Monday, April 16, 2012

Whose Culture is it, anyway ? Yours, Mine or Ours ?

(A repost)

As long as I remember, there has been a February 14th. (Someone in the family has a birthday on the 13th)...
But its only in the last 20 years or so, that I hear it being celebrated here, as Valentines Day. And its only the last 10 years or so that certain pockets of society, and politicians have been objecting to its celebration, with a lot of violence, destruction of shops selling valentines stuff, and shouting from the rooftops. This year has seen the Ram Sene getting into the act in a Mangalore pub, beating up boys and girls, who were supposed to be drinking etc, in direct contravention, of what this Ram Sene says is "Indian culture" .....

When I was a child, explicit socializing between boys and girls was non existent. Yes, we were aware that in certain more emancipated sections of society such as Christians, the armed forces, and a few Parsees, a western lifestyle that was followed, allowed the practice of such socializing. And while my parents were extremely broad minded about us mixing with boys as a part of your school,college, sports etc, it was understood, that any extra attention from anyone, secretive meetings, fibbing to parents etc was simply not on. And we never suffered from the Friday night syndrome.

Staying away at college, traveling abroad for grad school, etc gave us a very balanced view about the whole thing, which was generally suited to the way the world and India were developing at that time as a society. But I had friends who were not allowed to talk to boys, period. I once played mixed doubles in badminton with a fellow in college tournaments, and my mother heard about it, ( with special meaningful emphasis on the fellow) from someone else's mother, both of them 150 miles away ! It is another thing that everyone who told my mother about this got a large piece of her very angry mind , as she was already following my progress through my letters, and very pleased about my participation, mixed or not..

Indian culture is a strange thing. The country is so rich in it. But that isn't the culture these so called "custodians of culture" have understood. They deal with a different culture.

It is OK, if you cavort around trees in pouring rain , in transparent sarees, in fashions that are based on fabric-famine, and throw yourself at the hero, in a Hindi or even Southern movie. It is even more OK, if you perform the sort of body movements in movies, that would make Britney Spears a nobody. You buy a ticket, go see the movie. listen to the catcalls and whistles. But if you and your friend appear to be walking together a bit too often, the "custodians of Indian culture" attack.

I honestly wish they had met my grandmother.

Born at the dawn of the 20th centrury, she was married at 13, to my grandfather, much older than her, and a widower. She was one of 9 sisters, and 1 brother, and the sisters learned the basic three R's at home, while the son went on to be an engineer. She lived at a time, when, if you had to pass through a room in the house where your husband or father-in-law was sitting, you dared not look up, you covered your head, and talking to your own husband in front of even family was a complete no-no. You ate after the menfolk did. You didn't sit somewhere with your feet up munching peanuts in your free time. . And mothers-in-law usually lived up to their standard image of being tough. And , by tradition, daughter-in-laws were troubled by mother-in-laws.....

So, not surprisingly, women of her time dedicated themselves to a lot of religious observances, which was a great education as well as a nice way of spending what little free time you had.
One of the things she followed, involved wearing of special "holy, anointed, pure, just-washed etc" sarees while worshipping and performing religious rituals. My grandmother stayed downstairs, and we had a free run of the whole place as children. Whenever my grandmother was wearing one of these special sarees, you couldn't touch her. Even if that saree was hanging somewhere to dry, you couldn't touch it. (In my language, Marathi, it was called "sowla" सोवळं ).

My cousins and I , always "accidentally" managed to touch her, more so , after we found out that the antidote was for her to have another bath. Things hanging to dry at a height, suddenly found us playing games, like jumping from a bed etc near it. When things became unbearable, my grandmother would complain bitterly to our mother, and we'd miss our nightly stories from her that day. By and by we grew up into womanhood, and I remember my mother telling us how lucky we were, not to have to follow certain customs during menstruating days. In her time, EVERYONE is the family knew , because you were made to sit isolated somewhere in the house, you ate by yourself, had baths elsewhere, you didn't wander anywhere near the gods or the kitchen (in fact sometimes you cooked your own food ), and you made sure you never touched grandma.
This was called "sitting out". (Used to make me laugh when I used to read in the papers in the US about "coming out "parties"..)
My grandmother, uneducated as she was, and very firm in her religious and social beliefs, knew how to move with the times. It did not require a special effort. Just good observation. She never made me "sit out". She never made snide comments to my mother about me cycling at all hours to go for badminton practice, where , of course, you played in shorts, but wore a long skirt over it when you cycled. She enjoyed my frilled sleeveless frocks as much as my parkar-polkas (pictured on left), and she would tell her sisters with a great amount of smugness about how well we were doing at school, and speaking in English etc etc.

