Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Changing Face of Indian Marriages

Some years ago, in the fifties, when I was ripe for sacrifice, there was the Suitable Boy and the supplicant parents syndrome. Like, I have this daughter: beautiful, brilliant at college, sings like a nightingale, cordon bleau cook and I will give her away to any odd-body that deigns to take her away. (Not me I am talking about, but the general trend.)We'll also give him a lot of money on occasion, and deck our daughter with gold. So long as he is the right caste, and of the same education and social levels.
   In those days I was merely irritated by this. Many Indian novelists writing in English became successful on the phenomenon of 'arranged' marriages, Seth included. Now things have changed (for the better) and I have to be astounded.
   When I got married in 1957 I had no expectations beyond a secure home and a husband who would let me be. A few rich saris and gold trinkets would come in handy too. Love did not enter the equation.
   My problem was that I couldn't let him be. I wanted him to have words like me, discuss the nature of religion, death, and the sun rising daily. Now I know this was unreasonable. But then, I felt cheated and wondered why my far-seeing father had lost his courage when it came to his daughter's spouse. I had married into a family that had got degrees, but never got educated. They deplored the strange fact that their new bride wanted to read books while still on honeymoon.
   The next generation did not fare too differently. The girls were still decorated and given away for nothing, on a plate. The bridegrooms sat back and took their pick - or their families did. For them it was effortless.
   Not so for the brides. They had to fast and pray on Saturdays so that they would get good husbands. And their mothers directed them to make themselves desirable with oil baths, and frequent the temples to plead with the Gods.
   If, in addition to being merely stroppy, you also had Saturn in your seventh house according to the astrologers - as I had - God help you. The prospects were gloomy.
   The only saving grace in those days was that most weddings took place in the home of the brides and took all of ten minutes. Now you are not married, now you are. Many people came for the vegetarian feast but the gold expected by the bridegrooms' families did not require a second mortgage and festivities did not go on for five days in five different places.
   Now of course the girls have wised up. They have flooded the higher end of the job markets and stride the world with confidence. If they don't like what they get they come home in six months and forget the husband.
   How easy it has become to 'unmarry?'  No stigma attached and no shame to the family.
   There are many reasons why the women these days get disillusioned with married life:
     No one has mentioned sex in passing, so there is trouble in that department sometimes.
     The concept that marriages are all about gold jewellery and fancy clothes takes a beating. There is cooking to do, mother-in-law to contend with and the husband is after all a stranger, whose character comes to focus slowly.
     Two families have got married too in the process and both have to be placated.
     Expectations, ratcheted up by cinema and television soaps are hard to meet.
   A few are lucky - allowed to make their own mistakes. That is for urban women. For the rural girls times lag behind.
   The sacrificial lamb however is still decked out and fortunes spent on getting rid of her. Families are impoverished in the process and grievances last a lifetime.
   If I could persuade these young girls to stand firm and reject husbands who demand dowries, if I could show them how they can get married simply and with grace and the outcomes would be no different... It would be a step too far if I suggested they live together with future spouses, test the domestic waters, but I live in hope.
   It is all just a question of time. Rock on girls, the future is with you.
 
   

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Quality of Memory

   Inevitable that when I begin admitting to age (senility?) I also have to consider the quality of my memory. At seventy-six, (the new sixties they call it, hoodwinking themselves) I am only beginning to stare down anno domini face-on. I am not winning.
   So I dig deep into my Thalassery beginnings, and sometimes I come up with gold. Brings a smile to my heart:
   My first train journey on the Madras Mail: it usually came in at about mid-day daily (a very elastic mid-day as trains did not care too much about schedules then; there were so few, they took major liberties with time.) and left two hours later, after its journey further north. I could hear the magic whistle of that train as it approached the station, huffing and puffing, and when it went on its way to Mangalapuram, I listened to it clickety-clacking on that flimsy bridge across the Koduvally river. I counted the wooden sleepers on the bridge once when I was older - there were eighty-three of them. And little 'reserves' for people walking on that bridge, if a train came by. They jutted out of the bridge and seemed designed for a small cat.
   I was going to Madras to visit my mother's family, the first time after my mum disappeared from my life, around the age of two-and-a half years. I had not started school yet, so I would be less than four years old at that time. My father got Shekaran Meistry, his tailor, to make me four silk dress; dark, velevety green, rich maroon, sunshine yellow and midnight blue. They all had small white or cream prints on them and Meistry had added piping and frills. For a little girl who lived in white mul-mul slips this was untold luxury. That day I wore my green dress. 
   Just before I left - for all of six weeks- my father reminded me to go next door and say goodbye to our neighbours, the two sisters, Madhavi and Nani, who 'borrowed' me every day for a while. They fed me eggs from their chicken and let me play in the goat-poo, which dried to black nuts and didn’t smell at all.
   Their brother Kannan used the dried waste for his garden and he was a severe looking man. I called him Kannettan. In an age when all older men wore Ettan tags and women were Echis. He was forever chanting the nos. Picking up the goat-poo was a definite no-no.  But that day he smiled and hugged me. Picked a red rose off his one rose bush, indeed the only rose on that bush, and told the women to stick it under my bobby pin. That rose was perfect, shiny, with petals shaped in rose-heaven. I can still remember the lovely smell of it.
   'Motherless little one,' the women murmured as they fussed over me. Memory is not a video; it is a series of stills, crystal clear as in the eyes of a child. A pretty green dress, the silk slippery on me; a red rose to die for; a whisper in my ear, which spelt love. Perfect!
   That day I learned there were advantages to the motherless state, especially if you did not know your mother. Much later, my father fed me books, while most other girls were learning to cook, getting wood-ash in their hair, as I cultivated a reader's hump with bad posture. I learned words and how to play with them, to conquer the world with them. No one told me the parameters of a young Malayalee girl's existence, no one used that horrendous word, obedience. As in obedience to the masters of the household, the all-important MEN.
    My father, well ahead of the pack, insisted that obedience was an over-rated virtue. Could be a serious handicap, he said, and I never knew whether he was joking or not.
   Many years after, when I left my husband and went to England, my Velyamma, maternal grandmother, who had no role in my growing up, said to me, 'You never learned obedience.'  She meant that special willingness to accept what the men decreed. Thank God for that!
   Memory is splintered and the chronology is suspect. However I continue to make my own rules. And when I pull out a special card from that jumbled pack of fading cards we call memory, I colour the bits that are going sepia, fading on me. I can pick my own colours.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Time-Pass

