social and legal system of the time was not very favourable to a single woman.

I find this tendency a little unfair - criticising historical and mythical characters by applying modern day standards to them - Sita's trail by fire or the treatment of ahalya or Nalayini. We debate the rights and wrongs of the way these women were treated and how patiently they endured these without protest and we blame them for the suppression of women down the ages. All this forgetting the social norms of the era they lived in. It is not always easy for suppressed individuals to rise up against society; even more difficult when they do not even see that they have been suppressed or denied some rights. Of course, ignorance has never stood up very well as an excuse, has it?

What I do agree with, however , is that it is pretty irrelevant to hold them up as role models for the woman of today in the name of "our cultural tradition" or "Bharathiya Nari"hood - romanticisation of Vrats where women starve for the life of their men or unequal male-female relationships where patient endurance of abuse is extolled as a virtue in a woman. Where women look so fragile and beautiful making women want to be like them and making men scream in sheer desperation "Why don't they make women like that anymore?"

Trying to superimpose the byproducts of one era on a totally different era in the name of tradition can only lead to confusion and rebellion. And every generation of youth face this but forget it when they become parents and do the same to their children. But Change happens and life goes on....
21 Responses
  1. Anonymous Says:


    Also, how we react or what we choose to do needs to be put in context. The age & its practices, like you mention, is one of them. A second could be complex emotional undercurrents as I believe was the case with Parineeta. If this does not come across in the movie, then may be the director did not do a great job, or we were not sensitive to it.

    I also think that the book/movie/ or any such work is a potrayal of what is perceived or observed by the artist. It may not be intended to serve as benchmark for evaluating or judging.


  2. Ram Says:

    As I browsed through the first (and lengthier) part of your piece, I was wondering, "Hey, if criticism of myths through the prism of current norms is wrong, what about their advocacy in the current era?" Happily for me, the second part handles it adequately. Having said that, I would like to submit that, it is better to err on the side of criticism, given the nature of the threat--of subjugating a section of the population so subtly and by the device of deification and myth-making as against direct repression.

  3. Shashi Iyer Says:

    don't we claim that our "modern" absolutes are have no time co-ordinates?

  4. I am happy (and thankful that) we live in this era.
    I like the independent woman of today!

  5. You people should Manu Samhita. It clearly states that a woman's sole purpose in life is to serve her master, the man. We men own our women!

  6. It reminds of the infamous Kinky Friedman song "They don't make Jews like Jesus anymore."

  7. Usha Says:

    The director has interpreted the novel very well in the case of Parineeta unlike that travesty by Bansali. The complex under currents themselves are a product of that age. The charatcers behave the way they do because of where they came from and how they were brought up. The writer just sets the story in a background where it belongs - but later generations tend to interpret it to create stereotypes as in the case of our mythological women.And in a powerful visual medium like film, glamourising such characters can have an effect on susceptible minds.

    Ram: Agree. As long as the younger generation is encouraged to think freely, that will take care of it all.

    Sashi: Sorry, come again?
    I do not see any absolutes here.

    Vaish: Only I was surprised to hear the other day from someone from a small town that things have not changed much in the past 50 years for women there.A bit of a jolt came when i saw a research associate in IIM starving one whole day for the welfare of her husband. Not criticising but wondered where the belief came from.

    Pinchas: Now that explains why you are not married still! Why don't you find a 70 year old who might subscribe to the Manu samhitas.

  8. Mahadevan Says:

    I agree with you Usha that what was considered a virtue, thousands of years back ( why even fifty years back too), cannot be the norm today nor can we judge them by today's practices. These practices may evolve into much better ones or can degenerate in the future. Interestingly, in the 18th Century, Oliver Goldsmith said, if a lovely woman stoops to commit a folly, she had nothing else to do than to give up her life. Contrast this with what T.S.Eliot said in the 20th Century.

    'If a lovely woman stoops to
    She smoothens her hair
    With an automatic hand
    And puts record on the Gramaphone'

    Ultimately, necessity, knowledge and Power decide the practices and norms.

  9. Shashi Iyer Says:

    independence of women is, in my opinion, an absolute. it's like good and bad. what's bad today had to have been bad yesterday and must be bad tomorrow. if perception comes into the picture, then I have only one thing to say. all of us do believe that women have minds of their own and must be allowed to exercise their own will.

  10. Paavai Says:

    I think the pattimandrams and other debates on the mythological characters or people from a different time, serves to bring about a consciouness on what is right and what is wrong. For ex when a village woman hears how Sita could have reacted differently, she is likely to apply those learnings in her life - but if we compound it by saying that times have changed and one needs to act differently, the message does not go down strongly.

    There are absolutes which stand the test of time - sati is wrong irrespective of the time and context and we cannot condone it by saying it happened in a different era.

