The Secret Lives of Marwari Housewives


The Secret Lives of Marwari Housewives

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

As we wait in our car, Parul dutifully bids adieu to her mother-in-law who is standing at the gate. In a gorgeous white, pink, and golden sari, Parul looks as pretty as a flower.

Finally, she enters the car. As we start the engine, she opens the velcro at the pleats of her sari with a flick and divides open the six yards like a magic trick. Inside, a pair of jeans makes its presence known.

My mouth is still open when she takes out a white toga top from her large purse and dons it over her blouse. Soon, the blouse is discarded as efficiently as Joey unhooks women’s bras. She finally manages to see the shock on my face and says, “Karna padta hai, yaar.”

I had just moved to Ahmedabad and it was my first brush with the Marwari women of the city. Of course, I knew some Marwaris in school back in Delhi. They were the ones who refused to share lunch with me the minute they discovered a boiled egg sitting cosily in my tiffin box. They were also the ones whose mothers kept fasts during Navratri. But they were still young girls, not women, and their lives hadn’t split into two roads – the public and the private. At that age, their individuality and their caste sat comfortably together in their young bodies.

And then they grew up.

In Gujarat, where majority of the people either belong to the Gujarati or Marwari community, my encounters with these women increased manifold and their split lives came into sharp focus.

There was Sejal. Every day at 7am, I would hear violent thuds outside my flat. Sejal, who lived in the house opposite ours, had already moved on to dusting the doors after doing the puja and cooking lunch for everybody in the house. She was three chores down by the time I lazily picked up the newspaper lying on the doormat. She gave me an envious smile from the folds of her ghunghat. That smile told me everything I needed to know of the difference between her mornings and mine.

Unlike the Delhiites who fast with fruits and farali chips, Amdavadi women like Parul actually fasted, sans a morsel of food, and still got all the house work done as if on Duracell batteries.

One afternoon, she came to me with a prospectus from a jewellery design course from a nearby institute and sketches of earrings and pendant designs. “I really want to pursue this course, I have an eye for these things,” she said. I gave her a thumbs up. “You have a future in this,” I told her.

She looked shocked at the idea. “Oh no, I don’t. I just sketch when no one’s asking for me in the house,” she said wistfully.

Almost all the Marwari women I met were like Parul and Sejal: They would slog all day in the house, cook food even when they could afford 10 cooks, patiently serve the elders of the house, and not have too much of an opinion on anything, but their split lives came into focus only when they stepped out of the house.

Once on a getaway with husbands, Parul whipped out a hot pink bikini and dived into the pool only to emerge at the other end and grab a mojito. Sipping her drink as it drizzled, the transformed Parul grinned at me and said,  “Life is perfect.”

Once back in the city, this mojito-sipping Parul disappeared, and what emerged in the religious month of August, was a woman who fasted every alternate day along with her mother-in-law. She wouldn’t go out for a movie or shop because dinner had to be cooked by 4pm after which there was a religious discourse to attend. Also, unlike the Delhiites who fast with fruits and farali chips, Amdavadi women like Parul actually fast, sans a morsel of food, and still got all the house work done as if on Duracell batteries.

A week or three later, Parul and her gang were two sizes down. When I met the super-thin Sonam in the bazaar and commented on her frail appearance, she laughed it off. “Wedding season is coming, so it’s good that I have lost weight. Can flaunt my figure na.”

Sonam soon invited us to her house, a few days later, when her saas and sasur were on a pilgrimage. Abstaining from onion and garlic seemed like a thing of the past, as delicious pulao, pakodas, and kadhai paneer were ordered from a local restaurant and orange juice was spiked with that-you-must-not-name. Night-long fun ensued and I learnt about yet another mind-boggling trivia: Most of these women were perennial pill poppers. Their men found the idea of using protection ridiculous as it “takes away from real pleasure”. So they popped pills to prevent pregnancies, popped pills to delay their periods if there was a festival or function coming up, and they also popped pills to be able to do house work if the other bahu happened to be on her period and couldn’t enter the kitchen. No amount of argument about the danger of this habit got to them. It was simply the way it was to be.

As an outcast in this patriarchy carnival, I often wondered if the secret lives of these Marwari women would ever go mainstream. I wondered if any of them had even entertained the thought that life could be any different. If they could even imagine a future where they didn’t have to live in hiding? I wondered if their daughters would also grow up to live this split life and one day sip on a mojito in a bikini and say, “Life is perfect.”

Recently, Parul invited me to the opening of a big temple that her family has partly sponsored. “Wow, you guys sponsor temples,” I asked.

“Most of the families do. No biggie, really. But hey, I am more excited about my daughter getting through this amazing school. If she is any good, she will go places and I will let her,” she said.

It was a subliminal message to me. Parul was letting me know that she did dream of a different life, one which was not spent secretly putting lipstick under her metaphorical burkha, and that that life was not to be hers, but one day, it would be her daughter’s.