It doesn’t make sense to view the womb through the prism of religion, community and tradition, warns Shyam G Menon.
What women do with their wombs has long bothered some strains of politics.
In October, the health minister of an Indian state bemoaned the tendency of ‘modern women’ to stay single and remain unwilling to bear children even after marriage.
Later, when the remarks kicked up a furore, he said they were taken out of context.
The minister’s original speech was made at a meeting that discussed mental health.
Viewed from the perspective of having a family to live with, there is happiness and unhappiness on both sides of the reproduction divide, so there will be those who think the minister is right.
However, there is one aspect which consistently stuns about India.
All the arguments about producing children fail to lend equal emphasis to how children grow up, how people live as adults and what they feel about coping with the global and Indian environment.
A defining quality…
Although generalisations are incorrect and must be avoided, the ‘modern women’ referred to in such arguments are typically the urban-dwelling, working lot.
It is in such groups that the reluctance to have children often gets reported and the usual suspect is work; commitment to a career takes hold and long work hours and stress take a toll.
There is also the case of alternative lifestyles noticed in these urban sprawls. You realise that a traditional approach is an option and not the only state of existence possible. This awareness of multiple options is what traditionalists pick on.
What they miss noticing is that the world has even more signals for us to consider, which in turn make the act of parenthood not a knee-jerk response based on instinct and tradition but something to commit to only after serious thought.
Worldwide, human consumption and its excesses have authored change in magnitudes that disturb the prevailing equilibriums. In just over a century, the human population has zoomed from a billion to 7.7 billion. Its legacy, and that of the industrial mindset which accompanied it, is a planet scarred by how those numbers live and how their mercantilism runs amok.
It is a planet so damaged that grave warnings have been sounded.
Unpredictable weather has become a fixture, as has the rapid depletion of various species and natural resources.
There is also mounting pollution. It takes only a couple of decades to see living spaces degrade. This, and many other such impacts resulting from human existence, affects our perception of the future.
If you trace the situation back to its origin, the blame will squarely lay on how the numbers of the dominant, most exploitative species — humans — has exploded. This serious situation is — for want of a better description — the defining quality of our times.
As yet unofficial, Anthropocene Epoch awaits approval as a geological term denoting the period of human activity impacting climate and ecosystems.
Simply put, human beings are bothersome enough in existing numbers. Should we then advocate reproduction to even maintain the numbers (let’s not say anything about increasing it)?
Yet, in countries like India, the debate can never fault reproduction. All sorts of feared numbers — from the size of religion to the size of a community — raise their heads in ugly protest.
None of them consider the larger picture. Fewer still imagine the world of tomorrow, except in the form of the extinction of their clan, religion or species.
We forget that our era is so radically different from the earlier ones that it is a folly to persist with old instincts and value systems.
On the other hand (and rather perversely), our upbringing in one of the most crowded rat races on the planet is glorified as a sign of an underlying toughness and a capacity to endure stress.
In truth, what option do we have but to grin and bear it?
Consequently, being positive — sometimes to the point of seeming delusional — is a big thing in India nowadays. The artificiality betrays the underlying fears. But acknowledging the fear itself is like a ship springing a leak.
We don’t want that chink in our mental armour so we hunker down, work hard, tread politically safe ground and ensure that the next generation lives and succeeds overseas because, deep down, through all the prayers and positive affirmations, we know that this domestic rat race of 1.3 billion people is no way to live.
If such behaviour isn’t hypocrisy, what is?
Unless one desires to be obstinate, it doesn’t make sense to view the womb through the prism of religion, community and tradition. Assuming it is informed enough, the brain atop every womb is the agency best placed to decide. Unfortunately, this school of thought — which, basically, is the empowerment of the individual — isn’t popular.
There are other reasons why population growth, and everyone having a say on every woman’s womb, has gained currency.
Fodder for existence
The earlier-mentioned minister belongs to the same political dispensation which, some months ago, was in the news for contemplating policies discouraging population growth.
Theoretically, for the latter line of reasoning, ‘modern women’ and their reluctance to reproduce should be examples to emulate.
The two contradicting stances, read together, seem at first to hint at short-term memory loss, but, on closer look, appear in line with such politics.
Beyond reproduction as tradition and so-called duty, human numbers are the backbone of the economy and the GDP.
Additionally, GDP is founded on organisations; companies — small and big — lie at its core.
The hugely influential club of billionaires traces its wealth and power to companies, markets and stock exchanges by ensuring high valuation. Even if manufacturing is taken over by automation, there has to be sufficient human needs and aspirations to fuel consumption.
Without proliferating material wants — both real and unreal — the gigantic edifice of money dictating the logic of modern human life weakens.
Done in excess, the entwining of our life with money results in a blinkered or blindfolded look at our life and liberty.
Explicitly and subtly, herding alters our socio-political tastes. We become owned. Wombs and all.
We may call the embryo, a child. We may wish it to live free, exercise its choices freely in a free world. Viewed differently, it is already a potential worker, consumer and member of a captive market and a politics enabling such imagination, including the feudal patriarchy that thinks it owns women’s wombs.
People are not stupid
We overlook the demeaning of our birth for one reason — money.
Money is our answer to all problems.
If we want money, we have to tolerate the blinkered model of existence and play by its rules.
It is foolish to assume that this faded appreciation for existence is missed by the gender birthing new life, which is also cognizant of issues like climate change, the polluted environment, unforeseen developments of our age (COVID-19) and emergent tendencies within our pressure-cooker environment (social intolerances of myriad hues, including communal, religious, racist, etc).
Not to mention 100 per cent marks for admission in colleges, high priced-education, expensive healthcare and self-worth measured by achievement and assets — all of which, despite their exalted standing in society, have forced humanity in the quagmire it finds itself in.
This is the predicament, the legacy of those who have lived and gone and those advocating a repeat of the same script that a child coming into this world will inherit.
Not all potential parents enjoy the luxury of being shielded from this bleakness or feigning ignorance about it.
If a woman, upon seeing this legacy, feels that the time is not right to produce an offspring, should her judgement be faulted?
Plus, let us not forget that while there may be those unwilling to give birth, there are those willing to adopt and provide nurture for life that is already in existence.
In the Anthropocene, ‘modern’ isn’t a bad word.
Shyam G Menon is a Mumbai-based columnist.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com
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