Special post: “My ‘everyday’ mother” by Swati Parashar

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First posted on May 12, 2013 on http://kaalratri.com/2013/05/12/my-everyday-mother/

My ‘everyday’ mother

How does one mark ‘mothers’ day that is everyday? How does one celebrate the everyday life of a mother? I called my mother in India for a brief interview, she obliged. She always does. I told her I was going to blog this and she insisted it was ok; she did not want anything censored. So these are snippets from the life of my mother, Uma.

Hers is not a unique story she always insists because many women are still in the same situation of being at the margins and bottom rungs. She was born quite late to her mother (she had siblings who were parents by then!) in a village in Bihar and was promptly abandoned by my grandmother (nani) who thought the evil baby was responsible for the death of her own father! Her brothers’ family took pity on her and she managed to survive some sort of infanticide. Her early memories are of being treated like a poor ‘servant’ girl in the house of her own brothers; couldn’t eat this and that, couldn’t sit here or there, had old worn out clothes from others, and had to cook and care for the children of the house. Occasionally she remembers the fist fights with her own nephews. I do take after her!

She was married at the age of 13 and she promptly reminds me that for three years before the actual marriage her brothers were desperately trying to find a match for her. Really, at 10 they thought she was ready for marriage!  She was married into a conservative, patriarchal family of 8 girls where none went to school and some were married at the age of 10!  Life was no fun in the village where she worked hard in the day time and dreamt of a better world in the nights.  My father, the only son of the house, was in a town further away trying to finish his Bachelors degree and find a job. Political activism of the early 70s in India inspired him but life willed otherwise.

She tells me without  hesitation, her happiest day was my birth (perhaps because it came after an agonising wait of 8 years that included cruel social taunts…a woman ought to do the job she is meant to do, legitimise her existence as a married woman only through motherhood?!). She tells me, she loved the fact that she now had one human being she could call her ‘own’, her status changed over-night. I have three other wonderful siblings and they kind of know, I am the special child; they have learnt to live with it. 🙂  Mummy mentions that she would have preferred to stop after two. But, she shows me the mirror of a brutal patriarchal society where contraception was inaccessible to women…I probe the logic…. “because men/society thought that if women had access to it, women would become immoral!”.  I am stunned.

And now the most important regret of her life which became the strength of her 4 children. My mother is illiterate; I recall as a child trying to teach her to sign so she would not embarrass us by using the thumb impression for official papers. She battled it out with a heartless family and an oppressive, patriarchal society to ensure we received the much valued, ‘English medium’ education. Those who are from India would know what I am talking about. I remember our occasional conversations when I got home from school where she would ask me about what school looked like, how we ate lunch together, what teachers wrote on the black boards. She took great pains to ensure my school uniform was always ironed (I hate ironing still!) and that my lunch box always had what I wanted, even with the limited means she had.

I have had to make peace with my own past in so many ways. I remember how embarrassed I always felt when mummy visited school because she couldn’t speak English. I went to Delhi for my undergrad and would lament that she never wrote me letters even in Hindi; she told me she would try and sent me 2-3 short letters which filled me with intense shame (not long after I realised the shame was mine, not hers). I complained about her ridiculous spellings, her complete lack of any understanding of Hindi vowels (she messed up the ka and ki)…and then the letters stopped. It took me many more years to convince her that I could live with the badly written letters. She finally sent me a birthday card when I was studying for my PhD in England. It just said, ‘mummy’ in Hindi and was poorly spelt, again!

She visited me in Australia last year and didn’t quite enjoy the solitude of Western societies. Not knowing the language (English) made it difficult for her to travel around but we had our share of fun. She especially loved  the Alpaca and the Australian red wine! She will visit me again this year she says, a promise she hasn’t kept so far due to pressing engagements with her two wonderful and loving grandsons in India.

