My mother would tear herself out of bed at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. She’d make herself a cup of coffee, realize that it’s time to help us get ready for school, and rush to wake us up. The morning would go by quickly, with her making us breakfast, ironing our uniforms, helping my younger brother with his shoes, and sending us off to school. The coffee laid there untouched, cold by the time she finally got to it.
By 9:00 a.m. the maids would arrive, which meant she had to overlook them whilst helping my dad as he left for work. She’d make his breakfast the way he liked it, filled a bottle of cold water for him to take with him, laid out his clothes, and helped him look for his keys. She’d then sit down to eat breakfast herself around 10.
With the house to herself, she’d wash, hang the clothes to dry, and fold the rest of the laundry. Then she’d go back and remake the beds. After that was done she’d rearrange the kitchen or look for something else to organize. By 2:40 p.m. she’d leave to pick us up from school, ready with a packed snack for each of us. If the maids weren’t available that day she’d be responsible for that too.
While we were at our after school classes, she was preparing dinner and cutting up fruit as snacks for us. We’d come home hungry, and she was always ready with something to eat. After dinner, she’d sit with my brother for an hour to help him with his homework, coming up with study guides and lesson plans for him. She’d check in with me to see if I needed anything and answered to my dad’s every whim. She’d always be the last one to go to bed by 12:00 a.m., busy making pindi or dosa batter for the next morning and washing up the last few dishes.
She’s been a housewife for 20 years now and I’ve only just begun to understand the immense mental fortitude it takes to handle a house, especially one that’s never recognized the stress and monotony of what she does. I know she had big dreams before all this, but was married off before she had a chance to realise them. I know it’s what society expected from her at the time. Even if social landscapes and rules by which women have lived are changing now, it’s not easy to just pick up those dreams where you left off. She’s never had a job her entire life, yet she’s worked tirelessly everyday. At the age of 42, I don’t think she believes she’s capable of anything outside of this.
When I read Gently Falls The Bakula by Sudha Murty, I was instantly reminded of my mother. It follows the female protagonist Shrimati, an incredibly bright and enigmatic student, as she falls in love with Shrikanth and, in the process of marrying him, begins to give up all her ambition and dreams to support him. She becomes the epitome of the saying “Behind every successful man, is a woman.” No one ever questions her decision to quit her higher education, if anything, her in-laws expect her to do so. Instead of accepting her PhD offers, she sits at home, cooks, cleans, manages the household, and entertains her husband’s guests and clients. Even though Shrikanth never explicitly tells her to give up her dreams, he also never recognizes the sacrifices Shrimati makes for him as he continues to climb the corporate ladder. He becomes more and more distant, and begins to take her granted, up until the day one of her old professors reminds her of her potential. As a result, Shrimati begins to push back and decides to take her life in her own hands. Sudha Murthy gives the fictional Shrimati a happy, yet bittersweet, ending, but this doesn’t reflect the reality of most Indian women today.
When an Indian woman gets married she doesn’t just marry a man, but rather marries into his family. On good days it might feel like you’ve gained another family but on most days you’re expected to serve everyone’s needs, no questions asked. Structural inequalities and regressive gender norms ensure that Indian women still rank at the top of the list in unpaid labor and domestic activities. If a woman does work a corporate job she’s still expected to complete all the household duties as if she wasn’t working. Her work life is seen as more of a hobby, and if she forgets any chores she’s labelled a neglectful wife or mother. To make matters worse, women are expected to uphold these rigid gender norms as her behaviour directly reflects the social status of the family. When my mother first began to consider working outside the house, she was immediately admonished by my dad and his in-laws. According to them, a working woman indicates that the man of the house isn’t earning enough money.
I was born in a patriarchal society, one that imbued in me the idea that my dreams and aspirations should always come second to family. My mother exemplified this ideal. As a woman, I was told that I should be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. It didn’t matter that I had to fight to study abroad, at least I’m not going to get married off in the next 2 years. I’ve seen the backlash a woman faces when she dares to challenge the gender norms society has set for her, to the point where she begins to believe these norms herself. Sometimes, my mother wonders aloud what she’ll do once my brother moves out of the house too. She still has big dreams to go back and earn a master's degree, but they all go away the moment she’s brought back to reality. Every time she does this I think of Shrimati’s story and the constant internal struggle she faced with every sacrifice.
Sudha Murthy’s Gently Falls The Bakula isn’t a new tale, yet the complexity of its characters and the poignant moments of self-realization carry the story forward. We don’t grow to hate Shrikanth, on the contrary readers will see their own fathers in him. The story reflects the reality of Indian women in today’s society, yet also gives every reader hope that, like Shrimati, we can create our own realities.