Saturday, July 16, 2005
Desperate – and not just housewives
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the 1800s. And as a stylish 21st century TV drama brings home the point– they still do.
Man or woman, rich or merely comfortably middle class, we’re all desperately seeking something more from our lives.
Desperate Housewives captures that feeling in telling the stories of four suburban American women – and their men – as they seek answers to the questions we were never supposed to ask. Not into our accept-you-can’t-have-everything 30s and 40s. A stage in life when it’s always safer (and wiser) to remember: things could have been a lot worse.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Aur bhi gham hain zamaane mein and all that jazz. The fact that you and me are ‘luckier than most’ is especially hard to ignore in a country where every citizen can’t take two square meals a day for granted. But even as we lucky ones move from roti, kapda aur makaan to salad, short kurtis and SUVs, there remains – often unfulfilled – another basic need.
The need for intimacy.
The need for a man or woman in our lives.
Not just any man or woman but one who understands, who accepts and yes loves us for who we are. The man or woman many of us thought we were getting married to who, somewhere along the way, retreated into a Harry Potter-like Invisibility Cloak. Or left the building altogether – if not in body, in spirit.
If you take a closer look at the problems of the women of Wisteria lane – they all stem from this very same source. The longing for love and companionship. Acknowledgement and appreciation. As the desperate housewife who blew out her brains in the first episode observes from her permanent philosophical perch: “Human beings are designed for many things. Loneliness isn't one of them”.
Take Lynette, the career woman who gave up her job to raise 4 kids. She’s exhausted and frazzled and of course wondering “did I really make the right decision”. But what’s really eating her is a husband who seems to have no idea what she is going through. How could he even suggest they “take a risk” and have sex without a condom, when there are four such risks already running around the house in muddy shoes?
Then there’s Bree, the everything-must-be-perfect homemaker whose husband wants a divorce because he’s tired of living in a ‘detergent commercial’. But would things really be any different if Bree didn’t subject her family to gourmet meals every night for dinner? Her friend Susan manages to burn even macaroni and cheese, which makes her ‘human’ and ‘real’ – just what Bree's husband says he wants her to be. But hello - Susan’s husband left her for his secretary.
For all its popularity, Desperate Housewives is being called an idiot box illusion - a fantasy which gives the impression of reflecting reality. “The main characters are 21st-century women, with 21st-century wardrobes and attitudes, but they’re dropped into 1950s suburbia,” says one op-ed writer. A suburbia of domestic claustrophobia that does not exist anymore - at least not in America.
According to the most recent U.S. census, 52% of American marriages will end in divorce, so if you’re trapped it’s really out of choice - not lack of it.
But that, I think, is the brilliance of the show. Yes, there is always the option of walking out but even in a society where it is commonplace, people choose to pretend things are working. Or live on hope.
As Mary Alice summarises it from Up Above: “Each new day in suburbia brings with it a new set of lies… We whisper them in the dark, telling ourselves we're happy, or that he's happy. That we can change, or that he will change his mind… Yes, each night before we fall asleep we lie to ourselves in a desperate, desperate hope that come morning - it will all be true.”
If anything, Desperate Housewives reflects more accurately the state of affairs in upper middle class India, than suburban America. A society where divorce rates could potentially be as high as 52% but aren’t because couples somehow ‘adjust’ and carry on.
I once asked a shrink who treats mainly south Bombay and yuppie types how many marriages, in his experience, would be classified as ‘happy’. He paused a moment and pronounced: “Three out of ten”. And then he added, “It's funny. That's worse than the cancer survival rate after 5 years!”
So why don’t 7 out of 10 marriages end in divorce in India? Simple. We learn to channelise the energy and passion that should have gone into the relationship elsewhere. Not just into extra-marital affairs – that, of course works for some. But most pour themselves into work, some into religion. For women, it's often their kids.
Marriage becomes a joint project: a lovely well run home in the right neighbourhood... Where the children attend the right schools, the men (hurts to say that, but it's usually the men) make enough money for annual foreign vacations and women quietly polish their life until it gleams with perfection. Except they're perhaps not as suicidal– thanks to domestic help.
And no, this is not the last word on the subject. The jury is still out on ‘kidnap aunty’...