My Father Has Cancer. My Relatives Are Worried About His Unmarried Daughters

Neha Basak
·5-min read

A man of 65 years, retired, reasonably happy with the monthly pension and the delectable meals his wife and daughters serve thrice on his plate. Having observed the motto of “prevention is better than cure” as the guiding truth, he has led most of his restricted life as a middle-class bank employee. And when it is finally time for him to reap the fruits of his life-long savings, there came the bolt – Stage IV Lung Adenocarcinoma.

Cancer — a disease that not just drains off the patient but the entire family. Where to start from? How bad is it? How much time does he have? Does he have enough funds? The mind is fraught with a thousand uncertainties. But guess what troubles the nosy relatives and ‘friends’ around? What will happen to his two unmarried daughters?

On December 9, 2020, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. As we struggled to find the best doctors and treatments for him, some around us decided that he, in fact, has to cure more than one disease — the singlehood of his daughters.

Treatment of cancer comes at a heavy cost that is immeasurable – trains of negative thoughts to bog down a person at every step. When we needed thoughts, hopes and positivity from the ‘concerned’ people, the focus shifted to the unmarried statuses of daughters and their ‘security’ in the probable absence of a male figure.

Here’s a thought: Indian society’s fallacious affection towards daughters is just another way to glorify patriarchy, and this is no different. While a daughter is appreciated for being young, smart and responsible, her efficiency is almost always measured against a man.

A faint smile and a tired glance are all I have to offer each time I am respected for “doing a man’s job”. Where am I drawing this strength from? How am I understanding the nitty-gritty of finance easier than expected? And all of it with no man as the pillar of strength? Curled inside my blanket I often ponder, why am I being given a gender-specific hat tip for doing what any child would do for their ailing parents?

This dire situation brings us in regular contact with relatives, far and near. Being casually compared to sons, like it is a feather on our cap, is only one of the stinging insults we brush aside. Next comes, marriage.

“How can you give up like this? You must put up a fight till the elder one gets married. At least one son-in-law can take care of the rest.” There was a barrage of such suggestions, as came from one elderly uncle. His heart may have been in the right place, his words weren’t. All I wanted to say was ‘Uncle, sit down!’, I didn’t. The elderly relative simply ignored the possibility of it subtly setting expectations and parental emotions getting to overrule a daughter’s individual agency. Everything that begins as distant trouble, ends with a woman’s choice. Why?

The stories are quite common. Every time there is an ailing parent at home, the ‘burden’ of daughters suddenly becomes heavier. Adding to the agony of the ‘still marriageable’ daughters are weekly chemo doses, deep bruises and hair shedding.

Therefore, it did not come as an absolute shock the day a relative, while getting updates, commented on my father’s misfortune: “As it is you are still fraught with two daughters’ marriage, cancer on top of that!”

This remark also highlights the growing worries over depleting finances. A crisis that has begun to raise a purposeless question – how much funds will we be left with for our ‘big-fat’ weddings?

In India, marriages are an expensive and complex process. It is a social phenomenon, replete with high familial engagement, material competition and so on. After all, the assortment and variety of the wedding spread and the jewellery staged by the bride often spell the family’s social standing.

A woman ageing without any such ‘prospect’ becomes so triggering that getting them married often becomes the prime impetus for families. And sadly, it has been nailed into our belief system that parents must divest half of their lives’ saving just on a wedding; the rest can wait.

The hollowness of this social conditioning has now come down to distress my father, who should otherwise be encouraged to find hope at his lowest. Consequently, a new discourse has started building to assure my parents – “Be glad that you have daughters; they are the ones who actually take care of parents.”

Why so? Why do we not raise our men as ‘caregivers’ too? Or, do we still want to carve bread-earners and finance managers out of sons and domestic caregivers out of our daughters?

Imagine a father had two sons in this scenario. Would they not be rushed into tying the knot? In all probability, yes, and by the same set of people. The agenda would, however, be slightly different. Instead of financially sound sons-in-law, who would be virulent and manage outdoor work, they would require an extra pair of helping hands in domestic chores. Scan the society around you with the gender lens on and you shall know that there is no twisted, far-fetched claim here.

In an age where women are running top MNCs and even countries, it is tough to pinpoint a logical source of these beliefs.

It all ultimately boils down to the shackles of age-old patriarchy. Even in an era when we appreciate women taking the world by its collar, venturing into bold professions, and challenging gender stereotypes, it only takes one dire situation to reveal our crude thoughts. Isn’t it really farcical that we wish to educate our daughters and yet believe they can provide care, not the financial or any other form of support? It is because accepting a daughter with a mind of her own is a hard-to-swallow pill for us.