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Explained Books: Every woman in the story, her cross to carry

The story of Nilanjana Bhowmick’s mother aptly captures the burden that the author has undertaken to explore and describe in this book.

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Title: Lies Our Mothers Told Us
Author: Nilanjana Bhowmick
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 272
Price: Rs 699

Early in her book Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden, journalist Nilanjana Bhowmick recounts a childhood spent watching her mother struggle against the bars of the cage that an Indian woman’s married life can be. Her mother, who worked against the odds to join the police, is unhappy living in a joint family after marriage, where she is constantly subjected to the spoken and unspoken expectations placed upon a woman in her position. Her career is of little consequence to everyone — husband, in-laws — except herself, and she’s pushed to carry far more of the domestic responsibilities than she would like to – or even can – take on.

She longs for the day when she and her husband and children can move into their own house. Yet, when that day comes, it brings with it its own problems. She now finds that being a working woman remains as hard as it was when she was under her mother-in-law’s roof, perhaps harder, because now there’s no one to take care of her children or cook their meals when she is at her demanding job as a cop.

The story of Bhowmick’s mother aptly captures the burden that the author has undertaken to explore and describe in this book.

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On the one hand, the struggles of women like Savitribai Phule, Tarabai Shinde and Kamini Roy and the wider post-Independence women’s movement in India have made it possible for the Indian woman to have a life beyond her home and hearth. On the other hand, though, is the inescapable reality that not only is that wider world often unwilling to let women grab these possibilities, but that these possibilities, once grabbed, start exacting their own toll. One’s children might have to be brought up by the domestic help, who might be leaving her own child with a neighbour. Or one might have to give up an exciting job offer because there is an ailing parent at home who needs care —and no male member of the family can be expected to take on the responsibility, while professional caregivers are unaffordable.

To show how weighed down the average Indian woman is by the domestic burdens she carries — along with responsibilities outside the home — Bhowmick relies on hard numbers as well as anecdotal evidence, gathered from her own life as well as conversations with friends and acquaintances, and women she encounters as part of her job. The stories from those she meets, as well as from her own family, underscore the chilling impact the various burdens have on Indian women’s mental health.

In her seminal 1963 work, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan had laid bare “the problem that has no name” — the deep dissatisfaction that the American woman felt about being unable to fulfil herself because everyone around her — parents, husband, college and church — have told her that the only life for her is at home. Bhowmick’s book does something similar. Just like Friedan had ripped apart the facade of post-war American prosperity to show the unfulfilled lives on which it was built, Bhowmick shows who really pays the cost when a nation is striving for sabka vikaas without dismantling the scaffolding of inequalities on which it is built.


Explained Books appears every Saturday. It summarises the core argument of an important work of non-fiction.

First published on: 13-08-2022 at 04:58:53 am
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