Usha has, as usual, written a very thought-provoking post, ‘The way things are done’ at her blog, agelessbonding. While I was reading her post, I kept thinking, ‘How true!’ and ‘That’s exactly how I feel!’, when it struck me, we were actually bonding despite our so-called generation gap! A woman of my parents’ generation was openly questioning the same practices that I found fault with. Agelessbonding is truly an apt name for Usha’s blog!
I don’t know if this would be possible anywhere outside of the blogosphere. I can’t speak for other women, but would my mother or grandmother, even if they agreed with me, ever give voice to their innermost thoughts? I doubt it. But if they were to write a blog post anonymously, would they voice their true concerns there? Very likely yes, I would say.
The concept of ‘madi’ that Usha refers to seems, on the face of it, very similar to what is practiced in the Kannada Vaishnava Brahmin community that my father belongs to. (I am myself a hodgepodge of so many communities, from my father’s, mother’s and husband’s sides, that we won’t try to put a name to it, shall we?)
Thankfully, being from diverse backgrounds themselves, my parents never enforced some of the more unpleasant practices of ‘madi’ in our own home, but I have seen enough of it in our relatives’ homes to have developed very strong feelings about it over the years.
My biggest peeve has been with the custom of forcing girls to ‘sit aside’ and be literally treated as an untouchable during the ‘impure’ days of the month. Now this might have made sense in the old days when girls were married at the onset of puberty, it might actually have been a much-wanted relief from arduous household chores and untimely attentions from the husband in those days.
But how does one explain it today, when girls marry in their late twenties, study or work outside the home and are considered equal to their brothers and husbands in every other sense? I have seen my teenage cousin sisters struggle to explain this archaic concept when their friends come home visiting on those unfortunate days. I have seen them bravely shrug it off as no big deal, yet jump with joy when they visit our home and know they don’t need to carry on the charade there. Why do they follow it in the first place then?
Then there are the intricate purification rites to be followed to do something as basic as cooking in the ‘madi’ world! My grandmother, who must have been sixty plus then, would get up at the crack of dawn, bathe in cold water, hurriedly drape a wet nine-yard saree and proceed to cook a seven course meal for the entire family all by herself.
Were there younger people around? Yes, lots. Would they have woken up and bathed early to help her? Sure! But were they allowed to help her? Of course not! None of them were ‘pure’ enough, you see.
Never mind that basic concepts of hygiene were impossible to maintain in those old-fashioned kitchens. As long as ‘madi’ was followed, the food was sure to turn out pure of course! But hey, before I end up sounding bitter, let me confess the food my grandmother prepared was unbelievably delicious, my grouse was not with the food, rather I did not enjoy seeing my old grandmother bending over backwards to feed everyone and remaining hungry till everybody else had eaten.
Because of their ‘madi’ restrictions, very few of my grandparents, aunts and uncles ever ate in our home. Fruits and milk were all they would accept. Although I knew there was nothing personal about it, it was hard not to feel a twinge of regret when we hosted elaborate traditional meals on festive occasions and so many of the guests left without eating anything.
Lately, having wed into a non-Brahmin family, my mother cautions me to wait for an invitation before I land up at some of our more orthodox relatives’ homes. Who knows, my newly acquired non-Brahmin or half-Brahmin status might destroy a lifetime of ‘madi tapasya’ for some poor soul. (I still consider myself a full Brahmin, but those are just my rebellious feminist notions, I am sure.)
There must be some redeeming factors to these traditions. I’ll be glad if the more well-versed folks could enlighten us about them. The sole saving grace that I can see is that none of these customs were actually physically harmful to anyone. The horrifying female circumcision ritual that Usha talks about sent shivers down my spine. So do many other hideous practices such as female infanticide and dowry deaths. The social rigors of ‘madi’ seem relatively harmless in comparison.
Then again, I remember my mother and I bringing my aunt and week-old baby cousin brother home from the hospital. I was so excited to see the baby and play with him that I failed to understand why all my other cousins kept giggling and refused to come near us. Later, my mother explained, touching the newborn baby and his mother had transmitted their ‘impure’ status to both of us too.
Sigh! As Usha rightly says, it takes a rocket scientist to keep track of all the intricacies of ‘madi’.