“Saheb Kahaan Hai?”: The One Question that Makes Every Married Woman Instantly Invisible


“Saheb Kahaan Hai?”: The One Question that Makes Every Married Woman Instantly Invisible

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

One fine day, I was interviewing tutors for my daughter when I heard that familiar question that instantly makes my stomach burn: “When will sir be here?” It’s as if my presence didn’t matter at all. I almost wanted to spread my arms like Shah Rukh Khan and yell, “Main hoon na.” But then again, I should have expected it. After all, the tagline for this online tutoring app was, “Trusted by every Indian father” because, of course, who would want to make the laborious journey to the kitchen to earn the trust of mothers?

Ask any married Indian woman, and they’ll tell you about this involuntary invisibility. It’s as if the minute you take your husband’s surname, you cease to exist. From then on, you’re just a floating genie, who has only one master: “Saheb”.  In my case, saheb refers to my husband, the alpha male of my house. He has been bestowed with abundant respect by the world even though the sight of a caterpillar scares him off. Yet the nation still wants the saheb.

It’s probably why my eyes invariably moistened with recognition when I watched Gully Boy. Look, I know it seems strange that an upper-middle-class homemaker would identify with an impoverished slum-dweller trying to break into the Indian rap scene, but Gully Boy and I had a lot in common: Murad Ahmed was seething from the inside because he felt perennially invisible. So have I.

There was that time when the carpenter I was giving instructions to refused to look at me. Instead, he uneasily stared at the window as if he had decided to choose that very moment to search for the meaning of life. A few moments of silence ensued until he nobly decided to clear the confusion in the air with that dreaded S-word, “Saheb nahin hai kya? Saheb ko sab pata hota.” Hearing it should have made me angry but all I felt was a sense of freedom. It’s then that it dawned on me that I wasn’t responsible if the carpenter did a bad job because for him I was irreversibly invisible.

The funny thing is, the world will keep hyping this “saheb’s” extraordinary decision-making capacity in all matters even though the alpha male wants just one thing: to be left alone with his chai and cricket. The woman of the house, on the other hand, is like Antman, only smaller: She provides comic relief and her work is conducted invisibly. And even though, no one asks for her opinion, she is still mandated to be around to guarantee that every mission in the house is carried out successfully.

Experience has taught me that there is nothing as useless as trying to convince the world that I am intelligent, independent, and as good as the saheb.

In case I sound bitter, let me assure you I am not. Popular wisdom urges me to fight against this misogynistic invisibility and prove to the world that my opinion matters as much as that of the saheb of the house. It’s what women, rendered invisible by the male eye, have tried doing, for years. But maybe we’ve been looking at it the wrong way all along. Here’s what I have discovered: I can even turn this assumed invisibility into my secret superpower.

This endless line of people eager to speak to saheb has freed me from a mountain of uninteresting jobs. If the carpenter wants to get all hot and bothered talking about hinges and clamps with saheb, who am I to interfere in their manly bonding? Experience has taught me that there is nothing as useless as trying to convince the world that I am intelligent, independent, and as good as the saheb. Instead, I’ll use my invisibility as my get-out-of-chores card. The saheb can stay at home and fix the microwave for the umpteenth time while I lunch with my girls.

This get-out-of-chores card is different from the be-lazy card. Invisibility does not mean ignorance. It only allows you to step back on some occasions when the whole world is intent on making you feel not needed. Every woman should have this wild card, for it stops you from being happy with just having a cameo appearance in your own show.

My superpower of invisibility has come quite handy for me. It has transformed me just like Pym Particles transformed Scott Lang in Antman. Since the spotlight is off me, I am free to discover what my real passions are without being bogged down by any pressure: I can think out-of-the-box and nobody would judge me as foolish simply because nobody really sees me. I can take risks and fail spectacularly. I can voice my opinion, no matter how outrageous, because not many people are paying attention. I can reach out to people for their advice and never be bothered by their rejection because I can disappear from their thoughts even quicker than Antman can mutter, “Quantum realm.”

I’m reminded of the recent X-Men movie where Raven asks why it was the women who were always saving the men. Why exactly do we keep playing supporting roles in our lives and still keep trying to assert our indispensability? Maybe, it’s time to let the saheb star in his own movie and be the star in ours. We need to let men handle their own worlds, not by nagging or arguing but by simply being invisible when something uninteresting pops up. You see, by saving ourselves, we are saving the world.