My parents got married in the year 1967 in my mother’s maternal home on the banks of her beloved Kaveri river. As I flip through the pages of sepia-toned photographs of my parents’ wedding album, a stray thought floats by, the sepia in these pictures must have come from the ink of a real-live Cuttlefish and not a cool filter; there is cruelty and death in almost every human innovation. My existential musings come to halt at one of the photos. The photographer was clearly given to artistic leanings, probably inspired by V K Murthy’s camerawork for Guru Dutt. It has been shot from outside the wedding hall, you can see just my mother through a doorway, luminous and ethereal and looking younger than her 23 years. It’s clearly the post-wedding Nalangu ceremony for she is rolling a coconut towards my unseen father. In same photograph, but fittingly in the shadowed area outside the hall, I can see the backs of a group women. Their hair is shorn and their heads are covered, telltale signs that they are widows. Wearing dull, washed out, coarsely woven nine yard sarees, they are craning their necks to look at the proceedings on the inside.
My maternal taatha’s sister, my athai-paati, I don’t even know her name, had been a child widow and lived in what was now her brothers’ home, as she had no right call it her own. In fact no rights whatsoever. From childhood to her death decades later, she lived like a destitute, though born into a highly educated, exceedingly wealthy family. Every fortnight she would rise in the wee hours of the morning and in the dark she would walk to the banks of the Kaveri, where a barber would shave her head. Like the rest of her life, this aspect too had to be kept in the shadows, lest it hurt someone’s sentiments, the sight of a child widow being shorn of her femininity. When I would get my mother to reminisce about this mysterious aunt she would say, “Athai would dig her comb painfully into my scalp and yank hard at my hair, it was a real punishment to have her plait my hair.” For both of them.
It must have been a great act of rebellion from within the strictures of the agrahaaram, the brahmanical gated community he lived in, for my Taatha to invite widows to attend the wedding of his beloved daughter. But even the all-powerful, community elder Dr. R. Narasimhachari, a leprosy specialist and doctor to politicians and landlords, could only bring them to the doorstep and no further. Like most men who become aware of the sexual land-mines dotting the landscape inhabited by women only after they have daughters, I imagine my Taatha did this for his sister, because her suffering was very real and tangible to him.
And this was in 1967, more than 130 years after Sati had been abolished in 1829, more than 100 years after the Widow remarriage act had been passed in 1856 and thirty-eight years before 2005 when women were finally given equal rights in ancestral property.
My mother practised segregation when she had her periods. She would move the kerosene stove to one of the bedrooms in our flat and cook for herself and her three small children. While my father would cook for himself and his God. Whenever there was a poojai or shraardam to be performed, and there was half a chance that her periods would arrive, she would take norethisterone pills to delay the onset. Even though she never allowed us to be segregated, she definitely saw the unfairness and the injustice of it, she personally never ever went to the temple or sat in any homam, kalyaanam, shraardam, if she was menstruating; dutifully she always managed a chemically induced a state of purity. So what if the net result was an untimely death from breast cancer that the pills no doubt contributed to.
I remember feeling betrayed and bereft when my Punjabi neighbour didn’t invite me for Kanjak pooja the year I turned 12 and began bleeding. So I snuck out of home without informing my mother and rang her bell. The look on my neighbour’s face when she opened the door to me remains etched in mind, I turned right back and went home. I have never eaten that Prasad again that I thought was my right for the first 12 years of my life.
I generally don’t go to temples, I really don’t want to go to any club, that wants me to ‘rest’ perforce 4-5 days month. But I don’t think I will be able to enter it if I were menstruating. The social conditioning has remained indelible so far. So the fight against oppressive social practices remains as much internal as it is external.
I had the same feeling about the SC ruling lifting the ban on women entering Sabarimala. I don’t really want to go where I’m not invited. My theory on this was, let the men have their Men’s Only club and really the judiciary shouldn’t be meddling in religious matters. And then I read on a friend’s timeline that women who want to make the pilgrimage to Sabarimala are staging a childish mindless rebellion, a wounded, unhealed child’s rebellion. What do people think women pilgrims would do?! Fling used tampons and stained napkins about in a temper tantrum? Do they think female devotees wish to enter the temple because they hate the God, the temple, all men, Hinduism? Why is a woman’s devotion always suspect? This now was not the small matter of not being invited to a Boys Night Out. What the female devotees of Swamy Aiyyappa are ‘rebelling’ against are discrimination, oppression, segregation. Couched though they may be under unverifiable pseudo-scientific gobbledygook about lower chakras and rise and fall of the energy as if it were the Ottoman Empire by ‘ World Famous in New Jersey Indian-American Cardiologist(!), summa cum laude WhatsApp University’
At so many times and in so many stations we women are thought of as impure and dirty- as healthy women of a reproductive age, as widows, as rape victims, as prostitutes, as dalits, as new mothers. How many millenia of oppression and conditioning did it take for us women to buy into this mono-myth, this single story of our innate impurity? And could one woman’s rebellion be another woman’s reform?
What reform means to us Hindu women historically:
1.It means that child marriages are outlawed
2.It means that Sati is outlawed
3.It means that widows can remarry, are not considered an ill-omen, are allowed to eat anything they wish, wear what they will.
4. Dalits are allowed to enter temples
5. Polygamy is outlawed
6. Women have a right to property, education.
Yes, many other reforms are required- the Mosques must admit women, stop FGM, the Church must stop harbouring rapists, paedophilic priests and we must put our collective weight behind all these pressing issues too.
None of these reforms were easy or smooth, change seldom is. Our freedom struggle was a mutiny, a rebellion before it became a revolution. When a few men and women rebelled against social injustice, they brought about long standing reform that we all benefited from.