Essay, Pages 11 (2742 words)
Before we embark further into the paper, it is important, at the very outset, to define what we mean by ‘values’, and what it actually means to have a ‘value crisis’. Values or value systems are the characteristic spirit of a culture, and a community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations. Values are a set of belief patterns and ideals that characterize a community or nation. A value crisis, therefore, occurs when a society, or at least a large number of people of a society, deviates from its belief systems, ideals and cultural codes.
It is also important, at this point, to define the concept of culture from an Indian context. The Hindi word for culture is ‘sanskriti’. Similarly, in various other Indian languages, like Bengali and Marathi, the word ‘culture’ is also called ‘sanskriti’, with varying pronunciations suitable to the language. Therefore, in other words, the concept of Indian sanskriti(culture) directly comes from Sanskrit, the language and its traditions.
We are the people of Sanskrit because the Sanskritictraditions have a deep-rooted cultural fabric in India, and are part of our national ethos. Without Sanskrit, there is no firm basis to our Indian sanskriti (culture). Looking from a purely Indian perspective, the Sanskrit traditions and Indian values go hand in hand. As we become more secularized and liberal in our viewpoints, it only severs our ties to our roots and forms a deep cultural identity crisis. The Indian value crisis began when Indians collectively accepted the ‘myth’ of Sanskrit being a dead language.
A nation that collectively ignoresand denigrates the very language in which all of its formative texts are written, a language that forms the source of their culture, is destined to suffer from value crisis. It is undeniable that culture and value systems are two sides of the same coin. The beginning of the impoverishment of Indian values could be traced back to 1837, when Thomas Babington Macaulay passed his famous ‘Macaulay’s Minutes’that mandated English as the language and medium of instruction in Indian schools. Macaulay sought to uproot India of traditional forms of learning and wanted to create a ‘class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.’This led to the traditional Indian culture being ousted andreplaced by British cultural codes.Thus, Macaulay had sowed the seeds for the Indian value crisis all those years ago, the fruits of which we are reaping today. It is utterly regrettable that modern Indians have taken Macaulay’s vision to greater heights.
The Indian civilization, from its very inception, had always placed women at a high position in society. The women of today enjoy a unique position. They are making their mark in all spheres of life. Professionally, they are doing as good as men are, if not betterin some cases. However, it has not been easy for women in India to assert themselves professionally or socially. The aim of this paper is to analyse the emerging value systems of women since the time of partition, and into the present times through a few works of literature.
Before we look at the women of modern India, it is important to see how women fared during the Partition. In her book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, UrvashiButalia observes ‘The idea of women as property – of families, communities, men – underlay the ways in which women’s rights were so routinely violated during Partition, under the guise of protection, honour, purity.’In the book, the author traces how women’s voices were subdued during Partition, how their lives had been ruptured. History books did not mention these women, so Butalia made it a mission to include their true accounts in the partition narrative. She observes ‘Girls and young women were drawn into different kinds of work’ In some instances families had become so dependent on the labour of women that women’s own desires and aspirations had to be pushed into the background. Butalia further adds that from these families ‘Women almost never spoke about themselves, indeed they denied they had anything ‘worthwhile’ to say, a stance corroborated by their men'(Butalia, 1998).
Since the aftermath of Partition, therefore, Indian society had a reluctant attitude in listening to the narratives of women; their silent sufferings, dreams and desires. Women were relegated to the domestic sphere, often to cook for their families and rear their children. This was predominantly the case some years into post-independent India. The trajectory of a ‘good’ woman therefore was to be an obedient daughter in childhood, not questioning too much and quietly accepting whatever she was instructed with. The second stage in a woman’s life is that of the dutiful wife, since women were married-off in their teenage years, which absolutely killed their prospects of gaining any education. Finally, we see the third stage: that of a responsible mother, who is tasked with raising her children.
The first novel we will look at is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’sBefore We Visit the Goddess. The novel shows us episodes from the lives of three generations of mothers and daughters Sabitri, Bela and Tara, belonging to the same family line, and how their values are shaped by one another. The story is first narrated from Sabitri’s perspective. The novel opens with an aged Sabitri writing a letter to her granddaughter Tara, who had dropped out of her college in America. She emphasises the importance of education in a woman’s life, as she attempts to compose her letter. Midway through this exercise, Sabitri begins reminiscing about her own childhood life in the village. She remembers how she herself struggled to get a proper education. Her strory begins ‘just a few years after Independence; she was only seventeen then.’Sabitri belonged to a family of poor sweetmakers in a village in Bengal. As a youngster, she would help her mother Durga prepare sweets for occasions. The author gives us a brief picture of Durga, Sabitri’s mother, presenting her as a typical hardworking village wife:
‘Durga’s back was bent. As she walked, the knobs of her backbone bobbed up and down’ She was the hardest worker Sabitri knew. But for her, their household would have fallen apart long ago, for her father was the kind of man the world routinely took advantage of'(Divakaruni, 2016).
