My Grandmother Didn’t Lead a “Woke” Life. But She Died a Feminist


My Grandmother Didn’t Lead a “Woke” Life. But She Died a Feminist

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Back in 1947, my grandmother was among the millions of people on either side of a hastily drawn border, who were packing up their lives to leave the only home they’d ever known. But she also had a peculiar predicament awaiting her: My grandmother was about to be married off at 14 to a stranger from another city, 11 years her senior. Her elder sisters consoled her saying she had it better than them — their fate as women had been decided even before their first menstrual cycle.

I’m not so sure she did. My grandmother got pregnant at the tender age of 20. When she confided in her mother that she didn’t feel ready, she was told that six years’ worth of “consideration” from her husband was gift enough to quell all complaints. Four years later, when she announced her second pregnancy, her mother-in-law made it clear that she shouldn’t expect a holiday from household chores this time around. “In our day, we wouldn’t even be sent to a hospital. Women belong at home,” she told my grandmother.

In the late ’50s, Delhi was parched. Struggling with two spilling buckets, and her older son in tow on a blazing afternoon in June, she was accosted on the road by an eager reporter. As a result, my grandmother was forced into the front page of a local newspaper as the reluctant poster girl for “Delhi housewives driven to desperate measures”. The men were chuffed for a few seconds before they returned to skimming the “important” news. She continued picking up buckets and walking out.

Children were born and they grew up. Life went on. My grandmother went from a young daughter-in-law to a prospective mother-in-law.   

I like to believe that the turning point in my grandmother’s life came when her elder son married a girl from a modest background, who was seven years younger to him. For some reason, she felt threatened. Perhaps it was a reminder of her beginnings, too close to the bone. It came as no surprise then that she was always aloof with the younger woman; unconsciously channelling her own mother-in-law’s attitude; secretly simmering in the resentment that her son priotised his wife over her. At that time, my grandmother had two roles — as wife and mother — but the untimely death of my grandfather snatched one of those duties from her, adding to the conflict.

To her credit, my grandmother didn’t repeat that mistake with her younger son. By the time my parents were married a few years later, she was more settled in her grief. My mother was a working 30-year-old who was so far removed from the dynamics of domestic power struggles that she cheerfully conceded the reins of the household to her mother-in-law.

And then I was born.

Shaping a human being is the most lasting project of all and I became my grandmother’s final attempt at a magnum opus. She indulged me as she’d never indulged anyone before, but also insisted on inculcating a fierce code of discipline. The fact that I was a daughter to working parents only drove us closer. She prodded me to question things as much as she could, seldom relying on the ultimate adult conversation-ender, “Because I told you so.”

I realise now that my grandmother tried to pour all her acquired wisdom into a vessel not quite large enough, fearing she’d run out of time. But I wish I could tell her that she left far more lasting lessons in what she didn’t teach me.

My grandmother celebrated my slightest academic achievements with childlike awe. “Become a government engineer. You will get a car,” she said one day when I’d done well on a class test. I was five years old at the time and didn’t really know what being a government servant entailed. It was only years later that I realised the subtext of what she had said – it was only when you grew up to become an engineer do people give you the respect you deserve. Not if you were just a Delhi housewife filling buckets of water.

When I had my first period at 11, I reacted to this unwanted life change by freaking out about the implications of facing it every month for the next 40-odd years. Yet my most lucid memory from that time is my grandmother giving me an honest period talk, telling me about women, men, and the expectations people have of them. She was my first entry point into the complicated waters of marriage, sex, and children. She drilled in me the idea that these social institutions are as normal as they are overrated.

One of my first arguments with my grandmother was when she warned me to be cautious of older male cousins and uncles, “Just because someone is family, doesn’t mean they won’t hurt you.” At the time, I’d stormed off in rage at her perception of my brothers, filled with brash confidence teengers usually have in their own judgment. Two years later, I was molested by a distant relative at a family wedding but I refused to tell anyone or confide in my grandmother. She died soon after, never knowing exactly why I seemed to have grown up all of a sudden.

I realise now that my grandmother tried to pour all her acquired wisdom into a vessel not quite large enough, fearing she’d run out of time. But I wish I could tell her that she left far more lasting lessons in what she didn’t teach me. As an impressionable young girl, I watched her openly acknowledge the things she was good at and the ones she wasn’t, laughing at her jokes and flaws before anyone else did. Now as a young woman navigating the messy waters of sexuality, relationships, and millennial life decisions, remembering her makes it easier to remind myself of my self-worth. As luck would have it, I have also inherited her almost-Hobbit like height, her ego, and her unabashed candour and a firm refusal to apologise for my emotions and decisions.

My grandmother could have easily been cocooned in the archaic traditions that held her life hostage, but she chose not to. She may not have lived to acquaint herself with the term “feminism” but I’m sure that her spirit grins in satisfaction at having died a feminist – by sheer dint of having raised one.