Around 7 this morning a mason who works on the construction of a house on our street showed up at our gate  and asked me if the owner was in.

Now this conversation took place in our garage where I was standing next to the car with Zoozoo the puppy.  Legally, I am the sole owner of the house and the car. As for Zoozoo’s ownership, the other residents of this house would have no hesitation in telling you that I am the mother, guardian and sole person responsible for Zoozoo and all her actions. And that I guess would effectively make me her owner although Zoozoo certainly thinks she owns me. 

So I said ‘yes, I am the owner’. The guy laughed and said, ‘I want Saar, the owner’ and he stressed on the word ‘owner’ just in case I did not get it. That is when it dawned on me that ‘owner’ is a translation of ‘the Kannada word yajamanaru’ which means master, owner, husband et al. dating back to a time when the patriarch owned everything in the house including wife, farmhands etc.

What irked me was the fact that he laughed when I said I was the owner. Made me realize that my legal rights and status were of no concern to him. In his thinking, my husband would be the yajamana, the owner.

I am not a great fan of politically correct expressions but occasions like this make me wonder if such expressions might actually help in sensitising people to social changes and in changing stereotypes.

Stereotypes tend to get deeply rooted in our psyche and surprise us by showing up most unexpectedly. Bollywood stars are generally known for playing safe and being very correct in their statements . But on Saturday Abhishek Bachchan sprang a surprise by calling a lady who could not be much older than his wife as ‘aunty-ji’ on a game show hosted by him. The lady looked like someone in her late thirties. Even if she was in her late forties there is no need for a 35 year-old guy to refer to her as ‘aunty’.  I feel that it is all this aunty- ing that makes most women in this country ‘feel’ old by the time they hit their forties. Our society even has norms for the activities considered ‘appropriate’ for women of that age. Some people say that it is a cultural thing. We are not supposed to call elders by name.  I don’t know about that but I guess I speak for my entire generation of urban Indian women, that we would much rather be called by our names than be called aunty by anyone older than twenty-five unless they happen to be our own nephews or nieces or friends of our children.

Most of the time when people in their mid thirties call me as aunty I know that it springs more from their inner urge to feel younger than any respect for my age. And in any case, why respect someone just because they have been in this world for so many years? I guess getting rid of this respect-for-age concept would help us look for some genuine qualifications to respect a person rather than just a few gray hairs or a walking stick. The hypocrisy about all this ‘respecting elders’ thingy was pretty glaring while watching Mahabharatha on television. Duryodhan and his siblings would unfailingly –ji and –shree all the elders  like Thathshree, Kakashree and Brathashree while showing  gross disespect  and sometimes even contempt towards them. It would have made no difference had he called them ‘hey Bhishm’ or ‘yo Yudhishtr.’  Respect manifests through one’s demeanour and attitude and not merely by mouthing some words that are supposed to denote respect. I wonder how many women reading this feel very respected when they are 'auntyji'ed.

Are their similar words in your language or in English that irritate you?

I am no expert on marriage. The fact that you have been married for 30 years doesn't make you an expert to offer advice to someone else. Every marriage is unique and the answers to the problems in a marriage can be found only by the two individuals involved. It is a bit like life - the fact that you have lived for 50 or 80 years doesn't make you an expert on life. I am very conscious of all this and yet this is a post on some of my thoughts regarding so many things that seem to be going wrong with marriages in our society. This was triggered by a series of posts on IndianHomemaker's brilliant blog.

The other day on a Tamil television Channel, a young man was passionately lashing out against women's right activists and how they are , in reality, not helping women:
Have you noticed that in most of the cases it is girls who are educated and from relatively affluent backgrounds? By and large it seems that there is no harassment of women among the poorer sections. So does it tell you anything about the women who make an issue of harassment? A lot of it is because these women have a very low tolerance level, their expectations from the marriage are too high and they just (mis)use these laws to harass their husbands and their in-laws.
In my opinion, he was missing a lot of obvious points. Why are there fewer cases of harassment among the less affluent sections? Firstly their expectations from a marriage are very low. Sometimes their economic dependence on the man makes them accept a less than equal treatment in marriage. Many times it is also that they tend to be conditioned by conventional acceptance of male superiority or the stereotypical glorification of women as embodiments of patience, tolerance, sacrifice etc. For a list of these, we need to look no further than our television serials with phenomenal TRP ratings. Girls from poorer families also know that they are not welcome in their parent’s home if they take such problems to them. They would be promptly sent back to deal with these with patience and tolerance. So they soldier on hoping for things to change or at least develop the serenity to accept the things they cannot change as bad karma or fate and look for some positives in their life to keep them going.

