Patriarchy And The Twice Born

Last week I participated in ceremonies to honour the memory of a beloved family member. The ceremonies went off well to the satisfaction of friends and family. This blog post is inspired by a few incidents that took place during these ceremonies. Rituals and traditions are generally considered a normal part of the Tam-Brahm life style. But, to those who believe in an alternate way of life - one that upholds equality, equity and inclusiveness, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

For starters, one needs to understand and respect hierarchy. Lets start with women. In the best of Brahminical traditions, the older women hold all the knowledge (and therefore power) about the intricacies of rituals. You see, though men PERFORM the rituals, women ARRANGE it. And in order to arrange it, one needs to be well versed in the requirements of the ritual - what flowers and fruits are required, on which side should they be placed, which direction should one be facing and so on. Here it should be noted that dowagers are the most aggressive in wielding their power, since their true source of power has departed the world. More on that later.

Next there is the idea of 'purity and pollution' or 'madi' as is known in Tamil. I have come to the conclusion that the Tam-Brahm obsession with madi is the single most significant reason for water scarcity in recent times. Clothes must be washed in readiness for rituals the following day. The washed clothes must not be touched by anyone, else they become 'polluted' and must be washed again. You cannot perform rituals unless you are 'madi'.

Now let's talk about the whole concept of 'Sumangali'. Literally, it means ' a married woman'. Hindus are obsessed with the sumangali. A woman's sole purpose in life is to become or remain a sumangali. Being a sumangali completes a woman's identity. She is always expected to wear the symbols of sumangali-hood on her person: vermilion, thali (mangalsutra) and toe rings. A sumangali is thus, self actualised in her lifetime, and a candidate for sainthood should she pre decease her husband (which is highly recommended)!

During last week's ceremonies, I committed the ultimate sumangali faux pas, of pottering around sans thali/mangalsutra. I was pounced upon by an older female relative and severely reprimanded for my oversight. I oscillated between yelling 'Its my neck and my thali! I decide if I should wear it or not!' and strangling her. Alas, coward that I am, I contented myself with a mumbled reply and swift exit from the room. I spent the rest of the day avoiding her.

Cut to serving up meals. Meals have a pecking order. Old timers will tell you that it is the men who should eat first, though children can also join in the first service. Food is served on banana leaves laid out by women. This is followed by an elaborate ten course meal with the women (usually older) fiendishly pressing more and more food on the hapless eaters. After this, the men retire for a brief respite leaving the women to clean up after them.

Finally, the women sit down to eat. This eating also has certain objectives. The minor one is to fulfill nutritional requirements. The main one is to ensure against left overs. This is because cooked food (especially ritual feasts) may not be refrigerated nor eaten for another meal as per the tenets of madi. Regardless of whether your belly is full, food may be piled onto your plate if it is in danger of being left over. Any protests that your belly should not be treated as a garbage bin are ruthlessly brushed aside.

To say that I was stressed out is putting it mildly. I have always held the view that women bear the burden of tradition while men are its beneficiaries. To be pulled into the quagmire of rituals and tradition as an active participant was unpalatable. The unequal and gendered division of labour for a cause that holds little meaning to me, went against my core beliefs. But, being my marital home, there was little I could do, except fulminate to my husband.

The silver lining in this circus was my husband. He did me proud. Among all the men present, he was the only one who ventured into 'women's turf'. Though he was shooed away many times, he did attempt to help. He served the women when they sat down to eat. Though he was teased for wanting to 'take care of his wife', he soldiered on, giving as good as he got- shoveling huge quantities of food onto the leaves of the senior women, insisting that it should be eaten since food cannot be left over! Once I even came upon him on all fours, cheerfully scrubbing the floor after the previous batch of people had eaten. Now tell me - isn't that a prince among men?!

Perhaps all is not lost yet. Perhaps things will change. Despair is not an option for those in the business of social transformation. Another world is possible. Let us hope that it happens in our lifetime!

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21 Responses to Patriarchy And The Twice Born

  1. Anonymous says:

    Was wondering if you relented and helped after seeing the "prince among men" scrubbing the floor!-k

  2. Sudeshna says:

    nice one..
    you know, amongst the bengalis, hilsa fish is a priced fish and during 'jamai shashti', a puja for the damaads, this fish is in heavy demand. In my mama bari (maternal uncle's home, the tradition was very similar to what you have narrated. All the males would be the first ones to eat and they would get the best parts pf the fish to eat...'kol'(need not go into details). The women who sat at the end would be left with the options of 'macher matha'(head)or 'layja'(tail)...both parts are deprived of flesh. Many are even deprived of the luxury of having even a piece...hilsa being highly priced....so the younger dewranis had to be satisfied by just the 'jhol'-curry....the smell of the curry it seems was as good as having the fish...

