On joining a social networking site in mid-2010 I noticed that most people had posted some picture or other – their own or their canine or feline companions’. So I put one up of a donkey on a street, a jaywalker, near my parents’ house in Bangalore. It elicited a few sarcastic comments.
But more importantly, it set me thinking about my memories of donkeys from my childhood.
Those donkeys – beasts of burden, as we humans refer to them – were to be found in large numbers around a washer-people’s yard and a now no longer extant swimming pool about a kilometre from where I lived in Bangalore when I was young, and where I returned to in early 2012 after 34 years away. Today, the donkeys’ numbers have dwindled as the washer-people have mostly mechanised the transport of laundry.
The donkeys stuck in my memory because, when I was ten or eleven years old, I had to accompany a woman to that swimming pool next to the washer-people’s yard a few times for a bizarre ritual.
The Woman, as she shall be referred to for almost the rest of this narrative, had exceedingly stern and ritualistic parents-in-law who made her life miserable by forcing her to follow all of the practices they had grown up with.
Purity/pollution is a major concept ruling almost every minute of many Indians’ lives and a major tool of Brahminical Hinduism’s stranglehold.
The Woman’s parents-in-law had extremely strict rules on how she should conduct herself from the crack of dawn until she went to bed.
From the moment she showered in the morning, she had to watch what she touched. Her children were not allowed near her. When that’s the norm all day long it becomes the norm for the whole life.
During his adolescence for a while, her youngest son took to following her after her post-dinner cleaning up asking when he could go near her:
“Amma, Amma, may I touch you now?”
She, a slim person who had grown up in a large family and had lost her mother when she was six years old and had perhaps not been too well nourished, had to wear a nine-yard sari in a ritual style all day long.
“And I had to wash that heavy sari with my own hands,” she recalled recently.
She also had to wash her mother-in-law’s equally heavy sari each and every day in addition to her father-in-law’s veshti/dhothi. And they had to be washed with water drawn from a well behind the house, because municipal tap water was deemed “impure”. Although her mother-in-law sometimes helped with drawing the well water, the Woman had to perform most of the chores, which included grinding all kinds of flour, spices, coffee powder and so forth.
Well water was also needed for cooking and washing all the vessels and so she had to make several trips between the well and the kitchen, carrying massive quantities of water in vessels balanced on her hips.
As for her periods:
Each time she had them, she had to sit and sleep in a room towards the front of the tiny house and not shower for three days. Her meals were served there via one of her sons.
She used to carry around a piece of previously white cloth, a rag in fact, during those three days. In my pre-teens and even early teens I never understood what that rag was for. This was an era when sanitary pads were still light years away in India.
To use the toilet, she had to walk out of the front door and go round the house to the back. So her periods were public knowledge. Everyone in the large family of close relatives that lived at the back would know.
But then that was not unusual those days. When a girl started menstruating, everyone was told about it. A spherical candy known as chigaLi unde made of sesame and jaggery (with a hint of spices) was distributed among family and relatives.
On the fourth morning after the start of the Woman’s periods, she could shower, wear the regular sari in the normal way and perform some tasks that did not require contact with the “pure” parts of the house such as the kitchen and the altar nor contact with anything consumed by or susceptible to be touched by her parents-in-law.
On the fifth morning she had to take a dip in a natural water source to “purify” herself. Well water was not deemed adequate for the purpose. It had to be a river or a lake: so the crazy rituals dictated. There’s no river running through Bangalore. Sometimes she would take a bus to a place called ThuLasi Thota (meaning basil garden) in the centre of the city to take a dip in the tank there. But to save time, she took to going to the swimming pool nearby.
The craziness of this appears not to have occurred to her mother-in-law. A swimming pool is NOT a natural water body, but an artificial one. Moreover, exceedingly casteist though the mother-in-law was, it did not seem to have dawned on her or on anyone else around her that people from all castes and communities could use the pool and that she was subjecting her daughter-in-law to be touched, nay polluted, by waters that had washed “low-caste” bodies. Or if they did think of it, perhaps they deliberately made the Woman go and take that wholly meaningless dip in the pool as it was a way of asserting their control over her.
Apparently one relative of the mother-in-law’s dissented and tried to intervene on the Woman’s behalf.