  11. Usha Says:

    Mahadevan: Most appropriate quotation as usual.

    Sashi: Thanks for explaining. I understand what you mean now and totally agree. I was only trying to say that you cannot fault the women for not having rebelled without considering the times and era and its social environment.

    Paavai: If pattimanrams serve this purpose, I am happy. Wish they'd do similar things with therukoothu scripts too so it reaches the population that sufferes the most.
    Right to life is an absolute for all times.So is Equality but powerful elements in societies have a way of tilting the balance for self serving ends and it is unfair to blame the victims for enduring it in silence and perpetuating it. They have to be seen their context and not condemened through the eyes of hindsight.

  12. Vinesh Says:

    Beautiful post!

    Many make the mistake of applying modern day values to mythological characters!

    But will I ever understand five brothers sharing one wife, I wonder! :-)

  13. Jackal Says:

    i totally agree with u........those were different times.....for them tht was the rt thing tht they were doing then.......rt things have chnaged over we cant compare the two periods.........

  14. Wait until the BJP comes to power the next time. Manu Samhita will be compulsory reading for everyone!

  15. Anonymous Says:

    I agree with Paavai. While the victims themselves may be ignorant and powerless, the writer has a responsibility to show them that a different way of life is possible and they need not subject themselves to"door mat" treatment. To that extent he is to be blamed.


  16. Usha Says:

    Vinesh: I find it tought to see the purpose of such a situation when there were enough men and women to go around.

    Jackal:I do not know if it was the "right" thing since we do not know the context fully. But I am pretty sure that it is not "right" to impose those on present day society citing them as examples.

    Pinchas: I hope so. And when people read and understand it they will be able to reject it with full conviction!

    Narayan:A Hindi speaking friend of mine told me that Valmiki had arguments with Ram about his behaviour and it was other versions of Ramayan that mad ehim into a God.
    I completely agree with you about the responsibility of the educated and enlightened towards the oppressed and ignorant.Thank you and Paavai.

  17. Ram Says:

    I think religion isn't really the forte of most of us, though we simply can't resist the temptation to freelance in that field. It's not for nothing that our elders keep insisting that one should rid onself of all sources of cognitive dissonance before even thinking of getting acquainted with the scriptures and other holy texts. Even a cursory reading of the commentary (of poorvacharyas like Sri Periyavachaan Pillai) on "valleergal neengale naane thaan ayiduga" (Tiruppavai 15) under the careful guidance of the learned Acharyas would serve to highlight how misconceived most of the opinions featured above are. As for the BJP, they might perhaps draw legitimacy--however convoluted that logic might be--for their unitarist worldview from the fact that we've only managed to make a travesty of freedom of opinion by wilfully spreading falsehoods--yes downright lies and not mere misrepresentations--impinging upon the conceptual integity of free speech.

  18. Visithra Says:

    I remember telling a friend oh what i would give for the romance of the renaisance age - when charm and manners mixed with art and romance - when he smirked are you sure? - of course i added but none of that holds a candle to the freedom and independance women have today

    We think so alike - its always a joy to read your posts ;)

  19. A.R.Malik Says:

    Re the whole issue of conforming to socio-cultural norms...3 words: Johnathan Livingstone Seagull!

    Ignorance is understandable as an excuse when one considers that social conditioning can be so deep-rooted that it precludes the very idea of any alternative way of life- I'm thinking of the lifestyles I've seen rural Indian women (& men) accept unquestioningly- because its beyond the scope of their imaginations to conceive of going against the norm.

    Having said that, I have to add that it CAN'T be an all-purpose excuse applicable to everyone, since its rebellion that drives change/progress. If that one-in-a-million individual who fights the system didn't pop up at regular periods through history, we'd still be sitting in caves going "oog".

    There's a Tom Robbins quote about the flame of one person's individuality outshining all of history...

    And a related point- if everything can be condoned as the norm for a particular time and place, what moral system(s) remain absolute? Truth? Doing Unto Others (B4 they do unto u...)?

  20. Usha Says:

    Ram: Thanks for the views. I hope we have settled this over email!!!

    Visithra: welcome back. and I know what you mean.

    Abhilash: There are absolutes such as truth and not harming others and living and letting live. Here I was only talking about the power imbalances and perpetuation of these through suppression. And oftentimes it is done so subtly that the suppressed are so blind to their being shortchanged. Or it is done with an Iron power and the suppressed are terrorized into submission.
    And finally it is all about about "the flame of one person's individuality outshining all of history..."

  21. Monika Says:

    very nice post... its surely right to say that was good yesterday might not be good today anymore and what is good today might be obsolete tommorow and we grow if we keep changing along in the right direction though i still thing if sita would have reacted differently millions of women wouldnt have got her as an example and i wrote this piece on that long back :

    probaby difference in time is what it is