“It’s impossible to grow up as a woman in India without knowing what it is like to have to always seek permission to be yourself. Each of us, in our own way, often magnified by caste and class encounters resistance in finding self-acceptance, achievement, and affection.” (Excerpt from the Book)
The 90s were the time when Shah Rukh, Shaktiman, and cassettes ruled the world. My childhood was spent in the 90s and it was heavily influenced by Bollywood movies. Watching the Sunday matinee show on Doordarshan at 4 o’clock is one of my most fond memories. I was probably 5-6 years old along with my cousin. Both of us eagerly awaited 4 o’clock movies. We finished our homework before time so that we could watch movies in the evening. No matter what the weather was like outside, nothing could move us from our seats before the screen. The saddest part of our movie times were the power cuts which took place right before the movie’s climax.
Despite being scolded by our elders many times, we both ran for 1 kilometer to finish the movie’s climax. Doctor Saheb was an acquaintance of my grandmother, and he was quite wealthy for that area. He also owned a generator that would come on whenever there was a power failure. After the movie ended around 6:30 P.M., we both went home to enjoy a Sunday evening in a fantasy world away from reality. However, after we reached home, our Bua (Father’s sister) would beat and scold us. Occasionally, she would close the front door and not open it for at least two hours. We would wait for her to open it. The whole ordeal was repeated almost every Sunday. Wow, what memories!
I am sure you are wondering why I am telling you this story. The book I am about to discuss has the context of Bollywood films and how they have fascinated generations of Indians in their search for hope, freedom, and fantasy.
Shah Rukh Khan and Shrayana
“Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s lonely young women and the search for intimacy and independence” is written by Shrayana Bhattacharya. This book is the best example of the saying, “ don’t judge a book by its cover”. Like other people, initially, I ignored this book because of its title. However, after listening to the author Shrayana Bhattacharya on The Seen and the Unseen podcast, I immediately ordered this book and devoured it. It gave me perspective. I started observing all ladies around me and trying to piece their lives and how they are navigating and fighting with this world. The author is a young woman and economist at World Bank who also happens to be a zabra fan of the Bollywood super star-Mr. Shah Rukh Khan. She wrote this book motivated by her fandom for Shah Rukh and stories of ordinary women and her work as an economist to weave a fantastic story to understand what’s going on in the lives of ordinary Indian women and how they are dealing with the system of patriarchy.
I have found it to be one of the most insightful books I have read recently. I underlined almost every line. Each and every story of the woman in this book resonated with me. The frustration and relative deprivation of Vidya, the pains of The Accountant, the anxiety of Gold, the boredom of Manju, and most importantly, the author’s own story, all made sense to me. Whatever your educational and economic background, these stories show that women are discriminated against and made to feel inadequate and manipulated. It is all to serve the needs of the other half of humanity. The only difference was that the quality of this discrimination might have varied. Some of it was crude and visible, while others were refined and subtle. Then there is Mr. Shah Rukh Khan’s fan following. He helps these ordinary women bargain and survive the toxic patriarchy in their everyday lives through his movies and interviews. Shah Rukh’s fandom demonstrates their disappointment in society and its institutions which broke their hearts in different ways.
The lives of ordinary women
Reading this book made me more empathetic toward the lives of Indian women. It showed me how much struggle they are still going through irrespective of class, caste, or any other classification and how we women are also complicit in our own discrimination. Women are withdrawing from their jobs because not only do they have to face discrimination in their offices but also they are overburdened with the care and love which they need to provide for their families. Despite sacrificing their freedom to provide love and care to their family, women are feeling lonely and unloved. They are withdrawing from the workforce because of Sanskritisation effect where the increase in family’s income and status lead to more control of women’s body and their mobility to maintain the purity of their community and caste networks. Higher incomes allow family members to perform traditional upper-caste social rituals when women’s bodily honor is guarded strictly within the four walls of the home.
Women leaving the workforce
They leave the workforce because of an unfriendly and discouraging work environment where they are paid less as compared to their male counterparts plus they also have to deal with the male gaze. Marriage and child care act as a hurdle for women to take up jobs in India. In totality, family and society both make it so difficult for women to survive, take up a job, or stay single. We are taunted for whatever choices we make in our lives. In fact, they have a problem whenever we make any choices.
Feminism on Instagram
The author also highlights the discussions around feminism on Instagram. As per the author, real feminism is happening in the everyday lives of ordinary women and she does not have any radical story of resistance to share from the hinterlands of India. They are constantly navigating the patriarchy in their everyday lives which can never be seen on an elitist platform like Instagram. The story of Vidya from the book was so relatable that at one point I felt like vidya is speaking on my behalf. I have seen and worked with women who are very similar to Vidya’s that friend who finds faults in everything that Vidya does. They themselves are so rich and entitled but they judge women like us who have achieved something in their life coming from a normal background without any support and guidance.
In spite of not being able to relate to the heartbreak stories in the book because it has never happened to me, it was heartbreaking to know that women’s relationships, marriages, and love lives are bargained as commodities, and women are judged on the basis of their looks. Despite their different backgrounds, all of these women are fans of Mr. Khan. Seeing a superstar like this who respects and loves women provides them with a respite from oppressive patriarchal culture and discrimination. Many poor and working-class women display their fandom for Shah Rukh Khan or attend his movies in the theater to express themselves.
We need intimate revolutions
The beauty of this book lies in the fact that it also proposes ways to solve these problems for our country.
“Meaningful change in everyday life happens when we start to pratcise the views we profess. ….Only fools think we can rationalise, cancel, tweet, or march our way to a social revolution. Radical change needs oxygen from each one of us. We are required to practise what we retweet, to self-scrutinise, to incrementally partake in impossibly difficult conversations in our own everyday relationships. For people to move beyond people…………………real shifts in their private behaviour requires repeated and sustained intimate interpersonal dialogue in which discriminatory views are revealed and challenged.”
“Change will need good faith and generosity. Mindset is not enough, morality is embodied in how we demonstrate our liberal views in our daily encounters with people, places and our self. Without these intimate revolutions, the best laws and the strongest movements will fail. The realm of everyday intimacy is the true home of social change. It is where all our longing, self-loathing and biases are unveiled. This is the world of deeply private rebellions, within people & within relationships. No platform, no performance. It’s where the real battle is. And it’s got to be long and ugly.”
An answer to the most debated question on humanity can be found in this book. Exactly, what do women want? The answer will surprise you. Women want love, freedom, and respect in no particular order.