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Issue In Focus: Leaving Home and Reclaiming Self

An Indian woman in a saree in a sepia photo, thinking something. We can see her from shoulders up. Screen reader support enabled. An Indian woman in a saree in a sepia photo, thinking something. We can see her from shoulders up.

As I sit to write this piece, somehow the song Aap Ki Yaad Aati Rahi Raat Bhar from the 1978 Hindi film Gaman keeps coming back to me. The film was about urban migration and has stayed with me all these years because apart from the lovely songs and the actors (the then-heartthrobs Smita Patil and Farooq Shaikh, in that order), it was also the time that Bombay was starting to entice me as a city of choice. The migrant urban taxi driver from Uttar Pradesh and I were both figuring out the city from very different locations. Bombay as seen through the migrant’s eyes was fascinating, and the loneliness and alienation of the new migrant probably stayed with me.

The song portrayed the pining of the young married couple separated because of migration. He had to move because the economics demanded it. She could not move with him because there was a village household to look after and there was no space for a couple in this metropolis that has no roof to offer even for one person. This forced separation and what it did to young men in particular and also to the wives they left behind is something that the film addressed along with other issues of migrant urban workers. Outside this film too, in popular culture, literature and even academia, this has been the more addressed, normative narrative around both migration and sexuality – migration for economic reasons and the sexual desires of the separated married heterosexual couple.

My migration trajectory was very different from that of the hero in Gaman. And over the years I have witnessed many others as well. Migrations that were not necessarily forced, that were chosen because they seemed to give better options for the persons themselves, that were voluntary or at least appeared to be so, that were made as stop-gap arrangements to postpone the routine of life. And in many of these, norms of sexuality necessitated the choices. For example, I was making a choice of moving because I wanted to be on my own. I was actually rebelling against something else that could have been forced on me – a normative marriage. I was lucky to have parents who did not actively pressure me, but the compulsoriness of marriage is such that escaping it is not easy. I was definitely resisting it even then by running away to study, by trying to find more meaning in my life. I did not understand it in these terms then, but looking back today, it does look like an attempt to break away from the norm prescribed for middle-class women like me. And I see that many young women do it even today.

Marriage is compulsory for almost every able-bodied person, and the nature of the institution in most parts of India, apart from being patriarchal, is also patrilocal. Patrilocality translates as forced migration, almost akin to displacement, for all women. It is a migration made ‘voluntarily’ by women to be able to have a legally recognised sexual life and family. Their lives are put on hold until this happens because till they know where this migration will take them, they are unable to make long-term decisions about their lives. So before this permanent migration actually happens, many women try and negotiate their lives in ways that delays this process as much as possible.

For urban middle-class women with caste privilege, migration for education[1] has become one of the ways to do this, and through this they also conduct many other negotiations. This foray into the real world of the larger city or university town where they manage to go to study and sometimes also do their first jobs, is obviously also the time to explore. It is almost like time is snatched from one’s own life to do something that postpones the inevitable and sedate ‘settling down’. Time snatched to live away from home, to try and figure out what real life looks like outside the control of the natal family. The control that comes in the garb of protection but is obviously primarily around guarding their sexual activity. The possibilities of this migration, of course, depend on the various privileges acquired due to the accident of birth in a highly structured and hierarchical society such as ours.

There are many who cannot get these opportunities, who become bread-winners for their families and migrate to work, often to be able to raise enough money to run their households and also to save for their own marriages. As women’s education seems to be increasing, as the manufacturing sector shifts from the organised to the unorganised, we see more such women becoming first-generation urban migrant workers. We see them crossing borders of homes, states, and nations. And we are also seeing the anxieties around their sexual behaviours, with the family, community, and the State all vying with each other to control their sexual lives. Unlike the understanding of the urban male worker needing to visit the kotha (brothel) and the sex worker for his sexual needs, these workers are policed and restrained from even having consensual romantic sexual relationships.

There is a recognition of this migration but never of sex workers who are one class of women who have migrated for work for many years. Their profession is stigmatised and, in turn, their lives too, so they often cannot work without migrating. Their work of providing sexual service for money has been pushed within the discourse of force and violence, almost to ensure that the only socially acceptable and rewarded sex is that within a valid heterosexual marriage. The emphasis on force and coercion for sex work has collapsed sex work with trafficking today in such a way that coercion for other forms of labour is ignored, and migration for sex work as a chosen means of livelihood is considered impossible. This migration and this form of sexual labour is being recognised only in the last two or three decades due to a growing organising of woman within sex work and a more radical discourse on sex and sexuality itself. These voices have also successfully highlighted that women are being trafficked for various kinds of labour, including that within marital homes.

