As a growing kid, attending weddings was just another excuse to stuff my face, to the point of misery, with ice cream and stay awake till the wee hours of the morning to play board games and be silly in general.
At the wedding, all the kids would be in awe of the new bride, dressed head-to-toe to dazzle, not talking unnecessarily, not laughing with her mouth open. Overall looking like she's one of those puppet dolls meant to seem eager-to-please - in family terms, 'sanskari'. So when we got a chance to talk to her informally, we'd be like, "Oh she's not fallen from the stars and she's pretty much like us with her own mind, hobbies and pet peeves...
In nearly every wedding I went to, there'd be running jokes about the loss of freedom imminent for the groom. There'd be the band playing songs that would warn the groom that he was going to be 'shaheed' and some close bachelor friend would be making speeches about how "shaadi is barbaadi" in the groom's interest. The bride in question would also be the victim of such warnings but she'd be going through a slightly more solution-oriented ordeal - lessons about how to please her mother-in-law, portrayed as the vamp in her life. About how to keep the husband in her 'mutthi', about how to run her house etc etc. For us, as the chillar party in the background, such conversations seemed mildly interesting and peculiar but held little relevance in our lives.
But then I grew up to be on the other side of the spectrum. I understood how the loss of freedom in marriage meant very different things for a new bride and groom. For a new bride, getting her own way meant avoiding domestic conflicts, retaining a small part of her identity rapidly being lost among sudden family obligations and yet living up to the new title that was bestowed upon her - "humari bahu". Everything else that she had known before her marriage - her mom, dad, siblings, friends, her hobbies, personal ambitions, food habits, at least for some time, till she learned how to balance her new family-life with other second-place priorities, would have to wait. It was usually an upward climb involving gently putting her opinions across and manipulating the decision-makers with a bit of drama and costumes. She had to remember to seem self-sacrificing, well-behaved and lady-like at all times... Things that she never had to worry about before marriage.
For a new groom, the loss of freedom usually entailed sharing his room with his wife, giving her closet and wallet space, letting the reigns of TV controls loose, letting go of juvenile movie posters, sacrificing spontaneous plans with the boys for family get-togethers...It meant giving up some of his cherished boyhood.
I'm not about to get into who made greater sacrifices to their freedom out of the two. Each couple's marital equation is different. And undoubtedly, when you have a special someone to share the rest of your life with, personal boundaries do tend to blur. That's alright. The idea is to find your own formula for happiness, right?
But then you wake up in the morning, you kiss your husband and kids 'good morning', sit with your cuppa chai after finishing your morning chores. For reasons beyond comprehension, instead of grabbing the newspaper, you go straight to Whatsapp. Of course, there are some 70 odd messages on assorted family and friends groups to catch up with.
This is what you see:
Oh! I get it. Marriage is suicide 'cos of the wifey in the equation...ha- ha-ha...
A. Ghunghat? Bollywood-stereotype much? B. Oh so we need to wear make-up at all times so the husband doesn't get a stroke. Cos, we're that ugly in our skin. Fine, I'll laugh.
Cos home is where the hell-raising wife is. Right...
"Darling, you aren't laughing. What's the matter? Don't you have a sense of humor?"
Initially, I told myself, "Chill, they're just jokes." Fun way to bond with the rest of your family. But as the frequency increased day-by-day, I began to feel squeamish. There were jokes that went to great creative length to show a wife's bitter, nagging, clingy side and the poor husband who's had to live through it all. There were jokes that talked about mothers-in-law's sorry plight as created by the new, 'modern' daughter-in-law. Or there were sad elegies about how a mother works all her life for her sons, forgetting to eat and sleep, putting all her personal wishes aside sacrificing herself for her sons while the son's wife sleeps in peace, not worrying about anybody but herself. Or some poetry about the 'paraya dhan' aspect of girls. Or something satirical about the new-age 'sanskari' bahu and the death of our cherished values and traditions at her hands.
In a nutshell, if you wanted to feel really shitty about waking up as a married woman, you need to visit Whatsapp family forums first thing in the morning. Right after an uptempo morning message with Buddha silhouettes, amidst Rahul Gandhi humour and Japanese technological advancements, before good night messages with a beautiful crescent moon, that's where you'll find your cyanide.
Not only were these forwards regressive and insulting to women, but what amused me most was that most of these jibes and bitter digs at women were sent by women! They were shared, re-shared, multiplying like rabbits, as if they were some kind of twisted incurable disease spreading through Whatsapp contacts.
I often wondered to myself, "Who's writing these things? Every day, I get at least six to eight of them on my whatsapp. How come not a single woman ever takes offense at these jokes?" I considered expressing my disapproval in the nicest possible way in forums belonging to my husband's side but then who'd risk getting lambasted for not being sporting? Sure, I'd just have to learn to ignore them but they were getting harder and harder to overlook just by sheer numbers.
Not to say that there are no husband jokes. But surprisingly, I just don't see enough of them on family forums.
Maybe over time, as women, we've learned to look the other way when somebody passes a lewd comment, a sexist joke, pages of unsolicited 'good girl' advice, and body-shaming illustrations meant as cocktail jokes. We've learnt to laugh along or shrug them off cos we don't want to confront the problem and come across as stuck-up, argumentative drama queens. We don't want to tell off the joke-teller, trying to lift the spirits of the crowd who probably needed that joke to come out of their sad, daily grind.
As harmless as these misogynistic jokes appear to be, there is an inherent hostility in them. What they're really doing is singling you out based on your gender, based on the generation of women you belong to. They're calling you off for having desires over and above your husband's family. They're telling you how self-absorbed you've become for wanting time alone with your husband or even something basic like wanting to go shopping or to a spa to pamper yourself.
Researches have shown that tolerance and encouragement of sexist jokes, which is higher in men discriminating against women, also lead to harboring of hostile feelings towards women and the subsequent lowering of their status in the society, beginning from home spiraling down to work, affecting their chances of professional growth. Think about it. In a family, at a dinner-table, how often is it that you would make jokes on your dad or husband's incompetence in anything as compared to your mom's or wife's? On a normal day, you wouldn't think twice before pointing out flaws in their cooking or choice of outfit.
The emergence of Whatsapp as a means of connecting with all your dear and loved ones is comforting. We're blessed to live in a time when you don't have to wear your sneakers and stand in queues at the nearest payphone to make quick "trunk calls" to our family and friends miles away from us. As much as this is a blessing, it is also a doom. 'Cos what whatsapp has also done is opened doors to everybody's private drawing room conversations, especially for people who can no longer be openly sexist for fear of social boycotts. When on Facebook, you'll find these people sharing liberal thoughts on gender equality and anti-rape slogans. When on private whatsapp forums, the same people forward cliched gender behavioural stereotypes , sexual innuendos, graphic female body-shaming images and wife-bashing jokes.
In one way, Whatsapp has made women-bashing an everyday thing.
Irrespective of what it has done, you wake up in the morning, you kiss your husband and kids ' good morning', sit with your cuppa chai after finishing your morning chores. For reasons beyond comprehension, instead of grabbing the newspaper, you go straight to Whatsapp.
And all you can do is ask yourself, "Should I be laughing along? Should I ask why my fellow family members are portraying me as excess baggage? Should I ask why none of the other women are taking offense in being called money-sucking, logic-deprived parasites?"
But I switch off notifications and silently sip my tea, unaware of the deep crimson flush in my cheeks. "It's just a silly forward," I tell myself.