No One Will Let Her Live: Women's Struggle for Well-Being in a Delhi Slum

No One Will Let Her Live: Women's Struggle for Well-Being in a Delhi Slum

by Claire Snell-Rood

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The inequalities that structure relationships in Delhi’s urban slums have left the health of women living there chronically vulnerable. Yet for women living in slums, there is no other option than to depend on someone. Based on fourteen months of intensive fieldwork with ten families in a Delhi slum, No One Will Let Her Live argues that women rely on moral strategies to confront the poverty and unstable relationships that threaten their well-being. Claire Snell-Rood breaks new ground by delineating the complex ways in which women set boundaries, maintain their independence, and develop a nuanced sense of selfhood that draws on endurance, asceticism, mobility, and citizenship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284821
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/23/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Claire Snell-Rood is an assistant professor in behavioral science at the University of Kentucky.

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No One Will Let Her Live

Women's Struggle for Well-Being in a Delhi Slum

By Claire Snell-Rood, Mayank Austen Soofi


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96050-3


"You Should Live for Others"


When things became really bad between Padma and her husband, she persisted. Laying in the dark under the clanging fan to escape the midday summer heat, she told me, "He is still with 'her.' And they parade it all in front of me. He even takes his food over there sometimes to eat." It had been like this for months. It had started as an affair and, since moving closer to this other woman after demolition, things had unraveled into an unrecognizable tangle between Padma and her husband. Padma explained a kind of insecurity that she felt through her whole body. "Neither does he take me to be seen [by a doctor] nor does he look after me or my child. All day and night he hits me. Now he wants to throw me out of the house and leave because of his 'connection'— because of his other place." Her words pushed this other woman away, as much as she could. In return, he pushed her away. "He doesn't even want to see me. When he comes home from work, as soon as he takes off his work clothes, he goes to her house. He is happy with her children, he is happy in her house."

Maybe Padma's humiliation grew as the affair unfolded in front of her; maybe something at work had provoked her husband's temper. Padma was not shy about showing her bruises — increasing daily in number and size — to her new neighbors, to me, and to her friends from the old jhuggis.

In spite of this display, things did not change. She told me brave stories of fighting back and even of when her son tried to defend her. At times she called her previous husband just to talk; she had left him years before because of the violence. But mostly she just worried about the lack of options. There were rumors about what happened on the train tracks that could be seen directly through the small hole in their wall. "Maybe I should just go sit on the train tracks," she said repeatedly, as if tempted to do the same. Sometimes she laughed afterwards, sometimes she did not. She pulled at her stomach skin that she used to jiggle for us for laughs in the jhuggis. "There is hardly anything to pull out anymore," she said. "I cannot even die from hunger when I try."

Lying there, she told me, "Deepak's father used to keep me so well." Where she was now reminded her of where she had been earlier. "I left another home because I was beaten so much. ... Then I met the kind of man who would be there in happiness and sadness. He did this for fifteen years." He took care of her when she was sick; he always made sure she had good food to eat. More than once, she had shown me the pictures from their son's fifth birthday party, with a cake and party hats, to prove that they had been something else together before this. Knowing how much he had cared for her made her even sadder that they had grown apart, she said. Occasionally, she called me to sample the special foods that she had cooked for him. In the morning as he zipped his pants and buttoned his shirt, she folded his rotis into one metal canister and filled the other to the brim with hot sabzi (vegetable). She massaged his body with hot oil when he was tired from standing all day at the factory. Waiting would make it better. He would get better. I thought she was crazy.

Then it was fall. They had moved to a new room and Padma was happy. For the first time in their marriage, they were fasting together to celebrate the end of Navratri. When I arrived, leftover crumbs of food that they had fed to neighboring children were strewn across the floor. Padma smiled. They had been cooking since 3:30 in the morning. When her husband went outside, she mentioned with a chuckle that he had yelled to her the whole time about how all of the food should be made and what she was doing wrong. Having grown up Muslim, this was the first time she had kept the fast and, because of that, she did not know how to cook the special foods to break the fast. Once he was asleep, she laughed, she'd slap him hard for revenge. These days, there were no bruises. Right now what was real was before her: the newspapers she had freshly pasted on the walls of their new room, the children they had just fed, the holiday foods they had just shared. A fresh beginning, as much as a return to what they had had.

What did family mean to Padma so that she was willing to do so much for it? Why was it worth it for her to stick with her relationships?


I was not sure how to make sense of how Padma nursed her kin relations from bruised hopelessness to a new secure beginning. I was frustrated by not understanding how many women, like Padma, repeatedly invested themselves in their families even as they claimed that their families did not give them the support they deserved. At times, it seemed to me that Padma's reaction represented her acquiescence to patriarchy, or lack of awareness that she deserved better, as many feminists have argued about women in their critique of patriarchy and domestic violence (Haider 2000; Jejeebhoy 1998; Kakar 1978; Koenig et al. 2003; Mishra and Tripathi 2011; Visaria 2000; Visaria 2008). From this perspective, having a greater sense of empowerment and autonomy to make their own decisions would help women to create better family conditions that would improve their health, and their overall well-being.