“Why are you torturing this child in this way?” he had asked the mother-in-law, the Woman recalls. “Child” was not much of an exaggeration. The Woman had been married off when she was 17 and her husband 19, and the “torture” began from day one. But the older woman would not budge even though one of her own male relatives was ticking her off.
After all, her own mother-in-law had made her go through this drill too.
The Woman had six sisters and a brother. None of her married sisters’ parents-in-law imposed such rituals, even if they had practiced them once or were still doing so (we’re talking of the 1960s now). The only times her sisters wore the nine-yard sari was at their own, and later, their children’s weddings if at all.
Of course, there were other problems such as violence and discrimination that two or three of her sisters faced. So much so that one of the Woman’s sisters opted out.
“Seeing the way my sisters’ marriages worked out, I decided this is not for me,” she once said.
Actually, one or more at least of her sisters had had very gentle parents-in-law and husbands endowed with a keen sense of humour. And other sisters too went on to build relations of near equality and affection with their husbands, who too were not at all lacking when it came to a sense of humour.
The Woman had drawn the shortest straw and a way too short one at that.
Why did she put up with it? That elicits a predictable answer:
“Where could I have gone?”
One younger sister of hers had tried walking out of her marriage resenting violence, both physical and verbal, only to be persuaded to return. She went on to eventually work out an equation with her husband who had grown to respect her to the extent that she could quell him with a stern look when he threw tantrums. She also says her sisters- and brothers in-law respect her much now because they know what she had gone through in the initial years of marriage.
Identical is the experience of the Woman. She too says her sisters- and brothers-in-law respect her greatly now, not only because she is their oldest surviving sister-in-law but also because they are aware of what she had undergone.
But there was another reason for her having gone along with the treatment she received. She deemed it her karthavya or duty.
“I genuinely believed in serving my parents-in-law. I wanted to,” she says.
By the early 1960s, the Woman’s mother-in-law, whose health had begun to fail, decided she wanted to die in the sannidhi (abode or vicinity) of her family deity and pressed to move to Nuggehally, a temple town, where her husband owned a house and small patches of land.
The woman decided to send her second son to her elder sister’s in Mysore and went with her oldest and youngest sons to the village. (The disruption of her children’s education was not an issue for her mother-in-law.)
Her husband, then a technician working for the central government was being transferred every two to three years to various parts of the country. His wife was less a wife than a caregiver and servant of his parents, who, incidentally were not his biological parents but adoptive ones, but more of that later.
In Bangalore the parents-in-law’s house had a low compound wall separating it from the busy road in front. In the village, the front door gave out on to the temple street. So whenever the Woman had her periods, people in several houses nearby and passers-by would know.
The distance from the front room to the toilet, or what passed for it – two raised stones on which you sat and did your business on to stitched leaves, manual scavengers (Dalits) coming around every morning to clear up – was longer in the village.
Life was obviously harsher there. Although there was a domestic worker who helped wash the clothes, they had subsequently to be “purified” using water fetched from a temple tank about half a kilometre away. The Woman had developed a major ankle infection and suffered greatly until she was taken to a nearby hospital for a minor operation.
Her greatest problem in the village was that she had no one to turn to in order to vent.
“The children were too young and I had no one else to confide in,” she recalls.
About a year and a half or so after moving to the village, her mother-in-law died. Then she and her father-in-law and sons moved back to Bangalore.
Her father-in-law insisted on keeping to the rituals imposed on her by her mother-in-law.
Thus again began the trips to the swimming pool – and sightings of the donkeys – whenever she had her periods. And this was the time when I accompanied her a few times there guarding her dry clothes while she climbed down the dangerously slippery steps. (Chlorine was not being used and there was hardly any maintenance of the pool.)
Once a few kids about my age or a year or two older who were standing nearby pointed in her direction and laughed. They also appeared to be saying something among themselves, jeering at a woman about the same age as their mothers or just a few years younger.
For me this semi-traumatic memory remains bound up with that of the pool, the Woman’s “ritual” dips and the donkeys nearby.
Now that there was just one woman in the home, an old father-in-law and three young sons, none of whom had been initiated into cooking because of the purity/pollution belief, a major problem arose whenever she had her periods.
