| Passing it on
Every year, when we celebrate International Women's Day in March, we pay tribute to the women who have taken both big and small risks to earn better lives ' not only for themselves, but also for us, their descendants. Many of these women are public figures. But March 8 is also a day for us to salute our private icons. And for many women, this means remembering and rewriting our grandmothers' lives.
A recent biography of a grandmother brought home to me, once again, the value of such a gesture. In Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive, veteran women's rights activist Mythily Sivaraman reconstructs the risks her grandmother Subbalakshmi took, and the inevitable defeats she suffered. Both triumphs and defeats are part of the author's individual legacy and our collective one.
Consider this legacy as it parades before us through a life such as Subbalakshmi's. A sensitive, intelligent little girl has to read The Hindu in English to her grandfather. Though she will never enter a classroom in her life, she not only learns English, but also develops a keen interest in the political life of colonial India. But she is a Brahmin girl, and caste purity has to be maintained; so there is the inevitable marriage at the age of eleven and motherhood at fourteen. The marriage is a lonely, cold one. She seems to have no support as she grieves the loss of her two sons, and she is marked for life by the crippling epileptic seizures that follow. But throughout, we also see Subbalakshmi's spirited attempts to fill the bleak emptiness of her life with the beauties of nature; friendship; art and books; the cause of her daughter's education; and most impressive of all, the peripheries of the freedom movement. We cheer her on as she tries, with courage and determination, to make a life for herself and her daughter ' an intellectually stimulating one that has room for beauty. Even as we admire her fervour for life, from bird-watching to waving a black flag when the Prince of Wales visits Madras, we can sense that this flowering is going to be all too brief. The odds she is up against are just too many and too powerful. Forced back into the small conventional space sanctioned for her, Subbalakshmi's spirit is maimed. Her mind recedes along with the denial to the larger world she sought. Most poignant of all, her political participation now shrinks to a recurring dream of herself as the saviour of indentured women labourers in South Africa. The one feature of the young Subbalakshmi that survives this exile from life is her determination not to compromise on her values.
The beauty of the grandmother-link is the way it travels from one corner of the globe to another. Though Subbalakshmi spent most of her life in remote coastal villages, or in a couple of rooms in a Madras house, she read an impressive number of travel books. Her yearning for travel, for wider vistas, was familiar to another grandmother, this one from Morocco. Yasmina, writer Fatema Mernissi's grandmother, left her granddaughter an invaluable legacy. She taught young Fatema that 'to travel is the best way to learn and empower yourself'. This advice still holds good. For Yasmina, illiterate and resident in a harem, travelling or crossing boundaries was the opposite of imprisonment. In a life hemmed in by the walls of the harem, survival is dependent on ideas, a private philosophy that helps you vault over those walls, at least in your imagination. So though Yasmina herself could not travel, she could sow wanderlust in her granddaughter. She could tell her that travel is not just a privilege; it is the best way to shed powerlessness. Knowledge of her own life, and knowledge of the possibilities which could change it, led Yasmina to firmly believe that women had the right to travel and discover 'Allah's beautiful and complicated planet'.
Yasmina also told her granddaughter the secret of benefiting from travel ' cultivating a 'state of readiness'. She warned her that for travel to be intelligent, you have to work hard at learning about strangers as well as yourself, and that this is not easy: 'When a woman decides to use her wings, she takes big risks.' On her deathbed, her grandmother told Fatema that rather than mourn for her, she should keep alive Yasmina's version of the Scheherazade story 'The Lady with the Feather Dress'. The message of the story is that a woman should be alert, ready to move, even if she is loved. She should be ready to be a nomad; if not literally, then in her dreams and ambitions.
When we meet these grandmothers, Subbalakshmi and Yasmina, what we first feel is a jolt of recognition. The specific contours of their lives are, of course, unique to them; so are their accomplishments, their attempts to carve out a small space of ideas ' a political space ' for themselves. But there are, in their lives, those other achingly familiar features that have shaped so many women's lives: the rigid boundaries, the overwhelming opponent of convention; the inevitability of dreams being thwarted in the end. Which of us cannot recall women in our families who were not allowed to go to school or college, who were married when they were children themselves, or whose worth was defined by their ability to produce sons or live cloistered lives'
But the sense of recognition we feel when we encounter grandmothers like Subbalakshmi and Yasmina does not end with our shared memories of these circumscribed lives. It is also there in who is doing the remembering, why, when and how. The route Mythily Sivaraman and Fatema Mernissi have travelled to write this account is familiar to many women. This route involves travelling from the place of granddaughter to a wider one of ideas and understanding, a place where it is possible to carry ideas through to action, to life-choices; then, with maturity, making links between the larger political world and the personal, including in our own histories the half-forgotten lives we have left behind. Perhaps this is the point when we realize that all along, in our many journeys, we have had these women as our private icons, our private cautionary tales, and our private measuring tape of the distance we have travelled ' or, sometimes, not travelled.
Our accounts of our grandmothers vindicate these women's efforts, efforts that have to be appreciated within the limits of their times. They help us acknowledge ' in both historical and personal contexts ' our debt to them. The advantages we have had, the head start of formal education, and of larger political, economic and social spheres, have ensured that we have been able to open doors that remained shut to them. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the passage of time, and the piling of individual struggle on collective struggle, have not meant a straightforward path to progress. Our lives, thank goodness and our grandmothers, have moved ahead. But we still have many miles to cover: too much has remained the same for women ' from Subbalakshmi's and Yasmina's days to ours.