The first full-blown argument I have a clear memory of involved, quite unsurprisingly, a vegetable. Cabbage, if I am not mistaken.
"No, no, no. Just. No. Won't have cabbage again ... no one can make me eat it," I spat out in Bengali. And before I or the subjects of my outburst could catch their breaths, I sprinted past our swarthy TV set, bed, little wicker-work stools heaped with clothes just taken off the clothesline and made it to the door of the room.
"Ayee, phire esho, phire esho bolchi (Come back, come back I say)," my mother's mother called after me, trying to free the end of her pallu stuck between a plank and the headboard of the old bed.
I turned, and clutching the iron pull-handle of the door, shouted, "Give me mud instead. Even that is better than this."
At 9 years of age, I had found a new way to make a point about vegetables, news on Doordarshan and similar atrocities. Shouting.
Sonama, as I called my grandmother, gasped and then dumped the little ball she had rolled of rice, dal and veggies with a dull thud on the steel plate. Then she proceeded to her own little protest — loudly clanking utensils and noisily splattering water on her hands. When we were in the same room later in the evening, both of us intently looking at the clothes she was folding, she grumbled, "Can't believe this is my daughter's daughter. When my daughter was at home, nobody could tell she was there unless she was in front of you," she said with more than just a broad hint of pride. "And this girl, shouting like she'll get the neighbours to the doorstep. What kind of girl ..."
Immediately, my mother, bent over a heap of answer-scripts in one corner of the bed, cut in. "No good person, actually, no polite person shouts like that," she finished Sonama's sentence, quietly and effectively un-gendering the need to be courteous.
My grandmother took a couple of minutes folding and refolding a saree, and then concurred, "Yes, that's right. Have you ever heard your grandfather raise his voice at anyone?"
Often, during the retelling of this story in my head, those couple of minutes simmer with various possibilities. That of defiance, my mother's. That of a grudging compromise, my grandmother's. That of a struggle for control. Perhaps it was a bit of everything. Or perhaps it was none of these. Maybe, it was just a quiet moment of unlearning and learning for both of them. Unlearning a few patriarchal conditions foisted on them for the better part of their lives. Learning that they must not be instruments to carry them forward. And both of them, together, enabling each other, as well as me and my younger brother, to insist on equality. Yes, 'insist' on. Because where they came from, and even in these times we are living through, equality in daily social transactions is secured when women, and men, insist on it.
Patriarchy isn't always a bunch of humans cracking a whip and shouting instructions loudly at you — easy to be reviled by, easy to stand up to, easy to spot as an aggressor without a hint of doubt. Patriarchy, the way many of us have experienced it first-hand, was your own mother looking at a 14-year-old you in a mini skirt in a glossy shop's trial room, her forehead gently furrowing. Patriarchy is your father saying, albeit indulgently, that you don't need to wear 'loud' lipstick to look good, you're pretty just the way you are. Patriarchy is a group of teens huddled at lunch-break wondering if a classmate 'did it' and OMG, does that make her a slut? Patriarchy is the friendly aunty on the bus who walks over and quietly tucks your bra strap inside the top and then smiles at you like you two now have a delicious little secret. Patriarchy is a bunch of clueless relatives telling a 13-year-old boy who loves to cook that he would make a great wife if he were a woman. Patriarchy is you, widening your eyes, rolling them and hugging the school friend from back to escort her to the washroom to then shriek, "OMG, YOU HAVE A STAIN, YOU HAVE A STAIN." Then the both of you frantically rubbing a dot of menstrual blood on her skirt with chalk and water.
Patriarchy hasn't been always borne by vicious, hurtful people who would be most comfortable with keeping women on a leash. It has often come our way in the shape of people we love, trust, look up to and even believe. Honestly, we weren't wrong in feeling any of these emotions. And that's because so many of them learnt. That's why, it is necessary to thank those women who learnt — to question, to defy, to educate themselves and to enable others. Because to every woman who defies, patriarchy points at two others, saying, "Look, she is a woman. She isn't complaining." That's how prejudices come to be called norms, biases get labelled as 'culture'. The more women complain, the more patriarchy totters.
This dismantling doesn't happen overnight, not over a single conversation, one fight, one act of defiance. Often, it takes lifetimes. And no, courage, however sexy it looks on paper, isn't the easiest to muster or display. In India, it is doubly hard if you're a woman. You don't always come out of an act of courage, hair flying in a perfect halo and a Beyonce track playing in the background. You come out — very often — alone, hurt, and wanting to scream.
