Many years ago, there was a serial on DD called Dadi ma jagi, where a grandmother, who had gone into a coma for 20 years suddenly wakes to find everything changed (naturally!). The serial went on to show how she comes to terms with the changes.
Let me tell you about another kind of sleep, where on waking up, the subject (yours truly) finds that she has gone back in time – with the costumes and names having changed to the present. A reverse time warp of sorts.
One on such occasion, I woke up after sleeping for a while (or was it several years?) and find a strange sight. All these women – dressed in the styles of the 21st century – at home, not at their jobs. I rub my eyes. Not just that, but they are well educated, many of them qualified professionals. So why had they quit working, after slogging to qualify for their degrees?
‘It is our choice to be a homemaker!’ they chorus when I ask.
The term homemaker flies about me. And I hear another one — SAHM (Stay-at-home-mom). In case you didn’t know, they are the same as housewife and Ghar ki rani in a tosh avatar.
Curious about these homemakers and SAHMs, I decide to follow one of them who I think is representative of this new breed. And this is what I find:
She gets up early, does some yoga, fixes the breakfast for the family, while her husband gets the kids ready for school. She screams a bit at the kids to get going lest they miss the bus but is relaxed and affectionate as she sees her brood off to school.
Later in the day she goes out to the bank to sort out some issue, does a bit of shopping and has a quick cup of coffee with her friends. Back home, she catches up with her online friends, does a spot of reading and has a leisurely lunch which she has fixed for herself. In the evening, she drops off her son for his sitar class and her daughter for her badminton practice. Dinner is a family affair with every one pitching in to help, sharing their day with each other. There is much laughter, joking and love.
She looks around at her family and sighs happily, shaking off the memories of her office-going days. Rushing — always rushing — trying to complete her housework, helping with the kids’ homework, finishing that report for the next day’s presentation at work…Thank god, she had quit her job! Being a homemaker was so much more satisfying, besides being vital to the well-being of the family while affording her time to pursue her interests.
‘But….but….’I sputter, ‘Isn’t it patriarchal and regressive for women to expect to be provided for by their men? Hadn’t our mothers and grandmothers done it and been accused of sucking up to the patriarchal system? I was telling her how it had been before I dropped off to sleep.
I get disgusted looks which tell me that I have no understanding of the division of labour at all. Why, the work was divided equally this way, wasn’t it? Did I know how much the homemaker’s contribution was worth? In fact, she should be asking to be paid for all the things she did to keep the home running smoothly, raising kids in the best way possible, and preparing them for their lives ahead….
‘They had no choice in the matter!’ they cut me short most rudely.
‘Ah! So, you qualify for a profession, and then exercise your choice to chuck it to stay at home, right?’ I am careful not to get their temper up by saying something politically incorrect.
‘Right! It is all about having the freedom to decide!’ they say triumphantly.
My mind goes back to the time when women of earlier generations were all at home. The woman’s routine was vastly different from the women I see now, as were the things she did. She got up early, swept the front yard, sprinkled water and made rangoli. She then bathed, fixed breakfast for the family and after they had left, did her Pooja or went to the temple. She then supervised her maid or did the housework herself, had her lunch, read some periodicals and had a short siesta. Evenings were time for family prayers and everyone sat down to sing bhajans and chant shlokas. On festivals and special days they went to the temple. Late evenings were spent talking about their days, telling stories to the children and listening to songs on the radio. Much later, the husband whispered: ‘You are my ghar ki rani, my griha Lakshmi!’
I follow one woman of that generation on a typical day…..
That day she cooks lunch and changes before leaving for her friend’s house in the next street to make pickles along with other women. They had made the preparations the previous week and now only had to do the mixing and bottling. It is a boisterous affair with jokes, songs and sharing of stories. They are flushed with the camaraderie and accomplishment of having done their work. They have each brought some dish from their homes and have a potluck lunch. A couple of them have aged in-laws at home and so rush back…
I wonder: Were they forced to do it all? Were they so unhappy? Did they need to prove that they were as good as men in and out of the house? Wasn’t there division of labour back then too? My head is reeling. Maybe I am fainting….
I am rudely awoken by singing and dancing. I find out that women are celebrating their menstrual periods. The singing and dancing are coming from inside a red tent. Oh, you haven’t heard about the Red Tents?
The Red Tent is part of the spiritual practice of menstruation and the living of the wisdom of the cycles. The Red Tent is part of the much needed honouring of the feminine that our culture requires. The Red Tent is a place, a space, that women retreat to when they are bleeding, menstruating, when they have their ‘moonflow’. The Red Tent or Moon Lodge or Blood Temple can be an actual space or a virtual space, or a state of mind, one way or another it needs to exist.
I find myself in a reverse time warp once again. From segregation during the menstrual periods, to peddling sanitary napkins on prime time with explicit ads, it is all the way back to segregation and bonding – only this time it is all wrapped in western garb, hoity-toity and out of ‘choice’ with a lot of feminist jargon thrown in for good measure.