The thing is that is you have grown up seeing the men and women around you behave in a certain way, you get used to that level of violence as 'normal'. I have seen families where men routinely raise their voice which is condoned in the name of pent-up stress at workplace finding release at home. If you watch Malayalam films, it is not uncommon to see men raise their hands on their women in the name of getting them back on track.
Things like this shock you only when you are from a different background or when you know that such behavior is against the law. So if there are less complaints from certain segments of the population, it is either from a higher level of tolerance or immunity to such behavior or because of ignorance . In many cases it is also the lack of support from one's own parents as IHM talks about in this post. It is indeed true that many of our girls cannot say “mere paas maa hai” (or pa / bhaiya/ behen hai). Once a girl is “married off” she is expected to adjust to her new lifestyle which is a healthy attitude as long as all is well with the marriage. But it is unfortunate that many families take this position even when the girl is subjected to harrassment and cruel treatment at the hands of her husband or his relatives. So the girl’s reaction to such treatment draws from her early experiences in life ranging from resignation and passive acceptance to resistance and revolt.

In most instances it is only girls with sufficient awareness of their right s and law who have been brought up in a democratic family who tend to raise their voice against such injustices and are willing to fight it legally. This has nothing to do with their being spoilt or their inability to adjust although there may be a few cases where it is true. In most of the cases, it is because they find their self-respect and dignity compromised by putting up with such treatment. Lesser tolerance to any cruelty will only make a society fair and just and civilized and hence there should be more support for girls who have the courage to speak up against such violence.

But what is disheartening and disturbing about such cases which come to light is that despite belonging to the more privileged sections of society, many of these are cases of dowry harassment. Now there are laws in India prohibiting the demand for dowry and yet we have educated people occupying important positions indulging in the practice. In the case of the airhostess who committed suicide on jan 1, the parents have gone on record saying that they paid close to 25 lakhs in cash as dowry and now they claim that the suicide was caused by dowry harassment. Why did they get their daughter married to a family that demanded dowry – was that not a clear clue to them about the family into which they were sending their daughter to live? And aren’t her parents equally guilty of encouraging dowry by agreeing to the demand and paying it? And what about the girl - an educated girl, pretty to boot with a job – why did she allow herself to be traded with dowry? Why did she not have the courage to say ‘no’ to their dowry demands? Now the parents are raising their voice on the grounds of dowry harassment - where did their awareness of law and rights go when they agreed to the dowry demand and abetted in a culpable activity? Are the laws of the land to be flouted at will and invoked at will, when it suits us? If only they had said ‘no’ at the time of dowry demand they might have a daughter alive today. Albeit unmarried but happy. But today even if they see the husband and his parents behind bars, will it get them back their daughter?

