Sixty in the City (Dekada Publishing, 2015) may well be Lualhati Bautista’s crowning work of fiction. It is an effective highlight of the author’s lifelong advocacies that center on human rights, feminism and women’s liberation. Written in Bautista’s signature relaxed Filipino, the novel retells the lives of three remarkable women: Guia, Roda, and Menang as they struggle against a largely ageist and anti-woman society.
The novel begins with a snapshot of ordinary life in one of its lowest points: Guia’s husband Carmencito dies after a long and painful illness. The widow’s family rides home with the urn containing the man’s ashes.
Earlier at the funeral chapel, Guia felt that she desperately needed sleep. However, Wendy (her daughter), expected her to take care of her grandchildren even in her state of extreme fatigue. This sparks Guia’s first act of “unmotherly” defiance — she escapes to an apartelle and gets some much-need time out from caring for the departed.
At every opportunity, Bautista shatters the common roles accorded to women: the chaste/inviolable woman, the “respectable”/”dignified” senior, the husband’s blind follower, the family’s sole caregiver and even the unwritten rule that children must remain a mother’s top priority even after they’ve flown the nest.
Sixty in the City argues that women are cast for lifelong roles that benefit everyone — except women. The cultural norm of “pagpapasakop sa asawa” (literally, “to be lorded over by one’s spouse”)is permanently rejected for it offers no respite to beleaguered women, even after decades of loyal and unwavering care for their husbands and families.
Replacing the notion of automatic compliance is a call to arms: women can discard their roles of forty-plus years in favor of an exciting and invigorating pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness. There is no age limit for self-liberation. If a woman chooses to unshackle herself at 66, then so be it. Only death is permanent in the text — all other variables are fluid and subject to tectonic shifts and change.
Roda, the second main protagonist, expresses the phenomenon of being ‘frozen in time’ and an unwanted truth about motherhood in a thought sequence:
“Sa mga pangarap ng asawa na tinulungan niyang matupad habang naglilibing ng sarili niyang mga pangarap. Sa buhay ng mga anak na kanyang kinaiinggitan at hindi mahihiram. Sapagkat ang babae ay hindi isinilang para sa musika at selebrasyon ng sariling buhay; ang babae ay isinilang para maging musika ng kanyang asawa’t mga anak.”(Bautista, p. 90)
The burdens of Menang
Menang is the ‘oddball’ best friend because of the circumstances of her coming into the circle: she is a hair-dyeing manicurist/pedicurist who also happens to know how to give massages and run errands at the Manila City Hall.
She met Guia when her husband Toby, a construction worker, performed repairs at Guia’s house. Both Guia and Roda come from well-off families. Menang on the other hand lives in a ramshackle house, surrounded by her grown-up children, on a tiny patch of land that is not hers.
Menang’s family and their neighbors live in constant fear of being bulldozed by the government. Toby suffered from a severe stroke and is almost bedridden. In one chapter, Menang finds Toby in a state:
“Umiiyak si Toby at tulo pati sipon nito. Nginig na nginig, takot na takot nabaka ngayon na mismo ide-demolish ang mga bahay ay wala itong kasama. Pag nagkatakbuhan, hindi ito makakatakbo. Walang tutulong na magtakbo dito. Madadaganan ito ng mga bato at yero at hindi makakaligtas.”(Bautista 231)
Menang sharply contrasts her two friends, Roda and Guia, because she remains faithful to her roles as a mother and universal caregiver to her growing extended family.
She runs around Manila, looking for work, even as her body protests her never-ending commute and walks across innumerable streets and subdivisions to provide service to paying clients. Menang also spends a chunk of her time keeping septuagenarians and octogenarians company in a senior home.
On top of Menang’s humanist streak is her unassailable belief in the primordial power of friendship with other women. The dynamic that exists in Menang’s exclusive circle benefits all three women equally in times of personal upheavals.
However, Bautista realistically paints the unavoidable class divide: Menang is ashamed that she lives in a hovel while her two friends have nice houses made of concrete. Guia, at one point, inwardly questions their close association because Menang continues to serve her as a masseuse, however infrequently. Guia contends: she doesn’t know a thing about Menang’s hopes and dreams, apart from her daily struggle to survive.
Roda leaves home after her husband confesses to having an affair with a fellow senior in the neighborhood.
Like Guia, a single upheaval pushes Roda to choose between the life she has now or a life of newer, more exciting possibilities. From the get-go, she had wanted to live life on her own terms and not as her husband’s shadow. While Roda lives a physically comfortable life, she is exhausted from her roles as a wife and mother and wants out. Her children are all grown up and she figures — it’s time for her to enjoy whatever remains of her life.
After the separation, Roda finds herself smitten with a man named Cornelio, another senior whose wife had just died. Sparks fly after a slow-burn fuse was lit and soon enough, she was thinking of starting a new life with a new man.
In one thought sequence, Bautista excises the myth of “age and propriety” when it comes to love and desiring another human being. Love is love, no matter who is doing it in the first place:
“Sino ang may sabi na may ipinagkaiba ang damdamin ng isang sitenta’y singko sa isang disisais? Walang pinagkaiba iyan, magkasing talim lang ang damdamin niyan ng pagkabigo, magkasingdami ang luhang ititigis sa kamatayan ng kanyang pag-asa.”(Bautista 196)
Self-love as rebellion
The trope of self-love as the essence of women’s liberation is undeniable in Sixty in the City. While Bautista strategically captures the popular imagination and proletarian tastes with her playful and relaxed language, she unceasingly launches broadsides against an outmoded Filipino value system that exploits all forms of feminine labor by keeping them subjugated to their husbands, children, and families.
In a way, the novel also champions the freedom to remain independently single while respecting the choice of women like Menang who remained satisfied with her marriage despite the material harshness of life in the slums.
Sixty in the City is the final light at the end of a long and winding journey to seniorhood and motherhood. At the precipice of this journey is a simple sign, hung upon the branch of a big guava tree: There is nothing beyond this point. Go back and start loving yourself, before it’s too late.
Marius D. Carlos, Jr.
Marius D. Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. Contact him for writing projects. Visit Marius’ profile on Minds, MeWe, and Twitter. Email Marius: firstname.lastname@example.org.