The mind goes where it wills. And last week, as I watched writer-director Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi, my mind – much to my amusement – wandered off in the direction of Asaram Bapu. The followers of the jailed religious guru have been trying for a while now to popularise Matru-Pitru Pujan Divas (Parents’ Worship Day) as an alternative to Valentine’s Day. They flashed through my head as I watched a particularly memorable scene from the film in which Alia Bhatt’s character Kaira slams her mother, father and their irritatingly opinionated guests with these words:
(Spoiler alert for those who have not yet seen Dear Zindagi)
“Parents hone ka kaam?! Khatam kar do! Bachche paalna itna tough kaam hai toh end it na! Kisne kaha parents bane rehne ko? Ek toh theek se kaam shuru hi nahi kiya toh kyon continue kiye ja rahe hai? Put an end to it… Bachche paida karne ka idea kiska thha? Aapka. Correct? Aur phir jo chaaha unke saathh kiya, whatever you wanted. Aur blame bhi hum pe hi daalte ho. And then you say tough hai. Kya tough hai? My foot!” (Note: a translation of this monologue is provided at the end of the article)
(Spoiler alert ends)
Actually, never mind Asaram Bapu. Kaira’s verbal explosion must surely rank as a moment of monumental subversiveness in Bollywood history and across Indian society as a whole. From a film industry that has for decades now made maata-pitaa adulation a virtual obligation, in a society that pedestalises parenthood and requires children to compulsorily venerate their mothers and fathers, here is a fictional young woman belling the cat on this parents-are-gods nonsense. Parents, the film in its entirety reminds us, are people – mere humans, sometimes good, sometimes bad, horrible at worst, imperfect at best.
Yash Chopra will perhaps be turning in his grave or in his urn of ashes or wherever he is resting in the cosmos, at this speech from the heroine of the latest big-ticket Bollywood release. After all, Dear Zindagi has been made in a cinematic universe far removed from Chopra’s 1975 film Deewaar in which the crooked Vijay Verma famously taunted his honest brother Ravi with, “Aaj mere paas buildingey hai, property hai, bank balance hai, bangla hai, gaadi hai. Kya hai tumhare paas?” (Today I own buildings, property, I have a bank balance, a house, a car. What do you have?) to which dear treacly sweet Ravi replied: “Mere paas Maa hai” (I have Mother). No wealth could have been greater than a Nirupa Roy-like saintly Mommy in a hero’s life back then.
Hindi cinema may have travelled the distance from parent worship to Kaira in the four decades since Deewaar was released, but in the real India the notion of parents as noble beings if not near-divinity persists — and those who disagree are damned. Bollywood, for a change, is a step ahead of society rather than trailing behind. For the sad truth is that Kaira speaks a truth most Indians are still afraid to utter.
The practice of idolising parents in India goes back to ancient Hindu mythology. One of the most popular accounts of Lord Ganesh has him competing with his brother Karthikey for a prize that varies with the version of the tale. The winner would be the sibling who manages to circumambulate the world first. Karthikey takes off on his peacock to circle the Earth. While he is away, Ganesh folds his hands, quietly walks around Shiv and Parvathi, and on Karthikey’s return, claims victory. But you did not leave this place, Shiv points out. I did not need to, replies the son, to me my parents are my world.
Too many Indians miss a crucial point in this anecdote – that Ganesh may have revered his parents, but Shiv and Parvathi (as is widely acknowledged) were flawed. What distinguishes Hinduism from other present-day major world religions and gives it an element of relatability is that its deities are not portrayed as blemishless beings, but as gods with human failings.
Viewed in this context, it is ironic that Indian society – despite the prevalence of Hinduism – insists on seeing parents as universally selfless individuals who unconditionally love their children, views parenthood as a higher calling and a social duty, and decrees that children must forever be obliged to their parents, while condemning both singledom and childlessness within and outside marriage.
Singletons are considered footloose and fancy-free individuals fulfilling no social duties. The stereotype of the heavy-drinking, hard-partying (ergo noisy), immoral, sexually promiscuous bachelor and spinster (read: a likely bad influence on other youngsters) is so prevalent in urban India that housing complexes unapologetically announce a “dogs and unmarried people are not allowed” rule for tenancy and purchases. Married people who decide not to have children are openly labelled selfish.
Is becoming a parent an act of selflessness? Excuse my rudeness, but… Baah!
And seriously, selflessness is a choice, while the reality is that a majority of Indian women at least have no such agency. Providing an heir to the husband and his family line continues to be seen as one of a wife’s primary duties. Most women in India have limited access to birth control and safe abortions anyway, a situation that reproductive rights activists and scholars have chronicled and decried for decades. There is a stigma associated with being a “baanjh aurat” (sterile/barren woman). And if you are either uneducated or financially dependent or both, not bearing a child when your husband and in-laws want one is obviously not an option.
Among women who do have a choice, it goes without saying there are plenty who become mothers because they love babies, children and/or the traditional family set-up, genuinely want to experience another life growing within them and feel maternal love. There are just as many, if not more, though who have children because it is customary, or they had not thought beyond the norm when they first got pregnant, or because societal and familial pressure was too hard to withstand, or for some other reason unrelated to the joys of motherhood. The result is scores of women out there who became mothers despite being disinterested in the role or not ready for it.
Men do not escape social pressure either. Try being a couple even in supposedly liberal circles who have not had a child for over two years after marriage. The intrusive questions about when you will give “good news” to the world at large are interspersed with inquiries about your fertility, jokes about the man “firing blanks”, pity at what is vaguely assumed to be a sad, lonely, purposeless, empty existence and accusations of being self-centred, which imply that having a child is almost a sacrifice married folk make for the greater good.
This myth is debunked by the very people who propagate it when they coax singles to marry and married couples to have children. “Why don’t you want to get married? Don’t you love children?” they ask, as if potential spouses are nothing more than walking, talking sperm banks and fertile fields of ova. And that other question: “If you don’t marry and have children, who will take care of you in your old age?”