Jonathon Parry’s Ankalu’s Errant Wife; How Arrival of Modern Industry altered Conjugal Relations in Bhilai.
Jonathon Parry’s take in “Ankalu’s Errant Wife” is a rather empirical perspective, which detaches itself from the typical top down, structuralist perspectives in works like that of Ambedkar with regards to caste. Parry applies a very deliberate grass roots approach which instead of idealizing quantitative outcomes at a macro level, digs deeper into the layers that cut under the quantitative research and unveil the peculiarities of the patterns existing on a very micro level in certain niche areas existing within India. In this particular piece, he has picked up Bhilai, which is a rural area that is a part of Chhattisgarh. Parry specifically unravels Bhilai at the conflux of three particular themes of; moderniazation theory, intimacy/sex, and marriage. But in order to understand the true nature and context of these, Parry first provides an overview of the existing structures of Bhilai.
It becomes apparent that the workers of Bhilai are the labor aristocracy as opposed to the informal sector workers. And these workers reported to the Bhilai Steel plant, which was known to have a paternalistic hold of sorts on the employees, to the point that moral policing of workers was considered norm. Contractors would not hire couples in hopes of avoiding the chance of jealousy which may be evoked due to extra marital affairs on the plant. Often previous wives would come in to reap benefits and compensation from the employee through the BSP.
Nevertheless, Bhilai became a source of secure employment that offered benefits and security, unlike the informal sector. It was this employment also that opened doors as a means of upwards social mobility, generating the dream that caste or class may actually be escalated upwards. This dichotomy between levels of caste and class opens up the argument regarding the Satnamies or the untouchables. Bhilai was a melting pot where people of Chattisgarh, Haryana, and Bihar coexisted and though a composite culture developed, the direction of the different currents it was to be dispersed into could not be predicted or imagined. In addition the coexistence of different castes also mean that the culture of higher castes would also serve as a model for lower castes, however the lower you’d travel down the hierarchy, marriage as an institution would seem to become more negotiable.
So it was under these pre-existing peculiarities and complications that ideas regarding to the three major themes were manifesting and then being given meaning to keeping in mind the existing contexts.
Parry picks up the idea of modernization theory within the article and reflects on its assumption that assumes that as societies “modernize” or “globalize” as BBC would call it, marriage becomes more intimate and the greater ideological stress of this union starts to lie in the fact that the relationship is built around equality and sharing of intimate feelings and not just a contractual or religious document or merely just a patriarchal bargain. So as these intimacies would grow, the modernization theory believes the people will be able to enter and leave these unions on their own terms and so divorce rates would be likely to increase. This concept is largely in line with the western lived experiences, but can the same be applied to India too?
Broadly speaking, there are elements which may have internalized theories of modernization in some misguided attempt to appear progressive, however it is always important to highlight that the lived experiences of the west would play out very differently as compared to the lived experiences within India. This is something Parry’s research proves as through Ankalu’s and other individuals stories within the article, we find out that if the micro perspective is analyzed and a particular town is examined keeping in light all its several peculiarities like that of Bhilai, the patterns that will be discovered will be very different from that of the very generalizations present in the modernization theory. Still a national level, quantitative analysis may still affirm the theory, but micro perspectives which render to qualitative discourse might beg to differ.
This rejection of the modernization theory in this particular town then bleeds into the concept of marriage and relationships that are then explained by Parry as primary and secondary, and conjugal and jural respectively. The conjugal relations are rather negotiable and belong to the actual, everyday experience, whereas the jural relations fall under the legal framework for relationships. As Parry states in the article, a couple could be married on paper but could have spent absolutely no time together. Similarly, people may not always legalize their divorce proceedings and so the legal number for the divorce rate may fall lower than the actual number.
Differences between the legal and actual aren’t the only differences present. The concept of primary and secondary marriage was also prevalent in the region of Bhilai. A woman could only enter a primary marriage in the proper legal and ritual manner. Exit from that marriage would also be legal possibly.
However with the secondary marriage where she would “make” another husband, the ritual and communal sanctity would be decreased. Even the status provided to the woman may not be of legal “wife” but of “stepney.” Parry points out other differences which are more region related, for example in Chattisgarh the women were posed as slaves of men, whereas in Bihar the men were the supposed slaves and women the masters. In Haryaana for example, marriage of choice could lead to honor killing, whereas people of Chattisgarh would be “shunned but remain unmolested” as Parry comically acknowledges.
