Monday, October 15, 2012

Baby blues

I wonder who decided to name her. As a baby name, it isn’t one of my favourites: Ahuti means sacrifice. There she was — three months old and beaten to death. And nobody really knows why. Ahuti’s mother has been arrested. The police say she’s admitted to beating the baby, and being unable to cope with the child’s constant crying.

I think about Dharmishtha Joshi too (Who named her? What sort of childhood did she have?).Some counselors are already being quoted in snap articles, suggesting that we as a culture are getting to be more intolerant, angrier.

But I think of Dharmishtra Joshi, alone at home, trying to cope with two infants (and one recently dead); a frequently absent husband with whom she clearly did not have strong, tender bond. She was furious about something. Or about many things. And because she didn’t know what to do with her fury, she lashed out at the baby.

What life did Dharmishtha dream of? Did she want those children? If she did not want to bring up those children, what would she do with them?

We ought to condemn her violence, but we also need to think of the consequences of burdening women with reproduction without changing our social and moral ecosystem. In the current environment, a woman faces less flak for beating her own children than for refusing to have children, or offering to give up her children to foster care if she feels unable to cope.

For all our breast-beating about the falling sex ratio, there is less moral outrage about dead daughters than discotheque-going daughters.

Now, there is talk of updating our laws to check female foeticide. There are plans to monitor women’s wombs, keep tabs on each pregnancy. In effect, we’d like the female child to exist because we’re worried about a nation with not enough females in it, but we don’t particularly care about what the female child wants from her own life.

There is talk of amending anti-dowry laws, to prevent misuse. But there is no acknowledgment of the fact that any family willing to give dowry has no business crying about it later. There is not one politician in our country who is willing to run an anti-dowry campaign along the lines of: “Don’t stay with a husband who wants dowry. Get out. Don’t try to ‘save’ a marriage through money.”

In fact, some states encourage dowry indirectly, coming up with schemes that give money to girls when they attain marriageable age instead of giving it out in the form of scholarships or vocational training; chief ministers enabling ‘kanyadaan’ so that the community bears the cost of the wedding feast. There is no clear dismissal of unaffordable feasts.

The focus of most women-centric laws is prosecution: Who can you nail? The woman? Her husband? The doctor? The radiologist? But we refuse to grapple with the moral hypocrisy that makes such laws necessary.

We need to understand that we cannot protect baby girls in a culture where grown women are not protected. In an ecosystem where panchyats can declare that marriage is a good way of preventing rape, where people aren’t free to choose a mate, where there is no way of getting out of a motherhood that one may or may not have signed up for — can we expect gentle mothers?

And so, sad as I am about Ahuti, I am also sad for Dharmishtha. I cannot imagine what demons plague her mind, but I do know that marriage and motherhood are often just ways of gaining respectability, and buying peace, or freedom from assault. Which is a hard, cruel bargain.

First published here.
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