‘Chidiyon da chamba’: Leaving Home and Making Home: A Study of Marital Displacement
By Debamitra Kar
The popular Punjabi folk song compares the girls with ‘chidiyon da chamba’, or the flock of birds, who must fly off to a new country. The girl in the song tries to stop her father from saying who would spin the charkha, perform hundreds of domestic duties, play with the dolls, dance around the arena, but the father must sent her away. Like the migratory birds, girls too must leave their parental home and make a new nest with the loved one. The idea of girls leaving one home and arriving at a new one, and gradually ‘turning’ that home into her ‘own’ is a normal and accepted proposition that raises no question. Like the father in the song, who ultimately tells his daughter that go she must for there would be granddaughters, who will do the works she used to do, and then perhaps, one would like to think that they too would leave their home like the flock of birds. This normalcy which is established through the repetition of a pattern, raises a question, i.e., do women have a home, or if this first displacement is the beginning of a process of displacements that would continue forever, systematically keeping her un-housed?
This paper is an attempt to seek some possible answers to the question raised. As a student of literature, I shall look at the representations of the displacement in literary texts and then compare them with the observations made by the women subjects whom I interviewed. The aim is to see, firstly, if the notion of displacement still survives among my contemporaries, secondly, even if it survives, what is the nature of their sense of displacement, and thirdly, how women, both fictional and real, from the nineteenth century to the present times, deal with this displacement, if they have at all felt its presence in their married life.
Marriage is a site of production and reproduction (which in itself is another form of production). The basis of this argument can be found in Engel’s famous monograph, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, where he showed how the change in the economic pattern of the society also altered the position of men and women and their mutual relationship. Given the fact that if one looks at patriarchal order from a specific geo-political and cultural subjectivity, its history may not always conform to any universal model. What needs to be pointed out is that though the rise of patriarchy is a socio-cultural phenomenon, the basis of it should be located in the economic nature of human civilisation and its relatedness to the rise of land-based economy and personal property. Engels in this anthropological study shows why the matrilineal society failed as the wealth increased and the position of the man improved in the household for he was now in possession of the sources of food-stuff, the cattle, and the slaves and therefore he preferred that his property should be inherited not by his sister’s children but by his own. Engels says that this revolution must have happened in the pre-historic times, but “[t]he overthrow of mother right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex. The man seized the reins of the house also, the woman was degraded, enthralled, the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument of breeding children” (496).
This lowering of the position of woman can be seen in Indian cultural texts, of which perhaps Manusamhita is the most comprehensive one. Written at a time when the Aryan colonisation, agrarian economy, and Vedic culture were gradually being established in the northern parts of the present Indian state, the text shows the subordinate position of women and slaves, and the unquestionable authority of the upper caste Hindu male. In the most revealing of the sections, the man is considered to be the seed, and the woman the receptacle of the seed (soil) and hence:
On comparing the seed and the receptacle (of the seed), the seed is declared to be more important; for the offspring of all created beings is marked by the characteristics of the seed. (IX: 35)
The position of woman and all the subsequent laws are based on this basic argument, which is an extension of the agrarian and economic metaphors, in which the virtue of the soil is recommended but the soil is the passive counterpart and the labour it produces must only be owned by the master, the one who has the resources, in this case, the seed. The entire man-woman relationship is thus viewed through the lens of economic subjugation of the labour to the owner. Hence, “her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence” (IX:1). The soil must be owned, in various capacities by various men. It is indeed the site of production.
The spectre of Manu has haunted the Indian psyche for a long time, and arguably it still does. It is the basis on which Hindu laws related to property rights, like those followed by the Mitakshara and Dayabhaga school, have been framed and justified. For instance, the sixteenth century scholar in Bengal, Raghunandan, who was an important proponent of the Dayabhaga school of law which had a tremendous influence on customary practices, particularly operating against the more lenient (against caste) Vaishnavism and Muslim rule, tightened up the disciplines of widowhood, which included the strict customs of nirjala ekadashi (waterless fast on a particular day), which led even to the deaths of many young widows in months of summer (Sarkar 100). However, the point that I would like to make is that these customs were followed by the widows to enjoy the modicum of usufruct rights to her husband’s property though they were often cheated and the law gave her no right to her father’s property. “Her survival depended on grudging charity and barest maintenance” (Sarkar 107).
