On the twenty first of May, 1934, a family waited with bated breath. The richest man of the town was about to become a father. They had prayed for an heir to the fortune, a boy who would carry forth the respected family name. Pujas had been performed and the god of fire had been invoked. The prayers must have fallen on deaf ears, for the midwife came forth with a baby girl in her arms. Her life began in an atmosphere of disappointment. She would be the first of four daughters whose mother would die birthing her fifth child. A son.
When my history textbook spoke of how the life of upper-caste women had been far worse than those from lower-castes, many found it difficult to comprehend. As for me, all I had to do was picture my grandmother’s life from what she’d told me. Her mother had died in childbirth because her father couldn’t wait to have a son. This well-respected, learned Brahmin man had no respect for what his wife had to endure every time she birthed a child, as long as the newborn was female. Once she died, he quickly remarried. My grandmother was all of ten when she was handed the duty of playing mother to her three sisters. While her father established a family with his new wife, with whom he went on to have several more children, this ten year old would plait her sisters’ hair for school, help them with their homework and even wash their clothes for them. Years later, at her funeral, her three sisters sat around her body, talking about how she had lost her mother when she was ten, but they were losing their mother now.
For a girl who was seen a little less than a baby-sitter, this young woman was determined to get herself a great education. For all his shortcomings, her father did not stand in the way of this desire of hers. She graduated from school with excellent academic records and went on to study Sanskrit in college. You see, languages had been a great love of hers and she’d devoured books in Malayalam, Hindi and Sanskrit in the little free time she had. In a time when working women were hard to come by, she secured a position in a government school as a Sanskrit teacher. She might not have known it at the time but this decision would serve her well.
In the 1950’s, women were married early. The more respectable the family, the younger the bride. So the fact that she was married off at the age of twenty instead of sixteen actually indicated negligence on the part of her father, not progressiveness. He was far too busy with both his new family, and his life as a professor and a local leader to remember his duty. The damage however was done. All the young grooms were gone, and this twenty year old was married off to a forty year old Sanskrit scholar. While he was a respected man and an excellent scholar, the gap was nothing short of terrifying. There was no chance they would be equals in this marriage. Under the guise of progressiveness, her wealthy father parted with his eldest daughter with no wedding gifts. He had managed to cut her lose without having to forsake the tiniest share of what he owned.
Fate seemed to detest this woman. Her mother died when she was ten. Her siblings and she were outsiders in her own family for the remaining ten years of her stay. Instead of being a child, she was a mother all those years and here she was, married to a man twice her age. Surely things could only go up from here. For a while they did. They built a small house together from the meager salaries they both had as government school teachers. They had four children together, all boys. Life has a dark sense of humor. For the first time in her life, things weren’t terrible until one day, her husband felt some chest pain. She didn’t have the means to take him to an expensive hospital so she reached out to her father and brothers. They couldn’t care less. So she took him to a local clinic where he died after having had a heart attack.
Now, while being a motherless child in a merciless, rich family is pretty bad in itself, being a widow is far worse. There are cruel customs that are forcefully performed, and you lose all your respect. Not for nay fault of yours but for a death which you have no control over. As this woman in her late thirties wailed, woman came to break her thaali-maala, the one remaining symbol of her husband. They roughly wiped the kumkum off her forehead as her four sons watched. The youngest was ten, the oldest was sixteen. My father was all of thirteen. Just as things had started to look up for her, her world had come crashing down. She had four teenage boys to look after in a society that did not value her as a human being anymore. On a government school teacher’s salary, she’d have to run the house and make sure her son’s needs were met. She would be counting paisas while her father and brothers rolled around in a brand new ambassador that only they owned in the entire town.
The coming years were awful. She’d walk to and from the school, in the scorching Kerala heat, to save a few paisas which she would have used up as bus fare. The younger boys would never get any new clothes, as they would wear their brothers’ hand me downs. She’d wake up at four and sleep at one, often grading papers. My father recalls being her assistant who’d total up the marks on each exam paper after she was done checking them. While shouldering the burden of managing a family of five with no external help whatsoever, she also acted as a human shield, protecting her children from any unseemly remarks stemming from her being a widow. There were times when she’d sob quietly once she thought her sons were asleep. She’d watch her teenagers get into ugly fights and wish her husband were there to pry them apart. There were times when money would run scarily short and she’d keep aside her pride and ask her brother for help, only to be humiliated. She didn’t mind doing it for her sons, for they were all she had.
She continued working until she retired at the age of fifty five, by which point all her sons had respectable government jobs. She’d raised them to a point where they could support themselves and their future families. In spite of everything that had transpired, she had won. She had performed all her duties to the very best of and sometimes beyond her abilities. She’d risen to every merciless challenge and now all she wanted was to rest and live the simple, peaceful life she’d always yearned for.
Revealing the truth about what life had in store for her will only serve to infuriate the characters in her story who are still alive and kicking. Yet I’ll say this. She’d sit beside me, on our bed staring at her phone for long, hoping it would ring. She’d scroll down the list of contacts and pause at a few names, wondering whether to call. Yet the last time she’d called, the response hadn’t been positive. She hated being a disturbance, an inconvenience. My father and I would sit with her, chatting with her, discussing our lives over cups of Horlicks and tea. She’d reminisce about the life she’d had and how she’d been too busy ensuring the survival of her family to strengthen ties within it.
One night, she couldn’t sleep. At two am, she was feeling unwell and nauseous. I handed her a plastic back, told her everything would be okay and awoke my father. She insisted on not going to the hospital at night. My father switched beds with me and slept alongside his mother. It was fitting, for it was her last night. The next day, she walked into a hospital, with my father. Walked in of her own accord and died. It was a quick end to what had been a long, drawn out, painful life.
When we talk of the feminine, we think of beauty, sensuality, sensitivity and emotion. Yet this woman was a living symbol of inconceivable strength. Each blow she was dealt was independently capable of bringing a person to his knees and yet she never crumbled. So when I am told about how women are weak, and how they are the fairer sex who seek the arms of a strong man to hold them steady, I laugh. My grandmother was just an ordinary woman. Other than her immediate family, no one will really hear of her. No magazine will feature her story, no movie will be made about her. Just a woman who lived, kept house and died. They will never know. My grandmother might have been just an ordinary woman, but her strength was extraordinary.