Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Itishree Padhi Professor in Anthropology
BJB Autonomous College, Bhubaneswar
Do not keep me on a pedestal to be worshipped or under your feet to be trampled. But keep me at your side, to dare in facing the world.
(Noble Laurate Rabindra Nath Tagore)
Looking back at my long-lost alluring girlhood, which was full of fun and frolic, I was sentimental, grinning like a Cheshire cat with unravelled excitement blanketed with warm, cherished memories. Calm, unmoving, quiet thrills … stimulating my heartbeats incessantly, even more. I was nostalgic and completely lost.
Born to an academician father and homemaker mother (she had only fifth standard education), I grew up in a family mostly of women. Except for my father who was the lone male and only earning member in the household, the rest were all women – eight siblings-all girls, my mother and two widowed sisters of my father. They say – each time a daughter was born in our family, my father welcomed the baby with pride and open arms. No prejudice! For him, each daughter was a gift, and he called them his Kanya Ratnas (Jewels). And we all sisters were brought up in a carefree but secure environment enjoying life to the fullest.
As a child, I happen to be a fun-loving prankster, good in studies doing exceedingly well in extracurricular activities. Our life in the Public Girl’s School was even quirkier! We had a ritualistic formal education accompanied by several outdoor activities. I will call it holistic education that contributed immensely to moulding me as a responsible citizen. We learnt to fall in love with nature and were taught the values to respect mother earth. We imbibed tenets of nurturing our surroundings in our consciousness. We evolved a sensitivity not to hurt anyone and respect our elders. Teachers were addressed as Gurumaa and women helpers in the school were called ‘mother’. To encourage children to behave respectfully towards school helpers, even our schoolteachers including the Principal were addressing them as ‘mother’. I learnt the meaning of living as equals then. It was a very simple way to teach us not to encourage hierarchies or practise any kind of social distance.
From sapling to trees, the huge beautiful Bagan (green landscape) with a large and sprawling orchard were harvests of our voluntary incessant efforts, during our regular weekly gardening classes. We were supervised by trained gardeners and made to imbibe natural and spontaneous love for nature and care for Mother Earth. Saturdays were marked for exercise classes along with a range of other extracurricular activities including dancing, singing, acting, debates and elocution contests and of course all kinds of sports. We were made to showcase our hidden talents and invited to excel in our chosen fields, often called hobbies. Toiling in the sun, strengthened our physical abilities and made us mentally as well as emotionally strong too.
I often wonder why everything around us has changed now! We seem to unlearn everything that we did in our growing years. The havoc that is unfolding in front of our eyes every day, from corona to calamities reflects our failure to respect mother earth. We not only neglected all that we were taught to value but also persistently abuse mother nature. I am reminded of a warning political commentator from the US, Thomas Friedman gave when he commented:
Covid-19 is a black elephant. It is the logical outcome of our increasingly destructive wars against nature….
There is a substance in the statement that made me reminiscence of my childhood and learning. We went through a system that was grounded, even if the emphasis on formal education was constrained. But the achievements were much more rigorous. Parents did not obsess over marks or grades and parental aspirations for a 100% scorecard were never central to our schooling. I recollect, how futile fretting over my report card for my father’s signature and approval of the teacher’s remarks was. He would just see it, sign it without advising or asking to work harder. Scolding or reprimand was far removed in his repertoire of discipline. This training is possibly responsible for all eight of us to excel in our chosen professions.
Our summer vacations were always relaxed. There were no course books or homework on our iPads or mobile phones. Only storybooks, translated works of Tagore, Sarat Chandra, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, scores of magazines accompanied us. We sat together as a family in the evenings, listening to our favourite music on Binaca Geetmala. Those were the days----most memorable, pleasurable, and entertaining! Really unforgettable1 So much love for so many things –all poignant, moving, and impactful. Those moments of relaxation are now so far and few!
On a summer afternoon, I learnt a message for a lifetime from my father simply saying: “We all learn as we grow older”. I do wish to share those unforgettable moments of my life: I must have been about ten or eleven, naughty, always out playing pranks. It was a pleasant summer evening; a cool breeze was blowing, and the fragrance of jasmine was so inviting that I was not able to resist the temptation to go out with my siblings. Father was taking a nap, and we thought it was safe to indulge in our favourite playtime of climbing trees. Four of us were having a ball, clinging to branches of trees like monkeys, eating half-ripe guavas, and making crackling sounds in the comfort of our belief that we will not be caught. It was then I noticed that our youngest sibling was struggling to climb. I went down to help her mount and she suddenly fell with a thud on the ground. Her cries of pain woke my father, he came out, looked at three of us with a frown and lines drawn on his forehead without saying anything, he picked up my sister, examined her for any injuries and with a sigh of relief said loud, ‘thank God, she has no fractures’. Without looking at us, he went inside the house with our mother. We were scared and whispered about the punishment that awaited us. But to my surprise, as we entered the house, he called me aside knowing full well that I am the culprit, he said in a measured tone, – “Do you realize how much pain she had to go through if she had a fracture? She is too young to learn climbing. Let her grow… she will learn the way you all learnt.” This was not a reprimand but a lesson and as a parent and a teacher, it has become integral to my cognitive capabilities.
Our socialization taught us to be bold and fearless. I do not recall if we sisters ever faced harassment or catcalls while walking alone on the streets. When I read dark statics of ninety-seven women being molested or raped every day in India, I often sit back and think where we have gone wrong? We grew in a household where there was no gender segregation because we were all women. We were never told not to do certain things, by our parents, simply because we were girls. There were no restrictions, we were free to go to the local markets, even in the late evenings, we were never told that you should not haggle with the vendors in the street, the school was a must and becoming economically independent part of our growing psyche. Household chores were never a priority in our daily routines.
