POWER AND BALANCE
We are three sisters and what I remember of my mother with gratitude, is that she took us with her whenever she visited elder women, her friends or relations. We stayed out of the conversation, unless directly invited to respond to queries, or asked our opinion on any subject. But we listened. And we formed our own opinions of the women we met. My mother’s ostensible reason in taking us to them was to introduce her children to elders, and invariably we were expected to seek their blessings by touching their feet when we said our farewells. Listening, observing and talking to these women have left some indelible memories.
I first visited my great grandmother when I was about twelve years old. I had met her several times in her daughter’s (my grandmother’s) house, but visiting her in her native village was a memorable experience. A doorway off the main street of Karkala, a small “porch” with narrow seats under the overhanging roof, led us to an inner courtyard. These porch seats were where we could sit or stand to watch the traffic on the street, or more importantly, to watch the temple car procession, a festive occasion we were able to witness that year. In the courtyard there was a tulsi plant on a high pedestal in the centre. On the verandah surrounding the courtyard sat my granduncle, grandmother’s elder brother and the head of the household. My great grandfather had long passed on, and great grandmother had shaved her head, discarded all her jewelry and confined herself to the kitchen area, ‘as per custom”. Her son and daughter-in-law ran the house. Or so it was said, again, as per custom. But as I sat and observed the family, I watched granduncle sitting on the floor removing the copra from the dried half-coconuts that were spread out in the sun. He had a sharp tool with which he scooped out the copra shells. The coconuts had been collected from the coconut palms in the back compound of the house, and were one of the sources of income for the family..
I went inside. Grandmother sat in the kitchen and chatted with her mother: How many coconuts were you able to sell this year? What did they sell for? And the copra? What is the market price? I heard the conversation, at that time mostly about agriculture and prices of the products of their land.
Soon a worker from the fields arrived, stood at a respectful distance, his eyes lowered, as he raised his hand to his forehead in greeting, when he saw granduncle. He did not enter the house beyond the courtyard. He reported to his landlord on the state of the rice crop which would be soon ready for harvest, asking for instructions. Uncle rose to his feet and went inside to his mother to convey the sharecropper’s message. In a low voice she gave clear and precise instructions. These instructions were conveyed to the peasant outside, but they were uncle’s instructions, orders from the landlord.
We had lunch and stretched out on straw mats on the cool floor of the back verandah. Before drowsiness and sleep took over I heard the conversation between mother and daughter as they discussed marriage alliances, recipes for medications for our childhood illnesses, plans for the coming months, before the monsoon rains descended, on making the preserves and papad and pickles that were needed for the family’s year long consumption. Underlying the conversation were the connected threads of economy, family needs, decisions for future contacts with relatives, and above all sustainability, whether it be in agriculture, family ties or plans for the children’s future. When my grandmother disagreed she would only say “wouldn’t this be better and more advisable?” without aggressive dissent. Her mother would listen quietly and respond in her own calm way. A word that comes to mind now, when I recall the episode, is “Balance” There was no acrimonious debate; just a delicate balance as the scales tipped one way or another. Different generations had their say, and there was accommodation as something was added or something taken away from every point of view, to even the balance.
I recall now that it was this illiterate widow, with no material possessions and no overt social status, who was really the head of the household, the power behind every decision that was made – fair and even-handed in all dealings.
We went to visit Mr and Mrs. Rao, a couple in their seventies, at their grandson’s home in Mangalore. They were warm and hospitable; coffee and snacks were served with the minimum of fuss and with every consideration for the taste of young children. As we conversed in the inner living room Mr. Rao sat with us, quiet and smiling at the women’s chatter and humorous quips, with minimum response. He had had a small business and some income of rent from a small landholding. But all his children were doing very well in life and their own monetary needs were little.
