The Sad Truth in a Story about an India without Women


This is a guest post by Joshua Meah. Meah is a former research intern with the New America Foundation’s “American Strategy Program.” He is writing from Mumbai, India.
Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women, an Indian film by Manish Jha, is one of the most intense, thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and brutally honest cinematic experiences of my lifetime. Imagine the American science-fiction hit “Children of Men,” but set in a small village in rural India. Then, imagine that the problem isn’t that no one is capable of pregnancy; rather, there are no women. Of any age, no girls or women have been seen in a village for fifteen years. They’ve all, minus one young girl discovered later in the movie, been killed off.
This is the premise of the movie. The film goes on to skillfully raise questions of great importance related to gender, caste, class, violence, and the Indian family.
Such a scenario is the logical end-point of even some current village practices, which lends the film its stark brilliance and credibility. At the film’s conclusion, it is noted that, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and UNFPA, over the past century thirty-five million women have disappeared due to acts related to gender discrimination. Many of the disappearances are linked to the dowry practice, which requires the family of the bride to pay a substantial contribution (money, cows, etc.) to the family of the groom. In a village where the average income is half of the United Nation’s marker used to indicate “poverty,” such a practice is often unfeasible. Parents, in anticipation of an impending dowry payment, would kill female infants immediately after birth.
Domestic violence also claims a substantial number of victims and lives. On the rooftop of a small NGO-funded school in Veranasi, India, the Hindu religious capital of the world and home to the River Ganges, I sat with a group of twenty students, ages eight through sixteen, from the surrounding basti (slum). I asked them (this conversation as in Hindi), “What are the greatest problems faced by Veranasi today?” The children’s unified response on one issue was unnerving and illuminating, shining light on what is possibly India’s most sensitive topic aside from caste. Family.
They said “Each night, the men go out and drink. Then they come home and beat their children and wives. The wives, in fear and often in the real belief that they themselves have done something horrible to deserve their treatment, will then light themselves on fire. Some will die.”
As I learned from further study and interviews, the alcohol consumed is not actually alcohol. It’s a petroleum-based substance laced with other narcotics that pass through the heart of the city. A good “high” costs no more than 10 cents USD. Like crack in the inner-cities of America, this drug rips through Veranasi’s slums, shattering families in the process. The drug is too cheap, the rage byproduct too strong, and the use of violence against women is just too easy. In other locations of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, I’ve found similar stories of violence, though not all are necessarily linked to drugs.
India n. (perhaps it has potential as an adjective as well?): the land where the opposite of everything is always at least a little bit true. This is the same country that has produced a great number of enormously powerful female politicians long before America even honestly broached the subject – Indira Gandhi being the case in point. Even now, the head of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the home to 130 million people, is headed by a woman of dalit origin (India’s lowest caste). The progress of India’s democracy in terms of its movement toward social equality has in some ways been as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking.
With Indian elections, perhaps truly the greatest “show on earth,” coming up in less than a month and a half, election observers would do well to hold a movie like Matrubhoomi close to their hearts. One goal of India’s democracy, as is written by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus on the general subject of poverty, should be to relegate the sharp kernel of truth within this movie to nowhere else in human civilization except museums.
— Joshua Meah


5 comments on “The Sad Truth in a Story about an India without Women

  1. Tim says:

    “Imagine the American science-fiction hit ‘Children
    of Men’. . .” There is nothing remotely American
    about this movie. All of the crew was Spanish, and
    it took place in London with a mostly British cast.


  2. Arun says:

    You have to remember that some of these movies are built to shock. One can spend a lifetime in India without personally coming across any of this. It is after all a nation of a billion people.


  3. ... says:

    india exports this to places like canada as well.. there were a few examples of this recently in vancouver, with it being unknown just who was responsible for what… people in power in india need to see this and have it driven home to them, be motivated to change this….


  4. Mr.Murder says:

    Who needs a caste system? They don’t have frat houses yet?


  5. Raclare Kanal says:

    India is such an incredible setting for extremes of culturally mandated, or encouraged, behavior. Reading the plot description of this film somehow left me with no desire to see it. An India, even an Indian village, without women – until a lone, beautiful girl is found hidden nearby… Of course, she would have to be beautiful. No one would be interested in her plight if she were plain. Another cultural mandate! The author’s account of his conversations with the young men on the rooftop in Veranasi is much more compelling than the plot of this film. The world’s largest democracy – and a democracy it surely is – harbors social horrors that go beyond the imaginary. They involve the living. Or the once living. My daughter had attended the wedding of a young woman while in India. More recently, during a visit from a relative who also knew her, my daughter asked about that bride. The reply – ‘Oh, she got burned.’ Just another incident of bride-burning. Dowry disagreements.
    Combine dowry issues with the prohibition on remarriage of widows (probably now ignored by the educated classes), virtual slavery of servant children and other workers, and you have a mind-boggling mix of man’s inhumanity to man. I mean ‘man’ in the generic sense – humans. Women are active participants against other women. How does it compare to other societies where custom and poverty combine to create social horrors? It just seems that there is so much of it, perhaps because there are simply more Indians! But this setting also inspires many to dedicate their lives to improving conditions. That, I suspect, is harder to find in many places. (Just a hunch.) PBS not long ago featured the activities of a man who rescues enslaved laborers, prepared for their rescue by a woman who allowed herself to become enslaved with them in order to organize them. Now that is courage! The landowners would not hesitate to kill to conserve their workforce.
    As for films to capture some of the spirit of India’s many, diverse, customs – I was moved by Deepa Mehta’s film ‘Water’, and stunned by Digvijay Singh’s ‘Maya’.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *