Wednesday, September 28, 2011


The phrase, "What a woman !"  has multiple applications, as I discovered.  The message  widely varies depending the situation, the person saying it, the object of the remark, and so on.

A crematorium in a biggish city.  Mid morning winter sun streaming in through the old trees  on the river bank, where the crematorium stands. A friend had lost her only remaining parent, her father.  Relatives, and friends were gathered around, and there was much whispering. There were no male offspring of the deceased To some it mattered a lot.

She stood purposefully by her father's body. She would accompany him upto his last moments as a physical being, whether in life or death.  There was some discussion. Who would perform the few formalities that were considered the last rites  She spoke up and said she would.

There was some sudden dissension in the group. Some male cousins thought this was all wrong.  Some older folks, who knew the girl and her devotion to her father, saw nothing wrong . They stood by the girl. Who went ahead and performed the formalities, and then actually gave a shoulder to the stretcher that carried her father to the electric  set up.  The so called, male cousins, walked off in a huff, even before the actual cremation,  unable to bear what they thought was an insult. 

They thought they had lost face. But didn't realize that they never had one in the first place, given their atrocious attitude.  They probably went, "Shaa! What,  a woman ? Oh no ! "  as they muttered while leaving. The rest of the group, probably stood around  the girl,  in support, remembering how she cared for her father, and went, "What a woman ! ".....

Go back several decades and imagine an illiterate girl married to a senseless violent man , in her village, at the age of 14.  He would not just beat her, but tried to completely smash her mind. They would return from family trips where he wouldn't eat anything; he would return home and ask the wife to make bhakris, regardless of how late it was. She would make some chutney for him, freshly grinding it to serve with the hot bhakri of the griddle.  He would take that, smell it, the spread the chutney all over the bhakri face, and then smash the whole thing into her face.  (She told me this story).

Today she stands on her own feet  having left him  2  decades ago. She worked houses, educated her kids, now has grand kids. She encourages her daughters-n-law to take classes and work,  her sons are gainfully employed, and she bravely supports a daughter who came away from a bad marriage, after being cheated, herself. And at the end of the day, she is always out to help people, , has learnt to talk to officers in offices, bravely, and doesn't hesitate to tell off a son if she thinks he needs it. I know so many people who would simply stand, applaud, and say ,"What a woman !  What a woman !".  (Most folks would recognize her as my  household help, S, who has been with me for 25 years, and has been extensively blogged about.)

What really will make you wonder is this true story.

Out one evening  for dinner at a neighboring suburb, we were walking  on the sidewalk , as the place was some distance away, and there was a family of 4 ahead of us.  Their little fellow skipped ahead, and the older sister followed with the parents.

Newly constructed sidewalks  often have some stuff pending, in the sense, that it is not uncommon to see a thickish pipe at an very small angle to the road, sort of protruding , instead of running just below the side walk surface.

All of a sudden, we saw the woman fall down. It was dark, and she had tripped over one such protruding pipe, and was on all fours in a split second. I think she hurt her knee very badly.

Almost instantly, her husband, in a loud ringing voice , got upset and shouted ," "What a  woman ! ("Kya aurat hai ! "~What kind of a woman is this ?).  "  

I was totally aghast. The woman picked herself up, and sat on one of the stones on the side of the sidewalk, clutching her knee. She looked up at her fuming  husband,  and in a shaking voice, held out her arm as if to say "stay out",  simply shouted  and asked everyone to stay away from her. She asked them to carry on, and that  she would do whatever needed to be done  to get self  up and attended to.  And they stood around, the children, confused, and the man, probably wondering how the words, betraying his own chauvinist  convoluted thinking came out like this.  Suddenly, as an afterthought,  the husband looked around to shout at someone, spied us , and started yelling about how people left careless construction half finished , dangerous and so on. No one was fooled, I helped the woman up , and we went out separate ways.

I saw the husband looking on dazed, as if he didn't say what he did.  (Which we all heard).

But clearly , he was  or simply pretended to be,  more bothered, about her fall hurting the Earth.

It was like, "What kind of a woman trips and falls on a rusted iron protruding pipe, when out for a family dinner ?  What a woman! Shaaa ......"

Three women. Different occasions. Three different societal strata. Same disrespect,  same abuse.

And then one wonders, why,  when enlightened parents can bring up daughters  who stand shoulder to shoulder with sons in responsibilities , guts , capabilities and so on,  does no one pay any attention to sons

Or is it that their default development, good, bad or terrible,  is always considered the gold standard ? 

Had the guy fallen after tripping on the pipe, there would have been an almighty fuss, cribbing, limping, swearing, cancelling the outing, xrays, assorted folks rushing around with ointments, ice  etc in a your-wish-is-my-command   mode.

It really has nothing  to do with money, education, or prestige.

It's the mind-set........and its careless nurturing.   



  1. How true, Ugich!

    A friend has her own boutique, where she deals in beautiful bags, purses, material, knick-knacks etc. designed and made by herself. For this she needs to travel often to source items. She designs stuff and gets them made directly from artisans. She is also a full-time homemaker and mom of two. She does all the cooking in the house herself, as her family refuses to eat what a cook makes. She sits up late nights for her work, after her family is attended to and all have gone to bed.

    Just last week she had gone to Mumbai to get 6 big bags full of clay diyas and a lot of other stuff that she will be decorating and putting up for sale. Her bus came to the bus stand at 6.30 in the morning. Single handedly, she got all of it into a taxi with minimum possible breakage, and got it offloaded at home- simply because she her shop was too small to keep it there without some sorting. Her husband did not even think it necessary to go to pick her up or help her with the offloading.