The task of running the family therefore fell squarely on the shoulders of Durga. By helping her mother prepare sweets for their business, Sabitri performs the role of an obedient daughter while her mother Durga similarly holds the family together, as expected of a dutiful wife. When Sabitri and her mother visit the wealthiest family in the village to sell their sweets, Leelamoyee, the wife of Mittir, advises Durga to setSabitri up for marriage. Leelamoyee advises them to follow the path that was expected of women in those days. However, Sabitri does not want to follow the same path as the other girls in the village. She wants to improve her future prospects through education. Durga tells Leelamoyee:
‘Sabi doesn’t want to get married, Rani ma. She wants to go to college. Wants to become a teacher. She’s smart. Stood first in the matric exams in the Girls’ school. But we don’t have the money'(Divakaruni, 2016).
In an uncharacteristic gesture of kindness, Leelamoyee promises to sponsor Sabitri’s education if she managed to get herself enrolled in a Calcutta college. Thus, in the opening exchanges of the novel, we see a young girl striving to transcend the boundaries of social conditioning by daring to pursue higher studies, going beyond the accepted gender roles. By choosing education instead of marriage, Sabitri takes the first step towards a life of empowerment. Growing up in relative poverty and depending on a wealthy stranger’s charity for her education, Sabitri fathoms its value. However, Sabitri’s granddaughter Tara, living in America, has dropped out of college. An old and enfeebled Sabitri therefore composes letters of advice to emphasize on her granddaughter the importance of education in a woman’s life:
‘Without education, a woman has little chance of standing on her own feet. She will be forced to watch from the sidelines while others enjoy the life she has dreamed about’
Granddaughter, people look down on a woman without education. She has few options. To survive she is forced to put up with ill-treatment. She must depend on the kindness of strangers”(Divakaruni, 2016)
Through her words, Sabitri enumerates the various hazards that befall a woman who lacks education. She rightly considers education as a source of empowerment for women, and her own life has been a prime example of it. When her husband Bijan died early after their marriage, Sabitri raised her daughter Bela on her own. Sabitri’s education, and the self-confidence afforded by it, helped her win a court case, the proceeds of which she used to set up a sweet shop,Durga Sweets, in memory of her mother Durga.
However, Bela does not regard education as highly as her mother does. She falls in love with a boy from college and wants to marry him. However, Sabitri protests and tries to put some sense into her daughter: ‘You’ll regret it all your life if you tie yourself down to someone so quickly.’ When Bela informs her that Sanjay had asked her to marry him as soon as he graduated and got a job, Sabitri pleads with her daughter: ‘First finish your studies. That’s the only thing you should be thinking of now. Do you want to be dependent on someone else for every expense?’Sabitri here tries to highlight a mistake that most women make while going for marriage. Most women choose well-employed and well-settled husbands, rather than making a professional career for themselves. Sabitri wants for Bela a life of financial and professional independence, not a life of dependence on her husband. Notwithstanding her mother’s warnings, Bela elopes with Sanjay to America, leaving only a note behind. However, a few months later, she feels trapped in the foreign land and regrets her impulsive decision. Therefore, the first role of women is to educate themselves and other women in the family because education and empowerment are synonymous (Divakaruni, 2016).
The next role women can play in the preservation of values is to instil in their children a sense of self-worth and self-identity. In ShashiDeshpande’s novel That Long Silence, the protagonist Jaya, who is married to Mohan, cannot find any meaning in her life. Jaya compares their life as ‘A pair of bullocks yoked together’ that was how I saw the two of us the day we came here.’ In the novel, Deshpande suggests that women need to assert their own independent identity and find joy in their own lives, rather than aligning their identities and individual self-worth with that of their husbands. When Jaya sees Mohan prowling in agitation across the room, she wants to help him, but she cannot understand the ‘right’ way of approaching him, and so she waits for the right moment. Jaya, who is also the first-person narrator, says:
‘But for women, the waiting game starts early in childhood. Wait until you get married. Wait until your husband comes. Wait until you go to your in-laws’ home. Wait until you have kids. Yes, ever since I got married, I had done nothing but wait. Waiting for Mohan to come home, waiting for the children to be born, for them to start school, waiting for them to come home”(Deshpande, 1989)
Deshpande shows how cautious and careful women have to be before taking any step because they are constantly told what they can and cannot do. The author therefore urges women to take the initiative and carve out their own identities. Jaya used to contribute stories to a literary magazine. One of her published stories disturbs Mohan and Jaya promptly becomes apologetic:
‘I had been ashamed’ And looking at his stricken face, I had been convinced I had done him wrong. And I had stopped writing after that'(Deshpande, 1989).
