Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wisdom vs Willful Ignorance (or: My Grandma Rules and So Do I!)

A piece about intergenerational revelations by Aditi Ohri

The one time I fought with Badima*, she won – more or less. I still think I was right, but all things considered, she made me realize that she was far from wrong.
We were arguing about my parents – those SCOUNDRELS – and their impending divorce. It had taken them 12 years to get to the point of signing the damn documents that legally unbind them from one another. I realize there are couples that never manage to divorce even though they should, so even though I was complaining, I was also celebrating. My celebration, however, was the source of some disappointment from my dear Badima. She was all shame and anger about the incident; she even used the word ‘disgrace.’ Rash, foolish, 19-year-old me reacted immediately; I told her that I found her ‘retrograde politics’ disgusting. I wrote it all off to her ‘traditional and conservative Punjabi upbringing’ without taking the time to think about what that might actually mean. I even had the naïve gall to question her feminism.
My gracious grandmother, of course, took this in sage-like stride, told me to drink my chai, go for a walk, and eat a chapatti. So I did. My sister and I had a pleasant jaunt through a park nearby Badima’s New Delhi apartment. We walked for almost an hour. We bought sweets and stuffed our mouths with gulab jamun, samosa, and all the oot-patang* that spoils your appetite. We were just a couple of carefree girls going for a long stroll, enjoying the humid monsoon season and thinking “what is her problem.” Like perfect brats, we saw nothing unusual or remarkable about this disagreement, writing it off to the inevitable inter-generational rift that exists between us.
At home, Badima had left out for us a large box that resembled a treasure chest. As soon as we came back we could not resist looking through it. It was stuffed with family heirlooms --- old silk saris, Wedding jewelry, really really really old gold, silver rattles for babies, gorgeous rings made with semi-precious stones, strange old coins, photographs of people long dead who had my nose, my cheeks, and my teeth long before I did… It was incredible. There was one piece, however, that was impossible to figure out. It was pure silver and felt heavier than a packed rickshaw. My sister and I first guessed that it was a chandelier, but it was not at all decorative. There was something harsh and ugly about the whole thing.
Badima took it into her hands and explained that it was a set of silver chains that once belonged to her mother. “From the day she was married, my mother was forced to wear these silver chains around her ankles,” she told us, “This was not an uncommon custom for Punjabi women back then.” Those chains must weigh over 20 kilograms. My great-grandmother likely never left her house. Even inside the house, people would have always known her location because they could hear her chains rattling as she moved. She was closely surveilled and physically disfigured because the public world of late 19th century India was understood to be simply unfit for a Hindu women of her class and caste.
That is when my jaw dropped and my head exploded. That this was my great-grandmother’s lived reality is a painful and shocking fact to comprehend – I don’t know that it will ever make sense to me. That Badima was even able to leave her family home in her twenties and pursue a teaching career in a neighbouring town is an astounding thought. Of course we disagree, I realized, we have completely different ideas about mobility, freedom, identity, commitment and the fluidity of marital relationships! That my grandmother could have grown up watching her own mother be physically bound to the domestic sphere and still be so liberal as to encourage me to pursue any career I can dream of, to have boyfriends, to be queer-positive and sex-positive – is incredible!!!
So, Badima won. She tamed the arrogance of my youth with love, patience, and context. She gave me a renewed appreciation for a freedom she cannot experience and an imprisonment I could never imagine. Even though we continue to disagree about my parents’ divorce, we can appreciate each others’ worldviews and seek out our differences as points of personal growth. Something my grandmother refuses to do is to judge or condemn others, and this is something I hope I can learn to do as I grow older and – hopefully – wiser. Sometimes, it is not important to agree, or even to agree to disagree.
This is not a parable and is not meant to make anyone feel guilty. I like to share this experience because it is always on my mind, and with squirming pink-faced sincerity, I can honestly say that it changed my life. It was humbling because it made the brutality of my own ignorance so apparent. Rather than dismiss Badima’s opinion completely, I came to an understanding where I could at least attempt to validate her vantage point. Whenever I return to this experience, I am inspired to remember that I am of able mind and body, and this fact puts me in the unique position to reflexively assess my own position in a world that makes so much invisible. And of course, it reminds me that my grandmother is the coolest person in the world and I can’t believe she is even real she is so amazing!!!!!!!!!!!

*grandmother, literally meaning “Big Mom”
* junk food

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