    The tradition continued un challenged till one of my younger mamas got married to an emancipated lady who made sure that the food is eqaully divided amongst all even before getting served....It meant lots of smaller vessels 'bati'...but that was agreed to. The second change was that she ensured that all ate together, except for enthusiats who would do the serving job (but whose food was reserved)

    Today things are different at mamabari...and it all happened when one amongst the deprived clan, took the first step ahead as the harbinger of change...

  3. Anonymous says:

    i love your husband -- and i haven't even met him, yet!

    i feel fortunate to have escaped such traditions/burdens with my american-born family, although i know in other immigrant communities, some sexist-based traditions still live on. as time goes on, though, these traditions inevitably break down as each successive generation becomes more and more "americanized." here in the u.s., people are able to pick & choose what they want to keep in their cultural traditions, jettisoning the parts that are impractical (or distasteful) to carry on.

    it's interesting to hear your perspective -- as a modern, educated woman living in such a tradition-bound culture, where you don't really have the option of "picking & choosing" only what you like out of traditional rituals. but, with your husband's support, it sounds like you might be able to start to make small changes, at least in your immediate family. good luck!!!
    -gena

  4. Meera says:

    Being a tam brahm woman I cam completely identify with this- I thought I could escape all this when I married into a syrian christian community- but alas I found that religion can change but cultures dont! My syrian christian mother in law often used to advise me to be a "good wife" ( she has now given up doing that). I often used to ask my husband what exactly does is a good wife! You know I often wonder why my parents did not bring me up to be a wife. They just brought me up to be a good human being (not even a good woman!!!)I never did experience gender discrimination within my family as I did not have a brother and between my mother, sister and myself we were a wonderfully dominating group of women! But coming back to patriarchy among those who came to India with St. Thomas ( the syrian christians)the twice born customs previal albeit in a westernized manner. No madi but one has to be nice and sweet and never be aggressive ( Brahmin dowagers should learn and replicate that before the Syrian ones put an IPR regulation around it!) and get your way in such a way that the poor man would not know about it! Serve him his coffee in his hands personally every morning even when you are staying with a relative ( might be good to imagine a scenario like this in my mother's kitchen- her kingdom!She would think that someone was trying to usurp her rights to serve guests), make sure you indulge in enough PC ( polite convesations) with a simpering smile on your face and yes eat last and least- it is not womanly to display a massive appetite ( even if you are 10 year old kid.) The head of the household is always male so even while eating in a mixed group make sure there is a male who is at the head of the table ( even if you are senior in age.) During religious functions - serve the achan first ( using the best crockery) followed by the male members- women can have last ( in paper cups or steel tumblers if requried). Coffee for the achan and the men - if it gets over its ok- women can have tea( note the hierarchy in beverages!!!). When will we change........!!! I wonder what I should do with my daugther- bring her up to be woman or to be a wife? But I guess she will grow up to be like her dad doing what she thinks is right and caring two hoots for what the world thinks!! An attitude which was "tolerated" in a man/boy but bound to raise the eyebrows of her syrian ammachis and kochammas!!

    Meera

  5. Guru says:

    Being a male Tamil Brahmin myself and totally irreverent when it comes to customs and rituals, I relate well to this blog. I have not been convinced about a lot of things which are accepted at face value and followed rigorously. The occasion above is, of course, different from a wedding, which can be equally taxing and illogical in the way they are conducted. For example, in June, a young man who we consider as another son to us is marrying a sweet girl. The function will start at 6 am and end by ten. For those of us who are traveling from out of Mumbai, the whole event is going to blow a huge hole in our pocket, with no promise of enjoyment. A pity... but good to see that you are at least expressing yourself on these things. May be you should have told the old lady it is your neck and what you wear is your look out!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Interesting article.

    I am not a Tam Brahm, but in my community the guys in my parents' generation definitely were the lords. They were served first and served piping hot food and the women had to eat later and they normally did not bother much to reheat and eat..Of course they had to clean after the men. Luckily in my own house, my Dad was quite different. He not only enjoyed cooking, though he was not very good at it, but also he always washed his plates and my Mom's and helped my mother in many things around the house. Hence I grew up without being affected by these cultural traditions, even though I saw it happening in my relatives' homes. The madi part was simply annoying and humiliating, especially when you had the periods and were not allowed to come into the kitchen or touch things because of being polluted during those days. But the most surprising part of it was that some of my college classmates believed in that too.
    I have been lucky that my husband helps around a lot and am away in the US with little interference from people back at home.
    The men wrote the rules in ancient times, but now women are educated and earn for themselves and I believe will tolerate less and many of the traditions will go away or get altered rapidly..