Our elders had stipulated that women should get complete rest, at least from being near the fire or doing lifting and other strenuous work. Wonder why?
Cramps during their periods has been a common complaint of women down the decades. There is nothing much that can be done for it. If one were to see the number of articles on this, one would realise that it is still much prevalent the world over. And no, it is not because they don’t want to find a cure for it or because it is a taboo subject. It is simply because there is no cure for it. Every ovulation cycle is a preparation for a pregnancy and when it doesn’t happen, the uterus expels the blood and tissues to clean itself and ready for another cycle. Apparently, depending upon individual women and their physical fitness and uterine health, these cramps can go from negligible to excruciating, sometimes even mimicking labour pains! Pain killers, hormone pills – all only help temporarily and aggravate uterine problems on long term use.
I remember feminist writers of the 70s lamenting that even Nature conspires against women by visiting the menstruation on her! I was one of those who had lapped up such literature before coming to this realisation: No, Nature only wants women to respect their bodies for their uniqueness and give them the rest they need periodically! (no pun intended).
A couple of generations ago, segregation during one’s periods was common and taken in one’s stride. I know of women who rejoiced when they got their periods and they could get out of heavy work at home on occasions. There were rooms in houses where the womenfolk stayed, sometimes several of them at the same time. They relaxed, read, talked and recouped, as they were not allowed to go near the fire. The reason being that the body is weak during menstruation and therefore even heat can be debilitating just as strenuous physical exercise can be draining. This also applies to some temples where women are restricted from going and not just when they have their periods as the strong magnetic fields in temples can debilitate women further. This article explains the reasons in the most scientific way.
One of the ruses our ancestors adopted to see that health routines were followed was to do it in the name of religion and invoke the taboos related to it. Out of fear of retribution people followed the rules and consequently remained relatively healthy.
But no one told women all these things when they began rebelling against being segregated. Just that they were ‘unclean’ during their periods and so should remain out of sight! Naturally they had bristled. As if they went dripping all over the place! So they fought and got their right to do all the things that women do today. They went to work, cooked, danced and played sports. While some, whose threshold of tolerance is high and whose bodies are fit, are able to cope, others suffer so much that they are literally laid prone. I am sure no one will deny this truth. I know of any number of women who would just love to curl up in bed with a book or the ipod on those days. And when common sense tells them that this is the reason for their enforced rest, why not adapt it to suit the present times and benefit?
So when I heard about the Red Tents, I wondered if they were finally acknowledging that our elders knew what they were doing when they ensured enforced rest during their periods.
‘Of come on! We are not toeing the line of regressive patriarchal customs! We are celebrating the feminine!’ the women retort angrily.
I begin wondering if there is something profound here that escaped my pea-brain for I am unable to understand how so-called regressive and patriarchal customs and traditions have suddenly become the latest feminist trends and ‘choice’ statements?
I run and stand under a cold shower to clear my fuzzy brain.
And there under the spray I have my moment of epiphany! Bring back old customs and traditions replete with their wisdom (just be careful not to acknowledge the fact), give them tony names, get them air-brushed, give them a dab of make-up and colour, and voila! You have a liberated, empowered woman who has the freedom of choice! And oh, don’t forget to get the all-important endorsement of the ‘liberal’ and modern West for added authority to wave at the regressive patriarchy’s face!
For the record, I am very happy that old customs are making a comeback in new avatars. Because, unless they evolve with changing times, traditions and customs tend to die out, suffocated by rigid rules. My request is for people to keep an open mind, and think logically about any tradition or custom without the tinted glasses of religion, region or nationality, before chucking them out. Our ancestors (of ancient cultures everywhere) were not fools.
Every culture has its traditions and customs which have deep roots in scientific facts. While some might be religious in origin, the vast majority have health at their core. Only, our forebears were not educated in modern science to give them fancy names and provide scientific proofs to impress the later generations of skeptics.
Whether it is the suryanamaskar, the wearing of toe-rings after marriage, menstrual segregation or any number of ‘regressive’, ‘religious’ customs – they all have sound scientific basis. We research into trivial things to prove a point on social media, or argue cases that have no lasting impact on our lives. Why not into such customs? I find it incredible that we readily accept a filmmaker’s interpretation of a custom we had followed for centuries (Red Tent) to bring it back as a fashion statement, but are reluctant to discover the wisdom behind them ourselves. While there are any number of them we have imported back from the west, I am yet to find one such custom that has been popularized by us, here, indigenously.
It is not necessary to talk openly about our great past if that makes you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. But don’t close your minds to their wisdom, please. Adapt them, personalise them, but for heaven’s sake, don’t reject them! We could not only rediscover our strong cultural roots to live happily but also save millions in doctors’ fees.
Think about it!
Some traditional fitness routines that have made a comeback through the backdoor and windows in modern avatars.
Homepage image: www.thehindu.com