“There’s nothing women can’t do. There’s absolutely nothing we can’t do. We’re far stronger in a lot of ways than men. Way, way stronger than men”— Betty Williams, Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1976).
Women who achieve great things are often quoted as saying that they believe nothing is impossible. This elevates the status of women to an almost human level. In reality, the forced imposition of the standards of perfection that women are expected to achieve is a mirage—that when chased, results in exhaustion and catastrophic ends. Lies Our Mothers Told Us addresses this chase after the mirage, or the race for perfection. It features stories from real women, and is packed with facts by Nilanjana, an independent journalist and author. The book is not another feminist novel, but a hard-hitting fact-based exposure of how the Indian woman’s burden is carried from one generation to another.
“India’s middle-class women are reeling under the dual force of tradition and modernity. The two have dumped on them more expectations than they can handle, more fears than they can live with, and more sleepless nights than they care to admit—even to themselves… That’s the Indian woman’s burden,” writes Bhowmick.
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Bhowmick illustrates the gender gap in society. She writes that equality is not being achieved despite socio-economic advancements and women moving towards having their own jobs. Women do everything, sometimes with incredible ease, including managing the household, children, and caring for the family. What seems like a good life can have a profound mental and emotional impact on women’s wellbeing. They may experience exhaustion or anxiety.
“A vast majority of modern Indian middle-class women suffer from the ‘superwoman syndrome’, a term coined in the 1980s…When we say there’s nothing that women can’t do, what we actually mean is that women should do everything which translates to paid and unpaid work and some emotional labour as a bonus,” writes the author as she lays bare the often unseen struggle that women go through in their daily lives.
The author recalls how her brother-in law taunted her mother about buying her a fancy purse when she was just starting her first job. “We will talk when your job destroys your family and your daughters turn out to be wasters,” he had remarked. Her support system of other women from her joint family who were able to take care of her children while she was at work or cook for them was what kept her going. Bhowmick writes that this support system collapsed with the dissolution of the joint family system. The neutral setup meant that women were required to either do the chores alone, manage their careers and pay someone to help them.
She recounts the stories of her grandmother, who died by suicide, her mother, and herself. These tales show how women have struggled with making tough choices over their lives, sometimes resulting in scars that can last a lifetime. “Ever since I turned forty, I have been waking up between 2 and 3 am every day,” she writes, explaining the anxiety that working women go through to carry out their responsibilities.
The author recalls her childhood days and how she used to wake up at 12pm because her mother was up at 4am and cooked meals for the family. She also shared that she now feels like she is running out of time and hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in years.
In writing the book, the author has made the reader aware of the stark realities that are almost never talked of, behind the seemingly improving condition of women in the country—how girls pull out of school to help their mothers in household work, poor hygiene and facilities in government schools for girls, lack of support system for working women by the state, lack of familial support for working-married women, unequal distribution of household chores and the pressure to prioritise family before work.
Nilanjana Bhowmick’s work is a reminder of the gender gap in society. It raises a question no one wants to answer: As we move forward, are we doing enough for women to have a better world? It prompts the government into action and provides the necessary support for women. It is an eyeopener for every family with a woman—working or not—to share the responsibilities and to let go of the bias.
Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden
Pp 272, R 699