Higher Than the Four Walls: Domestic Space and Women’s Struggle in Oriya Folksongs

Shailen Mishra, SRPR Blog Editor & Sr. Editorial Assistant

Shailen’s series “Space in Culture” explores the motif of space in the works of Indian poets and poetry.

The modern and urban habitation treats the domestic space like a flatland. There is no strict code of where what should be done. If at all there was such a code at one point, those boundaries are increasingly getting blurred. We eat on our bed. We sleep on the couch in the living room. We take our reading to the toilet. Homework gets done upon the dining table. It looks like we’re enjoying bleeding the utility of one room to another. But the compartmentalization of the domestic space can be highly restrictive and codified. Where and how such restrictions exist are pointed questions, because these restrictions often have an inherent component of circumscribing women’s freedom and movements.

My maternal grandmother, Chandramani Devi, was not allowed to step to the front porch of her own house in the daylight. That’s the social code she had to follow as a married woman who belonged to a respectable household. She was allowed to venture out only on the day of festivities. But even then her errand would be limited to a temple, her face would have to be covered, and she would have to be accompanied by other neighborhood women or her children. When her husband was not in the house, the front door remained locked or uninvitingly ajar. If anyone knocked on the door, then one of her six children would answer the call and act as emissaries, carrying messages back and forth. Under no circumstance, the visitor is allowed to catch a glimpse of Chandramani. That would be scandalous of such proportions that the entire neighborhood would be rocked and gossipy mouths won’t stop chattering. The only way my grandmother circumvented these restrictions and communed with the outside world is through a chink in the doorway. When a marriage procession, political rally, or funeral would pass by, she satiated her curiosity like a spy eavesdropping through a keyhole.

We’re talking of 1950s here and of a pilgrim city called Puri in eastern India. My grandmother’s situation was not an exception. Rather, it was the norm for married women of that time. My grandfather was not abusive or harsh; he was a gentle character instead. He just preferred to follow the society’s code faithfully. Moreover, I am not sure how much my grandmother would have approved of my grandfather’s progressiveness had he decided to lift the spatial restriction upon her.

Another level of arduousness to this whole regressive system came from where and with whom you lived. Chandramani was living in a city at that time and all by herself with her husband and children. Having in-laws in the house, which was highly common back then, would have exacerbated the matter with constant nagging and criticism and even more stringent restrictions of where and how she could move in the house. Secondly, change the urban setting to a rural one, a stricter regimen of mores and propriety would besiege you. Chandramani passed through such a phase earlier in her marital life. Between the age of fifteen (the age she got married) and thirty, she lived with her mother-in-law in a village. During that period my grandfather lived in the city and visited her once a week. Without her husband around, most of young Chandramani’s time was spent raising her children, cohabiting with her brother/sister-in-laws, and most importantly, managing her mother-in-law. From her standpoint, the word “mother-in-law” must have seemed bitterly ironic: less a “mother,” more a “law.” The relationship that my grandmother had with her in-law was not a horror story, which was not so uncommon in those days with young brides getting abused, harassed, neglected, and even killed at the hands of their husband’s family. Chandramani got away with occasional wrapping on the knuckles or wringing of her cheeks. But the fear of upsetting or offending her in-law was constant.

There was one particular ordeal that traumatized my grandmother more than anything else. There was no indoor toilet system at her in-law’s house. Not even a pit latrine. All the excretion business had to be done in open air, either in the field or behind the bush. Chandramani was a city girl. She had the luxury of growing up in a house with a toilet in it. But the rural lifestyle denied her any such convenience or privacy. And even worse was the fact that she had to conclude her sanitational routine before the daybreak so that no villager or neighbor would see her. Under such circumstance, any bowel movement in the daytime must have felt like a witch’s curse. I have heard tales, embarrassing tales, mind you, of how women relieved themselves of nature’s call at the “curfew” hour. Heaven forbid if you’re hit by a bout of diarrhea. I am not going to get into details here. But it suffices to say that hearing stories of women managing toilet emergencies made me realize why sanitation standard was so unfairly stacked against women at that time. It’s not like India has fully ridden itself of the open-air toilet practice for large section of its population. In many cases, people don’t build and use toilets out of cost-saving mindset, obstinate habits, and/or outright insensibility. Women suffer the most in this outdoorsy practice at the expense to their safety and dignity. Men, on the other hand, who have the decision-making power and who find it convenient to relieve themselves in open, would rather build a fortress of restrictions around women to “protect” them than the four walls of a latrine.

What we have here is patriarchy hacking an easy way out of its self-devised conundrum: women cannot be exposed to the outside world; if they must then let it be in the veil of darkness. The above restrictions surrounding the toilet practice and living room usage are examples of how a patriarchal society circumscribes women’s spatial freedom, and designates the conditions for moving within that restricted space. My grandmother’s personal accounts are a window to the experiences of brides and wives of her generation. Imagine being barely fifteen or less and being shipped off to a strange land to be a wife, to be a suitable daughter-in-law, and soon to be a mother. Movement to the outside world forever restricted, forever monitored. Only times you’re allowed to experience the outdoor was through bits and pieces, through the depth of night, through the door crack, or through the second-hand accounts. Indeed, a patriarchy of its own kind, of its own times, and with its own set of peculiarities, trauma, and violence.

