Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence
by Shrayana Bhattacharya
Publisher: Harper Collins (2021)
Shah Rukh and The Sisterhood of Desperate and Disappointed Women
‘Over the years, I came to understand that the actor in question, possibly due to my own obsession, was simply happenstance. Worker-fangirls started using selected sections of his cinema and imagery as an entry point into traversing trickier terrain—talking about their unrequited expectations of reciprocity from men in spaces of marriage, money and intimacy, and challenging the predetermined trajectories of their lives.’
In her debut book, Desperately Seeking Shahrukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and The Search For Intimacy (2021), Shrayana Bhattacharya experiments with a refreshing writing and researching style that ranges from interviews, confessional anecdotes, data sets, graphs, and literature on economics and sociology to tell a tale about women, working conditions, gender relations, class and caste hierarchy, pop culture and how Shah Rukh Khan becomes the thread to bind these facets in her book. Through personal discussions and insightful interviews complemented with data sets and historical records, Bhattacharya explains the the ways in which the socio-political and economic locations of these working women inform their goals and aspirations in life. The book doesn’t revolve around the actor; rather, the concept of his icon becomes a manifestation and reflection of what these women want with their lives; he is a projection of their desires. In an interview with Lounge, Bhattacharya highlights how she gives agency to the fans rather than the star, ‘Ordinary people can pick and choose and construct these stars for themselves.’
The book offers a layered narrative of how Indian women continuously walk the tightrope between financial independence and loneliness. It is wide-ranging in both—the range of concepts it covers and the physical distance covered by Bhattacharya while interviewing and following these women for 15 years. The book spans from Kochi to the posh neighbourhoods of Lutyens Delhi, the formal royalty and 5-Star hotels in Raipur, inner circles of Indian Bureaucracy and middle-class families of east Delhi, Streets of Jaisalmer and the highs of the aviation industry, agarbatti colony in Ahmedabad, rurban villages of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, towns and tribal villages of Jharkhand, slums in New Delhi, and the shiny drawing rooms of Gurgaon. Our pilgrimage ends outside the gates of Mannat. Bhattacharya’s research methods are unusual, and that’s why they are important, ‘My stories rely on all that I have gleaned from fifteen years of eavesdropping, phone calls, films screenings, weddings, watching women love and labour—a tapestry of encounters that allowed me to explore how leisure, fandom and fantasy helped ordinary women navigate discrimination and loneliness in modern India.’ Her portrayal of the struggles of Indian women from different class and caste backgrounds becomes more genuine because she acknowledges that socio-cultural capital and upward class mobility are essential pre-requisites for a woman to be successfully independent and to live her life on her terms.
By proclaiming herself a fan, by including her personal account of heartbreak at the hands of ‘The One’, and by telling the reader how she turned to Shah Rukh during difficult times, Bhattacharya bridges the gap between herself and her subjects. In doing so, she makes herself the subject of the same intellectual scrutiny the women in her book undergo. The book is a delight to read; despite including a robust set of data and statistics, Bhattacharya manages to keep the book reader-friendly. Numbers, records, and graphs come alive in the accounts of women that are interviewed. Bhattacharya’s tone keeps twisting according to the narrative, giving the reader several one-liners to marvel at— ‘The silent solidarity of solitary women’, ‘A fangirl’s impractical fantasy reveals her reality’, ‘The feminization of care and agriculture sustained the feminization of exhaustion.’ Through many references and literature, accompanied by her interviews and interactively presented data, Bhattacharya argues that the ‘economy is nothing but our moods and relationships, which define who produces and transacts what. The economy has a rich emotional and ethical life.’ Fandom then, becomes an economic activity. In an episode of The Seen and the Unseen, Bhattacharya explains how to ‘be a fan and to unambiguously adore the work of an artist you need money; you need access to leisure/ free time, you need access to markets so that you can consume and buy and transact.’