Following the observations made above, it can be argued that marital displacement is a necessity to ensure, first, the notion of the family lineage that is based on the man and his children, and secondly, the fact that women should not inherit any part of the property both natal and marital, since that would amount to the division of property with another family in case of her marriage or remarriage, respectively. Accordingly, Manu’s law strictly prohibited women from inheriting any property even in case of the woman being the single child. “For such cases, ancient law makers suggested adopting a male baby to look after parental property, which should never be left with the woman, regardless of how educated she might have been” (Halder and Jaishankar 670). Thus a daughter is to be married off, and a wife should be brought in to reproduce the conditions of production. The displacement is not considered a problem, even the modern day scholarly works hardly address the issue (for instance, most of the works on women’s displacement speak about war and internal political crisis). It is rather a wilful giving away of one’s property to another, which is a part of the code of conduct of the perfect man: “Once is the partition (of the inheritance) made, (once is) a maiden given in marriage, (and) once does (a man) say, “I will give”; each of these three (acts is) done once only” (Manusamhita IX: 47).
What needs to be further pointed out is how the displacement is naturalised and legitimised in the public psyche. Definitely the property acts have changed over a period of time much to the women’s favour. A helpful analysis of the evolution of property rights of Hindu women can be found in Debarati Halder and K. Jaishankar’s essay, titled, “Property Rights of Hindu Women.” Some key aspects of the essay shows how even in the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, married daughters are excluded from the right of residence in the dwelling house of their father as well as a share of partition (678). And though the Hindu Succession (Amended) Act 2005 has brought a revolutionary change in the Hindu succession law by making the women Karta of the joint family properly (684-5), the practicality of the women’s right can never be ensured by legal means alone, unless it is supported by a total change in attitude towards women both from the social or individual/family perspective.
Arguably then, the issue of marital displacement is directly related to the issue of property rights and the overall economic condition of women. It now becomes important to see how the literary texts have dealt with the issue and, whether they have been able to provide any alternative to the existing social practises. I shall take up two short stories of Tagore as specific case studies, though such a selective reading of literature can hardly justify the vast range of women’s questions that has been dealt with by various writers in India, over the years, across the subcontinent.
A good example to begin with is perhaps Tagore’s short story, “Jibito o Mrito” (Alive and Dead), that shows the plight of Kadambini, a childless widow, with no one in either her paternal or marital home to take care of her. She lives with her brother-in-law in her marital home under the care of her father-in-law and patriarch, Sharadashankar, a zaminder of Ranihat. Her only connection with the family is her attachment with the son of her brother-in-law, who was being brought up by her. The story begins with Kadambini’s supposed death, which seems to be misconstrued due to lack of medical attention, and the people sent to cremate her suddenly discovers the dead body moving, and they flee the scene in fear. When Kadambini comes to consciousness, the first idea that strikes is her homelessness; for her family she was not alive and thus an evil incarnate. The idea of homelessness makes her feel free for the first time but the moment she leaves the burning ghat she feels afraid of the living. Kadambini seeks refuge in her friend’s house, where after a few days, her abnormal, shadow-like living creates a sense of fear and uncertainty in the household. The friend, Jogamaya sends her husband to Ranihat to find out more about Kadambini and the reason of her long stay. Sripati, Jogamaya’s husband, comes back with the news that Kadambini is long dead and both the husband and wife start to believe that the woman is an imposter and she is thrown out. Kadambini comes back to her marital home where she is taken to be a ghost and she drowns herself to prove that she was alive till then.
Kadambini’s displacement which is unfortunate and unprepared, speaks about the sad nature of the women without the typical male protection. Interestingly, the story was written in 1892. An almost similar event is recorded by a Calcutta Coroner report in 1886, where a widow of thirteen roamed from door to door since she was rejected both by the relatives of her natal and marital homes. She eventually becomes pregnant and finally dies in her abandoned ancestral home, unattended, during a miscarriage or self-induced abortion (Sarkar 106).
