Equal hopes and double trouble

"Her relationship to it was that of a beast to a cart. Slopping along beside it, flat heavy feet pounding painfully along under mud-stained skirts, her face and body ugly with lumpy angles of bone, she was like a beast of burden." Women more articulate, demanding better hours and better wages - and the right to vote - in different countries, had brought into being the International Women's Day. But Mrs Thurlow's daily grind and her unarticulated tragedy would be familiar to many women, certainly so in India.

By Bhaswati Chakravorty
  • Published 9.03.18
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Day in and day out, Mrs Thurlow in H.E. Bates's 1939 short story, "The Ox", travels with her great rusty bicycle loaded with various bundles to and from the houses where she cleans floors: "Her relationship to it was that of a beast to a cart. Slopping along beside it, flat heavy feet pounding painfully along under mud-stained skirts, her face and body ugly with lumpy angles of bone, she was like a beast of burden." Women more articulate, demanding better hours and better wages - and the right to vote - in different countries, had brought into being the International Women's Day. But Mrs Thurlow's daily grind and her unarticulated tragedy would be familiar to many women, certainly so in India.

The idea that dull work makes the worker dull - Charlie Chaplin transformed this into sublime comi-tragedy -is used by more than one writer to suggest how mechanical work consumes personality. O-Lan (picture) in Pearl S. Buck's novel, The Good Earth, working without rest in her husband's home, "had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrils... Her eyes were small and of a dull black in colour, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed. It was a face that seemed habitually silent and unspeaking as though it could not speak if it would... there was not beauty of any kind in her face..."

Earlier, however, women struggling to remain respectable but occasionally 'falling', as did Ruth in Mrs Gaskell's eponymous novel, appeared to have more drama in their lives. Mary Barton, another of her working heroines, was pretty as well. Was Jane Eyre pretty? She did have a tough time as governess, which was one of the few 'honourable' jobs for poor, genteel women in England and America at one time, but her story could well provide the deep structure of dark, rich, silent heroes and struggling young heroines of later popular romance.

Although literature has always portrayed women who work, the Industrial Revolution brought the factory and the office decisively into the territory of fiction. In Indian stories, women work in the fields, help their craftsmen or shop-owner husbands, participate in family traditions of fishing, weaving or, say, making molasses, while also looking after the home. Here, the Partition functioned somewhat like the Industrial Revolution did in the West, for displacement and need drove women from lower-income segments among the middle class into offices and factories. Their work multiplied. There were, suddenly, thousands like Neeta, the heroine of Saktipada Rajguru's Meghe Dhaka Tara, wiped out by duties at home and work outside.