Her understanding of her religion (Hinduism) is all about doing her duty. In the most desperate of situations, I never saw her give up, weep her heart out, or resort to rituals, temple visits. Her dharma is her karma she says. She believes in the divine power of the universal mother Kali, benign and ferocious. The only time she prays is during the Durga Puja (the 9 day festival of the Goddess). Her own name, Uma is one of the many names of the Goddess Parvati.

When with me she always wants to visit any place of worship especially churches because I went to a Catholic school (she thinks that had something to do with good education!). Last year we had a fantastic conversation about Tathagat (Buddha) and she wanted to visit Bodh Gaya which is not very far from our home in Ranchi. After the visit and after she heard about his spiritual quest, she promptly told me, “I would have also received enlightenment had I tried, but your father wouldn’t have it so!”  I was delirious with laughter.

An orphaned, illiterate, child bride married into an orthodox, oppressive, patriarchal family in India and then overcoming her own anxieties, fears and apprehensions to look after a very demanding family of 4 difficult children and a husband,  mummy wanted to be a teacher. She is happy I am one now. I once asked her what she wanted to reincarnate as (Hinduism is great fun that way…it’s a wonderful source of moral/spiritual imagination). She replied instantly, a bird…..I was not surprised.

My mother’s story is not unique; it is the story of thousands of women in India and that is what is so heart breaking. She continues to talk to the community about the importance of educating girls and against female foeticide and infanticide. I recall another wonderful moment when I informed my mother (with some trepidation) of a friend marrying her lesbian partner. She told me, it was perfect because in that relationship there would be no husband!

I haven’t learnt anything from her, to be honest. I am her; I am my mother’s dream; I am her greatest fear; I am her hope for the future. Mother’s day is an everyday for me, and because I cannot share my glass of wine with her today in person; here’s my tribute to a woman who makes my feminism possible. She won’t be able to read this…but she just told me, she is very PROUD of me.

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Bearing Witness: A new report on women in conflict zones

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The Centre for North East Studies & Policy Research, based in New Delhi and Guwahati, and the Heinrich Boll Foundation, have just released a report on the impact of conflict on women in Nagaland and Assam, two states on India’s northeastern frontier. The study is based on intensive field work and documentation in these areas. http://www.c-nes.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/The-final-report-of-HBF.pdf

The researchers set out to speak primarily to victims of trauma and PTSD. But in Nagaland, they identified seven kinds of trauma, and found it hard to restrict their conversations to respondents that primarily fit their research design. Their listing of seven kinds of trauma brought home just how profound the impact of conflict can be and how long this impact can last (pages 10-11). Apart from the trauma experienced by individual women when they themselves were assaulted, they also experienced the trauma that others in their family, clan or village suffered or that they witnessed. Moreover, hearing of assault and traumatic experiences, either across generations through family stories or as researchers, also had an impact. Those interviewed experienced the hopelessness of their cause, however righteous, as trauma. Displacement, the loss of place and history, was another source of trauma. Being forced to interact with and adapt to the ways of others—even the ‘other’—contributed to traumatisation.

In Nagaland, the research team found that given the nature of Naga society, trauma was experienced by the village collectively, and people were hesitant to identify themselves individually, as if to suggest their own experience was somehow worse. Naga women drew sustenance from the support system provided by their traditional structures and institutions like the church. Whether or not women knew about the different laws that governed their region, they spoke to the brutality of the Indian security forces.

