The act of sleeping seems to paralyse vocal cord functions. When fear grips me in the dark of the night I call out in my sleep. But no words come forth from my sleeping form. What comes out instead is a ghoulish primeval sound akin to the word for mother, a sound that goes back to the evolutionary origins of the human species.
The word for mother in most languages is an elemental syllable rudimentary to the idea of comfort. My mother is also haunted by her mother and the same notions of comfort. All the simple meals that were made for us by mothers hearken us back to a vanished warmth. But in my need for solace in repeating patterns from lived life, my mother had to set aside her individuality. She was oppressed. Her whole life she chafed against the inequalities of her world from the sidelines where she had been consigned, while paradoxically also defending the same beliefs that held her prisoner. In her defence, it is the only life she has known, a veil of sorts, under which she is both hostage and sheltered. She is from a cultural era that doesn’t need her to be self-aware. She owned this pigeonholed idea of motherhood as her birthright, a motherhood that cares for everyone except itself. An idea she is at pains to pass on to me. This is the price for all those comforting meals, the price of comfort.
If you get too comfortable in one place the saying goes, it is time to move on. In this context, comfort is stagnation. Can things once comforting be now oppressive? Was I comforted into accepting status quo and not ask questions of the world? Was comfort just some wool pulled over my eyes? The fairy tales featuring pale, maidenly girls who needed rescuing have long been exposed as cultural tropes used to teach little girls their place in the world. Agents of culture like children’s stories, movies and television are slowly making amends.
In India, we had several such tropes used to instruct the girl child about her menial role in the family. As a young child, I was exposed to countless local comic books and ’80s Bollywood films that portrayed women characters as eternally virtuous and sacrificing. I was possessed by a self-soothing yearly ritual of reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The central female protagonist in this classic can only find happiness after finding a rich, handsome man. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This is how wryly Ms Austen begins her famous book. She seems to be saying that it is a sad fact of life however amusing it might be.
How much did culture—the iconic images displayed around me, the public aspects of religion, books I read, movies I watched, absorbed, and therefore seeped into me—curtail my development as an individual with aspirations toward selfhood? These paradigms from the past honed and guided me on the path I took. But while on this path, the ideas that once comforted me slowly began to bring me distress. The sameness of comfort and how conforming it was became discomfiting when I realised I too had been left behind despite my efforts at betterment. Could my life path have been different had the cultural life of my childhood been filled with women piloting jets or going to space? Rey instead of Luke, from the new Star Wars movie.
Rey, who is in the same tradition as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has a lot of people asking questions like how can a physically slight, female character fight off in a light-sabre battle against a muscled dark side. Is it because we are used to slight, female characters existing modestly on the sidelines, always needing saving? We are still not used to feisty women, slight or otherwise, who can fight, fly or lead.
In India, selfhood is perceived as a mercenary aspiration for a woman to achieve, as a woman does not own herself. She is possessed by her family and her services even if unremunerated are the very foundations of society. A woman’s selfhood is detrimental to society. Evolution is us and the environment affecting change, though we think it is the other way round and that we are helpless against the transmuting hand of evolution. It was us that built the foundations so fundamental to a society standing up every day, so it is in our hands now to shift those foundations. And it should begin in the notional places in which we find comfort. Some of these places trap us in past whimsy, keeping us perpetually fearful and tied down. Not only does it hold us back, but it holds back the people we love who need to be freed.