What Legacy Does an Ordinary Housewife Leave Behind?


What Legacy Does an Ordinary Housewife Leave Behind?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

There’s a photograph in my phone of my mother and grandmother in the garden on a winter’s day. My grandmother is laughing, eyes twinkling, I can almost hear her effusiveness. My mother squints her eyes in the sunlight and frowns at the lens.

There is a striking resemblance between them but they were different as night and day. My grandmother’s life is basically a list of achievements and milestones: a scientist with a teaching career spanning decades and a singer connecting generations across radio airwaves. She retired from her university professor role characteristically, setting up music, dance, and art schools that she was minutely involved with until the very end.

My mother, on the other hand, has disappeared like a dewdrop in the morning light. You will not find her on a Google search and you will have to imagine away our father’s features to see my mother smiling in my face and my brother’s. Perhaps it was rebellion against her overachieving parents: But she refused to drive, finish her postgraduate degree, get a job, send her kids to the dance, music, and art schools, like her mother insisted she do. Occasionally, she would ask the maid to help her organise her closet after my grandmother and aunts agonised endlessly about the chaos that spilled out of it.

My mother died before my grandmother. I think of my grandmother after my mother’s death, standing tall in her elegant, slim frame, and the grief she wanted to articulate. She knows she will be remembered by more than just family and friends. She will leave behind a legacy that hopefully will be inspiring. I wonder, though, if she worried that her daughter might be forgotten. Like her own mother-in-law who died in childbirth, living on only in a pair of heirloom earrings.

The obliteration of women from memory and time receives a double whammy if those women belong to “lower castes”.

Death is a kind of finality, possibly more so for women. But it doesn’t have to be so.  

History writing is cruelly aligned with men – it’s a reflection of life itself that works along a patriarchal line. So while it is all too common for property to be inherited by the male descendants and keep the socio-economic roots of patriarchy thriving, it is also the imagination of time that is dominated by men. The way we think of historical time – linear, active, focused around large events – tends to paint men as architects and actors. Like I’ll bet you’ve never heard about the women who shaped the Indian Constitution. After all, nation-building – in all senses of the phrase – is the domain of men, no?

Even in recent history, women seem to have been completely written out of the whole process.

In literary history, Virginia Woolf contemplates the career (or lack thereof) of William Shakespeare’s fictional sister, Judith, who would have been denied equal access to education and public spaces, which in turn would have stifled her creative genius. This ruminative section in A Room of One’s Own sheds light on how talent and achievement and even enduring memory that celebrates and commemorates these, are tainted by gender inequality.

The obliteration of women from memory and time receives a double whammy if those women belong to “lower castes”. This is not because lower-caste women are not remembered by the community, but elite nostalgia and public memory governs what you read and choose to remember. Radhika Vemula has relentlessly campaigned against forgetting Rohith Vemula and Sujatha Gidla has sought to archive Telugu Dalit memory. In Coolie Woman, Gaiutra Bahadur undertakes a journey to trace her family’s history from a village in Bihar to indentured labour in the sugar plantations of Guyana through her great-grandmother. She writes about the difficulty of constructing such a history, “How could I write about women whose very existence the official sources barely acknowledged?”

Ah, official sources! That old hobby horse, the exclusive domain of men.

Bahadur turns to alternative sources such as oral traditions and visual clues to uncover the “stolen voice” of a marginalised community. So does Piya Chatterjee in A Time for Tea to present a feminist, ethnographic critique of the tea industry through conversations with barely literate women labourers. This is important for it is not simply exceptional women whose stories need to be shared, but also the ordinary, everyday women.

Perhaps exceptional women like my grandmother will be remembered respectfully. Others like my mother, who did not have an extraordinary list of achievements standing in for a life lived, should be too. In the world that we live in, certain exceptional women’s achievements are celebrated – as outliers. The rest of womankind is seemingly unworthy enough of historical mention. I hope that the way we view history will change one day, so that women’s stories and lives, like that of my mother’s, will be passed on and cherished.

A version of this article appeared on Feminism in India and has been re-published here with their permission.