As for other cases of cruelty in marriages, perhaps it is time we introduced a contract in Hindu marriages too like the ones in Islamic and Jewish weddings where the obligations of each party are spelt down and violation of its terms is sufficient cause for divorce. It is true that our mantras too speak of the obligations of a husband and wife but unfortunately they are a little dated and in any case no one understands them. Additionally contracts have the flexibility to incorporate some clauses according to the individual’s concerned based on their expectations from the marriage, their levels of tolerance to what may be construed as cruelty etc. It is all fine to take a romantic view and talk about marriage being a sacred bond which is not to be reduced to the level of a mere contract. But the minute dowry enters the equation, a marriage is already reduced to the level of a commercial transaction so people might as well make the transaction water-tight and secure by having a proper, legally-enforceable contract in place.
When two strangers marry, it takes a while for the sacred bond to develop. The contract will keep things on course at least until such time as it will clearly spell out what they are entering into even if they cannot comprehend the vows of the Saptapadi. With the relationship between the individual and society becoming more tenuous, a legal contract is certainly a better option. A contract might also serve as a starting point from where the couple learn to develop trust, love and respect for each other and work toward the sacred bond envisaged by the traditional marriage system. But for beginners. a contract could be like that extra wheel on the bicycle providing a safety net.
A few days ago I was startled by the hysterical barking of Munni and the utterly funny puppy barks of zoozoo and rushed to check on the provocation. A tall, beautiful great Dane was at the gate curiously peeping in unperturbed by all the ruckus. Looked like she was making a social call.I was surprised that she was all by herself unchaperoned and wondered if she had managed to escape and was lost. Then I spotted a woman a few feet away calling out to the dog. Must be the domestic help of the dog's owners. So I asked her : hesaru enu? meaning what’s the name?”
She said “Rajalakshmi”.

I have heard some funny improbable names for dogs. My own before Munni was named Sabapathy.
I remember the time we were trying to decide a name for Munni. One of the maids thought she was very beautiful and hence should be named Divya. The other one thought we should name her Venkatesha after her favorite deity's name! Ya, it didn’t occur to this other maid that the sex of the dogs needed to be considered while naming them. Even Zoozoo was called Ramu by the guys at the truck under which she had made her home initially but she was quite ready to wag her tail and run to them without a murmur of protest!
In fact I know some friends who smirk when we refer to our dogs as He and she. They feel all dogs deserve nothing more than “it’. So how does it matter if IT is named Divya or Ramu or thotho as babies call them? But some of us do take our dog's names quite seriously. My husband tells the story of an uncle who had named his dog after a boss he hated. He thought he could have his revenge by swearing at the dog and ordering it about using the boss’ name. The plan misfired when he began to love his dog and finally had to change the dog’s name. We are all familiar with Aaamir’s Shahrukh khan of course!

I tend to judge people by the names they give their dogs. I was so upset when I saw an Alsatian named Rosy that I wanted to steal the dog or report them to CUPA - well, this is nothing short of cruelty when you inflict a delicate name on an impressive dog resembling a lioness. Julie is a suitable name for a Pomeranian , not an Alsatian. So I was a bit distressed when this lady said that the Great dane's name was Rajalakshmi and shared it with my husband. He snapped: “That dog’s name is Cleo.”
I was a little confused and checked with her the next day. Turns out Rajalakshmi is HER name and the dog's name is, indeed, Cleo!
hmmmm, I must be losing it but isn't 51 a bit soon for senility?
But then I have always been a little precocious!
With the justified uproar about the injustice in Ruchika’s case, ‘Outraging the modesty of a woman’ is a phrase that has dominated the media in the past few weeks. This term is taken from section 354 of the Indian penal code which says “Whosoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description of term which may extend to two years or with fine, or with both.”

“outraging modesty?” Are there clear norms for what defines a woman’s modesty which are applicable across the board and are valid for all times? This law was framed 150 years ago. Society and women’s role in it have changed so much since that we may need to rethink what might be considered ‘modest’ behavior.

I remember an incident from childhood. I must have been about 10 and my friend who lived in the same street a few houses away was two years older than me. Those were the days when you had to go and collect your daily milk supply from the milk kiosks in every locality and so we used to go together around 6 a.m. The roads used to be quite deserted at that time but we never felt any fear. The compound of RKM main school extended to the first 50 meters of the road and on the other side it was the side compound wall of a huge bungalow. The houses of our street began after that. One morning as we turned into our street a guy walked up to us and squeezed my friend’s breasts and before we recovered from the shock, he had run away. From the next day it was her brother who went to get milk. And she started wearing a half saree. Clearly her parents decided that it was their fault in allowing her to go uncovered and this probably gave that lecherous lout the ‘right’ to molest her. I wrote about the half-saree and its role in our lives here.

