Seventy years have passed since Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ was first published in The New Yorker. But even as I read it a few days ago, I felt a slow mounting horror at the fervour with which a character, Tessie Hutchinson, joins the villagers in the village square.
There is to be a lottery and Tessie is as keen to be there to stone the unlucky one who is picked. It wasn’t the barbaric nature of the local tradition or how the villagers assembled with a certain festivity. It was the warm and friendly banter between Mrs Delacroix and Tessie as they wait for the results. It was Tessie’s belief that it wouldn’t ever be her, and, hence, her enthusiasm for what is to ensue. It was the self-righteous smugness of the woman who thinks these things don’t happen to women who toe the line.
It was how Mrs Delacroix and Mrs Dunbar allowed the hairy ape within them to emerge with a casual ease: Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”
Mrs Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said, gasping for breath. “I can’t run at all. You’ll have to go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”
It was the knowledge that empathy or sisterhood had no place. Tessie would have done the same.
In my own way, in both my women-centric novels, Ladies Coupe (2001) and Eating Wasps (2018), I sought to work in the unwritten code of sisterhood: Listen. Empathise. Don’t judge. Stand up for her.
For I saw very little of it elsewhere.
Our epics and scriptures are full of stories of brotherhood. Rama and his brothers. The Pandavas and Kauravas. The Apostles. The Sahabas. Brotherhood decreed that you had each other’s back, no questions asked. Not so with the women.
Was there a woman who stood up for Sita when Rama asked her to go through the agnipariksha?
Which of the royal women tried to stop Dushasana as he disrobed Draupadi?
The unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’s feet in Luke 7:36-50 — was there a woman who explained the circumstances that led her to becoming a prostitute?
When Khawlah bint Tha’labah complained to God about the ill-treatment meted out to her by her husband, no woman had until then interceded with God or her husband on her behalf.
And each time I would hear a woman castigate another as though the man deserved the benefit of doubt rather than the woman, I would wonder. For this failing of ours that allows us to point out the fallibility of women rather than question the accountability of men. For this ability of women to perpetuate crimes against women without remorse or even a niggling conscience. For this need in us to put a woman on a pedestal and worship her or kick her in the dirt even as she is flailing to rise and step on her face. Sisterhood somehow did not appear to be a natural womanly instinct. Or so it seemed. Almost proving the veracity of a sexist Malayalam adage: randu thala chernalum, naalu mola cherilla (Two heads can be put together but it is impossible for four breasts to come together).
Then came 2018. For the first time and almost in public view, the contemporary Indian woman has had to do some soul-searching. The identity that we had carved for ourselves with so much struggle was in daily danger of being gnawed at and eroded by the world with its patriarchal shadow.
Sometimes, it crept on you insidiously, and, sometimes, it shrouded you with a careless entitlement. But it was everywhere. In office spaces and anganwadis, in hotels and on studio floors, in homes and streets. It turned every woman into a victim. For it existed in obvious and the not-so-obvious places — in marital and hospital beds, sports arenas and performance spaces, in brothels and corporate tiers. The victims were Akhila and Marikolanthu; Sreelakshmi and Urvashi; you and me.
For the first time, the Indian woman has had to acknowledge that there is no more looking away.
Traumas suppressed in a dark, dank place tumbled out with re-lived and renewed horror, and a hitherto strange thing began to happen. A wave of women came forward to say: I know this happened to me; whether you choose to believe it or not is your business. But I demand accountability. Bolstered by these revelations, a second wave began to join in. It wasn’t enough to read and empathise with the victims of sexual harassment and abuse, it became imperative to support each voice with a rallying cry of “I hear you; I believe you. Here I am…”
Meanwhile, many men continue to stand with folded arms. They watch and wait. One calls it a fad. Another says don’t hire women. They wait for it to blow away like everything eventually does. Sadly, I don’t hear too many men say, “I am sorry; I will respect your place and dignity. I respect your decision.”
More than anything else, our society seems to have polarised into two segments. So, every issue — be it Sabarimala or the Hadiya case or the #MeToo movement — seems to divide everyone, while the politically correct straddle the wall. And that is the real issue at hand — not gender bias or sexual violence, but the Indian woman’s struggle to preserve her identity impervious to patriarchy or the toll it may exact from her. It is this that the sisterhood needs to strengthen. Let’s treat the disease rather than the symptoms.
Anita Nair is the author, most recently of Eating Wasps.