“All women respondents had stated that conflicts had affected all aspects of daily normal life whether they were socio-economic, health, education, etc. People cutting across class, clans, villages, gender, age, etc., had suffered tremendously over the years due to different conflicts… There were also many discords and tensions in society. There were divorces and broken homes. Conflicts had generated an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion as well as fear.” (page 27)

What the researchers stress is the need for counseling and legal services and for education about the same, so people could seek help. This is borne out by what they learnt in Assam too, except that the research team adds the need to generate and make available livelihood and educational opportunities, the absence of which was identified here as leading to trauma. Timely relief and rehabilitation was also stressed. Where Naga society already has such platforms, it is recommended in Assam that, “Women committees must be formed in conflict affected villages which check any sort of physical or structural violence against women and human trafficking issues.” (page 44)

The importance of this study is two-fold. First, it is based on really sound field research—thoughtful conversations sensitively reported. The report is full of stories that the research team heard and they are the heart of this report, bringing to life the experience of multiple generations living with a conflict that is sometimes with the state and sometimes (or at once) internecine. The research team has used photographs, film and research notes to capture and communicate the experience of women in Nagaland and Assam. This is an unusually comprehensive effort. Second, Nagaland and Assam are important Indian states, but even so, underreported and understudied in the Indian context. A project that begins to look at the marginalized in a marginalized region thus acquires tremendous importance for researchers and policy-makers, but also for other citizens of the same state. And so does the multimedia documentation and communication effort. The research team explicitly points to the limited scope of this project and states that more studies of this sort are needed; they are absolutely right. In the meanwhile, it is important to make this study widely known. Again, it may be accessed at the C-NES website: http://www.c-nes.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/The-final-report-of-HBF.pdf

 

Cross-posted at http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111bearing_witness/ and http://justswarna.blogspot.com/2011/10/bearing-witness-new-report-on-women-in.html

Review: Mafia Queens of Mumbai

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I just read S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ Mafia Queens of Mumbai (published by Tranquebar, Chennai, 2011). The book tells the story of about a dozen women who played dominant roles in the Bombay/Mumbai underworld over a span of four decades.

All the stories are quite remarkable, and told largely without drama or judgment.

Having grown up in the years of Haji Mastan and MISA and COFEPOSA and movies full of smugglers and bootleggers, the first few chapters from that period were particularly interesting to me. None of the names except that of Monica Bedi and Asha Gawli were familiar, showing how invisible women truly are in every sphere.  This book carries out the feminist agenda of seeing women and telling their stories, often either in their voice or those of other women, and almost always from their perspective.

Do read it!

Book Review: “Love Marriage” by V.V. Ganeshananthan

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I just reviewed V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage on my blog. I thought the intertwining of women’s stories (stories of marriages mainly) and the Sri Lankan conflict were brilliantly done, and very beautifully too. Take a look at the review which I am cross-posting here.

Personal is political is personal is political is…: Review

I have been following V.V.Ganeshananthan on Twitter for a long time (@Vasugi) but did not know anything about her. Then somewhere, probably on Twitter, I heard she’d published a novel. I was curious but because South Asian diaspora novels have become so common, was not terribly interested. Then, the other day, I saw her book in Landmark and thought, “Oh, why not?” My scepticism was underscored by the very small print of the edition I bought.

It’s a good book, folks! You should read it. And this is why.

The protagonist is a young Sri Lankan-American and as the book unfolds, she learns about the country her parents (Tamil) have left behind. Yes, like most of us, she knows what happened, when it happened, in a textbook sort of way, and being a Sri Lankan Tamil, she has seen graphic pamphlets and heard bits of stories. But what she learns as the book unfolds is what most of us never have a chance to do: to put face to headline, to put feeling into choice, to see the inevitability that personal relationships will have political dimensions. To see it all together.

Ganeshananthan braids two strands–the interior, familial, personal one of marriage and the exterior, communal, political one of conflict–into one young woman’s journey of seeing. The story of each marriage is a gem in itself, complete, stand-alone. I want to share with you a passage that I found very moving and particularly memorable (page 114):

“…Then he hit her across the cheekbone, and Harini’s mouth flooded with blood.

This is the taste of a Marriage Dying, her Heart said. Harini had swallowed everything, all her life. Her spinster sister Mayuri’s jealousy of a Marriage that had happened too neatly. Her mother’s quiet disapproval. Her own self-imposed status as a perpetual shadow. Harini swallowed again, swallowed air and blood. Her beating Heart had grown pulpy and old with abuse.