However, in some cases, the displacement can lead to self-redemption. For instance, Mrinal in “Stri-r Patro” (A Letter from a Wife, published in 1914) rejects the traditional boundaries of home and family to find a place for herself in the wide world. Her rejection of home is an act of protest against the sad and cruel fate of Bindu, sister of her sister-in-law, which she witnesses from close quarters. After the death of her widowed mother, the unmarried Bindu had to escape her home and torture of her cousin brothers, to take refuge in her married sister’s home, from where she is married off to a mentally challenged man and when she decides to come back to her sister’s home, she is once again sent back to her matrimonial house. She finally commits suicide. The death of Bindu strikes a chord in Mrinal’s heart. Childless and homeless Mrinal had seen Bindu as her alter ego, in her defeat was her defeat. Tagore turned the story of displacement into a story of celebration of her woman’s self, a self that is hardly realised within the narrow domestic walls of family and unacknowledged service. Mrinal thus leaves home forever.
It would be wrong on our part to assume that Tagore’s sensitive treatment of women’s agony was well-received among his contemporaries. Just after the publication of “Stri-r Patra”, Bipin Chandra Pal wrote a counter story, titled “Mrinal-er Katha” (Mrinal’s Story) that came out in the Narayan Magazine, in which he caricatured Mrinal’s dream of living alone in Puri, where she falls into the lure of another man and gradually submits herself to her husband. Bindu too goes back to her marital house. She in fact considers herself lucky that she was turned out by her cousin brothers; otherwise she would not have learnt about the abundant love of her husband. The marital home is the only home for women, concludes the writer.
Almost a hundred years have passed and the feminist scholarship has been systematised, property rights have changed, and definitely the condition of women has improved. As a part of my study, I would like to share my personal experience of conducting a small survey of married women and examine their views on marital displacement. Though the interviews were not formalised, I maintained a few basic rules to keep a parity between the subjects: first, they are all urban, educated, and working; their age group varies from 31 to 58, with married life spanning from 3 months to 30 years and work experience from 4 years to 25 years); second, they are all successfully married with children (only two out of my ten subjects were childless); and finally, the physical distance between their natal and marital home was not more than 15-20 kms. They were asked some basic questions, like their definition of home, their importance in the household, whether their income and childbearing have increased their importance, their relation with their in-laws, and whether they consider themselves to be displaced, if yes, then from what and why. I found some interesting points of similarities in all their narratives. Firstly, they all felt that displacement was necessary and normal. It is a part of marriage and marriage is a necessity for it gives a ‘sense of security’, as one of my subjects opined. One revealed that she wanted to stay back at her paternal home, the chance of which was of course denied to her.
Secondly, in some way or the other, they were prepared for this displacement from early childhood, through their parents or extended family. One in fact revealed that her marrying off early was a conscious decision to help her father financially.
Thirdly, whether they felt that their marital home is their home (only four out of ten), or they had none (five were of that opinion), they all wanted to create a new one. One of my subjects revealed that she has lost her sense of home since it is a part of her family tradition that the woman would not have any share of the dwelling house (bastu bhite).
Fourthly, they have all adjusted to the change with varying success. The differences between the two households could be cultural and ethical (the practice of small talk as one subject revealed which she was entirely unaccustomed with and still finds unacceptable) or related to the levels of conventionality or orthodox behaviour or different food habits or idea of spending the leisure.
However, they now consider themselves to be important members of their household though they believe their child bearing has helped in the process. It would be interesting to point out that the two subjects (age: 34 and 38) who are childless said that a child would not help them to improve their position in the household any further, though one of them revealed her increased loneliness without a child.
Fifth, they all suffer from a sense of loss, they are either ‘misfits’, or ‘neither-here-nor-there’, too much expectation from both the houses destroy their sense of peace.
Finally, when asked what they missed the most, they pointed out the space of their natal house, the verandah and bookshelf as one specified, their moments spent with their parents and siblings, and also childhood and the carefree life.
