In the waiting room of the Mrs India contest, progressive men embrace their wives' dreams as their own
Wider Angle | S.Mitra Kalita
The woman who would never be Mrs India woke at 5am to a jet-lagged child demanding cereal. She turned to her husband a few hours later and said, “What does the perfect wife and mother in India wear?”
Through his sleep, he groggily grumbled, “An Assamese outfit.”
She gave him a look. “It’s sponsored by Gladrags.”
Eyes closed, he mustered a joke: “Isn’t that soft porn? Skip the blouse.”
By now, regular readers, you surely realize the woman was me. But finding nothing in my cabinet ironed or quite glamorous enough, I grabbed jeans, a kurta and a notebook and decided to simply do what I do best—talk to those who have it more together than I.
So many reasons, I listed in the car while applying my make-up, that others should represent married womanhood in India. Besides, I left my easy-wash liquid sindoor stick at home.
Finally, I arrived to auditions in New Delhi for Mrs India, a national search staged by Gladrags magazine and under way until 20 October. Just a handful of people were there. Nobody was in Indian garb, and my choice of jeans was actually dead-on. But deferring my dream to the discovery of something or someone interesting, the reward came right away.
The waiting room of Mrs India auditions was filled with progressive men.
This week also happened to celebrate the girl child. In Chennai, street theatre, a film and a photo contest with the theme “We also can do” marked the day. Among New Delhi’s middle class, never keen to miss a holiday, some mothers took their daughters shopping in appreciation.
But there’s another person deserving advocacy and marketing campaigns extolling her worth: bearer of the girl child. She already knows what she can do—and usually she does too much. Somehow, her plight gets lost between the rush to save unborn female foetuses and break glass ceilings.
Modern Indian women’s role thankfully featured at this week’s India@60 meet in New York City, organized by the tourism ministry and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Co-sponsored by Yale University, a panel of female leaders cited studies showing men actually prefer their spouse to work outside the home.
Of course, they often want her to be everywhere else, too: the kitchen, the nursery admissions office, the grocery store and produce stalls, the in-laws on the weekends, playing and cheering the golf game, and on and on. If there was ever a critical mass of superwomen, they exist in India. And like this economy, our expectations are ever-growing. Meanwhile, society, which includes us women, gives men a pass from being all things to everybody.
Every now and then, though, you happen upon the exceptions. Like would-be Mrs India’s husband.
Amit Kumar, a software engineer, took the day off to show his support. And Mukesh Singh travelled by train from Jammu for the same reason.
Stereotype them as stage husbands, but it was a Monday morning at a Chinese restaurant—no one was there to appreciate the food, let alone the trophy wives filling out forms downstairs. So, why did they show up?
“Before marriage, you think about beauty, family background, education,” said Kumar, a spectacled, smitten man. “But after marriage, if she really cares about her husband, she should have some activity for herself. She has her dreams.”
Implicit in his presence, and offer of moral support, is that her dream is his. This “activity”, Kumar said, gesturing around, wasn’t a bad choice. He added that he had been feeling guilty since their wedding last year. Her company asked her to move to Bangalore—a post she declined because of his higher earning job in New Delhi (Oh, the predictable post-wedding “transfer”. Don’t you just wish employers would get a spine and spell out their preference for unattached women?) Still tired after a journey from Jammu, Singh told me he lives to make his wife’s life easier, and vice versa. He works in pharmaceutical sales, she in automotive sales.
“And we are equals at home, too, so I am always supporting her by cleaning the house, cooking the food,” he said. (In case you’re as sceptical as I was, here’s the official word from his wife, Sarika: “He makes kheer, sabzi and can roll chapattis. He says he wants to see me in a high post, so he can take care of the house.”)
To be sure, the entry form for Mrs India asks about cooking, kids and in-laws. Before all that, though, comes the career question. If she has one, great, the organizer said. If she doesn’t, that’s okay too.
Perhaps there’s a lesson to draw from stage husbands and apply to other sectors, for these men in waiting seemed to share and appreciate the burden and beauty, pain and possibility of a wife’s work. As the CII summary of the global women’s panel concluded: “The agenda should now be to work on the Indian man.”
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