Gharwali baharwali

Updated: 30 August, 2020 12:24 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

This fantasy responds to a difficult and painful reality - families are structured around rules of property, caste, gender and crushing conformity, yaniki norms of insider-outsider

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita Vohra

Vamp. Dayan. Chudail. Nagin. Gold digger. Witch. To this litany used to other and violate women, people have now added, Girlfriend.

Those feeding on the life and death of Sushant Singh Rajput, justify their hate and violence with the binary of insiders and outsiders. But, their abuse and blood lust for Rhea Chakraborty, is based on a traditional insider-outsider story: the gharwali and the baharwali.

The gharwali is considered lucky to have a doting, rich husband, who takes her on lavish holidays. A girlfriend similarly treated has immediately been cast as a villain. The wife who loses her husband is seen with sympathy and reverence. For the woman who loses her boyfriend, even in a breakup, leave alone death, her pain is either invisible or disbelieved and stigmatised.

Like the love story film, the hum saath saath hain family film also expresses a fantasy. By fantasy I don't mean falsehood and impossibility, but rather, our deepest desires, of what family could be—nurturing, supportive, happy. This fantasy responds to a difficult and painful reality—families are structured around rules of property, caste, gender and crushing conformity, yaniki norms of insider-outsider.

The more the 'gharwali' woman adheres to norms, the deeper her awareness that beti is paraya dhan. At the same time, her training for her 'real' marital home is one of strategy and alertness to power dynamics, to guard her precarious security, hardly the comforts associated with home, but certainly the experience that gives soap operas their power. Children are expected to succeed at entrance exams, securing jobs, spouses, dowries, male progeny. Failure to meet such expectations of how you appear to the outside world makes you a little less at home inside your home. Mental health is a casualty of this norm.

Seventeen per cent of the world's suicides take place in India. One student dies by suicide every hour, disabled by competitive pressures and casteist or heteronormative harassment. A third of the world's suicide deaths are of Indian women—and a significant number attempt suicide. Intimate partner violence and family harassment when they don't conform to traditional expectations in behaviour, aspiration or intimate desires, are a major context for their deteriorating mental health.
Why did Chakraborty say "I'm sorry, babu" to SSR, bayed the fixated mob. Perhaps they see sorry as a word of defeat, used to confess crimes and evade punishment. But, sorry is a word of compassion, one that recognises the suffering of our loved ones. Love is not a triumphing warrior against difficulty, it is about attentiveness to another person, a response to their fragility with compassion. It tries to heal, even if it may not succeed.

The 'baharwali's' sorry makes us anxious. It shows that family relationships are no automatic guarantee of compassion and nurturing. Love and apnapan whether in birth or chosen families, in defined or undefined relationships are intentional, not automatic, choices. It asks us to look at our own histories of pain. It's easier to hate
some 'outsider'.

In fixating on the SSR story and various 'outsiders', the news media, like abusive families, avoids really knowing about the nation's current social and economic suffering. Alongside this lack of national empathy, in failing to foreground our mental health crisis, they abet in making a harsher world for their own children, along with the 'baharwale' children they ignore or blame.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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First Published: 30 August, 2020 07:00 IST

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