There’s a folksong titled “When Will I, Mother, Visit Home” that comes from my grandmother’s hometown, which recounts the sad tale of a new bride, struggling to find her place at her husband’s home. I don’t know if my grandmother knew this song. But this folksong captures the anxiety and homesickness of a young bride, who faces hostility and harassment at the hands of her husband’s family. I first encountered this song in the Oriya (or Odia in contemporary parlance) folksong collection compiled by the prolific Oriya writer and poet Kunjabihari Das. In the preface to the collection, Das mentions this particular song movingly, while pointing out that this song’s theme is part of a broader trend in Oriya folksongs. He writes: “The sad tales of in-law’s house are the lifeblood of most Oriya folksongs. They overflow with the pitiful tears of the bride. Is there a reader whose eyes are not moistened by that torrent?” Indeed, the collection has several songs that speak of young bride’s struggle. There’s no personal testimony here; no written account; no individual stories that bear the name of the sufferer. All we have is these folksongs that have outlived the victims and that bear the imprint of a common struggle, a shared reality, and a fused history.

The folksong “When Will I, Mother, Visit Home” in its original Oriya script is shared below (if the script is not displayed by your browser then click here for the pdf file):

କେଉଁଦିନ ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଘରକୁ ଯିବି

ପହିଲି ପାଳି ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଦେଲୁ ପଠେଇ
ସାଂଗରେ ଯାଇଥିଲେ ସାନ କକେଇ ।
ଅଧ ଲୋ ବାଟଯାଏ ମୋ ପିତା ଗଲେ
ବିଦାୟ ହୁଅ ବୋଲି ମୋତେ କହିଲେ ।
ଧୈର୍ଯ୍ଯ ଲୋ ଫେଡି ତାଂକୁ କହିଲି ମୁହିଁ
ସୁଆରି ଆଗେ ଦେବ ଦୁହାଳ ଗାଈ ।
ଝିଣ୍ଟି ଲୋ କିଣ୍ଟି ମୋ ନଣନ୍ଦ ଥିଲେ
ହାଣ୍ଡି ଲୋ ଶାଳ କଣେ ବସାଇ ଦେଲେ ।
ଯେଦିନୁ ହାଣ୍ଡି ଗୋଟା ଦେଲି ଫୁଟାଇ
ସେଦିନୁ ହାଣ୍ଡିଶାଳୁ ଦେଲେ ଉଠାଇ ।
ଧାନ କୁଟଇ ବୋଉ ପାଣି ଆଣଇ
ଗୁହାଳ ଗୋବର ବୋଉ ମୁହିଁ ପୋଛଇ ।
ଗୁହାଳ କଣେ ବୋଉ ପତ୍ର ପକାନ୍ତି
ଭାତ କଂସିଏ ବୋଉ ବାଢି ଦିଅନ୍ତି ।
ଲୁଣ ନ ଥାଇ ବୋଉ ତୁଣ ନ ଥାଇ
ଗୋବର ଗନ୍ଧରେ ବୋଉ ଖାଇ ନ ପାରଇ ।
ଶୋଇଲା ବେଳକୁ ବୋଉ ଯୋଉଁ ହଟହଟା
ଦୁଆର କିଳିଣ ବୋଉ ମାରନ୍ତି ଗୋଇଠା ।
ଯେଉଁ ହଟହଟା ବୋଉ ମୋଡିଲା ବେଳେ
ପେଲି ଦେଲେ ପଡିଯାଏ ପହଣ୍ଡ ତଳେ ।
ପହଣ୍ଡକ ତଳେ ବସି କାନ୍ଦୁ ଥାଏଁ ମୁହିଁ
ଦାଣ୍ଡବାଡିକି ଚାହିଁଲେ ବୋଉ ମୋର କେହି ନାହିଁ ।
କେଉଁଦିନ ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଘରକୁ ଯିବି?
ହାଣ୍ଡିଶାଳ କଣେ ବସି ସବୁ କହିବି ।

My translation:

When Will I, Mother, Visit Home

You sent me off in the small hours, Mother
Accompanying me was the uncle junior.
My father went till half the way
Farewell to you, he said.
Shedding my patience I voiced this plea
The cow haling the carriage to be milky.
Sharp as bramble was my sister-in-law
She sat me by the kitchen stove.
The day that I broke the pot
From the kitchen was I shoved off.
I pound the grain, Mother, and haul the water
I too clear the cattle manure.
By the cowshed corner, Mother, is my dinner seat
A bowl of rice they serve me for meal.
No salt or dish to go with it
In the stench of dung I can’t eat.
At the bedtime, Mother, so much uproar
I get kicking behind shut door.
During the rubdown they give me hell
I fall down when shoved off the bed.
Sitting on the floor I moan
In the whole house none to call my own.
When will I, Mother, visit home?
Will tell you all by the kitchen stove.