One of my mother's favourite stories about my grandmother was how she did marvellously well in every paper in her 12th standard examination but flunked one — history. She didn't have a textbook.
"We were 13 siblings and we just didn't have the money to buy these books," she said.
"Why?" I asked.
"All my brothers needed these other books...," she trailed off, chopping potatoes with a boti.
They were just two sisters. What, why? You didn't ask for it? You didn't protest? You just let it go? I asked many years later when the story had lost it's sacrificial lore-like aura for me.
"Yes, it didn't matter," she smiled.
"So strange," I quipped, shaking my head at this apparent lack of feminist rage.
Only, it wasn't strange. And it did matter. So, my mother — her daughter — went on to complete a Master's degree, pursue Bharatnatyam, and yes, she had every book she ever wanted. When she couldn't buy them, she had a library to fall back on. And it is safe to say, all this was enabled by the fact that it did matter to my grandmother that she didn't have a textbook, it did matter to her that she had mattered a little less than some others and she made sure it wouldn't be repeated with her own daughter. Well, my mother, was pretty much my grandmother's act of protest. And she chose it well.
The thing is patriarchy can't be ripped out of our lives in one fell strike, as much as we would like to. You have to scrape it out, bloody your nails now and then, but keep at it. So while my mother wasn't born to people who considered education a privilege men must access first, she was still required to tick off all the 'good girl' boxes — things women must not do. Like shout and scream. Or drink, smoke, take male partners out of any other feeling than a desire to marry, have a thriving social life outside home and children or have space — her own unencumbered space. The reason that I can sit and write this today is because I have just what she didn't — a space that's only, exclusively, my own. I don't have to tell you who enabled it.
The feminist heroes we talk about, generously quote and put up Facebook cover pictures of are most often writers, social reformers, singers, activists. Now a cover picture saying 'I'll drop you off to the pub - Mom' would be kind of funny, right? Wrong.
Easy, no-questions-asked, mobility was not a fact of life for my colleague Rohini's mother. As it wasn't for my mother or the mothers of many people I grew up with. In fact, as a young woman in late 70s and 80s Kolkata from a middle-class Bengali family, she couldn't just saunter into a Park Street bar to 'hang out'. In the 2000s, the possibilities had changed, but the number of people who'd still tell her not to have her teenage daughter dance away the night in a pub could well be enough to form a separate country. Yet she chose to drop her daughter off to a pub.
Nothing big. Actually, that's really fucking big.
These women have occasionally been at odds with our versions of feminism. "Will you stop, Ma?" I often chortle at my mother, who'll invariably try to pull the neckline of my top up if it has slipped a little. It's tempting to immediately slot them as 'those anti-feminists, uff', but their battles have been rich, silent and waged quietly. Sometimes against their own selves, against decades of conditioning and pretty much always against people they have had close familial ties with -- fathers, mothers, husbands, best friends, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and the list goes on. But often, we don't see their aggressions because we were perhaps busy reaping the results of them.
That trip to the pub, that time you didn't have to answer your aunt why you're 32 and still single but your mother did — by asking 'So?' All the times you didn't have to tell anyone who you were drinking with, who you were hanging out with, who you were sleeping with, what job you wanted to take and where, where you wanted to go for a weekend trip and what you wanted to wear while you were at it. For some of us, these weren't rights that were served up on a platter. They had to be fought and won and sometimes someone else was winning them for us. In case you have forgotten, the society doesn't budge from convenient, comfortable structures of patriarchy with magic and fairy dust.
My mother, wary of the internet, isn't the first to mention feminism. She isn't the person who taught me the word either. Yet, she was among those people, especially women, who showed there's no shame in taking a step back and reconsidering what you just said if someone pointed out so. "Was that biased?" "Is that discriminatory?"
She is among those who fought stifling, debilitating patriarchy. Yes, at times they lost their courage or found it late. Occasionally they gave up, but resumed that fight again, for people who mattered to them. She is among those who listened. Who didn't have internet, memes, listicles, literature, peer groups and debates, but just their own sense of right and wrong to fall back on. And this in a society which joins mammoth forces to make every wrong seem like right. We don't say it enough, or often, but thank you. For being there, for being angry, for fighting, for listening. And for not giving up when it was the most tempting, easy, safe and familiar thing to do.