A friend remarked in passing a few years back, when she was over at my place, ‘That boy is growing up to be a feminist!’ She was referring to my then 13-year-old older son. I was taken aback because I hadn’t consciously gotten around to that project yet. Certainly, the word ‘feminism’ hadn’t come up in any conversation we’d had so far. I remember looking at him searchingly and wondering what my friend had seen that I’d missed.
But then, osmosis is probably the most underrated way of learning. A girl who grows up with parents who, to paraphrase Chimamanda Adichie, teach her to shrink herself, is going to demand only so much from those around her, and a great deal of self-control and self-denial from herself. And if that shrinking comes from not merely being a girl but a girl who has to be ‘out of the house’ five days a month, shades of self-loathing and anger are likely to accompany and contribute to the shrinking.
My younger colleagues, especially those who grew up in Delhi or one of the other big cities, can barely comprehend the peculiar isolation brought on by a period, and they certainly cannot imagine life without tampons and sanitary pads available across the counter at the neighbuorhood store. We laugh about the fact that, quite possibly, the next generation of urban women is only going to encounter this female past in books or documentaries about Arunachalam Murugananatham; no doubt they will feel sorry for us all while marveling at the intransigency of customs embedded in notions of ‘purity’ and gender.
At the heart of every such conversation is somebody’s mother. Or an older woman, loved and respected enough to become the moral axis of a younger person’s existence. Because, fundamentally, whether you choose to be a woman (or man) who lays claim to feminism depends a great deal on whose path you set out to follow—or reject.
My own mother embraced two kinds of living, one that followed from her Hindu upbringing in the Kerala heartland, with prayers in the puja room bookending the day, and the other being mother to a boy and a girl while living in one of those neatly demarcated government colonies that were coming up all over India, where there was little room for maintaining taboos. If she couldn’t enter the kitchen to cook for the family, the family would go hungry, it was as simple as that.
On the day I had my first period, my father told us how, if we had been living in his village still, family and neighbours would have gathered to take the girl-now-woman in a celebratory procession to the pond for a ceremonial bath. I can still remember the feeling of sheer and immense relief that I was in faraway Karimnagar, in Andhra Pradesh. My classmates, in their own ‘native’, had no option but to get dressed up in half-saris and have people drop by all evening, congratulating their parents and blessing them on the occasion of their newfound fertility. I was the one who got away!
That my father joked to me about becoming ‘mature’, as they put it in those days, is a sort of touchstone I carry at the back of my mind when making those split-second decisions about how much to say, and how to say it, when my own boys are inquisitive about ads on television or shelves of distinctly ‘female’ objects, in the house or in stores. Nothing is sacred, I remind myself. Everything comes with a punchline attached, you just have to choose the moment of delivery.
There are some things I do deliberately. When my boys and I are out shopping for home stuff and toiletries, I often ask them to reach for the things I need—and by now they know exactly which brands to go for. If I snap about having to do something at home because it’s expected of me ‘as a woman’, I don’t keep my voice down, I’d rather the boys knew the reason for my reaction. And in the middle of all that, when they notice that their parents share most of the responsibilities of daily life—whether it’s paying the bills or participating in each other’s work and social lives—my hope is that they are also registering the subtext: ‘Someday, when you are with someone, remember to be an equal partner, it’s the only way you’ll be happy.’
So maybe that’s why I have a young feminist in my house. He may not have the theory yet, but he sure knows the practice of freedom. To speak and be heard, to be irreverent but not disrespectful. To be as curious about his grandmothers’ stories about the past as about the mechanics of the planes he hopes to fly someday. To not find it remarkable that women friends ('aunties'!), who have dropped by for a drink or dinner, chat about fascism and cricket and parenting with equal ease. As an old hand at editing, I am aware that the old rule still holds, and across every kind of narrative: show, not tell.