But Harini bent double, bent down. She picked up her Go-On Forever Smile from where it had fallen on the ground, and went on.”

As the protagonist’s family nurses her uncle, a Tiger who’s been allowed to get away because he is dying, old stories are finally told, and new ones too. In that community in Toronto, she discovers just how personal politics is: the Tigers have chosen her cousin’s future husband. And she discovers that personal ties cross political lines as well.

This is a book lots of people should read. First, those who are looking for a good story, well-written should definitely read this. Second, those who are interested in Sri Lankan politics, will begin to glimpse the things that textbooks don’t record about why people make the choices they do. Finally, those interested in conflict should read this because it illustrates how much more complicated conflict resolution is than textbooks would suggest; there are no templates because the human Heart (to continue the author’s usage!) doesn’t read them.

I will finish by noting that the author teaches English at the University of Michigan, and was teaching a course on political fiction last year. This would be a great book to assign as recommended reading for courses dealing with issues like conflict or migration or in South Asian Studies.

V.V.Ganeshananthan, Love Marriage, Orion Books, 2008.

Niharika’s Bookshelf: “Small Remedies”

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Small Remedies by Shashi Deshpande

First published in Viking by Penguin India in 2000

Published by Penguin- 2001

“We see our lives through memory and memories are fractured, fragmented, almost always cutting across time.”(1) This line forms the central core of ‘Small Remedies’. More often than not, life is not shaped by a chronological set of events, represented by a straight line. It is the memories, happy and sad, that define life in entirety.

This Metafictional novel by Shashi Deshpande explores the lives of two great women- Savitribai Indorekar and Leela, who, by breaking conventional norms and ideas create a niche for themselves in a rather hostile society. These events, looked upon as controversial, occur at a time when the world at large is still apprehensive about women taking to professions such as music (Bai) and politics (Leela). Madhu, Leela’s niece now attempts to make sense of the lives of these two women and at the same time, come to terms with the trauma (losing her son) looming over her own life. The identity that these women choose for themselves is very different from Madhu’s choice of full time motherhood. It is the most revolutionising emotion of her life. But has this got to do with her own insecurity of being motherless and losing her father at a young age? Some identities are imposed, some are gained, some just form sub-consciously. Towards the end, what really matters? Did Leela, despite her commitment and love for both her work and the people in her life deserve to die such a painful death? Did Bai’s single-minded determination directed towards her music invite hatred and abandonment from her own daughter? Despite her achievements, who is truly with her in her last days? Is this abandonment an answer to her selfishness?  The story of the novel itself becomes secondary when placed in comparison with the complex philosophical questions it chooses to ask.  By making situations bigger than characters, the book attempts to find answers to the purpose of life, the small remedies that it offers against the backdrop of death, illness and forged relationships.

Deshpande offers a plausible narrative that is placed in perfect sync with the theme. What appears to be rather ill-structured and isolated at the beginning comes together like the small pieces of a jigsaw puzzle— like memories which when put together create a whole new world.  The author also places some very relevant questions about motherhood, marriage as an institution, unrecognised social relationships that still form a part of contemporary lives. The journey of women towards selfhood in a patriarchal society does not necessarily call for binary oppositions. Rather than coming to  judgemental conclusions or offering solutions(despite the backdrop), the writer draws a graphic picture of their existence, leaving all else open to interpretation. The beauty of the novel however will lie not, in that proposition. Ultimately, it is these small remedies that provide a reason for survival. It is survival that takes priority over all human endeavours; an instinct that every human possesses, irrespective of how bleak the situation may seem. It is these memories, that we sometimes wish to run away from, that sometimes make us want to freeze time, that live with us and give us the hope, the courage and strength to keep going. “As long as there is memory, there’s always the possibility of retrieval, as long as there is memory, loss is never total.” (2)

