Friday, March 27, 2015

The Last Bastions of Patriarchy

My father was a Hindu Brahmin by birth and an engineer by education and profession. So I presume this whole conflict between reason and ritual afflicted him all his life.

He was a liberal parent in so many ways, being an only child I was never brought up "like a boy" but as a strong and independent girl who didn't have to be like a boy to prove any point. But the same man who brought me this way had his patriarchal hang ups too. One of the major ones was regarding the Antim Samskar, the Hindu  ritual associated with funeral.

Traditionally the eldest son of a deceased has to perform the last rites and in the absence of a son the next male kin i.e brother, nephew have to step in, in some families with only girls and no male cousins even son-in-laws do the needful.

Till a few years ago both my parents were doubtful about me doing their last rites. So one day I actually asked them that to ensure that none of us comes between me and this natural right of mine ,lets have a legal agreement where they sign me and no one else this right to perform their last rites. That I think made it clear to them how resolute and prepared I was for this and that settled it forever between us.

It is also suggested sometimes that the inheritor or heir of the deceased has to perform these rites. Daughters traditionally were not allowed to inherit property especially once they were married off so it automatically ruled them out from conducting the last rites for their parents. A common reason being cited is that post-marriage the girl is a different Gotra hence not entitled to do the rites of her parents who now are a separate Gotra.

My logical answer to this conundrum is - What if I marry/divorce/marry multiple times? Wouldn't my Gotra and/or religion change as many times? But wouldn't I still remain my parents' daughter as much as any son remains his parents' offspring?

As a lot of our popular culture will testify, this masculine obligation is the oldest reason to want a son in the traditional Hindu family. It is believed that women are faint hearted and only do the weeping and crying, rituals and management generally falls to the men.

I see it as the most copious form of discrimination by keeping key religious duties exclusively a masculine domain.

If I could do everything else a son can then why not this?

Another subtle form of discrimination that I faced was how people perceive a girl should grieve. She should wail and cry, be weak, disoriented, shouldn't smile or laugh, look for support from men in the family.

I did not cry in public, no not even a single tear. I was smiling and laughing ,whatever came naturally, not because I didn't respect my father but precisely because I was being myself. My grief has no obligation to live up to any expectations.
I am not a weak woman, any one who feels uncomfortable or threatened by that, its their problem not mine.

My father passed away on 6th of March and on the 7th I was the "karta" in his cremation and all other Hindu rituals that followed. This act and public post is not to earn a few pats on the back as a lot of detractors have already suggested, this is not to prove that I am different or stronger.
Because actions speak louder than words ,it is a message for my mom who being a married daughter was not allowed to touch her parents' dead bodies or accompany them to the crematorium, for my six years old daughter whom I tell innumerable times that she is an equal to any other human being in every possible way, no less.
It is a message to families with a single girl child or only girls, please don't deny your girls this right.
It is a message to families with both girls and boys, if you are really dedicated to gender equality show it when it matters.

I don't know much about afterlife and so don't see how a girl or a boy doing the last rites affects that but I do see a lot of power going to our girls if this last bastion of patriarchal power is defeated.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015


I had turned 36 that morning and 360 kilometres away he had walked into a hospital never to return. For the first time he had forgotten my birthday and I waited in fear for that ominous phone call.

The next day was HOLI, a festival we both didn’t like too much, the day that was his last.

A few weeks ago the last extended conversation between me and my late father was about strength in the face of
adversity. He cited Guru Granth Sahib:

“Chidya naal main baaz ladava,

Tabhi Guru Gobind Singh naam kahawa”

(I will make the sparrows capable of fighting the hawks, for it is only then that i will be able to uphold my name.)

Little did we know that we would soon be the sparrows fighting the merciless hawk called death. We talked a lot about death and sorrow during his last stay with me a few weeks ago. As I would comb his thinning grey hair, massage his furrowed skin and clip his old nails, I knew he was slowly slipping away.

He would narrate anecdotes from his colourful childhood across the borders to my little one and think about his departed siblings and parents.

My mother and me would look at each other and quietly share an unspoken fear and grief of letting go off him.

On a centuries old highway as the noise around HOLI had died down and I was travelling towards him, hoping against hope, he decided not to wait any longer. I, the loud and expressive one who was as vocal about sorrow as everything else, for the first time in life encountered a voiceless grief. There were no tears, no wailing, only a sea surging inside my chest that had to be contained, because it would then drown everything else.

It was not numbness, but a different kind of awareness. A brief instant in which I had finally grown up. A milestone moment in which I had aged several years, Daddy’s little girl had become a really big girl.

It was a long and cold March night in Shimla. All night I sat next to what they now called his dead body, I lived my 36 years all over again.

The ritualised frenzy up to the cremation was just that, mere ritual. When I lit the pyre a part of my soul went away with him and a huge part of his soul stayed back in mine. My lesson from the crematorium – a body is just a small bit of what a parent is to a child.

The urn that had his remains also had my childhood and memories of his eight decades long life. The journey to the Ganges through an arduous stormy night culminated at the same Ghats where he had walked holding my hand and explained to me the complicated family tree captured
in the circular record books of family priests.

We both loved rivers. I entrusted him to his favourite one and wondered whether I would be able to love the rivers the same way again.

Like my breath that I can’t see only experience he stays back in me. I will miss his hugs and his voice, but his warm smile shall envelope my heart forever.

Like his old-fashioned cursive handwriting, his papers, his books, photos, me and my child have his distinct carving on our beings.

Life is only lived in a linear manner, it is indeed circular. My little one snuggles close to me and murmurs in half-asleep – Mummy I will be your papa now and you are my grandpa.

I close my eyes and am more determined to live on in peace for him and for my little girl.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Chanting across cities

His breath is shallow
the crevices in the skin
deeper than ever

a long lifetime
and the silent
giving up of it all

I can hear
across cities
when it comes to dad

I take down
Tuesdays with Morrie
from the book shelf

“Death ends a life,
not a relationship.”

The distance between
our two cities
is longer than ever

yet I'm right outside
his door
as frozen as the snow
falling quietly
his rosary in my hand
chanting nothing.

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To Kill a Mockingbird
The Catcher in the Rye
Animal Farm
The Alchemist
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Romeo and Juliet
The Odyssey
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Count of Monte Cristo
Eat, Pray, Love
The Da Vinci Code
The Kite Runner
The Silence of the Lambs
The Diary of a Young Girl
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
The Notebook
Gone With the Wind

The Human Bean Cafe, Ontario

The Human Bean Cafe, Ontario
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