It is being talked about everywhere......International Women’s Day! For the past one week or so, the same topic is everywhere; be it the radio, television or the newspaper. Got me thinking as to what it is, to be brought up as a girl in post independent India. In what way was my mother’s life different from mine and how was her life different from my grandmother’s?
I was born in a Tamil Brahmin family exactly Eleven years after India became an independent country. My maternal grandfather was posted at Pollachi in Tamilnadu and I was born at home on 17th October 1958. My father, far away in Delhi was jubilant and treated all his friends to Masala Dosa, Sweets and Coffee, much to the amazement of his North Indian friends. Even the landlady to whom he joyously handed a packet of Doodh Pedas, shook her head and consoled my dad; don’t worry, next time you will be blessed with a son!
My early childhood is a long list of colourful memories; the spotted deer of Delhi zoo, the white Roshogullas at Bengali market, boat rides and fun at the India Gate and the long convoluted slides of the famous Children’s park. My parents taught me to recite Shlokas and taught me the alphabets and numbers with the eagerness of all young parents with their first born. Soon we shifted to Rishikesh, where my father was one of the pioneers in setting up the IDPL factory. I was sent to the project school along with all the other children of IDPL employees. All boys and girls studied together and even after 55 years I fondly remember all the fights, fun and masti we had in the class room when the teacher was away. Many of my friends had six or seven siblings. I remember Jayshree who had five sisters, and finally her mother gave birth to a boy and there was such jubilation and celebration. Another friend Preeti had seven sisters but no brother. There was another boy Rajesh who had four brothers but no sisters. I was the only one who had no sibling up till I was ten years old.
IDPL was a Public Sector undertaking, and there were people from all parts of the country, but as far as I can remember, there was no discrimination between boys and girls. In fact girls always got a little more, be it the special Lehenga for Rakhi or coloured glass bangles for all major festivals. We got to play Sita’s friends in the local Ramleela play, where we would all be decked up in finery and flowers and got to occupy the prime position on the stage on the day Sita Svayamvar was enacted. The boys only got to wear red or black shorts depending on which side of the army they were in the Ram-Ravan Yuddh. Their faces were unrecognizable as they were either painted red or black. All they got to do was run around the stage shouting Jai Shreeram if they were part of the Vanar Sena and make strange noises if they were part of the Raavan army. Even in the school annual day, girls got all the glam and glitter, while the boys sweated it out on the sports field.
It was my mother who took care of my early childhood education as father got very busy with purchase and accounts and recruitment in the new pharmaceutical industry. She herself went to school only up to Eighth standard at Bishop Cotton Convent in Trivandrum. She told me tearfully one day, that her father had to withdraw her from school as in those days girls were not allowed to go out of the house once they attained puberty. She was so sharp that I am certain if she was allowed to pursue higher education she would have ended up as a scholar. My mother had told me the story of her paternal grand aunt Shankarambal who got widowed at the age of seven and was not allowed to go out of the house, play, wear colourful clothes or glass bangles. One day she asked her father the reason for the treatment she got and he explained that her husband was bitten by a snake and he had died. Hence she has become a widow and widows are not supposed to enjoy anything in life. According to my mother, this aunt requested her father to be allowed to study. A home tutor was appointed and she was taught by him sitting behind a screen. She studied hard and stood first in the state of Travancore in the matriculation exams. Her father was so impressed that he made arrangements for her to study medicine. Later on she went abroad and got her MRCP and FRCS and returned as an accomplished surgeon. She never remarried, but adopted two boys and led a fulfilled life. Whenever I asked my mother as to why she did not protest and insisted on studying further, she evaded the question and never answered. My grandmother too was married off at the age of eleven and became a mother at the tender age of fourteen. My paternal grandmother too got married at twelve and by the time she reached thirty was a mother of fourteen children. I remember them as extremely intelligent, wise and erudite women. They were almost magical in the way they handled the entire household, took care of their children and grand children, gracefully handled all social obligations and remembered every single recipe, ritual, story, and songs for every occasion. Surely they were highly respected and emancipated members of society. I am not condoning child marriage and multiple childbirth and domestic slavery, but I marvel at the dignity with which the women of my grandmother’s times carried themselves, and carved out important social niches for themselves.
One of the many women who left a lasting imprint on my growing years was my school headmistress Miss Pateth. She encouraged me to be part of every single academic event in the city as well as state and honed my communication skills in Hindi as well as English. After passing class eight it was time to shift to the Girls Inter College in the city as the project school was only up to class eight. Our Headmistress Dr. Hemvati Gupta was a freedom fighter and a firm believer in woman empowerment. She wanted us to be part of the state cricket team and take part in all other sporting and cultural events. We grew up idolising Diana Idulgi and Shanta Rangaswamy( the female cricketing legends of India). Of course we had our share of crushes on Sunil Gavaskar, Farooq Engineer, Tony Lewis, and Greg Chapel.
The seventies were the time of great romantic Hindi films with the handsome Rajesh Khanna, the poster boy. Many of my classmates had secret crushes on anyone who managed to look like Rajesh Khanna. It was also the era of angry young man Amitabh Bacchan and the boy next door Amol Palekar. Art films like Ankur, Nishant, Mrigaya with strong social messages left a very lasting impression those days. The 1960-80 was the most happening era of the century. While the Indo-Pak wars left us all steeped in patriotic fervour, the clamping of Emergency by Prime minister Indira Gandhi left us all groping in the darkness of political turmoil. Man landed on moon, the television sets took over our social lives and Doordarshan took up the role of friend, philosopher and guide.
I was sent to Dehradun to complete my graduation and Post graduation. Many of my father’s friends wanted to know as to why he was spending so much money and risking sending me to a hostel for higher studies. These were the very same people who went to clubs and danced and drank, but became very conservative when it came to their daughters’ upbringing. The city of Dehradun those days was a curious mixture of modern, fashionable and forward looking yet traditional social set up. We were the first batch of the students of the newly formed Garhwal University. The ‘Chipko’ movement started by the women of Uttarakhand (the erstwhile UP) against large scale deforestation of the hills was at its peak and the sparks of agitation for a separate state had been ignited.
It was an exciting era, with great women like Sushila Dobhal as the Vice Chancellor of Garhwal University. Social evils like the dowry system and child marriage were strongly condemned and many of our male friends publicly took oaths to never marry for dowry. It was an age of idealism; female foeticide was unheard of, there were very few dowry deaths. Parents were convinced about educating their daughters and letting them work. The sunshine of gender equality had started peeping through the dark clouds of oppression.
I think it was the sudden surge of material well being and the rat race for more material gain that upset the apple cart. Our next generation suddenly had too much of everything; from information to communication to access to more opportunities for some, and deprivation for many others. The entire society got caught in the cross current of conflicting ideas and ideals and what was perceived as modern vs traditional. The state of anxiety and the confusion that this conflict has brought is the reason for all the aggression, violence and hatred.. It is sad to know that women young and old alike no longer feel safe; gender bias and gender based crimes have surpassed all limits, and women of our country have to fight for everything; even the right to be born!
The scenario is not restricted to India alone. The air in the world is thick with intolerance, hatred and violence. The root cause of it all-greed to possess more and more, and if you can’t do that, annihilate those who seem to have more than you.
What can women do to change the scenario? Stand united, move on with conviction; raise your voice against everything that is threatening peace on this planet. Don’t be afraid because you are a woman, because that is your greatest strength! Get your act together and show the world the path to peaceful co existence!
HAPPY WOMENS DAY..........