But that was 1968. Societal attitudes were different. Such incidents were not to be made public and people preferred to hush them up and find more escapist methods to keep their girls safer from roving eyes and probing hands.
Today people are a lot more open about raising their voices in protest against such crimes against women as there is more awareness of the legal rights and more willingness to invoke them. So it was disgusting when on a TV discussion panel K.P.S.Gill said that section 354 is being misused by women. He said that what constitutes the definition of the law has to be seen in the context of the changes in society and viewed so he was not guilty of any misconduct. I cannot believe that a guy would pinch a colleague's rear and then have the impunity to justify it after having been pronounced guilty by the highest court of the land. Let us for a moment forget 'modesty' of women, is there a thing called 'shame' for this man?

It is true that it is tough to unequivocally define what constitutes the limits of modesty.
Some of the dictionary definitions of modesty are:
Having or proceeding from a disinclination to call attention to oneself; retiring or diffident.
Observing conventional proprieties in speech, behavior, or dress.
Free from showiness or ostentation; unpretentious.

So does this mean that a woman is immodest if she is not inhibited or if she dresses to attract attention? Ok even if it is so and she decides not to be ‘modest’ in the conventional sense, does it give any man the right to misbehave with her? Just because a woman dresses in a manner that flatters her figure, it doesn’t automatically constitute an invitation to touch her or feel her up, or does it? and who decides?

But sadly, this seems to be the popular opinion reinforced through popular cinema and fiction. It is a standard scene in many Tamil films even today where a rich, spoilt, girl in skimpy modern clothing is ragged and molested and made to conform to our cultural standards by becoming ‘modest’.
Here is an example of one such song:

The dance movements obviate the necessity of any translation of the lyrics but some lines definitely deserve a (rough) translation as they explain the societal attitude that accepts such behavior from a so-called ‘hero’.:
Pombalaiku venum acham madam nAnam
Illay enru ponale vambizhukka thonam
(A woman needs to have fear, innocence and shyness. Else people would be tempted to rag (her))
Oru ponnana kattupadanum Buddhi Sonnakka matupadanum
Apdi illena kashtapadanum Ille pinnale nashtapadanum
A woman should be bound by limits and be leveled by advice
Otherwise (she would have to) suffer or face loss)

Disgusting though the scene is, this is a standard scene from 80 percent of the films even today. Unfortunately these cannot be dismissed as ‘just filmy’ because successful films of these big heroes have enormous impact on the behavior and attitudes of young people especially among the less enlightened sections. Even college students consider such behavior ‘cool’. A woman’s ‘modesty’ is defined by her dress, mannerisms and speech. Very much the same as the dictionary definition:Observing conventional proprieties in speech, behavior, or dress.
It is this kind of indoctrination which makes people condone such behavior by men and assigns the blame to the girl when she is subjected to such harassment. It is always the girls fault even when she is the victim for having ‘provoked’ that kind of behavior.

Even if the definition of the phrase ‘outraging a woman’s modesty’ is subject to interpretation, it should not be too difficult for a ‘learned’ judge to see it according to the facts of the case rather than relying upon standard or hackneyed definition of the word 'modesty'. There is no denying that there may be some difficult cases. In big cities and liberal circles, not all touch is considered bad and in official and personal dealings hand shakes and friendly hugs are not uncommon. So it becomes a little tough for a woman to explain why a certain kind of touch outrages her while it is perfectly acceptable vis a vis another man. In such cases it is always her word against anybody else’s and should rightly be so. Modesty is such a personal thing that only she can say if she feels violated by a certain kind of behavior. And the issue is not even so much about 'modesty' as about anyone else having a 'right' to her body. Not even her close family have a right to it. This law is in serious need of change and rephrasing to include all kinds of acts which a woman feels creepy about or finds objectionable. What about those innuendos and double entendre statements?
Pending that reform, it should be entirely a woman's prerogative to define what she finds as a violation of her modesty. As long as the onus is on the woman to prove that she did not welcome such attention, it would be tough to deter out-of-control men from indulging in such bad behavior. In a just society, restraining such behavior should be by making the culprit fear the laws of the land and not by further curbing the rights of the victims. Is that such a complicated idea to consider?