When I graduated and decided to go to the US for grad school, folks got into action, filling her ears, with, amazing pieces of knowledge, like, what a folly it was to send a girl of marriageable age to the US like this. Never once did she talk to my parents about this, though she knew enough to tell her sisters etc that I had been granted an assistantship, which was great and that it was an honor to go and study like this. She was fairly old then, mostly house bound, but was part of a huge busload of folks that came to see me off when i left. Maybe some thought they would not see me again.Maybe they secretly felt I would return wearing a frock, and with blonde hair or something. I am sure there was all kinds of alarming talk in the bus on the way back, spoken loud enough for my grandmother to hear....

That I returned basically unchanged (except for shorter hair), is another matter, but that was the time, my elder brother , who was working in the US, was considered a "catch", and we would get a lot or proposals from the various girls' parents. Due to some visa restrictions, an earlier 6 week trip of my brother's had to be postponed, and this got a whole bunch of relatives and interested folks chattering.They would come to her and tell her, "what if he married a "gori" (white woman) ? Maybe he had someone in mind and that's why he was postponing . What if she is not a Hindu ? What if he secretly married her and simply landed up ? "...... The possibilities were endless, once you decided he could do lots of undesirable things.

She was then staying with us in Mumbai and her sister came to visit. Much whispering and sudden silences when we were around. Then her sister thought she could have some fun. She loudly asked what my grandmother would do, if the next day, her grandson appeared at the door with a "gori" wife ?

This was getting interesting. My grandma gave her sister a pitying look. Blew her nose. Shook her head to the side in a sort of defiant, determined way.
"Look" , she said, " You know, I know my grandson, and the values that his parents have given him. Should he come with a "gori" , I know she will have all the qualities that we look for in the eldest and first granddaughter-in-law of the family. She will have her religion , just like ours. But if my grandson has chosen her,she must be wonderful, I will welcome her with an "arti" , anoint her forehead with a red dot and grains of rice, and have her perform the house entering ritual (see above), at the door, that any new bride will perform ! She will be my first grand-daughter-in-law , I will present her with wedding silk sarees, and I will tell the world about it ! So. !

(We don't remember her sister's reaction).

It so happened that my brother came later on, and married a wonderful girl, from India, in India, and I could almost see my grandmother preening in the wedding whenever her sisters were around. She lived to see two of her grandchildren get married, but did not live long enough to see the great grandchildren.

She outlived her husband almost by 30 years. Saw a lot of changes in social attitudes, clothes, emancipation of women issues. She lived her own life exactly the way she wanted. But was very happy to be part of a society that was , maybe, following rules, that were a bit different.

30 years later today, I see the benefit of her attitudes , her courage, and her observations about how we need to change with society, tempered by the values that have come down to us.

I wonder what her take on Valentines day would have been.

And I honestly wish the "custodians of India's culture" could see her and talk to her about it.

Maybe there is something to be learnt....

This entry is a part of the contest at in association with


  1. What a wonderful love letter to your grandmother. She reminds me of my own grandmother. Despite the hardship they went through, they knew who they were and weren't afraid to speak their mind.

  2. Nice to know about your grand mother, Suranga! I felt as if I was reading about my grandmother and her house. It was just like that. Saavla is madi for us. She used to cook with wet clothes in the morning. Later on wear the madi clothes. We could touch her only in the evenings. The menstruation situation also was like you explained. But when she came to our house in Madras, she changed completely according to the way of life we lived here. She used to read a lot in Kannada and hear news without fail everyday. She cried a lot when Kennedy died and was very happy when Yuri Gagarin went to the moon! She also got married to a widower with 5 daughters! Restrictions were there. Still she was happy. She has influenced me a lot.

  3. Thanks for sharing these stories about your grandma. It was a lovely read! She sounds just like my aji, very adaptable and progressive.

    About these certain custodians of 'Indian culture'.. I always wonder if they genuinely think it's better to break shops and beat/molest women than let people celebrate a day of love. It seems to me it's just the ulterior motive of getting cheap political mileage.. or perhaps I just find that more acceptable than thinking they actually believe that they are doing 'the right thing'.

    I do hope some of them bump into people like your grandma though. There is definitely something to be learnt!