I speak here mainly of women because they are not recorded in general as migrant workers. Their stories, in the normative articulations of migration and sexuality, are usually those of the women left behind by the male migrant worker. I am sure that men’s migration happens for very many complex reasons as well, although the one that gets highlighted is the most obvious economic reason. Aspirations to see the world, do something more than what is possible in smaller towns and villages, the wish to go beyond the control of the local communities and immediate familiar environment – all of these must propel migration for men too. And then there are other reasons directly related to sexuality for men as well.

Men and women both elope and migrate when their relationships do not gain recognition by the natal families of one of the partners, or of both. The more the barriers of caste, religion, class, and region that have been broken in making the alliance, the greater is the rejection by the families, and the further away the couple is forced to migrate. This migration is very different from others. Economic migration with familial sanction or even negotiated within the family allows access to communal connections and familial resources as much as possible. If there is rejection of the relationship, then the elopement means a severance of a kind that is tough because it has no softening cushion of support and social capital. Efforts to reconnect are made, mediators within extended family and community are sought, and, usually, the appearance of children softens one or the other or both sets of parents. Some stories have the usual ‘happy’ endings, others are fated to be tragic, and these are held as examples of what others should not do.

Cases where happy endings are almost impossible are those where gender also does not match societal norms. Stories of two ‘women’[2] running away have been documented across the country. For such people, the ‘home’, as in the locational and metaphorical home, all cease to exist as soon as their transgression of sexual and gender norms is discovered, and the only option for them to survive and be themselves is to escape from this ‘home’. This is a migration that is being spoken of only now, as queer lives get visibilised. There aren’t that many parallel stories of gay couples running away because they may have more power to negotiate, or their running away does not create news in the same way that the running away of daughters does. Marriage pressures on men are of different kinds and many men do manage to retain their sexual autonomy in spite of being married and leading seemingly normative lives. However, there are also many gay men seeking refuge in jobs and professions far away from home, trying to lead their lives away from pressures of doing their ‘duties’ by their families.

The few autobiographies that have been written by transwomen underline the desperate need for migration at a young age because home and family and community do not remain safe and secure spaces as soon as they start crossing the gender norms of expression, language, and sexuality[3]. The autonomous hijra network spread across cities provides them the space and support to find others like themselves and, in the process, find themselves too. But being stuck in the professions of sex work and begging, both of which are stigmatised and looked down upon, their lives remain completely on the margins of society with absolutely no support. Their lives clearly indicate the intricate ways in which gender and sexuality get intertwined.

For trans persons assigned female gender at birth, there are similar parallels. The difference is that they do not have a network like that of the hijras to fall back upon, and as ‘daughters’ of the family, such assertions of their gender and sexuality are punished with forced marriage, house arrest, and other distinct ways of control. There is a growing body of research about their life-cycles which include running away to unfamiliar cities where, often, the local language is alien, where there is no support, and there is the possibility of violence if their ‘passing’ in the gender other than the one they were assigned is noticed. This is the ultimate betrayal of the normative, i.e. the ‘good’ married woman giving up her choice and pleasure for the sake of marriage and her husband’s family, and this transgression is penalised both by familiars and strangers[4].

It seems then that there is a direct relationship between the extent of transgression of sexual and gender norms on the one hand, and the need to migrate on the other. Whatever background people come from, migration is almost inevitable and necessary. The privilege of class and caste allows this migration to be couched under the garb of education, job, and other pursuits. Equipped with basic education and skills, and with the ease of class that also allows privacy, some people are able to make a community away from the familiar. The absence of all of this leads to a life where the struggle for survival is very difficult and hard, and takes a great toll on the persons. Whether done in coupledom or as a single person, often the journey is for the discovery of the self, and so the love story with the other may not survive, but at least that with the self does. How we create mechanisms for support for this set of people to make new communities and support structures while also acquiring strength to be able to reclaim ‘home’, is a challenge that remains to be addressed.

[1] This migration is usually from the small town to the medium-sized city nearby, from the city to the metropolis, from one metropolis to another, from any of these places to university towns and campuses, and, of late, quite a few national borders too.

[2] It is important to note that those seen as two women are not necessarily both ‘women’. In many instances we have found one of them identifying and expressing themselves in genders other than ‘woman’.

[3] Living Smile Vidya. 2007. I am Vidya. Oxygen Books: Chennai
Revathi, A. Truth About me: A hijra life story. (Trans. From Tamil by V Geetha) Penguin Books: Delhi.

[4] Shah, C. et al. 2015. No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy. Zubaan: Delhi.

Cover image from Youtube