(Media Release) Many years ago I was travelling on an assignment for the BBC. I boarded an overnight train, found my berth and began to settle down for my journey.
The man sitting opposite me struck up a conversation asking where I was travelling, what part of India I was from, what I did.
Then he asked me: “What does your husband do?”
I had not even told him that I was married. I was offended – it didn’t matter to him that I was a journalist and was travelling for work.
I was just a woman and a woman to India’s patriarchal mindset is inconsequential unless she is seen as someone’s daughter or sister or wife.
It was not the first time I was asked this question, nor was it the last. A number of my friends complain they are regularly asked this by acquaintances, just minutes old.
So I decided to stop men on the streets of Delhi and pop this question to them: “What does your wife do?”
It was a totally non-scientific experiment borne out of curiosity – and perhaps some over-sensitivity.
But I was surprised by how most men were willing to answer the question. Every man I spoke to confirmed they had never been asked this question before but most spoke freely of their wives with a mixture of affection, respect and pragmatism.
‘Never been asked this before’
Mohammad Mohsin, 27, smiles shyly and says he’s still single.
Mr Mohsin has been asked “lots of questions by lots of people” in the past, but he’s “never been asked this question before”.
He is “not angry” when I pop the question to him, “just a little embarrassed”.
“Let me first get settled in my business and then I’ll think about getting married,” he says.
‘She takes care of our four children, three cows, a buffalo and a calf’
“My wife looks after the home, our land and cattle,” says auto-rickshaw driver Sandeep Yadav.
Mr Yadav, 53, is from a village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and has been living and working in Delhi for the past eight years.
His wife, he says, lives in the village and “takes care of our four children, three cows, a buffalo and a calf”.
Mr Yadav does not find my nosiness upsetting.
“You asked me a question and I answered. What’s the big deal? My wife is in the village, you can’t reach there or harm her in any way so why should I be angry?”
‘I’m not married!’
Manoj Singh Rathor is 28 and says he is “still too young” to be married.
“My parents ask me all the time when I’ll get married and I tell them, only when I’m ready,” he says.
Mr (Free-Pr-Online.com) Rathor says when people ask women what their husbands do, it’s because Indians are “jovial, friendly people”.
“They are just trying to connect with you,” he says.
‘I don’t ask, because I don’t want to be asked’
Dhruv Khosla says he never asks personal questions because “I don’t want to be asked personal questions”.
A manager in an engineering firm, the 31-year-old says in India people are nosy because they think “if you’re in your early 20s, you must be married”.
But, he says, it’s older people who ask these questions and that his generation is different.
“I’m divorced. Most of my friends and my older sister are not married. We all often get asked if we are married.
“It’s a question strangers should not ask. It’s offensive.”
Has he ever felt like hitting anyone? “Yes,” he replies.
‘People think a woman has to be married’
Jagdish Singh Kaira says the question is “an ice-breaker” and “it’s not so personal that I would get annoyed”.
His wife is a college student and he says he often gets asked by friends and members of his extended family if he is married although no-one has ever asked him what his wife does.
“Women get asked about their husbands because in India people think that a woman has to be married. Indians can’t accept that a woman is not married,” he says.
Anubhav Raj is an engineer, he’s 30, and unmarried.
“Why are you asking me this question?” he asks, visibly annoyed.
When I explain the reason, he says: “When you asked me the question, initially I felt a little annoyed. But on second thoughts, it’s not so strange a question.”
‘If you like your spouse, you won’t mind this question’
“My wife runs a boutique from where she sells clothes she designs,” says Prabhu Mishra, adding that he has “no problems sharing personal information” with me, though he “won’t share it with anyone else”.
Mr Mishra has a unique take on why someone might get offended by such questions.
“If your spouse is successful, then you don’t care. I’m happy talking about my wife because she is successful in her work. I’m proud of her.”
Mr Mishra says he has never been questioned about his wife’s work, and admits that “my wife gets asked all the time about me”.
“But I think she doesn’t mind. I guess she would be annoyed if I was not successful, I think people mind talking about their spouse when they are in unhappy marriages,” he says.
‘It’s okay for men to ask this question’
When I asked the question of Dr Vijay Goel, sitting next to me on a Delhi Metro train, he seemed very upset, but then he agreed to speak to us.
“Who are you? Why are you asking me this question? You have no business asking me this question,” he said.
When I pointed it out to him that I’ve been asked that question many times, he said it was “okay for men to ask you this question if they’ve been talking to you for about half an hour”.