Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The women in my family, and the lessons I learnt

I wrote an emotionally charged post a few days ago on Escapades. I wrote because I was overwhelmed with what was happening around me. I wrote because I was worried like never before about Amma's impending surgery for her eye. I wrote because sometimes I have no where else to go and no one else to talk to. I wrote because a lot of times, when I am quivering with fear or anxiety or uncertainty over a decision I have made, no one bothers to ask me if I am ok or need anything because it is assumed that I will handle things. 

The post is about Amma mostly and how I see her as a different person today. I wrote this post where I said I never thought of her as a professional and would always wonder why her students thought the world of her. She was not overtly ambitious (a trait I have inherited completely) but whatever ambition was there was thwarted by so many familial responsibilities that I doubt she had time to think of what she wanted in life. She went from day to day, executing her duties and trying to stay sane on tough days. 

Amma was the second daughter and one of four siblings. Her older sister and she were less than 2 years apart and almost like twins. They were chalk and cheese, but stuck together till my aunt passed away in 2002. Amma was the talkative, gregarious one. The one who would win any argument and fight for the sake of the fight. She was the only one of her siblings to move away from the family and study and subsequently work in a different state for many years. The friends she made in college are still her friends almost 55 years later. This woman, gave up a Ford foundation scholarship to study abroad because she had to come home and complete her familial responsibilities. This was perhaps one of the defining decisions of her life. That she would continuously and compulsively put the needs of others before her own. There are several instances of this through her journey.

My Aunt, mother's older sister was an unmarried lady. She lived with us. I could not make out as a child who my biological mother was. Parenting was shared. The house, chores and clothes split and even now, one large part of Amma is missing because of the loss of her sister. She was a librarian, she encouraged us to read, enforced table manners (no chewing with mouth open, no elbows on the table, and definitely no talking with a full mouth). She never married because she was the oldest of four siblings and had a huge financial debt to pay when her father passed away. She decided to sacrifice her life so that her two able siblings (the fourth sibling was blind) could marry and enjoy family life. The one she intended to marry remained her life long friend until his death.

I look around and realise that she is not alone. Being single was not uncommon in their family. On both her paternal and maternal side, there were/ are several ladies of the family who were single. Some never married because the one they wanted was not approved of by the family, some had responsibilities to fulfil, some reasons are unknown. What is remarkable is that no one ever made a big deal out of it. We were never sort of prepared to shed all of ourselves, our personalities, our families for the sole purpose of being someone's wife. I cannot remember a single utterance to me as a child or as a growing girl which implied - do this, else you will be useless for marriage.

The children in the family are encouraged to study. It doesn't matter what your gender is. Most of my grand aunts, aunts, cousins are all post graduates at least, if not more. The chosen professions were medicine or teaching. We are a whole family of women in the medical field, mostly as doctors and so many kinds of teachers, my own mother being a professor and yours truly is definitely a teacher of some sort. The emphasis on education begins early, but is not drilled into a competitive sort of place. Rather, we are very subtly told repeatedly that there is no question about being financially independent, which is where education will help.

The women have lived their lives on their terms. Made decisions that were bold and benefited either themselves and / or the family. In most cases, they have supported the men and women of the family. I have aunts who went abroad for higher studies in the 60's, adopted children without being married, changed cities, jobs, had companions they lived with who they never married, had non traditional families with extended families and sometimes friends being living companions and walked out of abusive marriages twice over. I have never once heard anyone in the family tell their children - male or female to stay in a relationship that was not respectful.

There is no dearth of women role models from within the family. Everywhere I look, there are strong independent fearless women I see. Women for whom, no job or responsibility came with a gender qualification. These are not bra burning feminists. These are quietly effective role models. These are people that an impressionable 6-8 year old would look at and know that unconventional life choices were fine as long as your self respect was not threatened. These were role models who lead by quiet example and showed everyone around, including their children, how one can be independent, strong and responsible, without being abrasive. I never once questioned my abilities or my self worth based on my gender. Infact, my paternal family which was diametrically opposite of my maternal, with most of the women being minimally educated and stay at home wives. At each interaction, at each instance, gender profiling was brought up. In my case, I was always told silly things which now I feel could have seriously dented my self esteem especially as a child. Stuff like I needed to grow my hair, talk less, wear feminine clothes, study less (where to find a groom that was more qualified than you?) so that I would be a suitable wife.

My mother ran her house and managed her family with what she thought was suitable to her and for the convenience of the family and never by what standards were set out by society. I am glad for such an upbringing. I am glad that we were taught by example and not lecture. We were never coerced into decisions, but rather everything was reasoned and then the decision was left to the individual  to make, and then the choice was respected.

So when I am tempted to play damsel in distress, these are the strengths that I draw from. I am putting down one more life defining part of my upbringing and giving gratitude for it. 

1 comment:

Veenita said...

Wonderful post- fascinating reading