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Grand Old Ladies of India

May 2007
Grand Old Ladies of India

Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Rukmini Devi Arundel, Indira Gandhi ? these are some of the names that come to mind when we think of the grand old ladies of India. These women triumphed over Herculean odds and made their marks in times when women were not meant to be seen and definitely not heard. But what of the quiet everyday heroines who are not known outside of their families, but are revered within them?

My grandmother Namagiri died six months ago. She was ninety-two. The last time I saw her was during my visit to India last year. She was the same as always, a wizened old woman wearing her saffron-colored sari, soft as beach sand from frequent washings, with nothing remarkable about her. It didn't strike me then that I was looking at the last of a dying breed of women, the kind that weren't just homemakers, but household goddesses. I have vague memories of when she used to dress like one too, with diamond earrings and nose-rings, silk saris and at least five necklaces in different styles of gold, coral, pearls and black beads. She was petite and beautiful, with large dark brown eyes, a small straight nose, and a beauty mark on her upper lip. She had flowing black waist-length hair, which she kept braided. Yes, a goddess, or a princess, albeit a modest one.

But everything changed when my grandfather, whom she had married at thirteen years of age and spent fifty-two years with, died. She insisted on shaving her head, gave up her jewelry, and took to wearing saffron-colored cotton saris with the free end covering her head. Her meals became smaller and less frequent, and she fasted at least five times a month. She gave away her jewelry and other possessions, some to her daughters, and most to needy families. During my visit, she appeared emaciated, with skin like wrinkled parchment ridged with blue veins. It was painful to see her struggle to walk, her body bent at an almost acute angle. I couldn't then help remembering the ways she helped us, her daughter's family, with household chores. Poor woman! Most people live a frantic life until they are older, and then retire to a quiet life. But this one lived a quiet life with her husband until he died, and then came to live in our household that was chaotic with school-going children.

However, she weathered the change with remarkable grace. Initially, she struggled to make the transition from a coal-burning iron stove to a gas burner, and the smell of curries burning in the kadai, and sambar and rasam boiling over were routine for a while, but she made it. She was used to being taken care of, never entering a bank or a post office or even writing a letter; now she took care of us. She was very modest, extremely traditional and religious, strong-willed yet accepting, active in her home yet totally clueless about the workings of the world. With us, she didn't change her beliefs, but accepted ours, without causing conflict. To her, family was the most important thing in life. She might not have known who the Minister for Finance was, but if you wanted to find out who married your mother's second cousin by marriage, she was the one to contact. She supported us through all our travails, sometimes even when she didn't like what we did. Though she disapproved of it, she attended my wedding to a man outside our community, and afterward, was unfailingly loving and considerate to both my husband and me.

Last November, her hearing was almost gone, her vision was failing and her digestive system was all but defunct, yet she remained content with her lot. My family told me that she still was interested in life. She kept in touch with the world through reading magazines in her native language, and adored serialized stories. She even voted. But it was obvious that she was becoming senile. The smile was the same, the interest and love were still there, but the inquiries had become repetitive, though they continued to express concern for me. She died four months later.

This woman was unique to our family, but the kind of woman I'm talking about is common in India. I am sure that each one of you knows someone like her. It may be a grandmother, an aunt, a neighbor or even your own mother. But you'll find the modesty, the tradition and the love for family to be the same. Like hers, their lives are simple and unassuming, being all about supporting their families.���

Though there can be no real comparison, the urge to compare our existence to theirs is irresistible. Unlike them, we immigrants have accomplished so much more, in less than half their lifetimes. We have high educational qualifications, wide experience and exceptional skills. We have made it in a foreign land, among strangers, solely on the strength of our own work. What is more, our feats are those that will stay on long after we are gone. We can be justly proud of our achievements.

But in our pride, we cannot forget that their lives are as full as ours, and just as useful, though in a different way. They earn respect and regard, the commodities which have no parallel monetary value, and which are forever lodged in the vaults of our hearts. These women are indispensable and irreplaceable gems, the likes of which may never be seen anymore.

Here's to the grand old ladies of India!

By Lakshmi Palecanda

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