A GUEST POST from my aunty Dr. Bindu on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
Every woman works at home and helps the family earn a living. As caregivers, raising their children, doing a myriad of household chores – fetching water, firewood, cooking, washing clothes, keeping the home clean, working in fields often for no pay if they are helping their husbands or for paltry wages, at construction sites and on and on.
Following Indian Independence in 1947 (15th August) a new sort of working woman emerged – middle class, college educated, often unmarried, who went to work as school and college teachers, secretaries, and as administrative staff at various levels. On this International Women’s Day my thoughts turn to my many women cousins quite a few of whom are now with unseemly haste departing for the great beyond and whose lives I wish to eulogize.
I was born after Independence and as a child remember cousins lauded for going on to do a Masters in Arts, for obtaining a First Class, for breaking caste barriers by marrying across caste and province, though this was not without controversy and objections. Intense discussions took place with uncles and grandmothers taking sides and some boycotting the wedding.
One cousin had to leave home due to a hard, recalcitrant even cruel father. But leave she did and even her wedding invitation was issued by her elder sister and brother-in-law. Usually it was the parents who sent out the invite with the words “Mr and Mrs so and so request the pleasure of your company to the wedding of their daughter …” etc. Having left home was a move not previously heard of in our extended family, marrying a divorcee from another province another. My mother and aunts were married in their early teens, bore from 7 to 14 children of whom 5 to 7 survived. All were literate, my mother finished school and due to her Shakespeare loving father could recite lines from Romeo and Juliet and other plays. All their children boys and girls were sent to school and college, one became a gynaecologist, another a PhD in plant genetics, yet another a Masters in Statistics. Most graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts to their name, a few got a diploma in education and became school teachers.
But it is not their educational achievements that I want to write about today. It is the sheer newness to work for a living, earn a salary that had never happened in their milieu before. I was a child then but to me the novelty of this did not make an impression. Only now decades later do I realise how in their quiet dignified way they blazed a trail.
Their jobs fetched them a modest salary, one earned Rs 200/month in 1955, the hours were long, the commute hard with early rising hours to store water, cook a meal and catch a crowded suburban train to reach their place of work. The barely adequate salary meant virtually no household help and a long evening’s slog before sleep and the same long day to follow. My eldest masi’s (mother’s sister) 3 daughters and my Bafoi’s (father’s sister) 4 daughters were graceful sari clad women, the 2 eldest always in a Gujarati style sari with the Pallav over their right shoulder, a quiet elegance now rarely to be seen. Their sarees were not expensive but impressed the eye. Mainly cotton prints with big borders or plain white. To my child’s eye they seemed to glide in them! They wore no make-up and virtually no jewelry. They had grown up in 2 or 3 room apartments, where 7 to 8 persons lived.
Over time they saved moneys from their salaries and bought flats on an “ownership basis” putting together a deposit and having a loan to pay off over the years. The sums they paid for these flats appeared high then but today in Mumbai one could not get a single room miles away from the city for the same. Slowly they bought appliances, a mark of arrival as it were – an iron, a radio, a ceiling fan. Much later came a refrigerator. Car ownership did not occur except to a few and that too in the 80s and 90s. Little did they or we realise that all these markers of a ‘good life’ carried within them a portent of disaster.
We (my sisters and I) visited them periodically, those who stayed nearer we saw oftener. Our rebel who left her father’s home became a “Paying Guest” after she married. Her husband and she rented one large room which was always a welcoming home, a large room made even larger by her affection and generosity. She hosted many a dinner for us and her husband and she would walk us back to our home at night to make sure we reached safely.
It is the warmth and love I recall from each cousin, the light in their eyes as they answered the doorbell, you knew you were welcome and felt at home. Being the youngest I did not participate in the conversation which my sisters carried on with an earnestness and energy that was remarkable – covering so much ground it was difficult to keep up about various relatives and the good more often ill fortune that had befallen someone! Tea and snacks would be served and when a refrigerator had been bought cold water served with a pride deeply felt. Oh those were simple days. No one had been overseas, Santa Cruz Airport was more renowned for the flooding that occurred near it and caused destruction during several monsoons to a cousin’s flat which was in a ‘low lying’ area.
Over the decades their lives got easier though their working days were just as long. They travelled at first within India, then overseas. All of them had an admirable work ethic, they took their duties seriously and were diligent in what they did. It is a tribute to them as well to the era in which they worked that they had benefits – a provident fund, annuity, and pensions. Also they saved and with helpful tips from colleagues they invested in Fixed Deposits (FDs)/stocks and were able to live out 2 to 3 decades of retirement in a degree of comfort. This might the case all across India indeed across the world. But it was in India that the change in the decades of the 40s and 50s were such a break from the past. One heard so much of ‘black money’ (tax evasion) and corruption that it is reassuring to realise how many like my cousins did neither. Their interests were varied, many sang well and could regale you with Hindi film songs beautifully rendered. There were film buffs who could recount a film “scene to scene” complete with sound effects. They did it in such detail that we no longer needed to view the film!
Others followed cricket closely discussing scores, mistakes, strategies with friends. The advent of year long cricket and the shorter formats was helpful to pass the hours after retirement. Nearly all could knit and embroider. A small table cloth embroidered by my eldest cousin is still with me, an exquisite flower pattern done in each corner. Politics was of course ever present what with the defeat of S K Patil then an uncrowned King of Bombay in the elections of 1967 and the turbulent decade that followed with the Emergency of 1975-77. Mostly the politics was left of center with two having husbands who were Communists and active in their Trade Unions. Last year anxiety was expressed about Trump, a widespread sentiment globally!
As they aged disease took its toll, tragically in the case of my eldest maternal cousin and with varying degrees of severity in the others. Of 21 women in our family 10 are gone. Their departure has left a void, no more telephone calls by them to my sisters advising of changes in the interest rate for FDs for Senior Citizens, no more of the special wadas – apparently now known as Desai Wadas in Surat – made for me when I came home to visit. No more making sure that fresh vegetables were bought to bring from Delhi to Bombay – a 24 hour journey by train, our cousin sure my mother and sibs would appreciate the gesture, no more inland and air letters written on a regular basis…
So as these ‘precious friends’ are ‘hid in death’s dateless night’ I pay homage to them this International Women’s Day. Now it is commonplace for women to work in offices, to be in virtually any profession from airline pilot to sommelier, to wear slacks and tops to work, to have all sorts of ‘smart’ gadgets at hand. The trains are even more crowded, the days just as long for them and the jobs though better paying often have no benefits. Marriage across caste and province generally raises no hackles, in pursuing careers the sky is literally the limit. No doubt they face their own problems, from sexual harassment to being passed over unfairly for promotions. But as they go off taking earning a living as a given let them spare a thought for those whose shoulders they stand on.