But it felt dishonest to listen to Padma under the fan and then turn to my computer to write that she misunderstood her relationship. Sure, she argued that she was not getting what she deserved from her husband. But to characterize her family as insufficient did not account for the way that time and time again Padma showed me the other side of her kinship: her imperfect yet perfect Navratri meal, her husband carrying his lunch box (tiffin) to work, and her once jiggling stomach. By emphasizing the process through which kinship was lived in this community (Carsten 2004: 78), I shift the question from how families struggle to provide for their members, often failing (Cohen 1998; Das and Das 2006; Jesmin and Salway 2000; Palriwala and Pillai 2008; Rashid 2007b; Uberoi 2004; VeraSanso 1999), to why family is still meaningful to invest in, even if it does not provide for social welfare. As important as it is to critique the altruistic ideologies of family, I fear that to ask only what people expect of kinship in an environment where the political economic circumstances make it impossible to fully provide is to risk defining kinship only for its failures. In this chapter, it is my goal to explore the local forms of kinship through which Padma and other women lived their relationships, as much as they made room for changing what to expect from them (Menon and Shweder 1998: 179–80). I have written this chapter primarily from my intimate conversations with women and my observations of their family lives. The perspectives of the men that I describe here also deserve to be explored, but my limited exposure to their interpretations would risk speculation.

In this chapter, I explore family relationships through care, which glosses closely with the Hindi word, seva, or service. Seva has gendered variations: for women, it encompasses the work of feeding, nurturing, cleaning, and rituals of deference (Menon and Shweder 1998); for men, it implies generalized support of relatives (Cohen 1998; Vera-Sanso 1999). In this sense, seva is the stuff of general social welfare, but also the basis of everyday health: how well care is done plays a role in nutrition, hygiene, the effectiveness of health care seeking, the prevention of violence, and mental health. In Ghaziapuram, however, the link was made directly. As Durga put it, "Women's health is bad because gents cannot support (sambhalna) them right. Men today are not like those of before who could support women." With attention (dhyan), Durga and Saraswati explained, women could prevent their own illness as well as that of family members. This stress on care prioritized care as a primary preventive measure: "The person who takes care for her health, her eating, there will not be any problem." The health effects of care could be built up in the body to sustain oneself for periods in life with less. As Saraswati explained, proper nourishment could build up strength in the body, such as strength that was reserved from a childhood of being fed well by parents that could sustain one later.

In Ghaziapuram, affirmations of relatives were voiced through descriptions of their care, echoing the value in North India of care emerging through interdependent family relationships (Cohen 1998; Markus and Kitayama 1991; Marriott and Inden 1977; Ramanujan 1989; Vatuk 1995; Wadley 2008). Geeta and Saraswati talked at length about the ways their mothers had fattened them before marriage and took care of them even in the present, Geeta's mother traveling from distant Bihar and Saraswati's mother secretly visiting her in defiance of her husband's forbiddance. They remarked on husbands who came home regularly for lunch to spend extra time with them and the tender care that their husbands had given them after childbirth (Grover 2011). They pointed to loyal children who did the hard work of cooking, cleaning, and earning money in the present and who remembered their parents in older age (Cohen 1998; Lamb 2000; Vera-Sanso 1999). These were all examples of how family members had kept them right (kisi ko sahi rakhna), done service (seva), and gave support (sahara dena/lena), through feeding, providing, giving a home, the tools for life, and paying attention to the health of relatives. Women pointed proudly to their families to indicate their precious social anchor in this extremely unpredictable world.

I had assumed that women would have a utilitarian approach to kinship, in which they would pick and nurture the relationships that kept them best, making their families to build their security, both bodily and materially. Yet Padma and other women challenged the logic that I had unknowingly adopted from empowerment and autonomy approaches to health, which ask women to take more dramatic approaches to family neglect than I saw in Padma: approaches like refusing to take food last, rejecting domestic violence outright, demanding their own health care, and making household decisions (Haider 2000; Jejeebhoy 1998; Kakar 1978; Koenig et al. 2003; Mishra and Tripathi 2011; Visaria 2000; Visaria 2008). Tolerating a lack of care, in this general view, is evidence that women do not believe they deserve care from their family members.

Yet many women hope the "family might become a place for care" (Das and Das 2004: 44). Women in slums in Delhi swallow pain and make space for "small hurts and reconciliations" (2004: 52). When facing great sickness and risk, women seek treatment options that make their social relations endure (Das and Das 2006: 201). Often embedded within behaviors of self-denial or endurance was both a means to shape their social relationships and bring themselves peace of mind. They found ways to complain — and thus push for change — even though their requests were not to radically redefine the family (Menon and Shweder 1998: 179; Raval 2009).