In order to appease her husband, Jaya gives up her only passion for writing, an exercise that afforded her much intellectual stimulation, and confidence in her own abilities. She comforts herself saying that:
‘I had relinquished them instead, all these stories that had been taking shape in me because I had been scared- scared of hurting Mohan, scared of jeopardising the only career I had, my marriage'(Deshpande, 1989).
For Jaya, as for countless other women in India, marriage is their only ‘career.’ Later however, Jaya regrets her decision. She laments the fact that she had given up her dreams and aspirations in order to appease her husband. She feels robbed of both her identity and her individuality:
‘As I stalked about the room thinking of these things’ a savage anger began mounting in me. Yes, it was all Mohan’s fault. I had shaped myself so resolutely to his desires all these years, yet what was I left with now? Nothing. Just emptiness and silence'(Deshpande, 1989)
Similarly, in GithaHariharan’sA Thousand Faces of Night, Sita gives up her passion for playing the veena when her father-in-law rudely interrupts her practice, saying: ‘Put that veena away. Are you a wife, a daughter-in-law?’ From a very early age, women are trained to serve their husbands, often at the cost of sacrificing their own dreams. This is what Sita’s daughter Devi is told by her father in law:
‘The path a woman must walk to reach heaven’ is a clear, well-lit one. The woman has no independent sacrifice to perform, no vow, no fasting; by serving her husband, she is honoured in the heavens'(Hariharan, 1992).
Women, from their childhood days, internalize such false lessons. If marriage becomes oppressive to women, they must learn to shun such a marriage. In her autobiography titled My Story(1988), the poet Kamala Das concisely sums up what most marriages in India look like:
‘Marriage meant nothing more than a show of wealth to families like ours. It was enough to proclaim to the friends that the father had spent half a lakh on its preparations. The bride was unimportant and her happiness a minor issue'(Das, 2018).
The next major role women can play is showing respect and preserving traditional Indian culture. In the wake of Feminism and other women-centric movements, traditional feminine roles are often undermined and stigmatized. For example, feminists often project the act of cooking as a symbol of female oppression. In this way, an increasing number of women abhor the life-sustaining skill of cooking. This is, of course, not the case with all women; but it is certainly a noticeable trend. Problems arise when specific gender roles are stigmatized and negatively labelled. The act of cooking is not oppressive, but restricting women only to the kitchen and not letting them have a say in family matters is oppressive. Similarly, the institution of marriage is not oppressive, but a marriage where the woman feels stifled and abused, is definitely oppression. Western feminists like Simeone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone regard marriage and motherhood oppressive to women(Waugh, 2016). However, motherhood in itself is not oppressive, but a woman whose only role is to bear one child after another has all the right to feel burdened and oppressed.
It is not just the women’s task to prevent value crisis. Men must learn to respect women and let them thrive in all spheres of life. Both men and women have to work collectively to preserve the integrity of our civilization and our value systems. The Indian civilization has always given women the status and respect that they richly deserve. There is a saying by Manu, written in 200 BC in the Manusmriti, which perfectly sums up women’s position in India:
‘Where women are honored,
There the gods are pleased;
But where they are dishonored,
No sacred rite yields reward”(Saund, 1930)
If we want to stop value crisis, we must pay heed to Manu’s words.
Butalia, U. (1998). The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India.
Das, K. (2018). My Story. Noida: Harper Collins Publishers India .
Deshpande, S. (1989). That Long Silence. Gurgaon: Penguin Books India.
Divakaruni, C. B. (2016). Before We Visit the Goddess. London: Simon & Schuster.
Hariharan, G. (1992). The Thousand Faces of Night. Gurgaon: Penguin Books India.
Saund, D. S. (1930). My Mother India. California: The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Societ, INC.
Waugh, P. (2016). Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.