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Transitions to modernity

In a retracing of paths 19 years later, Anees Jung finds liberated aspirations in the traditional Indian landscapes.

india Updated: Jan 17, 2004 17:14 IST

Beyond The Courtyard
Anees Jung

Viking/Penguin
2003
Sociology, Women's Studies
Pages: 176
Price: Rs 250
ISBN: 0670057770
Hardback

Nineteen years after her literary journey to unveil India, Anees Jung retraces her steps to witness the changes that have come about in the lives of rural women through narratives of individual transition. As a genre of writing, developmentalist travelogues, as it were, are necessarily engaging and Jung’s expressive caliber ensures that the reader inevitably comes away with a deep empathy for some of her subjects.

The sum of her argument is yes, women’s lives have undoubtedly changed in sleepy towns and far-flung villages, but many continue to despair about their future after a limited acquaintance with consumer amenities, technology and reformist ideas spawned by the Non-governmental world.

For instance, poor peasants now own tractors and tube wells providing plenty of food grains; women who walked barefoot, now wear rubber sandals; old patched cotton saris replaced by synthetic ones and many younger women no longer cover their head. And there are a few endearing tales as that from Kutch where a group of marginally educated women run a community newspaper, Ujas. Researched, written and printed in the local dialect the paper has an impressive circulation of 25,000.

Notwithstanding, conservative tradition still forces Indian women to live unfree lives in many ways. Thousands of child marriages are conducted every May in Rajasthan; girls are still given demeaning names such as Dukhi or Naraaz to systematically reinforce a sense of social irrelevance. Ameena, the Hyderabadi minor who was rescued from her Arab groom was eventually married off to a middle-aged widower with three children. Thus “the passing years have not changed the destiny of girls… they remain a part of a social landscape that refuses to move ahead”. Non-governmental organisations brought life to desolate Tilonia with many unlettered women, for example, emerging as solar engineers only to have hopes of independent careers scotched by the imperative of marriage and resuming a fairly reclusive life.

Jung’s reportage provides a close glimpse of the struggle of virtually every successful NGO enterprise, which grapples with the expanding aspirations of a liberated (female) mind amid a regressive traditional landscape. The transition generation attempting to break free from the past often feels the most oppressed. A bit of education, a stint of training, some exposure to life beyond the village through television and occasional visitors have not translated into a life-transforming experience. As a revealing symptom of women outgrowing their milieu there is the phenomena of village girls in Kolkata’s suburbs (and surely elsewhere) telling counselors that they don’t want to get married since it signifies bondage and the end of their education which they want more of.

What Jung brings out clearly in narrating the mixed fortunes of a generation is the sense of a deep reflection and wisdom that inheres in these women as they ponder over their fluid lives. In effect, though, the many engaging individual plot lines of women in this book challenge the simplistic notions of national well-being as conveyed by images of ‘India Shining’ that politicians and urban corporate India want us to buy into.

First Published: Jan 17, 2004 10:01 IST