The Wasteland Of Women Edition Of Madness

Like more than half the masses in Mumbai, I too use the trains on a more or daily basis; if I manage to drag my big small arse out of bed on time, that is. After a lot of grumbling, running around and emergency sessions of shooting coffee up my veins every freaking morning, I manage to somehow tumble into the train and join the WeAreSisterStrapHangers Association for the next forty-five minutes of the ride. ‘Tis a real art  — an extremely useful one at that — to balance books, umbrella and yourself as the train lurches, halts and picks up speed like I do under a caffeine rush. I’m not suggesting that every traveler should get, “I survived Mumbai trains” t-shirts as awards but even a little appreciation will do. It’s really not easy having women punch you in the gut just to get a seat and it’s time someone recognises that, yo. And that’s the as-old-as-time version of reality in the Ladies compartments,  I don’t know anything but stink and sweat in the MenPeople’s compartments; leaving aside the groping and touching that goes on if a Lady travels in their compartments. The WikiVersion of my whine is — Train travel is hard and tiring; precisely why I should not be blamed for anything that transpired yesterday, dear BLOG! reader.

As usual, I had my head stuck in a book to really notice what was happening on the other side of the compartment till someone rudely shoved themselves against my thighs, asking to make more space out of thin air to accommodate her and her bag the size of a whale when I could barely sit comfortably. Being the scatterbrained idiot I can very often be, I suggested her to go to the other side of the compartment — not as nearly fun as suggesting to go to the DarkSide — she gave me a look and said in no uncertain words that I needed to let go of my death-grip on my book and just see what was on the Other side. By the look on her face, I expected to see a dead rat or at least an obscene drawing of the female genitalia. Instead there was just a woman mumbling something to herself and staring nowhere into space. Before I could give WhaleBagLady a piece of my mind for touching me, I remembered who was that Lady. She’s MadWoman # 4 of the Trains (Jeez, I could make Bertrand Russel proud if I continue talking like this). As people keep track of exotic fruits, I too despicably remember all the six MadWomen I’ve seen in the trains.

Truer words have never been spoken

Truer words have never been spoken

These women are all characteristically thin, pretty and possibly extremely beautiful; by any norms. I’ve noticed most of them carrying a huge bag full of money, make-up and clothes — call it a getaway source, if you will. They speak fluent English (the symbol of education and good breeding in India) (whatever that means) and are always ranting about something or other. The woman in the train yesterday was talking about “cutting the bastard to pieces” and would go on to sob about her “empty sac” alternately; accompanied by many, many colourful embellishments and hand gestures. There was something so sad about the whole thing; no one could do anything or help her, stuck in a bell jar as she was. I wonder what led to her eventual madness, for there was trauma clearly etched on her face as well as in her words. Maybe she was forced into a bad marriage like my grandfather’s aunt was that drove her to madness or she was just born crazy like my grandfather’s sister was. Either way, she just roams around in the trains, scaring the living daylights out of people.

What is the most dangerous question is — who defines madness? Or what makes madness? I’m crying as I write this, it’s patriarchy who does both. This is a truth I really don’t want to acknowledge.

Madness is often synonymous to ‘witches’ and ‘defying the establishment’ here. The stigma associated with MadWomen in India is as political an issue as religion is — both bank on the fear of people to execute their own conniving objectives. It seems stupid maybe today to think of Witches, the way people in Salem did many, many years ago or the way Shakespeare wrote about the trio. Assuming these notions are dead would be stupid, rather. A few years ago, one woman who disobeyed patriarchal notions fell in love with another woman by choice was called a ‘witch’ and killed off in Calcutta, the maid in my house confirmed this story. Mahashveta Devi’s poignant portrayal of Chandidasi Gangadasi’s forced loss of motherhood and societal power in ‘Bayen’ stands out as one as one of the most transgressive narratives about this stigma of madness and by extension, dark magic ; as she  illustrates how Chandidasi is made into a ‘witch’ due to her larger economic-reality coupled with absolute absence of agency over her body (as is the case with most women; mad or otherwise). Common myths propound that “these things” only happen in the lower classes; whereas research has shown that ‘witch-hunting’ is very much a part of Upper Class Bengali and Gujarati Hindu culture too.

There are very few institutions for MadWomen, ones that won’t force them into the flesh trade that is. Like that ‘Mad Woman in the attic’, this one will be hidden from the public eye and life. Considering the fact that she is mad, she will also be considered a ‘shared’ body for many members of the family or the neighbours, for a price, of course. If these non-flesh-trade-forcing institutions do exist, they remain available only to the privileged few. More often than not, this MadWoman will be a servant of sorts to the household that is “generous” enough to keep her. And I’m talking about present day society; not something that transpired about 10,000 years ago. Indian MadWomen are virtually and systematically obliterated from the society, if my own family history serves as an example. My great-aunts were both ill-treated, insulted and possibly even abused by their in-laws before they were sent back, labeled as “half-women” or as “defective-women”.

For a woman to be born mad is worse than being born with a disfiguring scar, for this means she loses all chance of ever acquiring a husband (can you imagine the horror! Times Eleventy!) or ever being accepted in society. MadMen, however get wives who will ‘tame’ their madness, if popular culture is to be believed. ‘Koshish Ek Asha‘, a soap that has more twists and potholes than any clichéd Indian rural road, works on this basic premise; that the woman’s efforts will wash the ‘madness’ out of the man’s head.

One can argue, shouldn’t this madness be equally ‘washable’ for both sexes? Apparently since women are ‘worthless’ to begin with, no need to invest in selfless husbands that will do the said madness-washing. We just let them wander aimlessly in the city, leave them crazy in the trains. Can you blame me for crying for the remaining of the train ride with MadWoman # 4? And perhaps even entering the MadWomenCult in the eyes of my fellow passengers?

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  1. Damn, that’s powerful writing.

    • Thanks CatieCat. Means a lot to me.

      • I mean it, quite seriously. Each of your posts feels as rich as though I were looking out my window and seeing India through feminist eyes, the kinds of thing one never gets from the various “UK-born Indian guy goes ‘home’ and makes a documentary about it” shows, because of course they never focus at all on life as a woman in India. It’s like the whole other half of all those shows (there are at least four I can think of, though one of them is by a white man from the UK, which is even more failtastic), all the stuff one doesn’t get in textbooks.

        If it’s okay with you, I thought I’d drop this in the comments on the Blogaround today at Shakesville.

  2. Peter

     /  July 14, 2010

    Wow. Amazing post.

    Wait, there are seperate men and women’s train compartments in India?

    • Yes. We have separate compartments out here. This makes the men not want to grope and press against us. Apparently so.

      • AV

         /  July 17, 2010

        That’s NOT true. Don’t overgeneralize from your experience in Mumbai. There are no separately gendered compartments on any of the Indian Railway trains I’ve ridden on.

        • Maybe you mean only the trains going outstation. The Mumbai Local Trains DO have two separate compartments for Ladies (in the whole train that is).

  3. bchance_ru

     /  August 1, 2010

    Wow. Thank you for opening my eyes to this. I had no idea “madness” could be a form of control too.

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