The way things are done – My experiences

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’.

13 responses to “The way things are done – My experiences

  1. Good post! Luckily for me, all the “madi” disappeared in my grandmom’s generation itself in our family. Though some related families still follow it religiously. My grandmom is a rebel of sorts. Can you believe it, when she was studying, she would lie about her cycles, go to college (she is a graduate) and play volleyball. Yup. She is 81 now, and still as fiesty.

    So you can imagine how my mom and consequently, we have been brought up.. heh heh :))

    I ought to write a post on this… sometime… sometime….

  2. umm… okay.. on a tangent. and i am aware that it irritates me when people go off on a tangent on my posts, if you do not believe in age old customs etc, what do you say about the caste system. you seem to believe in it since you say that you consider urself brahmin despite marrying a non brahmin.

    and you say in the same breath that its ur feminist streak. as part of a constructive discussion, how do you think your being feminist, which i consider just a fight for equality, tie in with being and believing in a caste system?

    since i dont belong to one, i am truly fascinated by the thinking that goes into it.

    • Why should I lose my Brahmin identity just because I marry a non Brahmin? Each person brings and maintains their religion, belief system etc.

  3. Shruthi, your granny seems to be a real trailblazer. Hats off to her, doing what she did in those days! Would love to see that post very soon, when the lil one spares you for a while. 🙂

    Cee Kay, let me know if you need more references on it!

    Okay, now about MadMomma’s comment – I read it this morning and was charged up to draft a reply immediately. Couldn’t post from the office, so emailed her instead, and she replied back. I am posting our email conversation here, would love to get your feedback on it too. The lady raises quite a few valid points that got me thinking.

    My response

    No, I don’t mind you going off on a tangent at all. I am famous in the family for jamming away nonstop to myself, so… J It’s an interesting perspective you have presented MadMomma, one I had never thought of before. Isn’t it fascinating to see oneself from another’s point of view? I never realized my feminism might seem at odds with my other beliefs. You might have a valid point here.

    But to explain my side of the story, I think my belief in being a Brahmin is more about a sense of identity and a way of life – it’s more of a cultural thing really. I am very sure I don’t think of one caste as being superior to another. Isn’t that what the caste system (or rather, it’s twisted modern version) preaches?

    To be very frank, till the tail end of my school years, I wasn’t aware most of my friends weren’t Brahmins. I thought everybody was one! I didn’t even know what caste the husband belonged to when he proposed marriage to me. So I wouldn’t say my Brahmin beliefs translate into a non-belief in equality. It’s more about cultural diversity, I would say, and I firmly believe diversity is a good thing.

    I am not very well-read about these things, but as far as I know, even the ancient concept of casteism never preached inequality, all it talked about was division of labor which might have made economic/social sense in those times, who knows.

    But, and this is where you made me question myself, how does this tie in with the more sordid consequences of the caste system in present-day India, such as the Khairlanji killings? Now that’s where I feel apprehensive about my beliefs. Folks like me might believe in casteism only as a cultural identity, but perhaps we unintentionally provide fodder to the bigots perpetrating these injustices in the name of caste. In that sense, your comment was truly an eye-opener for me.

    Might it be prudent to eliminate all discussions of caste in the first place? That was my takeaway from this discussion and I am very grateful to you for triggering it. Am I making sense or just rambling? Is there some inherent contradiction in these thoughts too? I am stumbling and learning myself, so I’d love to know!

    MadMomma’s response


    no it didnt end up in my spam section. And no you are not rambling. Yes, the ancient system was a division of labour, but that division made certain things very rigid. That brahmins must be fed and they were your only route to salvation. That those who were the trader class can never be warriors and so on. And the worst of course being that the dalits, the untouchables, the sweepers, were at the bottom of the ladder. even then they were not allowed to sit at the same table as a brahmin or a kshatriya.

    so it was a division of labour, but it suppressed some, wouldnt you say? on my dad’s side we were toddy tappers before we converted to christianity and on my mom’s side we were priests in a temple before we converted. i am told both sides converted to get out of the caste system.

    which is why when i hear modern views of equality where a woman doesnt want to be ruled out of the kitchen because of her periods, or be the one to practice madi, i wonder how this ties in. after all these are brahmin cultural practices that you follow …

    i guess its very convoluted and not something that i can discuss with any measure of confidence or knowledge. but i am happy to set the ball rolling.

    i often ask the OA if he identifies with Brahmins and he shrugs it off. he identifies somewhat with the greater umbrella of hinduism but nothing else. and i take his trip royally telling him that i am blessed for feeding a brahmin. he has however stopped telling ppl his caste unless they pressurise him because he feels very strongly against it.

    anyway.. this was fun!