    All he had to say when he left for his high-paying software job was- "I want all of this out of the house before I come back in the evening."!!

  2. (She told me this story).

    Is not it same lady, you wrote about who has stand up for her family and few days was struggling for caste certificate??

    She is done with that? or still struggling?

  3. The mindset and the careless nurturing - true .
    My sister-in-law (my husband's first cousin)performed all cremation rituals of her father.The family stood by her caring nothing about what others might think.A widow choosing to remarry, women working in night shifts,women who contribute majorly financially but are not able to help in the family kitchen are most often called 'kya aurat hai ' - our society is sadly still biased .

  4. About the men in your country: they are called Male Chauvinist Pigs in my country...

  5. It's the same state of affairs everywhere! And it's sad. It's strange that even after being educated and brought up well, men treat women like dirt! Wonder what will make them understand and realize that it's woman who brings him into the world and takes care of him as a mother, is with him through thick and thin as a wife, pampers and loves him as a sister!

  6. very true what you say .. I dont find it wrong if the girl was there for the last rites of her father .. who else would od it .. stupid cousins ..

    When my father passed away my sister was with me on all the rites that were to be done .. she has equal right as me .. and if some people had a problem with that then I made sure they knew they can get lost ...


  7. I love this post.
    You are in India and the setting is
    But this is One Woman who started out alone 32 years ago and did what
    most of her family and maybe others
    thought she could not do. Educated her children and made a life for herself. A different kind of life.
    Closer to the end now. I am at peace and happy.
    When I look back much I did not understand. Now it does not matter.
    Life is good...

  8. Many years back, my grandmother lit the pyre of her mother !

    The scene remains etched in my memory.. your post brought back several memories.

  9. And who is responsible for bringing up a man with such low degrees of sensitivity and empathy? The parents, and sadly, the mother contributes to it the most. It's sad to see that most problems a women faces in her home is because of the callous attitude of another woman. A mother who fusses over her son and leaves out the daughter, a mom-in-law who cribs over insignificant things that her daughter-in-law does, the neighbourhood women who passes judgement on the working woman....sad to see that women are sometimes so insensitive to other woman's plight.

  10. Sad but true that even today women are treated as sus-standard citizens and by the way some Lady from Hawaii as be rated Indians by generalizing them.This is not about INDIAN MEN ,it's about men in general , about a whole planet of men who for centuries have grown believing they in some way superior . Irony of life being that even to BE on this planet they need a woman's womb ! Ur maid is a gutsy lady and am so glad you wrote about her. By the what u described of your observation of the lady falling over some stray construction material is exactly what I witnessed albeit in ENGLAND not India and the reaction sequence was precisely the SAME !and NO the couple was NOT there ! It's a global attitude change that's required !

  11. Sandhya So true. We see it happening again and again and again ...

    Makk yes its the same lady. and yes, her problem is solved. Some folks who read the post (and have read about her before) even helped her with costs financially....

    Kavita I wish somebody had an answer to "Kya Aurat hai !". Lets hope things change...

    gigihawaii I think all countries have their share of MCP's. In fact I heard these words first when I went grad school in UCI, in Calif. in 1970-72. But then different countries develop differently over time. Like women in India got a right to vote, the day India got her independence in 1947. Much before America. I just hope that somewhere sometime people across the world change. And women and their work , are respected....

    Neha At the crux of it all is a mother's ability to tell off someone, son or daughter who is doing or behaving wrong. Many mothers fear the "burapan"....

    Bikramjit Glad to know that you were so much there with your sister all throughout the difficult time....

    Ernestine I have nothing but admiration for your life, as I read your blog, and realise your strength....thank you for the comment!

    Kavi Yes, tese vignettes remain firmly etched in your mind, and possibly guide you at some times....

    Wanderer Thats how it is :-(

    Ashok Thank you .

    3deviyaan Countries are really incidental to all this. You have all types everywhere. I have personal experience of at least 3 countries including mine. What needs to chnage is how mothers bring up sons vis-a-vis daughters...

  12. gigihawaii A slight correction. I meant to say that we women in India didnt have to fight for a right to vote. Women in the US did.

  13. Thanks for all of the comments, which I find interesting.

    I think American women have come a long way -- certainly, we are better off than women in Saudi Arabia, where they are not permitted to drive! Good grief!

    Yes, the term, Male Chauvinist Pigs, was probably coined in the US during the feminist movement back in the 1970s. That is when I first heard it.

    I think the day a woman is elected president of the USA will be a great day. Hillary Clinton came close, but failed to be nominated. Maybe, next election?

  14. Anyway, getting back to Male Chauvinist Pigs: I have not seen any evidence of it in Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York City, where I have lived. In my own family, hubby and I are equal...

  15. I've been there and seen it except that the person who said it was a female herself.
    The occasion was my first delivery and I was very sick. I felt hot in the head and ears generally drowsy and weak. I did not realize that my BP was soaring till I lost sight. Bp was normal when i went for the previous check up and the baby wasn't due till two weeks from then. My mother and uncle were worried if I would ever get back my sight and a neighbor said

    "what a girl... how stupid could you be not to recognize the symptoms."

  16. Really a wonderful example of male dominating society and the upliftment of a that Woman. Appreciateble efforts :)

  17. HHG I know some folks who wouldnt recognize a symptom even if was magnified for them, but instead of bringing comfort to someone, it gives them a kick to make such comments. Sick people.

    Mukta Dutt Thank you and welcome to the blog !