  7. Very true. Being a feminist I totally understand these chauvinistic ideas and am totally opposed to them. But alas, few of my friends think the same. In fact I've also been told not to be a feminist, simply because I'm a guy. The argument is "Women are not chauvinistic, then why should you be a feminist?" I always get heated on hearing this kind of crap. It's a shame that we are still so backward minded in an age where women are succeeding in all walks of life.

  8. Deepa says:

    Thanks 'Truth and Lies' - its a rare man who calls himself a feminist. Most thinking that its an exclusive women's domain. As far as I am concerned, anybody who supports women's rights is a feminist. Man, woman or transgender!

  9. Ruta says:

    I can totally understand ur anger at what happened.....as i also belong to a family where daughters n sons are treated equally. In our family, we had women majority as it was me, mom and sis with the only male - my dad! we wr taught to be good human beings...pursue our dreams and take efforts to fulfil them.

    Fortunately got married in a similar thinking household...where my mom-in-law and my hubby had no issues with the fact that i was a terrible cook! In fact they both were patient enough to teach me and encourage me to learn cooking. Also i want espected to do all cooking...my mom-in-law cooked almost all meals during weekdays as im a working woman. I helped her on weekends. In her absence, my husband cooks on the days im late from office or tired. Even other days he contributes by sharing household responsibilities.

    But yes we do have few family members who still believe a good wife is one who does "seva" of the family in every possible way!! I thank God im not in such a family.

  10. Ruta says:

    I experienced (rather witnessed)the patriarchy too in a different situation...this was the unfortunate day when i lost my father-in-law. As usual we had all far n near relatives visiting us to convey their condolences. And amidst this we had relatives who started making comments in "whispers" as to how my mom-in-law is still wearing a bindi, glass bangles and mangalsutra...which are the symbols of a "Suhagan"!!

    I really admired my mom-in-law that day...inspite of such a huge loss, she had the guts to tell these people in a very calm manner that its her body and she has rite to decide what to wear and what to discard.

    Really when we will come out of these old fashioned patriarchal thoughts....when will we realise that its totally a women's right and decision on what she shld do with her life, and just coz she has lost her husband doesnt give them a chance to dictate their terms to her. As if a woman "without" a husband is "poor n powerless" and hence needs to be told what to do and what not to do.

  11. Meera says:

    I think this symbols of "Suhaganism" or "Sumangalism" are just too much!! Do people want women to be the walking dead once they lose their husbands? While these are issues one might expect from traditional older women, I am often surprised to find how these define the perceptions that people develop about widows. I used to have a colleague - supposedly a cost accountant who was in an administrative capacity responsible for interviewing for administrative positions. She once rejected a candidate simply because she was a widow and had shown up for the interview "all dressed up"!!! This from a person who is educated and working for a leading international NGO!!! This kind of behaviour often makes me beleive that education is not the answer to social change- change has to come from within and one needs to have courage to go agains the tide and be the change that we want to see....!!!

  12. Brilliant absolutely amazing!!!! LOVE this post... not just what you wrote about but also the way you have described everything :) Love the gentle humour too :)

    And hats off to the prince among men :) It takes guts to defy norms - he's one rare guy!

  13. Amrutha says:

    Looooooved this post! I can so relate to this...am Kannada brahmin, and the scene is pretty much the same...except that these ppl tend to take the concept of madi a bit far sometimes! :-)

  14. vishesh says:

    ya well being a Tam Brahm I know how this works..of course in my house things have changed, my grand parents are more forward looking, so they don't compel us to do anything..But I remember when I was a kid(4,5,6 years old) the fiasco, the arguments in my mom's side..

    Personally I bunk most of the poojas, of course I can't do that for things which are held at my house and in that case, as the host, I resoundingly argue and question everything :P

  15. Sandhya says:

    You have described every step in our rituals, so religiously, Deepa! I too am a brahmin and I used to follow all these things, till some years back! I wanted to be a 'good girl' to everyone. No I have changed a lot and others who follow these rituals say grudgingly that my future daughter in law will be so lucky because I am a liberal and will not ask her to follow the rituals strictly! It is not that I don't do poojas or celebrate festivals properly - I still do all those things - but madi is nil now and I give all the remaining things to my servant, keep some in my fridge too!

    I would like my children to be happy first - children means d-in-law included! Be decent and try to be a reasonably good human being, that is all.

