Surviving patriarchy

I HAVE known Girija Shastri for a while now. She writes poetry in Kannada and has done extensive research in Kannada literature and has some strong views on the status of women and on how women have lived through history. Her poetry collection Hennobala Dhani (A Woman's Voice) which reflects her views, one can say, is a feminist document. But there is someone else in Girjija's house who has written no books and who may never do so, who interested me in many ways. This person is Girija's mother, Seethamma.

The first time Girija came to the SPARROW office, she had brought with her a carpet woven by her mother. She wanted to know if we could include her 75-year-old mother in our oral history recording project for recording her life story. We readily agreed but making the trip to Bangalore to meet her mother kept getting postponed for one reason or the other. And then the other day Girija dropped in and the conversation again turned towards her mother and she showed an ongoing embroidery work being done by her mother. It looked like a beautiful traditional painting. And maybe the embroidery set the tone for what followed, for, I started asking about her mother and Girija began telling me this extraordinary woman's story. Seethamma is extraordinary because where others would have collapsed, she has survived; where others would have had their spirits broken, she has kept her spirits alive by holding on to what she cherished, quietly but firmly.

Seethamma was born in 1925 in Periapattana in Hunsoor Taluk. She studied upto the seventh standard. At the age of 14 she got married to a person who was 25 years her senior. Her husband was an inter-mediate of those days and for some reason was not interested in getting married. He was an astrologer who was a great scholar, thorough in the Dharmashastras. His disinterest in marriage may have been due to the fact that his three sisters who lived with him were all widows with tonsured heads. Two of them were child widows and the third had a child. One does not know who persuaded him to marry Seethamma but the marriage took place. Fourteen-year-old Seethamma entered her material household in Saligramma, where there were three young widows who observed the strictest of norms in terms of living the lives of widows.

Seethamma was not one who complained of anything but she had to do a few things to keep herself alive. She enjoyed doing crochet work, which she did secretly without anyone coming to know about it. Once in a way when what she was doing came to light there was much criticism but she did not give up. She had a passion for books but her husband's house was full of astrology books. Occasionally, some other books came into the house and she eagerly devoured those books. Through all those years of caring for her children and nurturing a family, she also nurtured her interest in expressing herself in some way through embroidery, crochet and kept up her reading, whatever the criticism.

It is probably her mother's quiet acceptance that made Girija want to break both family and caste norms. Girija explained that despite her family presenting an image of peace and harmony there must have been volcanic emotions underneath, for what one of Girjia's widowed aunts ventured to do was never spoken openly. It was always spoken about in whispers. The widowed aunt with her tonsured head, left home one night clad in a pant and a shirt. She returned later but what led to this rebellious act and why it did not succeed was never discussed. In 1980, Girija wrote the story of her aunt in her college magazine. She felt a deep resentment towards her scholarly father, who in the name of tradition and customs, had not only put an end to the lives of three widowed sisters but had also squashed the dreams of a 14- year-old girl, who was her mother Seethamma.

Girija's resentment did not extend to her mother because her mother had somehow not surrendered her entire self. Girija's aunt wore men's clothes and made a physical attempt to escape; but Seethamma did nothing so obvious. She took needle and thread and put colour into her life.

Seethamma's husband is no more and now she weaves carpets and embroiders to ease the passing of time. She presents them to her children and their friends and would not dream of making it a commercial enterprise. It was not money but a space to pursue her interests which she had wanted. Not a room of her own but just a small corner in a joint-family. One would imagine it was not much to ask for. But Seethamma had to wait for many years just to make some designs with needle and thread and use her hands for things other than cooking, washing and cleaning. It has been a long wait and Seethamma has borne it patiently. It is Girija, her loving daughter, who keeps wondering what her mother could have achieved had she been given the time and the space. I wonder too, if Seethamma would have taken to a different medium and expressed herself differently and taken different routes in her life had she found an uncontested space for expression.