The song begins with the image of the bridal send off. Considering the era, the narrator has most likely not seen her husband yet or the house and the village that she is about to call “home” for the rest of her life. In such a context, no wonder the bridal send off, the parting scene between the mother and daughter, becomes an emotionally eviscerating affair. The young bride is reminded over and over by her mother, aunts, older sisters, and girlfriends that a girl’s fate is to bid farewell to her family. She has to embrace her new home. She has to make the most of it. After all, (so the saying goes) the girl child is always another one’s daughter.

The narrator is not naive. In a subtle way, she registers protest against her father, his lukewarm response, as he accompanies her in the farewell ride only halfway as if trying to fulfill a mere formality. As she gets to her husband’s house, the narrator’s ordeal begins right away. Her skills as a cook are put to test. There is no room for mistake here. So breaking of the clay pot becomes a grave offense, an excuse to cast her off as inept and demean her status in the house. As the song progresses, the space within the house becomes a dominant dimension through which the intensity of the narrator’s agony is registered. Space and emotion inflect one another, and in this reciprocity what illuminates is that the domestic space is not just a designated limit to the women’s autonomy but within it lies a spatial hierarchy, echoing the gradation of marginality.

If we take our narrator to be a typical case of her generation, then she’s most likely not educated. Psychologically conditioned to be a wife and a mother, her sense of self-worth comes from these two identities. In her twin role as a caretaker, to be able to cook is of elevated importance and an intimate way to win approval. So within the domestic space, the kitchen (the ability to manage it) becomes the epicenter of a woman’s agency. The mother-in-law exercises her dominance by granting and limiting access to the kitchen. After all, she was a young and novice daughter-in-law once. When the narrator is barred from the kitchen, her hardship manifolds. She’s relegated to do menial work like pounding grain, fetching water, and cleaning manure, which are reserved for servants. Further, to stigmatize her and underscore her diminished status in the house, she’s assigned a spot by the “cowshed corner” to eat. The punishment thus delivered through the spatial dimension conveys the hierarchical division of space within the household and how it can be instrumental toward spelling marginality and exercising power. For the narrator, her psychological isolation is most pointedly conveyed when she observes: “In the whole house none to call my own.” Her new “home” becomes a nominal entity, bereft of familial empathy and consideration. Not even her husband is a source of comfort here, a character conspicuously missing from the song. The distinction between the narrator’s parental house and her husband’s house is steadfastly upheld in the song. The designation of “home” always applies to the former. So the narrator’s homesickness, her desire to be relieved of her struggle is registered in the final two lines of the song: “When will I, Mother, visit home? / Will tell you all by the kitchen stove.”

The repetition of the title of the song in the penultimate line is a touching plea because of the uncertainty that looms over the question. The narrator’s chance to visit her parental house will be determined by her in-laws and husband, a possibility that may or may not come to fruition any time soon. The last line, though, connotes an intimate space at the narrator’s parent’s house, where she and her mother would have chatted, laughed, quarreled, and shed tears. This memoried corner in the kitchen is now an abode of refuge. There the narrator looks forward to unburdening her sorrow and she’s assured of finding an empathizing ear.

The kitchen’s multiple symbolic import is noteworthy here. On one hand, kitchen is a site of contestation: power is exercised by granting or denying access to it, and moreover, a woman’s self-worth is determined in relation to the kitchen. On the other hand, kitchen can also be a site of learning, bonding, commiseration, and solace. This dichotomous contrast is actually two sides of the same coin, since the mother who bonds with her daughter at the kitchen is capable  of being a different person in her role as a mother-in-law. Nevertheless, the song underscores that the kitchen, a space synonymous with feminity, is simultaneously a symbol of patriarchal restriction and a site of woman’s agency. Further, the domestic space surrounding the kitchen is laden with hierarchical status. This is definitely true even today in the rural Indian culture. And we see this sentiment echoed through the humiliations that the narrator suffers when she is made to eat by the cowshed.

Brutality against brides, confinement of women to the domestic space, restriction of their movements, and curtailing of women’s agency are not archaic norms that belonged to Chandramani’s era. Rather, they are still active and ruthlessly enforced in many parts of India today. If at all women’s marginal conditions become news then it is often under tragic circumstances; otherwise, their stories will remain unknown and unvoiced. In lieu of their silence, what we have is these folksongs, an extant example of their struggle, a cadence of resilience.

Shailen Mishra

Shailen Mishra is a book hopper, story whore, poetry pariah, novelist, three times failed guitar learner, and an aspiring didgeridoo player. He holds a Ph.D. from Illinois State University and an MFA from North Carolina State University. In his spare time, he edits SRPR’s blog and manages its website.