Last night it was big-time thumb exercise for me- clicking the remote to find something worth watching. Reality TV, it seems, had done for quality soaps. Upstairs Downstairs, Minder, Love thy Neighbour, The Good Life - all those stellar cameos we now see ad nauseum in repeats till the fun is squeezed out of them - why can we not produce that quality of TV anymore?
   I had just finished a lovely novel by Penelope Lively (How it all Began) and was looking for time-pass till I homed in on the next one. Which was in the end, a P.D. James via Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. (Death at Pemberley.) Not sure I like where she is going, but must give her a few more pages before I decide.
   All this made me wonder: how did we entertain ourselves before television, computers, videos and the like?

   We young girls gossiped a great deal and there was much to gossip about. Remember, in Kerala of that time (the forties), even looking at a boy for too long was a punishable offence. (This was called 'eye flinging.') A fourteen-year-old girl I knew swallowed copper sulphate and killed herself because someone had intercepted a love-letter she had written to a boy in her class .Girls and boys sat in different sections of school and college and did not socialize beyond the odd lending or borrowing of lecture notes. (Lots of scope there, mind you. My first clandestine message was the photo of a boy who lent his Organic Chemistry text book to me, with his photo pasted on the back-flap. Daring! I treated it like hot coals.

   Normally we combined hair drying with gossip - the activities blended well. We girls would actually organize ourselves in the back-veranda: take out the wooden foot stools to sit on,  find a corner at a safe distance from the adults so that we would not be hijacked for domestic duties... The boys were exempt from all kitchen fatigues. What did they do? Hang out with other boys on the roads? Kick a worn out tennis ball around? There is so much you can do with balls. Excuse the pun, quite unintended.

   Times when we girls had our periods were best as we were considered 'impure' and nobody would expect us to fetch and carry, grind the coconut or red chillie on the stone for the fish curry or wash up... Indeed we were not allowed to enter the kitchen, even bathe, till the third day had passed, so we spent the time sitting about in places where the men would not look on us. It would be a bad omen for them if they saw us.
 
   I secreted books to pass the time, but was reprimanded - books would be sullied if touched at that time and the goddess of learning, Saraswathi, would be displeased. Some times my cousin, Thankamani and I would decide to have periods at the same time, one faking it while the other was 'outed.' My lynx-eyed grandmother of course had ways of finding out.

   Mani was a disappointment in the lice-catching department. Unlike me she had no lice in her hair. But we spent a lot of time looking for lice in each other's hair. The fun was in the looking. When you got one you placed it carefully on one thumbnail and squashed it with the other. The plop was greatly satisfying. After a good half-hour of this there would be sticky gore on your thumb, evidence of time well-spent.

   We walked to the temple a lot as this was the one place we were allowed to go unchaperoned. Who or what  we looked at there was another matter. I was not particularly devout and by eighteen I was rapidly becoming an agnostic, but the conch-blowing and bells, the smell of incense and sandalwood, even the sight of worshippers trance-like before the idols, were entirely to my liking. Also the fact that we could dress up for the event and meet other college mates there.

   Reading was frowned upon except by my father who was way ahead of his time: the women thought it wasted too much time and led nowhere. Certainly not to good husbands. The young men shied off women who could think or talk back. And since Thalassery did not have too many graduate men in the late forties or early fifties, aside from a crop of lawyers, many with no briefs, we had already condemned ourselves by entering College. At the time there were five girls to forty-two men in my College year for Mathematics. In the pre-degree years many girls had dropped off before graduating. My father had a tough time persuading any man to marry me; I think I frightened the wits off them.

   Going to the cinema was such a rare and exciting event, it happened about twice a year in the summer. We folded our best clothes under our pillow overnight to iron them and counted the hours to six in the evening the next day. Bombay Talkies came into town in the summer and pitched tent in an empty space at the end of town. If the rains came down during the show, we had to abandon the film and run for a rickshaw. The day I saw Ramarajyam with Shobana Samarth in the lead role as Seetha, the skies came down while Lakshmanan was placing Rama's sandals on the throne rather than usurp his brother's crown. I remember the sandals looming large on the black-and-white screen while we edged our way out reluctantly. 'Use your imagination,' and 'Write your own ending,' my unsympathetic father used to say while I looked disappointed and near tears.

   It got a little better with the first solid theatre building that came to Thalassery some time in the late forties - the famous Mukund Talkies. Rain was no longer a threat. But four annas each  for three or four young girls was quite a chunk off the house keeping and we had to beg from many 'uncles' till we had enough to go.

   The circus was another diversion - annual like the festivals at the two temples. After all Thalassery was where the circus was born and trapeze artists were dime a dozen.These  were passing diversions, part of the after-harvest euphoria. All of these came to a full stop during the war years and when they returned hezitantly after the war, the world had changed and so had our expectations.

   Above all, on hot nights, after supper, the whole family sat on the veranda or out in the moonlight and chatted. This was a special time and children like me felt the benediction. We were secure and well-loved, listening to the murmur of the grown-ups around us, as we drifted away into half-sleep.