Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Whose culture is it anyway ? Yours, mine or ours ?

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. Another incredible post. I learn so much from you. The interesting part about it is that it always makes me think of may own life. When I think of your grandmother and hear about her I think of mine. Married at 13? Wow. My father's mother was very young too and was one of 14 children. She was the same. Very understanding and forward thinking. Incredible and strong women.

    You know if you put all your blog posts in a book I would buy one. Have you ever thought about it? You are just so gifted and wise.

    This sentence made me laugh out loud.
    "It is even more OK, if you perform the sort of body movements in movies, that would make Britney Spears a nobody." You also have a fantastic sense of humor, just fantastic.

    Thanks for the great read. And no, I dont think I could handle the monkeys either. Magpies steal things too to decorate their nest. Monkeys are cheeky.

  2. Good post.. Sort of nostalgic. Reminded me of my grandmom.
    In some ways I feel that some of the people of the earlier generations were more 'moving with the times' rather than people now.

    Atleast they ensured that they did not impose their thoughts or mindset to the subsequent generations especially in view of a lot of mindless traditions they got used to from olden times.

    Great read. Nice to hear about personal exp.

  3. Beautifully scripted post, I will just link it to have more people read this as there is a heavy debate on culture happening....

    "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. !

    I loved this portion.... really really heartwarming post !!!!

  4. So true. My panaji (great grandmother) was five when she got married and great grandpa was 21. hehe don't ask. but the reason for that was so the daughter in law is moulded and grows up following the husband's family's traditions culture and rules. (that's the explanation). And when we would ask her how did she agree to marry such an old person she would wink and say yeah he had to wait a looooong time.

    My mom's mom was very strict about "sowla" and when she would come to visit us or vice versa I would be constantly under stress. It was no fun. But my dad's mom was a hoot... no sowla nothing. SHe lived to be 94 and passed away a couple of years back. Just a wonderful person.

    Custodians of indian culture .. yeah.. remember the times when they thought it was inappropriate for sania mirza to play world class tennis in those short skirts and wanted to ban her?

    Valentine's day is about spreading love and I think thats one of the most violent days in our country trying to "protect our indian culture and saunskruti"

    Great write up.. enjoyed reading it.


  5. Ram Sene is not opposing valentines day because they are against you said they would die to see mallika sherawat,J lopez if given a chance...all they want is showing narrow mindedness (like bal or raj tackhrey) and as well as love for Indian culture they think they can appeal to the parents who are against their wards going around with opposite sex ! But I guess the pink chaddi gift is just apt for them !
    Thanks for writing about this topic ! It was wonderful to know about your grandmom ...could co-relate with all the customs you said...i guess its just the language that is different otherwise i dont see any difference between Maharashtrian or tamilian or for that matter others in India !

  6. Your grandmother said exactly what mine did when I actually did present the family with my "gora" fiance. I have the utmost respect for both your and my grandmother and the myriad other people who have the maturity not to be preemptively judgemental about unfamilair circumstances and cultures.

    I remember fondly... Kakubai... in her maroon sari signifying widowhood and shaven head, cooking away furiously at my grandparents home. She lived and worked as a cook in thier home forever and was already very ancient when I was a child. She had a terrible life, married and widowed at 8 and cast out of her marital and parental home for being "unlucky". What a cruel, punitive life for no fault of her own!

    Her own life was hidebound by tradition, and she carried on her "sola" tradition like an extreme penance. She cooked wonderfully and mealtimes were a delight, except for one thing. She would make each chappati and fling it onto our steel plates from a great distance, so as not to pollute her "cooking clothes"; given that my father, the favored son in law was visiting. He was a a meat eating, alcohol drinking man and as such, him and us (his progeny) were anathema to her sense of purity for purposes of "sola". Despite all that, she loved us... yes even my father.... dearly in very demonstartive ways through special meals and gentle teasing, as long as we kept our inquisitive fingers and running footsteps outside her domain of the kitchen. She appreciated the good despite all the bad that colored her life maroon.

    These are the wisest of the wise.

