Sunday, November 15, 2009

A middle class girl

“And Quiet Rolls the Day” was a Bengali movie made in 1979; but the story line and the ambivalent attitude of society towards women who go out to work will not go out of date any time soon. May be in the cities, it assumes a different form and expression; but nevertheless the reality doesn’t go away. In the film, a lower middle class family is dependent on their elder daughter’s income. The father is retired with a meager pension, their elder son is one of the ranks of the “educated unemployed” and the other siblings are still in school. On one particular night, the girls do not return home at her usual time from work and the family routine is upset.

Each one reacts in their own way and once again as in many occasions in life, there aren’t any black and white answers. The father walks down to the bus stop and scans every bus that stops and discharges its passengers till the last one has gone by. He is as much worried as a father, a s by the unspoken elephant in the room: has something happened to their daughter – an accident may be? If so, how would they manage their family budget now, without her income? But of course he doesn’t say it; to do so would be tactless. The father is one who cuts a decidedly sorry figure; as the one with the most moral authority in a patriarchal society, he nevertheless has very little actual power; given that he earns but a pittance through his pension and it is his daughter who provides for the household- a reality that he still has not been able to fully internalize.

The mother is able to give vent to her fears a little more transparently; she has no appearances to keep up. She is also relatively immobile; not physically but socially. Norms dictated that women of her generation rarely if ever ventured out of the house, so she cannot go and wait at the bus stop and vent her anxiety that way. All she can do is to express her veiled fears to the other children in the house. The fears are the same as those of her husband though – there is motherly love, but more importantly the larger survival question – what if an accident has happened and she is dead or maimed … how will they live without her salary. As a woman, she has other fears too; has her daughter a boy friend, a lover / has she run away with him? None of these fears are expressly articulated though; but they are subliminally conveyed.

It is interesting to see the way the younger siblings react. One of the sisters goes to a nearby shop which has a telephone and tries to call her sister’s office; the phone rings and rings but of course no one answers. The younger brother goes to the police station and eventually the morgue; just in case she is the unidentified accident victim whom the police have recorded earlier in the day.

In the midst of all this chaos, the girl turns up home just before dawn and immediately the focus of the story changes. The unspoken question: where was the girl the previous night? Given the family’s economic dependence on the daughter, the question is never voiced openly; but suspicious glances and inquiring looks abound. The girl herself offers no explanation. Eventually, the landlord goaded on by his other tenants , comes and loudly tells the girl’s father that they should vacate the palce soon as his house was meant for rent to “decent” people and not for families where daughters were “loose”. So I guess , Indian women ( may be other women too ?), are stuck between a rock and a hard place, often families need their earnings to live on or else they would be doomed to destitution ; and yet , they are expected to abide by norms of behavior codified generations earlier and which do not really work any more…. It is a complicated time … a society in transition indeed…..

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