NXG talks to three generations of women from two different families to see how they have dealt with life.
Words like “women empowerment”, “gender bias”, “weaker sex”, and “reservation”, do not figure in their vocabulary; not because they dislike it but simply because they cannot relate to it. The three generations of the Y.G.P. family, as they are popularly known, have led more or less similar lives with only the “generations, milieu and perspectives being different,” as Madhuvanti puts it.
We catch up with the close-knit trio — educationist Mrs. Y.G.P., her daughter-in-law Sudha Mahendra, Joint Secretary, Bharat Kalachar, and granddaughter Madhuvanti Arun, Managing Trustee of the Calibre Educational Foundation — to get their side of the story.
“My mother and grandmother are two sides of the same coin,” describes Madhuvanti. Mrs. Y.G.P. grew up in a family where being different was a way of life. At a time when women were reared for house work, a young Rajalakshmi, was exposed to the liberal thoughts of her father and a mother who was an active member at ladies' clubs. “At the club, women even played tennis in madisaars,” recalls Mrs. Y.G.P.
“My siblings and I would meet a lot of people who would come calling on our father and were always about town. Because of this, our mom would not let us enter the kitchen, as we were not “hygienic” enough. Hence, I ended up not learning cooking, which was unheard of for women in my times.”
This remained so even after she got married. More or less like the house she was brought up in, her in-laws were quite liberal too. “My husband said ‘you can't go into the kitchen. You are meant for something else!'”
For Sudha Mahendra though learning to cook was a part of growing up, but not because she was a woman, she insists. She grew up in a family that was traditional as well as modern in its outlook. “My mom was a great lover of life and a great cook. My sister and I just picked up things like drawing kolams, grinding coffee, cooking and cleaning the pooja rooms from her. It wasn't thrust upon us,” explains Sudha.
From growing up in a secure environment to moving into the Y.G.P. family was like “being made to swim in the deepest of waters”. She was expected to not sit at home but encouraged to break out of her shell and become independent. In fact, it was her mother-in-law who spotted an ad for an opening in Air India and asked her to apply. She even got some of her teachers to train Sudha for the entrance exams. It was a job that she just recently retired from.
Madhuvanti meanwhile has no idea what it is to be raised as a “girl”. “My brother and I are just two children to my parents. There was never any distinction between how we were raised — he as a ‘son' and me as a ‘daughter'.” In fact, it was Madhuvanti who conducted her father's Sashtiabdhapoorthi, traditionally performed by the son. Her brother did pitch in, of course.
If there are certain things that all three of them follow like keeping the sindoor, wearing the mangal sutra and performing pooja every morning, it is to keep the traditional and culture intact rather than look at it as something imposed upon women by society.
Education and career
One of the few oppositions Mrs. Y.G.P. faced as a woman would be when she wanted to join college. “My periappa told my father ‘don't send her to college, she will have a love affair'. But it did come true ultimately,” laughs the octogenarian. Her college life was eventful too. She threatened the nuns who were in-charge in college to let her join the freedom demonstrations else she would climb the walls and run away. She wrote to Gandhi asking to join his ashram but backed out after he replied saying she had to be prepared to clean her own toilet and cook her own food. Career-wise too, starting a school was a big step but the support from her dynamic husband made things easier, if not easy. Here again she was told by the Director of the school that a woman could not become the principal of a boys' school, a point which she put forth to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during a conference in Kashmir. It was then quickly set right.
In Sudha's time, the courses available to women were the arts and humanities. Vocational and professional courses were not the first choices. Naturally, an arts course in Ethiraj College was her choice and she was an active participant in a lot of extracurricular activities. Post-marriage, her father-in-law pushed her to take up something citing “my wife didn't cook and you shouldn't too!”
By Madhuvanti's time, options were definitely galore and choosing to take up a career over staying at home was definitely one. “Looking at my cousins who are almost 10 years younger, I realise they have more opportunities irrespective of their gender. I had those very opportunities only because of my liberal family and upbringing. It had nothing to do with society being more open,” she opines. But even for her, starting a school (The Calibre Academy and Mrs. YGP Pre-School and Nursery) was a big step that her family, especially in-laws, were extremely supportive of. “My mother took a VRS to take care of my son, the moment I told her I wanted to start a school. Without that kind of support, I couldn't have done it.”
Unfortunately, not many women can boast of that kind of support or opportunities. In Mrs. Y.G.P.'s time, other women were “caught in a whirlpool of chores. Boys definitely got the best. Perhaps that's why other women were jealous of me.”