    I too admire your husband and my husband too, helps me openly from cutting vegetables to cleaning the kitchen if I have guests! Or sometimes on normal days too!

    A very interesting post, Deepa!

  16. vishesh says:

    ya well being a Tam Brahm I know how this works..of course in my house things have changed, my grand parents are more forward looking, so they don't compel us to do anything..But I remember when I was a kid(4,5,6 years old) the fiasco, the arguments in my mom's side..

    Personally I bunk most of the poojas, of course I can't do that for things which are held at my house and in that case, as the host, I resoundingly argue and question everything :P

  17. Meera says:

    I think this symbols of "Suhaganism" or "Sumangalism" are just too much!! Do people want women to be the walking dead once they lose their husbands? While these are issues one might expect from traditional older women, I am often surprised to find how these define the perceptions that people develop about widows. I used to have a colleague - supposedly a cost accountant who was in an administrative capacity responsible for interviewing for administrative positions. She once rejected a candidate simply because she was a widow and had shown up for the interview "all dressed up"!!! This from a person who is educated and working for a leading international NGO!!! This kind of behaviour often makes me beleive that education is not the answer to social change- change has to come from within and one needs to have courage to go agains the tide and be the change that we want to see....!!!

  18. Ruta says:

    I can totally understand ur anger at what happened.....as i also belong to a family where daughters n sons are treated equally. In our family, we had women majority as it was me, mom and sis with the only male - my dad! we wr taught to be good human beings...pursue our dreams and take efforts to fulfil them.

    Fortunately got married in a similar thinking household...where my mom-in-law and my hubby had no issues with the fact that i was a terrible cook! In fact they both were patient enough to teach me and encourage me to learn cooking. Also i want espected to do all cooking...my mom-in-law cooked almost all meals during weekdays as im a working woman. I helped her on weekends. In her absence, my husband cooks on the days im late from office or tired. Even other days he contributes by sharing household responsibilities.

    But yes we do have few family members who still believe a good wife is one who does "seva" of the family in every possible way!! I thank God im not in such a family.

  19. Guru says:

    Being a male Tamil Brahmin myself and totally irreverent when it comes to customs and rituals, I relate well to this blog. I have not been convinced about a lot of things which are accepted at face value and followed rigorously. The occasion above is, of course, different from a wedding, which can be equally taxing and illogical in the way they are conducted. For example, in June, a young man who we consider as another son to us is marrying a sweet girl. The function will start at 6 am and end by ten. For those of us who are traveling from out of Mumbai, the whole event is going to blow a huge hole in our pocket, with no promise of enjoyment. A pity... but good to see that you are at least expressing yourself on these things. May be you should have told the old lady it is your neck and what you wear is your look out!

  20. Sudeshna says:

    nice one..
    you know, amongst the bengalis, hilsa fish is a priced fish and during 'jamai shashti', a puja for the damaads, this fish is in heavy demand. In my mama bari (maternal uncle's home, the tradition was very similar to what you have narrated. All the males would be the first ones to eat and they would get the best parts pf the fish to eat...'kol'(need not go into details). The women who sat at the end would be left with the options of 'macher matha'(head)or 'layja'(tail)...both parts are deprived of flesh. Many are even deprived of the luxury of having even a piece...hilsa being highly priced....so the younger dewranis had to be satisfied by just the 'jhol'-curry....the smell of the curry it seems was as good as having the fish...

    The tradition continued un challenged till one of my younger mamas got married to an emancipated lady who made sure that the food is eqaully divided amongst all even before getting served....It meant lots of smaller vessels 'bati'...but that was agreed to. The second change was that she ensured that all ate together, except for enthusiats who would do the serving job (but whose food was reserved)

    Today things are different at mamabari...and it all happened when one amongst the deprived clan, took the first step ahead as the harbinger of change...

  21. Am a tambrahm myself......but am lucky as my parents have been liberal from the very beginning. Also, I have never had the exposure to the customs of TamBrahm as I was born and brought up in North. When I go south, I adhere to these traditions as we meet people once in a while. Notwithstanding, there are many grey haired heads who still continue to harp on the way we should dress,talk and blah blah.....and that is when things start getting on one's nerves! I totally relate to that! But then in my very home up north, I follow many customs (most of which I have started following only after marriage not out of compulsion, but interest), without any scrutiny. My point is, these things are better to be said just once and should be left to the person. To follow or not to must be left to the person. The customs and traditions should not be imposed on someone by instilling fear of something.....On that aspect, I feel Tambrahms still have a long way to go in terms of transforming their devotion based on 'Fear of God' to 'Love for God'.

    A very good post again.....ofcourse many tambrahms relate to it!