Women’s day makes me think about the important women in my life. I was raised by two intrepid women, my mother and Meema, my nanny-cum-busybody housekeeper- cum-part-of-the-family. One had a post graduate degree and the other was illiterate, and between the two of them, they gave me some really handy life lessons and kept my ego in check. Then came the third woman in my life — my daughter — and my education was complete, my ego stayed bonsai-ed.
Meema would frequently shrug at some dumb, privileged-child statement that I would make and intone the Telugu equivalent of “do teen baar marne se hi shamshaan ka raasta pata chalega” (Unless you have died a few times, you won’t know the way to the crematorium). And she kept me honest in the strangest of ways. If I lost a tiffin dabba in school, she would march in there, go to the Lost and Found section and if my lunch box wasn’t there, she would pick up another one randomly. I would beg and plead and say we shouldn’t do that, I will get into trouble. But she had her own logic — if someone took yours, then you can take what somebody else lost and didn’t claim. Out of utter fear for her brand of reparation blowing up in my face, I made sure, as much as I could, never to lose my lunch box. My mother, on the other hand, listened to me admit that I had lost her mother’s earrings that were passed on to me, and just looked sad and said nothing. My daughter rarely lost anything, and I used to wonder if the apple had fallen very far from the tree.
Meema had an innate understanding of power play. Years after she had unilaterally announced her retirement, she would keep tabs on when my daughter and I were coming to visit my parents. She would return, take up residence a few days earlier, and cook up a storm of all my favourite foods. The day I left she would leave as well, and resume her retirement. Such sneaky one-upmanship with the children annoyed my mother to no end. But Meema could not be stopped. My mother has never managed to wrest much control from the young woman who looked after my daughter. But my mother is no pushover. She knows how to draw blood in her own way, usually mine. She deflates any grandiose notions that I may have about being a fearless feminist by mildly commenting on how being a feminist when you have economic independence is no big deal. “Look at me, I was under your father’s thumb financially, but I still stood up for myself — and made you the way you are.” Ouch.
My daughter has inherited her grandmother’s ability to hit the nail on the head, in the most annoyingly precise way. As I was struggling late into the night writing my second book, she sauntered over to the temple where I was labouring — my dining table. She surveyed the papers strewn all over, the rows of coffee cups and my miserable and angry expression and asked: “Are you having fun writing this book?” “What does it look like”, I snarled. “Well”, she replied calmly, every inch her father’s daughter in that regard, “If you aren’t having any fun writing it, imagine how much fun the people reading it would have”. Ouch again. Do I really need all these lessons in humility? I like to think not, but maybe a small part of me is grateful for the perspective, so that I don’t collapse under the weight of my self-image.
Just as Meema managed my dad’s diabetes (by putting sugar in his coffee and then flatly denying it, muttering to herself that a little bit of sugar never did anyone any harm, what did the stupid doctors know), so too does Suvarna, my housekeeper, who manages my ailments. I have just had cooking oil, boiled with garlic and cooled, put into my ears. I have been fed tons of turmeric and honey because what can English medicine possibly do. But she also rushes to light the lamp before my Saraswati idol every morning, saying please give my bhabhi a good day, she has worked hard on the computer all night.
We all have a Meema and Suvarna in our lives, a mother and daughters, the lucky ones have sisters as well. Women’s day is a good time to think about this amazing bounty — keeping you from getting ahead of yourself and keeping you safe. And telling it like it is. n
Rama Bijapurkar is the author of We Are Like That Only and A
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