A recent banner headline in one of Bangalore’s leading dailies made me sit up with a start and spill my morning cuppa all over my shirt front. The headline boldly announced, ‘Majority in Karnataka believe it’s OK to beat wives.’ They have it on good authority, as the bizarre conclusion is based on the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) conducted under the auspices of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. As I am a long-time resident of the fictional Garden City (now an entirely inappropriate nomenclature), the findings did not fill me with pride. If my chest swelled at all, it would have been with shame. I hasten to add that this was an all-India survey but the findings in Karnataka were understandably given due prominence by a newspaper catering to the state. The study further reveals that a very large percentage of Indians, particularly in south India, opt for the convenience of consanguineous marriages, i.e., marrying into blood relations. Whether the resultant familiarity breeds contempt or not is open to question.
At this juncture, I would like to make it plain that I have no wish to bore you, dear reader, with numbing statistics on a variety of different issues pertaining to the justification of domestic abuse, as they are in the public domain. Speaking hypothetically, would it make a blind bit of difference to you if you knew that 72.5% of the men probed were wholly in favour of administering an upper cut followed by the knock-out punch to their wives for adding too much salt in the sambar, while 63.6% of the wives actually welcomed said punishment as an atonement for their misdemeanours? I thought not. Suffice it to say that the results of the study were shocking, not least because the sentiments in favour of clubbing the wives for all manner of specious reasons found favour, hold your breath, with men and women. I ask you! The victims, the female of the species, of this heinous practice appear to be willing sympathisers of and hark back to, the stone-age caveman syndrome.
That said, let us take a closer look at the various circumstances being listed by the NFHS-5 under which their respondents felt it was perfectly kosher for the husband to haul off and let his wife feel the benefit of an open palm while administering a tight slap, among other acts of pugilism. No mention is made, alas, of the wife returning the compliment in like measure.
For starters, let us dwell on the subject of cooking, which features right at the top of the priorities to ensure household bliss. As suggested earlier, the survey indicates, by some distance, that if the lady of the house failed to satisfy her lord and master’s gastronomic needs in some shape or form, he would be perfectly within his rights to let fly, all guns blazing. WHACK! Why is the rice undercooked? THUMP! You call this oily, dripping thing fried chicken? BIFF! Too little sugar in the pudding. CLANG! SPLAT! The last two are sounds emanating from the plate flung at the nearest wall, and the remains of the pudding splayed out against another wall. In short, the wife’s goose is cooked. But no harm done. We are assured by NFHS-5 that most of the husbands and wives of our country are entirely fine with this state of affairs. What is life without a spot of frenetic action at home, eh? Maybe they even get off on it.
We then move to that hoary, old chestnut – the in-laws. We can infer from this that if the wife should exhibit the slightest disrespect to her husband’s parents, there will be hell to pay. Popular Indian films over the years have, for the most part, portrayed the mother-in-law as a cruel harridan, ready to run to her darling son to complain about some misdeed or the other, real or imagined, mostly the latter. The son, who suffers from an Oedipus complex, then proceeds to remove his belt from his spreading waist and give his wife the lashing of her life, while Cruella watches with undisguised glee, and provides a spot of her own tongue-lashing from the sidelines. A mournful, tearful song by the stricken wife then follows. The father-in-law is usually a timid, shadowy figure cowering in the background. That is the celluloid template. Clearly, life imitates art. Our real-life husband will brook no insult to his mummy and daddy (particularly mummy), and he heartily approves of such retributive action as he deems fit, against his wife. And, as the all-knowing NFHS-5 informs us, so do most wives! So, what are we all beefing about? Our courts have also been yammering on endlessly about marital rape and the judges themselves are split, ergo confused, on how to deal with matters that take place ‘behind closed doors.’
To top it all, an elderly couple in Dehradun sued their son and daughter-in-law for not providing them with a grandchild after six years of wedded life. All they wanted, the poor grandpa and grandma, was a little toddler to play pin the tail on the donkey or hide-and-seek with in their dotage. Is that too much to ask? Instead, they were willing to settle with their beta and bahu for a piffling Rs.5 crores for ‘mental harassment.’ Conjugal bliss can go hang, as far as they were concerned. ‘Show me the money,’ as Cuba Gooding Jr. memorably urges Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. Now there’s a smashing script for a Bollywood potboiler!
Apart from the reasons stated above in the survey, a wife can also be subjected to merciless beatings if she ‘refuses sex,’ ‘argues with husband,’ ‘goes out without telling husband’ and ‘neglects house and children.’ The majority of the husbands and wives questioned by the NFHS-5 were quite happy with such punishment being meted out to the long-suffering wife if she is found to transgress any of the above commandments. The line has to be drawn somewhere. I cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that most of the wives questioned get some sort of perverted kick being beaten up by the worse half, kick being the operative word. I do not wish to go into the gory details of reasons for sex refusal, but evidently, the old ‘headache’ excuse as apocryphally trotted out by Eve to Adam is no longer applicable. As for arguing with the hubby, it would be interesting to know what precisely constitutes an argument. ‘How dare you say Kejriwal looks like a third division clerk, you stupid woman! Take that. And that.’ More onomatopoeic BIFFS and POWS.
The harassed wife remonstrates. ‘Yesterday you threw the cactus potted plant at me for going out without telling you.’ Retaliates the husband, ‘That was only because I could not find the steaming hot iron at that precise moment. Thank your lucky stars. And by the way, you have been neglecting the house and the children. I still owe you a few juicy ones with the broomstick for that.’ The nulliparous wife is now beside herself with rage. ‘What children, you idiot! Are you non-compos mentis? We don’t have any children or haven’t you noticed? That’s why your parents are suing us for Rs.5 crores.’ Checkmate! And the argy-bargy raves on.
From what one can observe, it would be logical to conclude that the average housewife who is at the receiving end of all manner of domestic abuse, should be slamming the door on her husband and leaving in a huge huff to go live with her parents (if they are not suing her). Instead, the redoubtable NFHS-5 would have us believe that the wife is very much in consonance with the idea that she was born to be the burning martyr – again, the filmy cliché. I find that hard to believe and would be immensely interested in meeting some of them.
‘Hi there, Madam. I understand your husband slaps you around daily if the cup of tea is not quite heated to the exact temperature he demands. Surely, that can’t be true?’
‘Oh, that is perfectly true. He demands absolute perfection in everything I do, and the slaps are his way of ensuring I get it spot on. A saucy variant of the love bite.’
No, no NFHS-5, I think you’ve got it all wrong. I am sure you interviewed the couple together and the husband would have hit the roof if the wife expressed anything other than total approval of his tantrums. Grill the wife separately and see what happens. Wouldn’t she just love to take a roundhouse swing at her husband with the hairbrush? You betcha.
Surveys! They never get it right.