Her father-in-law had to go over to the house at the back and request/beg his sister-in-law to let him and his three grandsons eat at her place for three days (and supply his daughter-in-law’s meals).
The Woman’s parents-in-law had had no children of their own. Her husband’s biological mother had 11 children. The childless couple adopted her second son.
Thus, what old the man was asking his sister-in-law was really to feed him, i.e. her older sister’s husband, and her daughter-in-law and biological grandchildren for three days.
But it became more and more embarrassing as the months passed. And so the Woman’s father-in-law began to relent. Already, she had begun to perform most household tasks from day four after the start of her periods. Soon, she was back at work from day three. And eventually at some point, the bizarre swimming pool routine stopped as did the sightings of the donkeys.
In the late 1960s, her husband was posted in Madras/Chennai. She moved there with her father-in-law and youngest son, leaving behind her older sons who had entered college. They were to eat at their biological grandparents’ place.
In Madras, the well water routine as well as the nine-yard-sari thing continued, however. Her husband had been given quarters in a central government colony and there was no well there. He stumbled on a house on the edge of the colony which had one. That family was befriended. In the initial weeks, the Woman, her nine-yard-sari tied ritual style, had to make her way through the colony to that house to fetch the well water.
Her youngest mid-teen son had to accompany her, praying that none of his schoolmates from the colony was watching. (To minimise the embarrassment, his request that this routine be performed after dusk was granted but then street lights were on by then.) Soon a man from a nearby town was engaged for that sole purpose.
In under a couple of years her husband was posted to Bangalore, where he resentfully did the honours in the kitchen for the mandatory – by now – two days after his wife’s periods. Three years later he was posted to Bhubaneshwar. By this time, her father-in-law had begun to go senile. Her periods were no longer noticed. No more well water and no more nine-yard-sari.
Her father-in-law passed away in mid-1975. She recalls that by this time he was extremely senile but in a moment of lucidity, he had expressed an apology to her.
“I gave you a lot of trouble,” he told her, she recalls.
And so, rather than rancour, it is reverence that she expresses when her father-in-law is mentioned.
“He was a gentleman,” she said recently to my shock and amazement.
To her father-in-law’s credit, he always spoke to her politely and used euphemisms, e.g. “anything rounded?” for a deep-fried doughnut-shaped snack known as a kodubaLe in Kannada – to her amusement – when he felt peckish.
The unstated, as well as often overtly stated, subtext to her comment is that she compares him favourably to her husband whose domineering and short-tempered ways she has long resented and which she continues to deal with even now.
Her husband is not violent physically. There are times when he speaks to his wife as an equal, discussing religious mumbo jumbo or the welfare of a large number of relatives. But he expects his wife to be at his beck and call, never answer back and cook every dish just so. Something no intelligent being can tolerate.
He is not a bad man, far from it. He has led a largely honest life. He worked all his life in a highly technical side of a government department with – at least then – zero opportunity for rent-seeking should he have been so inclined. And in Indian middle class parlance, he had and has no “bad habits”.
Some months ago, very close to where I live, I found that a donkey was hobbling around as the forelegs had been tied together. This, alas, is a common practice among “owners” of the hapless species. The absurd assumption is that if two of the donkeys’ legs are tied tightly, they can’t stray far. But in fact they do.
I went back home, found a large knife and tried to cut that donkey’s legs free. The donkey resented being approached and kept turning and walking away. I pleaded with passers-by to try and hold the donkey. Some of them said “the donkey belongs (sic) to someone, that’s why they have tied the legs”. Initially, there were also looks of consternation as I was wielding a large knife but soon the penny dropped. I cut the knot that had, alas, already by then left a deep gnash round that donkey’s forelegs. Just one of innumerable donkeys who go through similar fates, and all that I did worth perhaps a few hours of freedom before recapture, although I dearly hope not.
Taking a knife to let a “dumb” donkey roam free for a while is easy.
The Woman, my mother, turns 92 tomorrow, 17 October 2021.
(This was originally written seven years ago when she turned 85.)
P.S.: I had previously said 18-yard-sari in the text. I had meant 18-moLa in Kannada (and -moLam in Tamil), which translates as nine-yard and not 18-yard. I regret the error.