While we sat with them the doorbell rang and Mrs. Rao went out, a little grey-haired lady with a large round of kumkum on her forehead and the traditional jewelry of a Hindu upper caste wife. She returned to her husband with a brief report : “Sadashiv wants to know whether we would sell our old cow. I really think we should let her go and I have told him the price we would expect.” She raised her brows inquiringly and her husband merely nodded. She returned to convey to the visitor her husband’s decision!
A modest soft spoken woman with little education, she is not well known or listed among the remarkable women of India, although her four sons, each in his own field rose to fame and pre-eminent positions in their professions – education, finance, journalism and political administration. All of them were among those listed in the Who’s Who of India. They left home to go abroad, married foreign women, but came back to serve their country with distinction. Their parents, their mother especially, accepted their lifestyles, marriages and above all supported them with strength and confidence. This little woman was the rock on whom they built their successful lives and distinguished careers.
In mother and grandmother’s social circle were several such women, none of them had more than a minimum education, and all of them were hemmed in by the patriarchal fences, But they were confident in their role and their ability to listen before acting, and balanced in their judgment.
After them came the generation of educated women, with college degrees, but no real ambition for independent careers. Marriage was the goal, arranged for them by parents, within the caste and community. One such woman Susheela was engaged to a young man in medical college, an eminently suitable groom from a well-known family. He went to England for his post graduate study promising to return in a year to marry the chosen bride. What happened then was typical of many such events we encountered ; he married an English girl. It was a common joke among people, in such instances, to say that the young man acquired a MA.LLD degree – married a landlady’s daughter! It was a cruel joke however on the young fiancée Susheela because broken engagements were as bad as broken marriages, socially. The anger, shock and humiliation were known only to the young girl and her close family. She refused any further suggestions of marriage, and decided to continue to study with the intent to become a teacher. Soon the independence movement gained momentum and Gandhiji’s charisma drew many to his group of close followers. This young woman joined him and soon became his secretary, It is not known to many that the articles in “Harijan” , and Gandhiji’s letters now in public archives, were all written or typed by someone who was now indispensable to the Mahatma. Her position of influence in Gandhiji’s coterie of followers is not evaluated, but she is there, unidentified in the background of photographs displayed in the Gandhi Smriti museum. She played a small part in India’s history, definitely a more influential position than that of the wife a successful doctor in London. Her quiet decision tipped the balance.
A young Tamil Brahmin woman was rejected by her husband and sent home, because her face was pitted with smallpox scars. Her shocked father gave her courage and helped her complete her education and pursue a teaching career. Young Lakshmi went to England to complete her Master’s degree in English, and returned home to teach at Queen Mary’s College, Madras, where she later took over from the British Principal to become the first Indian lady principal of the elite Women’s college in Madras (Chennai). Her influence on so many young women students like my mother, from conservative homes, whose minds were opened, their potential realized through their education, is not known or assessed except by her students.. But many of them, women who later assumed important roles before and after independence derived their power from their education, which inculcated in them a strong sense of Self. (Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was an alumna of Queen Mary’s College).
Women like these, now long gone, gave me a deeper understanding about the meaning of power, and taught me that to inspire and influence people in a quiet unobtrusive way
adds an important dimension to the meaning of Power. They did not have the freedom or space that I enjoy today, thanks to the education and opportunities that I have been privileged to receive.
But it is still a patriarchy!
Today I am privileged to be part of an educational Society which runs many schools. We are only three women – less than 20% of the membership. Most of the men have retired at the end of successful professional lives, where they have reached their career peak of power, prestige and money. We women too were equally successful in our careers, are committed, and articulate – and independent. Yet the overt thrust of power is clearly male, even though the Sanskrit word for power is female “Shakti.”
In every culture it seems the thirst for power is not slaked because men are unwilling to share the space with once-quiet women. In the twentieth century women received education. We question patriarchy. We grew up grounded in values of sharing, fair dealings and equity. We raise our voice not for shared Power but for Balance. The scales cannot be tipped by egos; balance is achieved by renunciation of position, and stability is achieved by sharing responsibility free of gender-derived bias.