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Indian women are constantly ‘adjusting’ for others and it’s crushing them

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In this excerpt from ‘Chup- Breaking the silence about India’s women’, author Deepa Narayan talks about how women are expected to adjust and take up as little space as possible.

The English word ‘adjust’ is used so often in raising good girls that it has become a Hindi word. Adjustable girls automatically change their bodies and behaviour to please others; they fit in anywhere and obligingly slip, slide, squeeze and shrink into the tiniest physical and psychological spaces. Beta, thoda adjust kar lo, darling, adjust a little.

You learn it when sitting in a car, legs tightly squeezed together, while the men sit back with their legs apart; you learn it when you can’t wear tight clothes, pants or dresses in front of disapproving visiting relatives; you learn it when you are not allowed to speak back to that idiot of an uncle who calls you dark, fat, hairy or stupid and pities you; you learn it when you are scolded for being upset about anything; you learn it as you watch your brother get the bigger chocolate or go to a better school or college and you pretend it does not hurt; you learn it when you are left at home but the boys go out; you learn it when your mother does nothing when your father is rude to her, scolds her, demeans her or hits her.

As many mothers say to their daughters, Apne aap ko thoda adjust kar lo, you adjust yourself. This is a deceptively benign way, bit by bit, to start erasing any signs of an independent self in girls. It teaches girls to discount themselves and makes girls available at a permanent discount in the world. In marriage it is reflected in dowries and at work in lower salaries. Having a self becomes confused with being selfish.

Being selfish of course is bad for nice and caring girls. Having a self is made shameful by associating it with being ‘difficult, demanding, aggressive, nasty, bitchy, stubborn, opinionated and bad’.

Rashi, 25, who spoke in a soft voice, put it this way. ‘I was taught to learn to adjust, not be too demanding, whenever I started crying over something I wanted, then Mom always used to say, beta, thoda adjust karna padta hai, darling, you have to adjust a little.’

Learning to delay gratification and to exercise self-control is good, but not when it is only and always the responsibility of the girl. When their young daughters ask why they should adjust, mothers feel helpless and say, ‘Arrey bhai, ladies ko karna padta hai, ladies just have to do it.’ Girls learn to shrink themselves to take up as little space as possible. Women gave many examples of learning to adjust, including how to sit in the iconic Ambassador car.

Himani, 24, says, ‘If I talk about childhood, in the old days, we had only one car, usi mein, in that only we all used to all go. So I was like creating spaces for others, khud thoda adjust kar ke baithke, I would adjust myself and sit and I used to feel so proud about it that I am doing something good for others and got appreciated by my parents too.’

Parents now avoid the word sacrifice but the end result is the same. Dismissing the examples of ‘Sati–Savitri’, the devoted and loyal wife, held up to be the model of women’s selfless sacrifice in previous generations, many educated women deny sacrificing, but it dribbles out in different ways.

Dipali, 25, a financial planner, says forcefully, ‘Nobody has told me to sacrifice. I hate sacrificing. I was told by my father to be more adjusting, compromising.’ Adjusting behaviour is tied to family honour and then it becomes even more difficult to break out of. After all, why would you want to dishonour the family? Thoda adjust kar lo is the Indian way of creating what psychologists call ‘a compulsive people-pleaser’, particularly among women. Pleasing others and making others happy is part of the delight of belonging to a family or a circle of friends. But Pleasing 93 compulsive pleasers always put the needs of others first while ignoring their own needs.It becomes a life-draining habit. Surviving on approval, fear becomes the first lining in the body. Poonam, the United Nations official, names the fears which ran her life: ‘Fear of displeasing loved ones, fear of rejection, fear of being left by my husband, fear of being judged and fear of never being good enough, never measuring up.’ Acting ‘goody-goody’, she lives in fear, guilt and resentment.

Everyone of course likes a pleasing woman who is so ‘nice’ and who makes life so easy. Because pleasing is so rewarding initially, it is difficult for us to see its dark contribution to women’s joylessness. Buried in a mound of sweetness, the compulsion to constantly please others is the perfect ploy to further kill the self after the body is denied and the voice has been silenced. Do not exist. Focus only on others. Covered in sugar and everything nice, pleasing others allows women to go down smiling. Women become pleasing drones. Khushi, 30, a lecturer at Delhi University, summarizes this: ‘Women smile to please. Men smile when pleased.’

By special arrangement with Juggernaut.

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