Wednesday, 23 February, 2011

Evolving roles among three generations of women...

It came to me while trying to make aloo parathas a couple of evenings back. While battling with the dough and the rolling pin, I was remembering with envy the skill with which the ladies in my family perform this task. My mother says that she learnt how to roll a perfectly round chapati  in her early teens. My grandmother had to make more than fifty chapatis every night for a family of twenty members. And here I was, their direct descendant, rolling a paratha for the first time in my thirties and making a mess of it. I did not know whether to be ashamed or perversely proud!

Growing up in pre-liberalized India, it was natural for our mothers to stay at home and look after the house and us. Marriage and homemaking, reminiscences my mother, were matters in which she along with the women in her generation (1960/70s) were not given much choice in.  Women in average Bengali families were brought up and educated with the sole intention of managing her shongshar/sansar (household).  In fact, my mother continues, her generation of girls who went out to work, were seen as poor or unfortunate or 'too modern'! 

Not that managing a joint family with all kinds of cantankerous members was easy! Her days were long and tiring-- organizing meals, tending to  regular dropping-in-without-prior-announcement guests, looking after an invalid father-in-law, raising me and my brother and socializing with my father's varied groups of friends. I remember the tantrums I used to throw if dinner was not to my liking or how my mother had to cope with various members of the joint family, with a cool head. My father has always been a very involved husband and did more than his fair share in running the house. But the primary responsibility was always Ma's.  My brother and me, we often rued the fact that how Ma would have made an ace diplomat and how India lost one of her promising bureaucrats to homemaking! When I speak to my mother about her youth, what comes out strongly is her regret in not having choices in life! Be it college or an arranged marriage at an early age, it was all dictated by my grandfather. Maybe that is why she decided that I, her daughter would have all the opportunities that she never had and live life in my own terms.

Still, my mother says that she has had an easier life than her mother, my grandma. Orphaned at an early age, four siblings were split among relatives. My grandmother was sent to live with an elder cousin brother who was a bureaucrat. With his family, she traveled around the country. Then in her teens she was married off , her in-laws lived in rural Bengal. So from government bungalows of  Delhi and Lucknow to a mud house in Seerandi village of Bengal's Birbhum district. That too without the husband, my grandfather worked in Kolkata, she was in the village to look after her in-laws. Also money was tight in those days and my grandmother always had to run her household with minuscule budgets.

My grandmother being the feisty lady she is, completed her Inter examinations after marriage, studying the whole night, after pulling an eighteen hour work day-- cooking three meals for twenty people and other household chores. She had three children, was/is a skilled dress maker, embroidered and knit like magic, a movie buff (she still remembers each and every one of Bimal Ray, Pankaj Mallick, Kanan Devi and Uttam Kumar movies), a huge football fan (Mohonbagan Club) and loves reading Bengali novels and poetry. She loved playing cricket as a kid, but the widowed aunt with whom she lived soon after her parents' died, put a stop to that. So instead she turned umpire! I often wonder what my grandmother would have made of her life, if she had even half the choices that I had!

Asked about choice, my grandmother gives a tentative smile. I can feel she is a bit unsure, I pester. "We were not given choices sonaburi (my dearest granddaughter). We knew our role in life and family and strove to make the best of it." Yes but imagine a time in your childhood/youth when you could study as much as you wanted, go to college, not get married till you were ready...It sounds a little blasphemous to my traditional dimma (grandmother) so she starts a lecture on the importance of husband and family in a woman's life. But once she had blown off her steam, the conversation turns to lovely it could be if she could go to college and study, she muses wistfully! Coming back to homemaking, my grandmother says that right from childhood they were groomed for the time when they would be running their own households. During her time, Bengal of 1940/50s young girls were taught to cook, to sew, to maintain a budget-- so that they could in future run a household successfully. Even education was seen as necessary so that she could help in the primary education of her own children!

Born in late 70s, I grew up, free of gender discrimination, sent to a co-education school, was taught to fight it out fairly in life. Nor did I get many extra perks for being a girl. My mother spent substantial part of her energy in educating and pushing me. I remember as a child whenever we would go by famous colleges of Kolkata, my mother would say 'one day you would come to study here'. Seeds of self confidence were being sown right there! My parents not only supported me in my career, most times they staved off inquisitive relatives when they pestered me with questions of marriage. In fact my mother always used to threaten me that she would never let me marry till I finished my Ph.D.! 

We sure have come a long way! Not only in my family but in other Indian families as well. Women have not ceased to be homemakers, rather men have been sucked into the role too! Thankfully the division of labour is no longer so watertight. Also as families become nuclear, there is a lot more scope for a woman to have her say. In our shongshar/household of my husband and me, if I do not feel like cooking,  my husband cooks or we eat out. In my grandmother's time this would have been unimaginable!

On the occasion of International Women's Day, I want to pay homage all those brave and spirited Indian ladies who turned homemaking into a fine art--managing big families under severe restrictions, working long and hard hours without much appreciation, often facing discrimination and torture, yet using their talents to make their lives interesting and carving a space for themselves in the midst of opposition and hostility. Most importantly for daring to dream and passing those dreams onto their daughters. Concept of homemaking is changing rapidly in India and we, the modern Indian women, have it way better than our grandmothers and mothers. We have choices they never had, we take up opportunities, they would have never dreamt of. 

Saluting the past and eagerly looking forward to the future.

I am tagging the following non IL bloggers to participate in this contest:

Anubha who writes @

Sapphire who writes @


  1. that's a lovely homage to the ladies in your life. Every woman of our generation reading this will relate with your grandmother and mother. You mum sounds a lot like mine. Nice blog, suchi. :)

  2. Thanks:)))))) I am grinning because I tried writing 'Thanks Ketchup Girl' sounded a little funny and tried 'Thanks Girl' sounds condescending...

    Welcome to my blog :)

  3. very well written blog about women from 3 generations!

  4. Nice one. True, our generation had the option to choose , mostly thanks to our mothers who let us have what they couldn't.


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