  4. Yup, do need more references to it, if you can provide them. I love reading about cultural practices.

    The emails you and Mad Momma exchanged made for an interesting reading. I confess that I have never thought about my religion that deeply. Frankly speaking, I sometimes think of religion as an inconvenience and sometimes I think it is the worst thing to have happened to mankind – specially when I see/read about religious fanaticism. For the record, I do believe in God but believing in God doesn’t equate to religion in my opinion.Religion is manmade. God IS. (Does that even make sense?)

    Like you, I was born into a Brahmin family too. To me it is just something I happened to be born into. I shy away from organized religion and was always a rebel questioning and deviating from religious/cultural practices. I have written a post on this – check it out if you want to.

    By the way, do you mind if I blogroll you?

  5. my earliest memory relating to ‘madi’ is that of not being let into the kitchen at my grandparents place. The quarantine would last till the afternoon everyday till ‘they’ finished lunch. But, even later we would’nt venture into it unless it was utterly essential. Perhaps we did’nt complain as we were too young and were perhaps happy to be left free to play. But this ‘sit aside’ was one thing that really bothered me. Whenever someone had to go through it, I would feel so miserable that I would lose my appetite. It would be worse if it was my mother. Of course my mother & some of my aunts would lie about the date as Shruti’s grandma did but when we were there for longer duration, there was no escape. Thank god that the thing was given up by the time we grew up.
    The burden of household work would be totally on ‘them’ due to ‘madi’. As grown ups we could’nt sit aside & watch them do all the work around. Whenever we offered to help, ‘they’ would let us but on one condition that we had to wear a silk sarry which was unwashed. well, though that did’nt make any sense we obliged as we had nothing to loose.

    Ah, one more thing,
    during those days, the vessels washed by the maid had to be brought in only after being ‘clensed’ with tamarind water!!!

    Another thing that really makes my blood boil is the way prasadam is distributed in some temples & mutts. They drop the prasadam from a height of about two feet in the name of ‘madi’. It really makes me mad. I generally see to it that I keep away from such places.

    By the way, we have something in common. I too started blogging in the month of July this year. I write in kannada.

  6. Cee Kay, I am ashamed! I so confidently told you to let me know if you need more references, and now that you ask for them, I am able to find none! 😦 Sorry! (If you google ‘madi brahmin’ you’ll find link to some blog posts similar to mine.)

    Really liked your post too. Sure, you are more than welcome to blogroll me! I’d love it! 🙂

    Sumi, welcome here! I could identify with so much that you said. Its a pity that you write in Kannada which I never learnt to read! My loss, I guess.

  7. Can relate to all the practices mentioned in your post and those in the comments section.
    For Ceekay i could write a mini thesis on the practices of madi but I am not going to because I think a lot of it does not make sense anymore.
    I also carried my brahmin identity for a while when I was young as that was the only way of life I knew. As I grew older I did not feel honest practising a lot of these traditions and rituals – it does not even bother me to enter a temple during my cycle now a days. I would not plan and do it but a couple of times it started when i was attending weddings in the temple when it was not expected and it did not bother me one bit.

  8. Thanks Usha, I got to think about a lot of stuff after I wrote this post, something I had never expected to happen.

  9. Just to drag the discussion….the sitting separately can be taken up in a new light…the womenfolk those days used to toil all day through without any rest…so i think some clever lady created this ritual so that those days at least – when u really need some rest to give ur back a break – some form of rest…but because it was male dominated society, giving rest to female body wud have been a difficult thing…so whoever it was devised out this method – saying the woman was impure wud definitely sure-shot keep her away from toiling at least in those days…howz that for a logical explanation!!

  10. Hey Michelle, welcome to my space! Yes, that’s exactly the explanation I came up with in my post. But it made a lot of sense then, not now, right?

  11. Aw, this was a really nice post. Taking the time and actual effort to generate a really good article… but what can I
    say… I hesitate a lot and never manage to get anything

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