One of the critical issues highlighted in the book is that the social and public spheres are built to cater to the heterosexual couple, and hence, being a single woman becomes taxing. In the absence of reliable support systems from the state, society and one’s immediate surroundings, women are forced to seek a husband to gain financial and social support. Coincidentally, the level of independence and professional success women acquire become hindrances to their ‘worth’ as wives and mothers. As highlighted by Bhattacharya, women ‘earn’ love and support from their families through unpaid domestic slavery, and care work for children and the elderly, ‘Men must earn money and women must earn love.’ Brahminical patriarchy and the institution of marriage make women’s bodies a site of surveillance and control, ‘Such control is the key reason why women’s employment and opportunities are minimised; the ultimate goal is to reduce any chances of boyfriends or workplace romances from taboo communities.’ An incident is noted in the book, where Gold, a woman from a middle-class background in Jaisalmer, is caught going to the cinema with a male friend. This is followed by her family trying to get her married as a ‘punishment’, ‘I looked too comfortable…girls being comfortable in cinema halls, girls being comfortable in the company of men was crossing some line. If I had looked meek, if I had covered my face, or had been looking down at the ground, they would have felt bad for me and been kinder, I am sure of it.’
Such dynamics change in low-income households, where women have to earn an income in order to keep the family afloat. Financial independence, and the ability of these women to go out of their homes for jobs, depended on peace between family members. Children of these families, especially young girls, benefitted from government schemes that made primary education compulsory and free. By entering school and interacting with the outside world early in their lives, young girls were no longer content with the old societal norms their mothers followed. They found financial independence liberating; however, having a family and bearing children is central to their lives. Commenting on how small negotiations about financial freedom and personal spaces are meaningful for these women, Bhattarchya remarks that actively abandoning the family comes with substantial financial and social costs to women from such economic strata, ‘the way we express resistance is subject to our personal calculus of risk and reward.’
Bhaattacharya worries about the female employment crisis in India. While tracing the economic boom followed by liberalisation, she remarks that women participation was less that nineteen percent in growing sectors of the economy. Home and family become the fulcrum of inequality in the country, ‘Even with scholarship, hostels and reserved jobs, if men, parents and in-laws don’t feel happy about women wanting to study and work, nothing will ever improve’ Within the richest ten percent of the country, only 6.5 percent of married women are employed. In conversation with My Kolkata, Bhattacharya says, ‘Shah Rukh also represents a theme in the book about how the opportunity of liberalisation has failed women.’ Across caste and class brackets, the gap between male and female employment continues to grow. In this background of job and income inequality Bhattacharya embarks on the task to talk about the economy from the female perspective, and why home as a unit of production is yet to be acknowledged. ‘Our paid labour wil never match our value as the unpaid managers of our household.’ For female workers, employed in the informal sector of textile, tobacco and agarbatti manufacturing home is their workplace. Even then, the concept of ‘offcial work’ has failed to include them, and as a result they are often invisible in policies and planning around worker protection and labour laws.
According to Bhattacharya, for this crisis of female employment to be solved, ‘we need intimate revolutions at home.’ The cancel culture and hashtags of ‘twitter pradesh’ are not reflective to the way women in middle and lower income communities are fighting for their right to work and rest. ‘The act of rebellion can look very different when women are rendered dependent on the family for protection and provision.’ The everyday negotiations to move out of the house, to claim some time for oneself, and to fight for their right to earn and watch a film helps the women in Bhattacharya’s book to get out of this ‘heteronormative hell.’ Through careful observations and articulate connections between numbers, charts and the lived experiences of women from various economic backgrounds, Bhattacaharya shows her readers, how patriarchy won’t be ‘smashed’ with a noisy collapse, but will ‘gradually unravel.’ And while women work through these restrictive structures, they imagine Shah Rukh—‘forged out of the gossamer fabric of their hopes and dreams, a man who would support freedom and choice for women—whether to work, rest or watch movies.’
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