In line with the theme of marriage, our avenue into the complex world of caste and kinship one step further is the story of Ankalu. Parry reveals how Ankalu is a much older man and is currently married to his much more beautiful third wife. The incident between Ankalu’s wife and Kedarnath is narrated and we find out that this infidelity is something which is looked at with a more conservative perspective by the younger generation, in this case Ankalu’s three sons, who are adamant that his wife is of loose character and must be shunned as their future marriages could possibly be affected because of her story. Ankalu on the other hand isn’t of such violent demeanor and sends her off to live somewhere else for the time being while searching for another possible wife, but with little to no avail.
These complex stories help give a sense of fluidity to Parry’s arguments and help open up debates through personal trajectories as opposed to a top down manner. Like Ankalu, most elderly people were involved in secondary marriages. Though Anklau was man of property and was sustaining his multiple children and wives, the children on the other hand took the moral high ground, so where on the one side Ankalu sons were completely dependent on them, on the other side they looked down upon him.
It is through the practice of marriage that sexual relations and intimacy is also defined among the two genders. But the scale is heavier on the women’s side in either of the cases as they are made to suffer more because of their virginity being portrayed as a burden for the parents. The girls are married off young, the shadi takes place, and the girl continues to live in her parents’ house until the time of “gauna” arrives. As soon as “gauna” is practiced, the burden of virginity is lifted from the parents’ shoulders. Even over here the treatment of the son and daughter is different as the daughter is referred to as “parrai” whereas as the son is referred to as a piece of the liver, and hence someone that has to be forgiven even in the face of adversity, such as marrying outside of caste.
An interesting example that Parry quotes is that of Somvaru and his family and it is through this example of his Janaki’s marriage and the court proceedings involving her father in law and the marriage of Pramod and the legal proceedings associated to that. This example helps provide evidence to Parry’s statement which notes that the state and law have come to dominate the politics of marriage, and marriage has morphed into a platform meant for competing in terms of status and caste. According to Parry there has also been a shift in the meaning given to marriage. So, where Somvaru would relate to marriage as less of a bond of intimacy and more of a transactional relationship where the wife is required to fulfill specific duties of his household, for Janaki, marriage meant intimacy and nothing but.
Through all of these arguments Parry tries to read against the grain of the modernization theory, through which we may interpret the idea, that as people get more comfortable in an intimate relationship and as they become more equal, they may find it easier to get out of a relationship. However this also may not always stand true for the woman, because of larger interconnected structures of patriarchal control and oppression which still may stop her from doing so.
Such an idea may still not translate to greater autonomy of the woman as it remains an institution with a lot of attached ethos. And the Bourgeois may be creating a bubble of marriage and intimacy taking a more secure and serious route but in that shared intimacy existing within the marriage a lot of the times the concept of equal value is not present and the woman repeats learnt patterns of submission or depending upon her male spouse. Even in modern day marriages, autonomy and sexual license of women are narrowed down, and most of the times marriage is patriarchal bargain that stems of lack of privilege to abstain or opt from saying yes.
The fact of the matter remains that the patriarchal thrust pushing all such conventions is still strong and the rigid gender roles and structures of institutionalized oppression which work against women are still present today. Here is also where I disagree with Parry, keeping in like with Rukmani Barua’s article: “Matters of the Heart: Romance, Courtship, and Conjugality in Contemporary Delhi”. Parry has provided a male voice to lived experiences of the women present within the story and it seems as though the concept of mobility in and out of a marriage is generally an easy task for women, especially those belonging to the Satnami class also.
However through Barua’s article we find out how patriarchal forces command and guard every aspect of a woman’s life, from her bodily autonomy to her mobility, and stepping in and out of a marriage isn’t as easy as Parry works it out to be. Yes Parry does give a voice to these women, but the narrations are of men’s stories mostly with women who are figuring as secondary characters, it is after all Ankalu’s, nameless errant third wife. The wife’s perspective or the hardships she had to face in the face of her actions are barely highlighted. In fact it seems as though she started living in another area and that was that. It feels like an over simplification of an otherwise very complex dynamic and social experiences which we understand better through Fariha and her sister and mother’s story in Rukmani Barua’s article.
So though I agree with Parry’s take on the modernization theory and how its ideologies cannot be copy pasted as they are onto contexts pertaining to specific towns and their peculiarities, I also think he misses out on the crucial female lived experience and perspective which I believe figures as a glaring peculiarity in the three themes of modernization theory, marriage, and intimacy and sex.