A few years ago, I was catching up with a friend on our batchmates from school. The conversation stayed with me, and with her, because we found that we were talking in circles about women who came from privilege, attended one of the most elite schools in the country, and yet remained stuck in toxic, even abusive, relationships.
It took me many years to realise that women’s lives in India are a strange paradox. We are taught to go out and aim for what we want. Many of us have gone to schools that told us nothing was beyond our grasp. Our families raised us to be independent, opinionated and capable. But they also raised us to prioritise our households, families and relationships. This has ended up creating a generation of women who are overworked, stressed and lonely. Yet, very little has been written, or discussed, about this. Until now.
In her book Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden, Nilanjana Bhowmick addresses these issues and the superwoman complex women face—they are expected to do it all, and, if they can’t, they are branded as unsuccessful, not good enough wives/mothers/women.
Written over 10 years, the book aims to tell us the Indian woman’s story through data and research. Interviews with women between the ages of 15-60 help the book look at their labour, leisure, employment, relationships, health, abuse, and loneliness. It becomes, therefore, a comprehensive picture of the lives of women in India.
The most fascinating parts of the book, though, are often the introductory anecdotes, before Bhowmick presents her data. The chapter on the housewife vloggers (Documenting The Housewife Experience) is a personal favourite—it is an insightful look at how a class of young, middle-class homemaker women have turned to YouTube to document their lives.
Full of cooking, caregiving and cleaning, these videos also feature the women speaking about their lives and the injustices they face in a matter-of-fact manner, opening up an otherwise private domestic space to the public, to understand better what a woman’s life at home really involves. Such videos have won them subscribers, fans and a sense of community; with earnings from ad revenue and product placements, many of them even became de facto sole breadwinners during the pandemic.
Bhowmick’s interactions with women across the country and classes—from working women in the hills to those in metro cities—also make for interesting reading. The book can get depressing in parts, and, often, the data overpowers the insights. There is the weight of repetition that aims to drive home a point.
That is not to say that the book is without hope—there is hope in the rebellion of a woman who has bought herself a car, one who has left an abusive marriage, or in the Bibipur model to empower women through education as well as symbolic gestures like naming roads, adopted across the country. It reminds us that while the road is long and arduous, change is possible.
These are not just stories of imaginary women, living in far-flung places. This is the story of every woman in India. As a woman, there’s no way of reading this book and not relating to some part of it or the other.
Mumbai-based Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education and relationships.