Sudha and her daughter too were aware that they were the more fortunate ones among their peers, but remained nothing more than awareness because the liberty they enjoyed was a way of life for them. “Others have never been negative of what we have done and do. There have never been talk like ‘shouldn't she be looking after her son' or ‘how can she start something on her own'. We like to believe that we have been living by example,” says Madhuvanti who is of course appreciative of what her grandmother and mother have done in the limited scope that their respective generations offered.
And Mrs. Y.G.P. was definitely a trend setter or norm-breaker rather, who after her husband's demise continued to wear colourful clothes, sindoor and flowers. “He had mentioned in his will that I shouldn't wear the garb of a widow and I have kept that up till today. It's now common practice.” Also common is the fact that all three of them have had extremely supportive husbands and in-laws, whose backing the trio acknowledge.
I will have to bring up the word “empowerment” again, much to Madhuvanti's dislike, because just as her mother pointed out, these women aren't just empowered education and career-wise, but also mentally and emotionally — prepared to take on anything that life might throw their way; empowerment in the truest sense.
“Like mother like daughter” is the phrase that comes to mind when we talk about actor Trisha and her mother. In fact, it would apply to Uma Krishnan and her mother Sarada Ganapathy too.
A successful actor Trisha handed over the reigns of managing her career to her mother Uma Krishnan who now takes care of her dates and breaks.
All three of them are independent, empowered and grounded, yet so similar. Hailing from similar family backgrounds, these progressive thinkers are true extensions of each other.
Trisha: We are a family where there are more women. All my cousins are all girls. So coming from a family like that, I have always been fiercely independent, have made my own choices and stood by my decisions. I have always seen my mother as my friend.
But like any house we did have the basic protocol and general rules and restrictions but the comfort zone was always there.
Uma: I shared a very strong bond with my mother and do so with my daughter too. I did hesitate to talk very freely with my mother on topics that I now freely discuss with my daughter now. Even though my mother came from a conventional family she always made sure we wore western clothes and she was extremely progressive even when I was growing up.
Sarada: My family was hardly conservative and that maybe because we were living in Mumbai. I lost my mother when I was very young. Being in a family of seven sisters, it was a women-centric family where all decisions were taken by my older sisters. We worked together as a family and shared a very good rapport with our father. Relationships from then to now have only grown stronger and my sisters played my mother's role so the bond speaks for itself. Even after my marriage my husband understood that quotient and always respected that.
The clothes we wore back then, subjects we spoke about are probably the only areas where I can say we belonged to an older generation.
Education and career
T: When it came to schooling, there was one underwritten rule that whatever I' do, I would have to wait till I finish my basic education. Even when I wanted to do modelling and ads I was allowed to do so only after I completed my basic education. I always had a free hand to decide what I wanted to and even when there were certain apprehensions as to my acting we sorted it out amicably. Acting was a field that not many took to so we were clueless and I can understand their concern but it was my mother who decided to let me do what I really wanted to and that's how I entered this industry.
U: My mother wanted me to study a lot. I remember a time when I got a lucrative job right after my graduation, but my mother insisted that I pursue my masters and that money can be earned even later. It's because of her I could do that. After marriage things did not change at all. I continued to do so till Trisha required my help to manage her career.
S: My parents wanted all their daughters to finish their matriculation. Basic education was a must. Back then we knew that once that was done marriage was on the cards and we just went with the flow. But when it came to my daughter I made sure she studied enough to sustain herself.
T: There's a lot of it. Coming from a family full of empowered women, it was instilled in me even through my growing years. Taking decisions, initiatives and standing up for my decisions is what my family has taught me.
U: Career, finances, working, handling my house and work have all been my strength because of the family I come from. I grew up knowing I will not sit at home and that did not change even after my marriage. So being in control of most of the things has always helped me stay ahead.
S: Right from my childhood we were not a male-dominated family. As siblings we took decisions, planned our finances and that continued even after my marriage. We were never overly submissive and made our choices back then too.
The other generations
T: What I really like about my grandmother is that she has become an integral part of my world and family. She has adapted herself to the changes and accepted the change whole heartedly.
I can share so many things that I share with my mother with my grandmother too. I like the fact that they helped us carry forward those morals and virtues that they have brought with them and this helps me stay grounded. My mother and I can share anything under the sun. She is my confidante.
U: My mother is my rock of Gibraltar. There are more positives than negatives and now with her being my companion at home too. With Trisha I try to be her friend and her parent and I know that has helped me have a very open relationship with her.
S: I can see that it's only the level of freedom that has changed with times. Values and the integrity that have been passed on are still intact.