This practical experience of interaction with married women subjects who have felt the displacement brings me back to the first set of questions with which I began this article. The practice of displacement continues, even though women’s perception of marriage and femininity has undergone a vast change and their participation in household matters and financial decision-making have improved in some cases; though I must add that my subjects represent a privileged class of the society and there is a slim chance of such confidence being found among the women of rural or less-developed areas. However, conducting the research within the privileged class does not resolve the issue of displacement; rather, it points out new anomalies. For instance, it is revealed that the notion of home for a woman is deeply problematic. She makes a home, through her ability to perform the domestic duties, inclusive of child bearing and child rearing which earn her a position in the household. Interestingly, Tagore’s women in the two short stories described above also come from the upper class but they both are childless and their motherly affection is satisfied by someone else’s child or a helpless girl and their loss of that object of care finally destroys their tie with their families. Arguably, the woman’s sense of home is a family-oriented concept in which her individual identity is deeply compromised to establish herself as a mother or care-giver. Her unpaid labour, mostly translated as love, is the pre-requisite to maintain her seeming position of importance in the household. The metanarrative of patriarchy is internalised, which leads them to unknowingly use the words ‘normal’, ‘adjustment’, ‘security’, ‘belonging’. In many cases, they are aware of the discrepancies, which in a way could be regarded as a positive achievement, and thus their body language was interesting. One of my subjects when asked “Do you think you have a home?”, replied “Do I have to answer in a yes or no?”
I began my article with a reference to a Punjabi folk song that compared women to a flock of birds. I would conclude the article with reference to another poem, which is a counter-composition by the famous Punjabi poet, Pash. To quote a few lines:
Chidiyon ka chamba udkar kahin nehi jayega
Yehi kahin idhar udhar medo par ghas khodega
Rukhi missi rotiyan dhoya karega
Aur maili odniyan bhigokar loo-se jwale chehro-par pherega
Chidiyon ka chamba udkar kahin nehi jayega
[The flock of birds shall not fly off to anywhere
She would only be here, roaming around the field, aimlessly,
She would still carry the dry missi roti to the field
And cover her wind-winnowed face with her dirty wet scarf
The flock of birds shall not fly off to anywhere] (translation mine)*
*I am indebted to my friends Sinjini Basu for introducing me to this poem and Hariprasad Tripathy for helping me with the translation.
Photo: A Long Silence by Marlene Dumas, 1989.
Engels, Frederick. ‘The Origin of the family, Private Property and the State.’ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968.
Halder, Debarati and K. Jaishankar. ‘Property Rights of Hindu Women: A Feminist Review of Succession laws of Ancient, Medieval and Modern India.’ Journal of Law and Religion 24. 2 (2008-2009): 663-687. JSTOR. Web. 31 March 2018.
Manusamhita. The Sacred Books of the East. Ed. Max Müller. Vol. 25. Delhi, Varanasi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1979.
Pal, Bipin Chandra. ‘Mrinal-er Katha.’ Rabindra Rachanavali. Vol 16. Kolkata: Government of West Bengal, 2001. 1354-70. Print.
Sarkar, Tanika. ‘Wicked Widows: law and Faith in Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere Debates.’ Behind the Veil: Resistance, Women and Everyday in Colonial South Asia. Ed. Anindita Ghosh. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. 83-115. Print.
Tagore, Rabindranath. ‘Jibito o Mrito.’ Rabindra Rachanavali. Vol 9. Kolkata: Government of West Bengal, 1988. 82-90. Print.
—. ‘Stri-r Patro.’ Rabindra Rachanavali. Vol 9. Kolkata: Government of West Bengal, 1988. 498-507. Print.
Debamitra Kar works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English in Women’s College, Calcutta. She is currently pursuing her PhD on ‘Conflict zone Literature’ at the Department of English, University of Calcutta. She has presented papers at both national and international seminars and has published articles in scholarly journals. Her areas of interest include Conflict Management, Trauma Studies, New Historicism, and Performance Theory.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.