Clearing grime underneath the guilt – Lessons on patriarchy during cancer care

“What time will you be free tonight,” asked Dad one day last month. “Sometime around 7 pm,” I promptly responded. Few minutes later, I check his WhatsApp window -Typing..stopped. Typing..stopped. Typing..stopped. The fourth time Dad began typing, my heart started racing. Usually Dad takes sometime to write lengthy messages, but this was different. He was typing something, thinking and erasing. This could be his health bothering him, or my future; both of which are not easy topics to have a WhatsApp chat over. Finally, he wrote, “Would like to discuss your marriage.”

From academic to personal life choices, I have often ruffled the feathers of my parents, who have patiently, sometimes impatiently, let me get my way. Choosing to work before completing education, moving to another country while still single, travelling alone across continents, have all led to a spate of questions. From — ‘Who is travelling with you?’ to — ‘When do you plan to get settled?’ These questions have only been of caution, and fear of the unknown. While Mum has visibly been more worried than Dad, they both have mostly relented, in the hope that my life will soon make sense to them.

And for most part it did. Based on some weird sense of conviction, I managed to make them realise that I was not as lost as they thought so. Certain scholarships and opportunities helped in reinstating that belief. And so I prevailed.

Jessica Watts

It was during these years of my transformation, two massive changes occured in my life: One, I recognised and understood the role of patriarchy in governing Indian middle-class households. Two, I began having a sense of what independent life meant, devoid of religious, cultural and familial connotations. Along with these understandings, came the decision to not marry early in my twenties, as is the standard in my society. There was a lot that I had to unlearn and relearn to truly recognise my purpose, and marriage was not one of the options.

Every year after the completion of my undergraduate studies, arrived a new marriage proposal. From extended family to my parents’ friends circle, the knowledge that I was closing in on 25 years of age, was like a unsolicited siren call in the wild. However, I grew comfortable in the knowledge that my academic and professional achievements would quench my parents’ worries. This assumption worked, until Dad was diagnosed with cancer.

Like a jolt from the blue, the illness also brought to light the fact that I was nearing ‘marriageable age’, and in due course of time should be engaged. Cancer managed to place my marriage on priority, in the realm of countless other concerns. Well-wishers greeted my father and in hushed voices expressed their concerns around my marriage, which he effortlessly shrugged off for quite some time.

Cancer thus brought with itself new expectations and new deadlines, that if fulfilled would help us to continue functioning as a normal family in the society. Otherwise, eyebrows would be raised, discerning questions might be asked, and massive dollops of sympathy would be handed out to us for free.

Along with these outward changes that Dad’s cancer diagnosis brought, my inner self got pulled into a storm that I had never anticipated. Just as cancer made me realise the essence of time, the value of quality talk, the need for recording moments, and the virtue in dealing with difficulties; it also made me confront my insecurities, fears and doubts that lay buried somewhere, forgotten.

One such emotion that I believed to have outgrown, was guilt. The guilt of being my ownself, which had made home inside my mind, very early on. The desire to seek validation for every action had grown to a point, that it swept self-worth underneath a carpet of achievements.

I achieve, thereby I am worthy.

Patriarchy had been successful in enslaving me as a caricature of my society’s expectations. A lot of this changed through my undergraduate years at a feminist arts college. It opened my eyes to a new reality, a fulfilling one. It showed me a mirror devoid of societal demands, and for the first time I could value myself for simply being me.

I believed my mind had flicked the switch. Eighteen years of patriarchy had been vacuum cleaned by feminist education in three years. It wasn’t so. The vacuum cleaning had only started, and piles of patriarchal debris awaited. The biggest one came to light when Dad fell sick.

And so when discussions around my marriage started making rounds again, I realised that all the knowledge that I had summed around patriarchy and its vicious cycle, weakened in the face of my father’s illness. I was unable to fight off their desperate attempts, where they tried convincing me to settle into matrimony.

I was back to my childhood self, feeling guilty of disappointing them because I did not want to win the wedding trophy. I did not believe in the institution they wanted to send me to. I did not wish to compete in the race of finding the best husband.

Regardless of how much you read and understand the way patriarchy and sexism work, once you have internalised those ills as a child, it can take years to undo it. In a room, when your parents request you to think of society’s demands, rationality quietly slips out the window. Grief and regret then act as potent enablers making you lose grip on reasoning. You begin to question your rationality when a patriarchal custom is presented as an antidote to your loved one’s problems.

The fight between guilt and rationale continues.

So when the question of marriage resurfaces again, I am not running away from the idea of marriage, I am running away from experiencing the guilt I will face in disappointing my parents. Because deep inside, I am still seeking validation from them for my actions.

As Hannah Gadsby mentions in Nanette, “Self-hatred is only a seed planted from outside in”; so is guilt. Families, communities, societies, schools, are also responsible for supplanting irrational guilt into one’s mindset as a child. And that guilt quietly over-rides all your decisions. If you somehow don’t let it do so, then it doesn’t let you sleep. It nibbles on, weakening your resolve.

In the last few years, I have heard countless times from cousins and relatives, that the most important service I can make to my parents is getting married as per their expectations. “Marry a nice Muslim fellow and lift off the worries off your father.” The subtle misogyny disguised as an act of love and sacrifice, is puritanical to say the least.

Knowledge empowers but it does not lessen the pain. Understanding patriarchy can only help you recognise the discrimination wrapped as societal expectations, it does not vacuum clean them out. That job demands standing up for yourself in the face of your worst crisis. Despite the heart break, despite the tension, despite being told you’re a disappointment, you have to hold patriarchy accountable. Only then, can one build a true sense of self-worth and awareness.

Hannah Gadsby makes a very powerful point, among several others in Nanette: “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” And that is exactly what patriarchy does — making women feel guilty when they make their own choices. A patriarchal set-up pushes women to the margins, and when they kill their choices for the greater good of their parents, or family’s name, or the society; it’s not a sacrifice, it’s inhumanity.

The conversations between my father and me over my marriage are privy to us, but I now carry a deep sense of comfort in knowing that at least I am being true to myself. Dad’s illness has been my biggest teacher, and in a way has catalysed my efforts to resist the grime of patriarchy that entrenches our society. My duty as a daughter is no one’s business to help me understand. I live it every day of my life.

I unlearn, learn and relearn life’s lessons every day, one where guilt has no part to play.

Leave a Reply