Tagged alienation and its toll on our humanity

Most of us would distinctly remember some lessons over others simply because we identify them as decisively different from a perspective that we possessed. Here is one such memory of mine from early 2015.  Incidentally I was in a class room (I had just made a transition to being a student once again from being a Lecturer) and was watching a video which depicted how caste still played a significant role in determining the nature and quality of human lives in many parts of India. The session was part of a course that I had chosen as a component of my PhD programme and that short video on the ostracization and dehumanization faced by human beings somehow moved me in indescribable ways. In the same classroom, in the subsequent days we discussed the many twisted and tortuous ways and processes through which the tags that supposedly define human identities which include caste, religion, gender, income levels and the disadvantages that come along with them systematically shred human existence of its rights, capacities and health. For me, it seemed like a window into life as it happens “out there” in the real world.

A recent incident that happened in my state prompted me to revisit my learnings from last year and dwell over the tags, the constructed identities and the disadvantages in the real world, especially with respect to the mental well being of individuals. The murder of a young law student, the absolute hatefulness of its nature and the laggard and sloppy response of the system have been matters of discussion in the press and visual media for about a month now. A striking point that was highlighted in the media was the almost hostile response of the neighborhood to the gruesome incident. The fact that few neighbors had actually heard cries from the house where the murder happened and yet paid no heed to them supported this viewpoint. The loud desperate wails of a mother while she unsuccessfully tried to get a response from her daughter inside the house on returning from work (after the murder happened) were also reportedly met with shocking indifference initially. A major reason stated by the residents of the locality for their hostility or lack of sympathy towards the family, was the “mentally unstable” nature of the mother. To justify their point, the residents allegedly reported that the elderly woman was extremely suspicious of anyone and everyone who approached the house and hurled abuses at passersby.

After the event, the mother was admitted to the hospital since she suffered from “severe mental stress” (which is naturally expected under the circumstances). Though she continues to reside in the hospital after three weeks, the doctors have generally deemed her “fit”. This naturally means that, what was perceived as “mentally unstable” behavior by the neighbors was not any case of serious mental illness, for if that was the case, then after such an extreme trigger (she first found her daughter’s brutally assaulted dead body) any such underlying condition would have been diagnosed. So then what was the reason for the woman’s said behavior that led to an almost complete ostracization of her family by the neighborhood - an ostracization so severe, that it did not evoke humanitarian considerations even when a fellow being faced the worst possible crisis imaginable?

Let us imagine the following scenario: a woman headed house hold comprising of only women, where two (mother and elder daughter) were deserted by their husbands and a third one who is single at thirty (now deceased) belonging to low social class and caste living in the midst of a predominantly upper caste and upwardly mobile peri-urban residential area. The tags under play here are manifold – caste, income and gender. How would these tags have played out to construct their social identities in the neighborhood?

As a woman who have lived in the state practically all my life and also drawing from the experiences of friends, I can predict a thing or two about the way gender would have played out in the scenario. Despite the high female literacy and employment status, the archaic gender equations in the families of the state (veiled in imageries of culture, tradition and women’s need for security) ensure that a “good woman’s” choices – her dress code, social circle, career choices, and how and where she spends her own hard earned money are all made for her by the “responsible males” in the family. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, while acknowledging the contribution of house wives as economic factors, equated them to horses. The scenario is exactly the same in a majority of Keralite households, the only difference being that, here the employed women do not just passively support but make active contributions to the house hold economy. Despite this, a large proportion of them are still not familiar with the concept of independent decisions or autonomy and settle for the norm that a “good woman” is one who has the seal and sanction of men on all her life choices. When these regressive norms cross families to reach streets, educational institutions and work places, they take even more oppressive forms.

It is in this light that we must view the plight of the family living in meager circumstances in a “respectable neighborhood”, where in all possibility there would be a significant proportion of “good women” and responsible men”. I imagine that anything from subtle negative vibes to outright rejections could explain the entire range of the nature of disapproval that a house hold with no males experienced. However, what is even more intriguing is trying to understand how has the responsibility of single handedly running a poor household in the midst of constant scrutiny affected the head of that household, especially since her “mentally unstable” responses were cited as the core issue behind the hostility.

In a relatively well off residential area of peri-urban Kerala, a house without a steady source of water supply is a rarity. This house did not have one and they had to travel long distances to collect water. The head of the house hold did not have a regular income and was burdened by the huge responsibility of educating her bright and ambitious single daughter. She met this by doing odd jobs. In her life time she witnessed the abandonments of both her husband and her son in law. The relative poverty and disadvantage that she experienced would have been exaggerated by the sheer inequity of resources, opportunities, power and connections that defined her existence. How these factors have contributed to her internal construction of her identity as a poor, single woman from a lower caste living in the midst of relative prosperity is something we can never really comprehend. The scrutiny and isolation that she experienced on a regular basis would have naturally prompted the harsh forthrightness in her responses, which are not deemed suitable for a “good woman” in our society, especially for someone who is disadvantaged.

Quite clearly, it was way beyond her neighbors to understand the woman’s angst and insecurity that led to the unflattering behavior. The more the social alienation one experiences, the more skeptical and unsocial one becomes. The lack of social connectedness, acceptance and capital would have only fuelled her resentment and anger at her deprived existence. Thus, the internal construction of her own reality would have fed the social construction and vice versa, until the whole process became one vicious cycle which resulted in the total social isolation of the household. This habit of constantly living in the margins clearly had its toll on the mental and social well being of the family even before the fateful incident.

I realize that it may be too much to expect an entire community to be compassionate enough to understand that her world view was shaped by a lifetime of deprivation, deception and alienation. But the absolute lack of empathy showed by the leaders and the deaf ears of the system with regard to her frequently expressed fears and insecurities baffle me. Now the pertinent question is were the mother’s fears really that misplaced? Is it not true that her ultimate worry about the security of her daughter was absolutely justified as it turned out? This line of thought also naturally arouses the question that if things were different for the family in their immediate surroundings, would they have faced the terrible fate? There would always be that ‘if only’ in my reasoning, which assumes that if things were different, the misdeed could have been averted or they could have been saved before this ghastly outcome.

While we all discuss the ‘who did it’ and the immediate ‘why’, I think we also need to address the larger issue of ‘conditional safety, security and respect’ that we graciously offer to our women. The safety that some of us experience in this very society, is bounded by the conditionalities of conforming to a certain image considered acceptable to a society governed by patriarchal norms. That safety and respect is blatantly denied if and when women define their own norms and set their own terms either by choice or due to circumstances. Clearly, change is the need of the hour and we need to start from our homes.