Our Own Worst Enemy
All packed in the car for a visit to a family friend. I have come along for the ride—no school today. Tenth-grade finals are looming, but the teenage me feels a little overwhelmed and needs a break. Even though I am stuck in the middle, wedged between Mrs. Bajaj and Mummy, I am enjoying the passing scenery and cool breeze wafting in through the rolled-down windows. Past the golf course, the radio station, Vidhan Saudha, seeing the expansive new homes, and wondered why I had not noticed these before.
“So, how are we going to handle this?” asks Kamala. She is driving, and Mrs. Bajaj’s sister, Shanti, is sitting in the front next to Kamala. “What do we do if they present both the babies at the same time? Do we give the Shagun (a monetary gift to newborns, newlyweds, etc.) to both or only to the boy?”
I am wondering—all babies look the same! How will we know which is the boy and which is the girl? But I am also a bit puzzled! Are there really two babies? Are these twins? Why are we going to exclude the little girl? I whisper to Mummy, “What is going on? Where are we going?”
Mummy explains the friend we are about to visit has had her home and hands full for the last few months. Both her daughter and daughter-in-law have recently delivered babies and are still confined at her home for the mandatory 40 days under the friend’s care. It is customary in India for an expectant mother to be in the care of her extended family a couple of months before and after the baby arrives. So that explains the two babies! So what is the problem? One has a new baby son and the other a new baby daughter. So?
“Oh,” I pipe up, voicing my thoughts, “so what’s the problem?” Aren’t we going to give cash to both? Why not? I ask mummy but loud enough for all to hear, “Why not give to both?” Lots of laughter at my silly question. I look at Mummy, and she shakes her head, signaling me to silence.
The conversation resumes. The logistics of seeing the two babies and how to give Shagun only to the baby boy is serious business. Blatant discrimination is serious business. Will both the babies be brought in at the same time, or will they be presented one at a time? Two different possibilities—how is each situation to be handled? Quite a dilemma! My question may have been silly, but this discussion seems sillier and shocking!
The discussion continues. We are driving past the two churches with spires and pinnacles reminiscent of Gothic architecture—always a fascinating sight—but this conversation is more intriguing. Expectations are to be managed. The friend would expect Shagun for both babies since both were born around the same time and under her care. Both are her grandchildren, and both deserve welcome-to-a-bright-new-world gifts, reasonable enough.
But traditional well wishes are only for boys, not girls. Why? I don’t recall who, but one of the women says, “who is ever happy at the birth of a girl?” I look around at the faces in the car (including Mummy’s)—a thought goes thru my mind—so each of your births was a disappointment to your parents, was it? I remember my younger sisters being born. I don’t remember seeing any disappointment. All comments were on how pretty and healthy they were. In fact, Juji was such a pretty baby that the nurses would put a black dot behind her ear to ward off the evil eye. And I remember Mummy recalling Bhabhoji (Mummy’s Mom) had prayed for a girl before Mummy was born. Bhaboji already had two girls and a boy. Words seep in through my thoughts. Things could get rather awkward, if not downright embarrassing if both babies are presented at the same time. One will have to be sent back with no Shagun! Embarrassing? Of course! But to whom? Nevertheless, tradition will be maintained!
A suggestion is made. As the babies are brought in, and each of us (most probably excluding me) gets a chance to hold and admire the baby, the first one asks for the baby’s name. Brilliant suggestion! And we give accordingly or simply pass the little bundle of disappointment or reduced joy on to the next person. Everyone gets to hold each baby, but only the boy receives the Shagun. Brilliant indeed! And sickening!
We arrive at the friend’s home and are cordially seated in the living room. The friend comes out to greet us and is very pleased to receive the verbal congratulations. Tea is served along with snacks. After some more pleasant exchanges, Mrs. Bajaj asks to see the little ones, and each is brought out in turn. The baby girl is first, and everyone gets to hold her, coo over her, and pass her on. I steal a look at the friend’s face and see a shadow of disappointment cross her face. I’m uncomfortable with this insult to the lady of the house and the mother of the baby. But eyes downcast, I keep my mouth shut. The baby boy is brought out next, and the same ritual is performed, except this time there are broad smiles all around, a lot of “badhai ho”s, and each lady is holding some cash to be tucked into the tiny little fist even as she coos at the puckered-faced baby. The friend says the perfunctory, “There is no need for this.” But also recognizes this is the entire purpose of the visit.
We leave after a little while, and the ride back is loud and noisy. So much self-congratulation on a situation well handled. Not one remark on the disappointed look on the grandmother’s face. No mention at all of the hurt inflicted. I am sure it was noticed and ignored. Why? Because traditions have to be sustained? A tradition of treating women as chattel. And having nonother than women be the defenders of the faith!
A couple of days later, I hesitantly broach the incident with Mummy. “What do you think about leaving the baby girl empty-handed?”
She shakes her head and says, “It was not right! What we did was not right”. But everyone had laughed at my suggestion. But that was before we met the Grandmother. Mummy, too, had noticed the look pass over the Grandmother’s face. No, she did not feel good about it at all. The dejected look on her face makes me want to hug her. “These so-called traditions need to change,” Mummy continues.
I want to ask, then, why did you not give? But I resist. Her expression shows how deeply she feels for all three—Grandmother, the Mother whom we did not meet, and the tiny baby girl. Her regret is tangible. Giving a small monetary gift to the baby girl would collide head-on with the painful conflict of not wanting to seem critical of her friends’ decisions. And as we all do in most awkward situations, Mummy took the path of least resistance.
It is my first direct brush with the subordinating stigma of being a girl. Vaguely I recall noticing some of it in other families, mostly relatives and friends. My aunt was barred from getting into the seventh grade, but that was back in the 1920s—ancient times! My grandfather had wanted her to continue her schooling, like her brothers, but the extended family objected so vociferously to educating a girl my grandfather had to give in. He was poor, a small-time clerk in the postal service, but he had a vision for his children. He prodded his four sons out of the rut of poverty, pushing them into higher education leading to government service, banking, engineering, and medicine. But for my aunt, he had to bow down to the wisdom of his elders. (A side note: My aunt came back with a vengeance, three of her four daughters graduated as MDs).
What bothers me here in this scenario is we are all women and yet choose to reinforce this inferiorization of the female gender. An act of hostility towards our individual selves via a little baby girl! And more terrifying is the thought that women have bought into these norms to suppress themselves. Eons of male-dominated societal indoctrination and conditioning have wrought this.
This incident has been churning in my mind for the last fifty years, and I cannot forget the image of a grandmother’s crestfallen face, a wounded look at the collective insult to all three—grandmother, mother, and a tiny baby girl. There have been other incidents of blatant discrimination, but this is seared in my memory. I wish I could say things are different now with decades of female education and enlightenment. Things are improving but not rapidly enough. The repressive instincts of a dominating patriarchal society have kept pace with the advent of technology. The number of ultrasounds and aborted girl fetuses just don’t add up to any significant changes in attitudes towards girls. And the weak toothless government laws are a farce.