Maybe, we were fortunate being children of an academic that we had access to a liberal living. My mother had access only to primary education and did regret at times not having a son. I witnessed her sobbing before aunts for not having a boy but never found her shedding tears for giving birth to all daughters! After all, we were her twinkling stars, very close to her heart! Then wherefrom this gender role stemmed? I now teach that it is a social construct and starts with family-our primary socialization. I was trying to dig out unremittingly, on and on. My search was ceaseless...My father was immune to any such thought. When I teach patriarchy in the classroom and talk about son preference, female foeticide-a gift of science and technology in the shape of Ultrasound machines, or read stories of widows being abandoned, my thoughts once again go back to my childhood.
My mother, with little formal education, left no stone unturned to educate all of us and insisted that we all become economically independent. She took it as a challenge particularly, after my eldest sister was widowed, just three years after marriage. She returned home with a baby in her arms because of her husband’s unfortunate death in an accident. She was only twenty years old at that time. It was a period in our cultural history when widows were compelled to live an austere life. They had to by tradition wear white clothes, deprive themselves of all kinds of finery and ornaments, eat satwik (simple vegetarian diet) and fast most of the year. They were not allowed to participate in any celebrations nor permitted any social life, glimpses of which are still fresh in my mind. I have witnessed this in the family with my father’s two widowed sisters abiding by these cultural taboos. They refused to break the norms irrespective of being part of a liberal household.
Imagining her eldest daughter go through this ignominy tormented my mother. She confronted my father and asked in a firm voice – “Is she going to live like a widow for the remaining years of her life?” If my father had any apprehensions about challenging social stigma and taboos, seeing my mother’s resolve, his instant reply was: “Forget she was ever married! She will go back to college soon to resume her studies along with other children. We will take care of her baby and help her focus on her studies that she left halfway.” My mom looked relieved, a triumphant smile… looked at my father, with gratitude and appreciation, while tears rolling down her face.
She had broken a glass ceiling, she had opened avenues not only for her daughter but for a future that paved the way for a progressive worldview. She knew it would not be easy for her, she will have to answer social ridicule that relatives and customs would force on her. But like a rock, she withstood all the pressure and did not surrender. Odds were heavy, the future of the other seven daughters was at stake. There was a lingering fear that they may find it difficult to settle other seven daughters. She just remained resolute and simply focused on our education telling us to become economically independent. My mother didn’t carry the tag of being a social revolutionary, she did not have high formal education to talk about feminist issues or social oppression, she did things silently and simply. Ultimately seven of us married only after completing our education and earned independent professional careers.
Marrying a pilot was my decision. To bring my husband’s natal family to my place of work was also my decision. My socialization had empowered me enough to make crucial and independent decisions in my life. They came to live with us along with their regular house help. She was from a socially, economically marginalized community. My parents-in-law being conservative would not allow her to cook for them nor accept even water from her. She was assigned the responsibility of taking care of only menial household chores. It took some persuasion and conviction and of course little time to prevail upon them to change their orthodox beliefs. Now she is happily accepted as a member of our family. Joy in the eyes of our house help when she served the first meal to them was a gift, I shall never exchange for anything else.
I lived in a big joint family, learnt the values of intimate family relations, and wanted my children to learn the same. Being children of an academician, a laureate, we imbibed values from books as also from everyday experiences that Tagore described as experiential learning. We were taught to become good citizens along with evolving as good human beings. We were encouraged to have conversations and be sensitive to human responses, verbalized or communicated silently. We were not taught what was good or bad but learnt it by actions. Loving and respecting each other overruled everything. And what was most enduring about my father was his immense respect for women, especially for my mother. Trust, understanding, respect and above all the warmth of love – got their bonding going stronger and stronger, which lasted forever.
My childhood memories overwhelmed me when I read stories of Afghan women being denied their fundamental right to education and work. Working women being asked to stay at home and successful professional women fleeing their homes and seeking asylum in a women-friendly democratic country. I have been distraught reading newspaper headlines or breaking news stories on television about rising violence and abuse against women. I feel strongly, something is amiss in the way we are upbringing our children. Something very precious is lost in our relationships. Family ties have become more materialistic. Passion for commodities and greed for accumulation has overtaken substantiative human values. In this mayhem, women are also shamefully viewed as a commodity to be used and abused. This is where even the class divide seems to disappear. One reads stories of young girls being raped and thrown from plush high-rise buildings as also being brutally raped and murdered in parked vehicles in urban slums.
I often wonder where men like my father have gone. He nurtured eight young daughters, two widowed sisters respecting my mother as an individual with her own rights and desires. I started this blog with Tagore’s famous lines that woman character Chitra in his celebrated one-act play vents: a woman is not desirous of being put on a high pedestal and worshipped nor she wants to be trampled like crushed flowers, she simply wants to be a companion, a partner, a fellow mate not hostile, to be respected and cared!
It is sad to see that the nature-nurture dichotomy persists irrespective of the fact that given equal opportunities both girls and boys can excel in any field. I applaud the recent judgement of India’s Hon’ble Supreme court to allow girls to take NDA exams in the year 2021 itself. Such judgements can break glass ceilings but walls that masculine constructs of patriarchy have built require a herculean effort to knockdown. We must endeavour together and own our responsibilities as parents, teachers, and responsible citizens. I want to sign off by citing a shloka from ancient text Manusmriti:
Yatra naryastupujyanteramantetatraDevta, Yatraitaastunapujyantesarvaastatrafalaahkriyaah.
(A society in which women are honoured, divinity flourishes, but where women are not honoured, all actions no matter how noble it may be, remains unfruitful).