  7. The wisdom of the so-called uneducated women of yesteryears is much more than the professed leaders of Indian Culture. What these GUARDIANS OF TRADITION do not seem to understand, and what your grandmother effortlessly did, was that tradition is not a stratified fossil, it is a living, evolving thing, absorbing influences from other cultures and changing with the passage of time.

  8. I just love your stories of India. I am learning so much.

    I think so much of the culture of all older societies was to keep women down. Sadly, religions like the Taliban are still trying to keep women (as my step-father would have said) barefoot and pregnant. Education is for men only.

    As an American girl I suffered a bit of this when I wanted to go to College like my classmates. My step-father, who had gotten hold of the finances, refused to give me financial assistance. He said women only went to college to meet and marry rich men. At the time I should have said, "What is so wrong with that?' But that isn't why I wanted to go so it didn't occur to me.

  9. Always love your wonderful posts! I enjoy learning so much about Indian culture. Loved the stories of your grandmother. And you have a wonderful sense of humor. Our lives have been very different, very different places, but how interesting it is to realize that in spite of all of that, there is the common thread that speaks to us! Thank you for another lovely trip!

  10. Liily Thank you for your always-encouraging words. I dont know whether you have seen any Bollywood movies, and i dont mean the ones that get prizes. Thats where you see all that shaking and dancing a la Ms Spears.... One more thing to do when you come here on the trail of your grandfather :-)

    Tina welcome to the blog, and Thank you.

    Hitch Writer Thank you. What can I say except, "Dadi/Nani log actually rocked !"

    Vinita This kind of attitude is part of our society's DNA. Today its the various Sena's. Early in the last century, it was the "anti-sudharaks" (Read Ramabai Ranade's memoirs). Why look elsewhere, when Churidars were fashionable (when I was in college), some of my relatives made snide comments everytime I wore them etc. It doesnt matter if you are covered from head to toe. Forget Sania Mirza.

    Radhika Thank you. Actually its all a question of keeping a balance in what you do. Earlier folks had it, because of intricate boundary conditions imposed then. Today boundary conditions are changed to suit individual power agendas.

    Another Kiran in NYC Thank you for the comments. And yes, I could relate to your Kakubai. We also remember from our early childhood, someone called Mothi Aai , who was my grandmother's step mother-in-law. And I can totally relate to the "shioo naka" stuff, and serving chapaties from a distance....

    Sucharita Thank you. And what you say about "stratified fossils" is so aptly put. Sometimes I think society as such would peacefully self adjust into a comfortable zone, if all these so called monitor types stayed away....

    Darlene, Sylvia K. Thank you for your nice comments. I guess nothing changes the world over . Eveveryone has the same attitudes, dont they....

  11. I don't agree with what Rama Sene did. But even being a (closet) romantic, I think V Day is too kitschy.

    Sounding like those old movie actors,I know..but there's this urdu sheyr..

    Mujhe ishtehaar see lagtee hain yeh mohabbaton ki kaha nahi woh suna suna nahi woh kaha karo..

    How can someone working for HALLMARK know what we want to say to those we love?

  12. My grandparents died without me ever knowing them but I remember when I was very young and we went to visit people and the men always ate first and the children were fed in another room. The women ate last. My mother in law wed at 13 to a man a lot older than her and he was so jealous that he never wanted her to go anywhere by herself.
    Your grandmother sounds like a very fair and honest person to me. That is very admirable.

  13. It was a trip down my own memory lane - been through all those traditions and customs in my household too and seen women in similar conditions.
    Love your picture in the lehenga choli. Very nice.

    Only my grandmoms were not as liberal as yours and I rememember having too many arguments with them. I would have remembered them with more happiness had they not resisted to move with the times.

  14. This made to the final selection for voting :) Good Luck

  15. Loved this story... (followed the link on Krish Ashok's post).

  16. Hi, we are glad to have multiple entries from you. Your posts are really interesting. We wish you all the best for the contest.
    - Team imlee

  17. You really are an amazing person with such nice views and writing style... :)
    Love reading every post of yours.. M sure you are a cool aaji yourself..!!

  18. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. Glad to see these latest culture designs trends. Very unique and Superb collection of payal.