1-Small Remedies, Shashi Deshpande: Page 165

2- Small Remedies, Shashi Deshpande: Page 324

Niharika’s Bookshelf: “AMEN: The Autobiography of a Nun”

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Penguin Books India 2009

The discretion to be made either while reading or writing about the autobiography of marginalised women is almost negligible. Most of these, coming from a relative or an absolute subaltern, are a revolt against society, institutions, systems and most of all people, who choose to carry the legacy of unjust social prejudices and meaningless subjugation, violence and oppression. After all, politics, religion, caste, class and social thought work together; they collaboratively or individually influence the other.

These autobiographies, thus, need to be judged at two levels, perhaps three: as a cathartic process for the sufferer, as a rebellion on the systems or institutions that victimise them and at the larger level: a desperate call for a renaissance.  Sister Jesme’s autobiography is an interesting read from many dimensions, given the chastity, sacredness and numerous other moralistic ideals we associate with religious life. That is the standard that unfortunately, we are conditioned to believe- renunciation is the sole path to salvation. To brand this book from an extremely commercial sense- it is scandalous, yet the honesty with which life inside the four walls that preach sanctity has been depicted, cannot be treated lightly. What we now complain as factors that are detrimental to the nation’s development and progress are strife and rampant at the less publicised religious level. Corruption, power games, homosexual relationships between nuns, class distinctions, sexual abuse by nuns and priests, mental torture – these are what Sr Jesme describes as frequent and natural happenings at the convent. At each crucial juncture of entering religious life, right from the Pre-Novitiate, Jesme has severe hurdles to overcome- those raised by her colleagues, counterparts and fellow sisters. She rises above them, despite many bruises and wounds, with faith intact. That seems to be one of the more positive aspects of this account. Irrespective of those who claim themselves to be the messengers of God and misuse that power, faith in that higher power will remain unblemished.

As far as a story line is concerned there is nothing much to look into. It is a series of incidents that exemplify the hypocrisy and the double standards of the church. The book simply achieves what it is meant to. What makes this one an important landmark is the strength to come beyond repressed silence and bare open to the world- the condescending truth. It completely demolishes our naïve idea of religious institutions and the life that comes with it. However, it does nothing to shake our belief in higher power; in fact, it reiterates the existence of one. Sister Jesme’s vision stands clear-‘I would like to give you as much freedom as you want, provided you are also that responsible. “Freedom with Responsibility” – that is my policy. I am going to open wide the portals of this college. Men and women may interact in the auditorium and the campus. You live in a society comprising both. Learn from now on how to treat the opposite sex. A lack of responsibility will lead to this freedom being curtailed. That is, please don’t misuse the freedom given to you.’

If only such an ideology that combines liberty with responsibility is nourished with an unconventional outlook, surely our notions will have a more prudent change.

Mumbai invests in a gender resource centre

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Jyoti Shelat, A gender resource centre to make Mumbai women-friendly, Daily News and Analysis, June 10, 2010.

“With an aim to make Mumbai women friendly, a group of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) employees has come together to start the first ever gender resource centre by the civic body. Inaugurated on Tuesday, the Savitribai Phule Gender Resource Centre (SPGRC), located at Elphinstone Road, will work towards a violence free, safe and gender-friendly city.

“Coordinated by the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PSH) committee, the centre’s main aim is to empower women. “Such centres do exist but they are run by NGOs. This is the first centre set up by the civic body,” said Dr Kamaxi Bhate from KEM Hospital, who is the secretary of the SPGRC as well as PSH.”

Address of the new centre: Savitribai Phule Gender Resource Centre (SPGRC), Rajgruha Cooperative Society, Balshet Madurkar Marg, Elphinstone (West), Mumbai- 400013

PS: R.Lalita had posted the same story with a different report link: Express News Service, Municipal platform to protect women at workplace, Indian Express, June 8, 2010. Just saw it in the Drafts folder!