It became clear that women's complex map of relationships was taken as permanent: even as they moved away from family, left husbands, scorned bad family members, they still imagined themselves embedded within family. Relationships were not broken but tended to, even if unequally. While I had interpreted her relationship as abusive and far gone, Padma felt her relationship as a "dynamic and transformative process" (Carsten 2004: 78). She focused on the social processes of feeding, massaging, home managing, remembering, and persistent staying as the basis of her relatedness (Bodenhorn 2000; Carsten 1995; Lambert 2000). Yet unlike other studies that assert relatedness as social process, Padma and other women did not describe how their relationships were created, grown, or destroyed. Despite constant changes in household membership and tense rifts between relatives, relationships were not described as broken or ended. Rather, women charted how their relationships changed over time through care (or its absence) and longing (Trawick 1992b).

Women argued for the moral imperative to live for others in the face of unequal reciprocity, violence, and the difficulty of everyday survival. In other words, as much as women argued for their desire for a good, caring family, they argued that their dedication to family even through the absence of care showed their lack of attachment to their individual needs, and thus, their higher moral power. Living for others reflected on their individual self, even as it also contributed toward a shared, collective family honor (as I explain later, in chapter 2). The ability to sustain this care "through a thousand sadnesses or happinesses," as Mrinalini put it, demonstrated their powerful faith and closer proximity toward a selfless ideal. Deciding to abide by selflessness regardless of what they could count on from others enabled women to "harness control from within" (Krause 1989; Menon 2013; Menon and Shweder 1998: 182).

Women wrestled with this principle, interpreting both their ability to care and their endurance of others' lack of care to argue for their strong selves. Perhaps part of their tension in living for others was due to the contradictory, ambiguous expectations of different kin positions (Cohen 1998; Trawick 1992b). It was certainly expected, anthropologists show, that particular kinship positions (like daughter-in-law, or widow) were more vulnerable to neglect (Cohen 1998; Das Gupta 1995; Lamb 2000; Menon and Shweder 1998; Seymour 1999) and that acting outside family wishes (like through love marriage) could break the bonds that entitled one to care (Chowdhry 2007; Derne 1995; Grover 2011). Nonetheless, vulnerability seemed to show up in all sorts of life positions, some that fit these expected kinship patterns and some that did not.

So I draw on what I was able to learn, the process of kin relations in the small everyday processes, like those with Padma lying in the dark on hot days. This scale illuminates how women's criticism of their families can be central to their investment in them, rather than a symptom of their families' impending dissolution (see also Menon and Shweder 1998: 179). My focus on everyday acts articulates how women's feelings were conflicted and their acts of affirming relationships were creative, making me hesitate to describe patterned kinship processes (contrast Carsten 1995; Lambert 2000). In a setting where families have so often been condemned for their shortcomings, it was in the everyday that I could understand the nuanced ways in which women found their imperfect families meaningful. Therefore, my analysis here is less concerned with the specificity of kin positions than with showing how women made their relationships meaningful in spite of the numerous challenges they faced in keeping them intact. My goal is less to describe the "who" of family and more the intimate question of "how." While all the women I knew explained what they should be able to expect from their families, the political-economic insecurity and the emerging new family forms in slums meant they often had to improvise on patterns that they knew of, but were not quite their reality.

I begin by arguing that though women might have wanted care from their families, they did not construct care, or love, as an assumed symbol of kinship (i.e., Bear 2007: 170; Trawick 1992b). They concentrated instead on what their continued ability to care for their families indicated about themselves. Women resolved their serious questioning about their family members' negligence by asserting their relatives' capacity for caring and by strategically trying to pull them closer. In cases when they received insufficient care, they demonstrated to themselves and their families that their care continued without attachment to what they received in return. Finally, in cases when women made individual family decisions (such as to leave a husband or make a love marriage), they reconstituted their decisions as social (Mody 2002). Somewhat ironically, as they sustained their families through fragility and violence, all the while women sustained — and affirmed — their individual selves. This embodied struggle to "maintain the domestic" (Das, Das, and Das 2012) reveals women's efforts as social and spiritual mental health strategies that enabled them to do caregiving work that sustained their family members and aspired to create a social world that sustained them as well.


Excerpted from No One Will Let Her Live by Claire Snell-Rood, Mayank Austen Soofi. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Translation and Transliteration

Introduction: Well-Being and the Self
1. “You Should Live for Others”: Tensely Sustaining Families and Selves
2. Let the Dirtiness Go: Managing Relations with Neighbors to Protect the Self
3. “Getting Ahead” as Moral Citizenship in the Face of Demolition
4. To Know the Field: Shaping the Slum Environment and Cultivating the Self


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