When I saw yesterday IHM’s post on women born before 1940, I did a little jig around my computer. Yay!!Now I knew what my next post was going to be about! My grandmother, of course–whose tales about her childhood and youth have fascinated me since as long as I remember.
My grandmother was born in a 1931 in a village in Madhubani, Bihar, to a well-to-do Sanskrit scholar and his second wife. When her father’s first wife could not conceive for more than 10 years, relatives persuaded him (I suppose they did not have to try too hard) to marry a second time. Apparently the first wife raised no objections– she accepted her fate stoically, even cheerfully. Grandma has fond memories of her stepmother doting on her and all her nine siblings.
Grandma was the first-born of what would eventually become a large brood of ten surviving children, and hence very dear to her parents, specially her father. Her father had celebrated her birth by getting drummers to play dhol-tasha outside their house–this was something that was done only at the birth of sons. “People said he’s gone crazy”,Grandma laughs, her wrinkled face glowing with pride at having received such an honour.
Symbolisms aside, the fact remained that her family was extremely orthodox . Religious scriptures were followed in letter and spirit. Unlike her brothers, Grandma was never sent to school, but her father lovingly taught her elementary Mathematics , Sanskrit, Maithili and even some English. She was (still is) blessed with a keen mind, and her father was always impressed with her sharp memory–he often used to remark that she would have done very well in academics had she been a boy.
Grandma was all of nine years old when she got married to my grandfather, then seventeen years old. Child marriages were pretty much the unquestioned norm during her times. Since the grooms too were very young at the time of marriage, there was no way of predicting with certainty how well a particular boy would turn out. Many a good student inexplicably dropped out after high school for no bigger reason than boredom and disinterest, and whiled away their lives doing nothing significant. Arranged marriages then were even greater gambles than they are today. Granny was very fortunate that her husband was a diligent student who went on to study medicine after marriage.
Grandma’s dwiraagaman (Sanskrit/Maithili for the coming of a bride to live in her husband’s house) took place when she was thirteen. Hitherto she had been wearing ghaghras(long skirts) and blouses, now it was the sari all the way, with her head covered at all times. Her in-laws family was a huge joint family living in another village, with about ten couples and their children living under the same roof in a sprawling house. Guests were a regular feature, and on any given day the family had at least half a dozen guests staying the night.
Cooking for such a huge family was a herculean task in more ways than one. For one, it was done on wood-stoves–for another, water had to be fetched from a hand-pump some fifty yards away from the kitchen. While there were a number of maids to help with cleaning and scrubbing, the cooking was always to be done by the ladies of the house themselves. Chores were divided amongst all the women, but inevitably the bigger share of the work fell on the youngest women, newly married daughters-in-law who were not likely to protest. So now Grandma cooked, cooked and then cooked some more. What a perfectly ghastly life, I remember exclaiming once– did it never occur to her that she was much better off unmarried? She gave me a sharp look and then mumbled something about marriage bringing with it a different set of pleasures, maternity for instance !!*shaking my head, rolling my eyes*
My father was born to Grandma when she was fifteen. He was delivered at her parents’ home (another unquestioned norm–all deliveries took place at the girls’ parents place. It invariably fell upon the parents of the girl to tend to her through her pregnancy and delivery and also care for her post-delivery. Another ‘burden’ for the parents of a girl and another custom which suited her in-laws just fine. ) Medical facilities were non-existent in villages, and deliveries took place with only a small group of ‘delivering ladies’ in attendance. Granny was just plain lucky that her deliveries were free of any complications.
My grandfather was only halfway through his MBBS at the time of my father’s birth and visited only on weekends. Even on these weekly visits, husband and wife were not supposed to talk to each other in public. Parents were also not supposed to show any affection for their own children in the presence of elders.
Grandma had had four children–three sons and a daughter–by the time my grandfather finished his studies and found employment in the State Medical Services. This momentous event was to change Granny’s life dramatically. Hereafter she would stay with her husband and children, relocating frequently to wherever Grandfather’s transfer postings took him. She was finally freed from the shackles of her thankless existence as the daughter -in-law of a huge joint family . Her standard of living went up several notches, and while she still dressed conservatively, she was able to experiment with different fabrics, cuts , drapes and styles. For the first time in her life she made friends outside of her immediate or extended family, mostly with her neighbours and with the wives of my grandfather’s colleagues.
My grandfather got Grandma to undergo the sterilization operation, which was pretty much taboo those days. Grandma’s very conservative father was aghast at the very idea. Realising that his son-in-law couldn’t be expected to listen to him, he tried his best to get his daughter to refuse. He warned her that should she go ahead with the operation, he would no longer eat any food touched by her. But my grandfather wouldn’t budge, and the operation went ahead as scheduled, with Grandma weeping as she was being taken to the operation theatre. She was scared stiff and thought she would not survive the operation despite my grandfather’s assurances that it was only a minor procedure. She was also feeling very bad about not ‘obeying’ her father. My grandmother became the first woman in our community to be thus sterilized. A whole lot of her relatives followed her lead, possibly after being convinced that the procedure was perfectly safe. The old guard in the society reconciled itself to changed realities, accepting grudgingly that it was impossible to stop an idea whose time had come. Grandma’s father never did carry out his threat of not partaking food touched by her. Today, grandma concedes that the operation was the best thing to have happened to her. She states unequivocally that contraception is a blessing straight from the heavens, an answer to the collective prayers of all women through the centuries.
At eighty, Grandma today is frail and hunched, but has lost none of her zest for life. Her memory continues to be excellent, and she proves from time to time that her sense of repartee is still intact. She is very fond of interacting with young people, asking them about their studies and their career options–she is quite knowledgeable about careers, by the way, and often surprises youngsters by offering expert comments. *cringe*. She is also a keen observer of the latest trends in fashion, although she herself has only been wearing plain white sarees ever since my grandfather passed away in1996–no amount of coaxing and reasoning on our part will make her wear any other colour.
She acknowledges that life has become infinitely easier for women today but dismisses any talk of gender equality with a wave of her hand. She is not in a hurry to revise her opinion that men are definitely superior to women. She exults at the birth of a great-grandson, and only smiles weakly at the birth of a great-granddaughter. While she condemns female foeticide as’ mahapaap’ , she reserves her deepest sympathies for the parents of daughters. She believes that it is a daughter-in-law’s biggest, almost divinely ordained duty to look after her parents-in-laws to the best of her ability ( she takes turns staying with her three sons and is heavily dependent on her daughters-in-law for elder-care– I do not expect her to not support a system that has benefitted her this much). She supports the concept of women having careers only as long as their husbands, children and in-laws are not ‘neglected’. She frowns upon all inter-caste/inter-community love marriages. And yes, she does consider her lighter-skinned children better-looking.
I guess it is not easy for most people to shake off decades of social conditioning, which is only a polite term for plain old brainwashing, all of which was (and still is) done to ensure the survival of the great Indian culture!