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The Testaments and many lessons it carries

China’s recent assessment of its erstwhile ‘one child policy’ and its sobering outcomes – threatening to reduce the working age population by a substantial amount, has raised clamours over the declining birth rates across the world, especially in the developed parts. But authoritarian regimes better manage such crises than democratic systems, where consensus and people’s will are given primacy at least in theory. Illiberal democracies such as Hungary, under the leadership of its far right prime minister Viktor Orban are encouraging couples to have more children, by offering attractive incentives. This is to ward off the danger to demographics posed by ” Outsiders and immigrants ” , also to exalt people in the service of God by producing more children.

In its bid to course correct the imbalance in the population structure, China has relaxed the stringent birth control norms. Now couples in China can have three babies. However in India- world’s second most populous nation, several state governments( BJP ruled) have anticipated population control measures, with UP leading the way. In India, like any other thing the demographic dynamics are also complex and diverse. As in the southern parts of the country, TFR( total fertility rate) is already declining and is nearing the replacement ratio i.e. 2.1. States like UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan called BIMARU in a pejorative way are the obvious outliers. Their fertility rates are also falling from their previous highs but at the moment are more than the national average. This is partly due to the abysmal social indicators fuelled by political negligence. Income inequality, low per capita incomes, poor health & education infrastructure, flagrant gender disparity are some of the drivers of the misery of denizens of these states.

The conspicuous reason behind the population control policies is not just the alarming rate of population growth and thus more drain on state’s limited resources. It’s a part of Hindutva credo that strives to strike balance in demographics among various religious and ethnic communities. As a result the bogey of ‘ Muslims taking over Hindus’ is given more voice when elections are evanescent. Luckily it’s the religious crevices our right wing is exploiting. Women haven’t become the scapegoats yet. Women’s conduct is often contentious in the eyes of the guardians of ‘Bhartiya Sanskaars’ and men are given clean chit for their inability to restrain themselves from committing heinous crimes. But when it comes to giving birth, women’s education, profession and western influence, aren’t in question overtly as of now, covertly women have been reeling under such ostracism from ages. In our hierarchical society, women are venerated only when seen with the prism of motherhood ” Maa”. Maa is accorded a higher or divine status for her benevolence, unwavering commitment to her duty, numerous sacrifices and unconditional love. But when women assert their right to decide which role they prefer to play and in which way, in doing so do they deviate from from their quintessential muliebrity? Something much extolled in almost every religious text!

With this grim question began the legendary novel ” The Handmaid’s Tale” written by Margret Atwood. The book is much acclaimed and even turned into a gripping show with the same name. The Handmaid’s Tale was a chilling reminder of how calamitous the world could become if ordinary people turn a blind eye to the most perverse and dehumanising acts committed in the name of God and religion. The book ends with a suggestion to readers that Gilead ( a theocratic, totalitarian, authoritarian, patriarchal regime) ends eventually. In the ‘ acknowledgments’ of ” The Testaments” , Atwood writes that this book was a quest for her to tell the readers how Gilead ended. She writes that every incident she mentioned in the book wasn’t unprecedented, it happened in different ways and times in contemporary history. This book rightfully fetched her another Booker Prize. Atwood says that totalitarian regimes don’t end due to external pressures or aggression, they get devoured by their internal conflicts, brewing for the right moment to explode. The omnipotent ‘ control’ wanes when more and more people demand a part in it with their avarice, making the monolith entity more fractious. As it’s always the ‘ new’ that replaces the old. One just needs to exploit the inveterate flaw in the existing order. Thus Gilead ends with Agnes & Nicole’s adventures and disdain for its oppressive and odious, principles and punishments. But without Aunt Lydia this couldn’t have happened. She was one of the key architects of Gilead and wielded more power and influence than her counterparts. It’s almost paradoxical; a former judge who adjudicated on women’s issues such as divorce, domestic violence etc, constructs a panopticon to cage women. She negates every law meant to liberate women into enslaving them. She is the one who decided how handmaids be treated, taught, disciplined and punished. She patronised the handmaids for their altruistic duty to bear children and being the true servants of the almighty, in the most diabolical way. When the original sons of Jacob disrupted the former US and started herding women into stadiums to create more acolytes, myriad women repudiated the offer. Albeit they ultimately succumbed in the face of cruelty in the offing. Such empowered women had no place in Gilead. But aunt Lydia didn’t budge under the moralistic judgements. She helped set up the despicable empire through despicable means to reach the despicable ends. For the repeated rape, torture, insensitivity & indifference towards women and recurrent abuse, she facilitated, she should be the most hated individual when seen in retrospect. But the moment her indispensable role in the collapse of Gilead is realised, a reader develops a soft corner for her. Her contribution to Gilead in its making was its hidden end, though she herself might haven’t realised at that time. She had to build it with her dubious vision so as to bring it down. Had she succumbed to her inertia of morality, the end of Gilead would have been different. She assumes the work to make women comply with Gilead’s values. She creates the scheme of exploitation for the weakest and critical link of Gilead, the women.Thus she nurtures the young girls assiduously and slowly makes them unconscious heretics. Her commendable support to Mayday with crucial information further compounded troubles for Gilead.

Becka emerges as an unsung hero. Without her resolve, loyalty, honesty and courage, the journey to Gilead’s end would have been more treacherous. Yet how little recognition she gets. Only a statute doesn’t do justice to history. But it’s a quick reminder, a narrow gateway nonetheless to times filled with blemishes or bliss.Becka wasn’t just a virtuous friend, she was the symbol of human connection, a ray of hope in the murky dark times. She was emblematic of the endurance people in Gilead harboured. And finally the sisters and their mother tell the heroic story in which evil is obliterated and countless are released and are grateful to the story and its heroes. On the top of everything, something as devious as Gilead sprouted and succeeded in the United States; the most powerful democracy, underscores the concerns raised by Sinclair Lewis’ s satirical work ” This can’t happen here”. Both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments portray a dystopian world yet it has legitimate roots in the contemporary world affairs. One can’t be complacent when it comes to letting powerful regimes take your rights and liberties away. The biggest strength of democracy is also its greatest flaw i.e. people. When people normalize democratic aversion and are reluctant to rise against injustice untill they themselves are affected; devastating consequences follow. The most important of all lessons is how apocalyptic this world can become when emboldened patriarchy creeps into the most liberal societies and how cataclysmic the fallout is when women aren’t free. Education leads to empowerment and understanding of one’s essence. Gilead debilitated women by depriving them of work and education. A thought worth pondering over as when women become empowered societies become better.


Published by Shiwangi Sharma

I think of being creative & Think again and something like that. A heavy dreamer, A dreamer who's battling to become a doer, someday I hope! Silent observer, ramble in my head, tennis šŸŽ¾aficionado but not a crazy fan either, Reading & a little less often writing are my things! More funny than I sound, if that makes any sense? Clear skies & sunsets, love stars but not moon, it's overrated.

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