‘My Daughters Have Been As Good As Or Better Than Sons Can Be’

My mother says, ‘School bus fees made an additional dent in the family budget, but we didn’t want to take any chances with the girls’ safety.’

My mother says, ‘School bus fees made an additional dent in the family budget, but we didn’t want to take any chances with the girls’ safety.’

I was born in New Delhi in 1963, a watershed year for Indians: the Sino-Indian war had just ended and had left the citizenry and leadership demoralised. The first flush of independence and idealism had given way to a time of introspection and uncertainty. While many continued to believe in the Nehruvian dream, others grappled with a winter of discontent and betrayal.

The mood in our home was very different. The family was still digesting the arrival of the newest Benegal—me, the youngest of four girls. My father would introduce me as his ‘pocket-book edition’ with a chuckle. Many families wanted sons more than daughters and in Delhi in the ‘60s and ‘70s, this was openly espoused. I remember even seeing a neighbour beat her chest and wail as if mourning a death when she heard her third grandchild was another girl. The fact that our family had four daughters to educate and ‘marry off’, normally viewed in the Indian society of the times (and even now, in some parts of India) as a liability, was not viewed with any regret. In later years, when my mother was asked if she regretted not having sons, she would say, ‘All my girls have been bold and clever. I never felt I had no sons. My daughters have been as good as or better than sons can be.’

My mother, Benegal Maya Rao, had spent her childhood in Ahmedabad. She was four when the historic Dandi or Salt March took place in 1930. She was too young to participate, but the stories she heard left a lasting impact. She was only eleven in 1937 when she started attending meetings in the Congress House to listen to Gandhi-ji speak. She would spin the charkha along with many others and sit on the sandy banks of the Sabarmati River to listen to Gandhi-ji’s speeches and to sing bhajans. Often at 5 a.m., she would participate in ‘prabhat pheris’ led by Gandhi-ji or his followers around the Bhadra area of Ahmedabad, chanting or singing hymns and bhajans.

Growing up, my sisters and I often heard my mother recount these stories as a natural part of her parenting. Her childhood had not been easy. She had lost both her parents by the time she was in her mid-teens, which made her selfreliant and resilient. Her sensibilities and beliefs registered subliminally within all four of us. Even today at ninety-three, my mother lives her life according to Gandhian principles.

My father, Benegal Indukanth Rao, was a gentle, goodnatured and generous soul, with a great sense of humour. Family gatherings were marked by raucous laughter at his one-liners and his droll description of people and their foibles. Even today, thirty-six years after he has passed away, his jokes and stories pop up whenever the extended family gets together. He led a disciplined life with a set routine. I remember he would set off each day at exactly the same time, to take the bus to his office in the Civil Services division of the Armed Forces Headquarters. This division was set up in 1968 to contribute to the functioning of the Armed Forces Headquarters/Inter-Service Organisations in all areas, excluding technical and combat operations. Every Monday evening, he would walk from his office to a temple on a steep hill, a routine he never missed. The 9 p.m. news on the radio was another everyday affair.

In his later years he developed an interest in the spiritual aspects of life. He also became known for his interest and skill in homeopathy, which made sure that friends and neighbours popped in regularly with ailments—real and imaginary.

In spite of having to raise a large family on modest means, our parents sent us to one of the best schools in the capital—Carmel Convent—in the upmarket diplomatic enclave of Malcha Marg. My mother says, ‘School bus fees made an additional dent in the family budget, but we didn’t want to take any chances with the girls’ safety.’

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The school was surrounded by the palatial homes and lush gardens of high commissions and embassies. I sang soprano in the school choir and remember the nippy December evenings when we went carol singing at some of those beautiful homes, getting plum cake and juice for our efforts.

The New Delhi of those years was much gentler, greener and certainly safer than it seems now. The air was clean and fresh-smelling; you could see the sun in the day and the stars at night. My memories of the late ‘60s to mid-‘70s are dotted with the aromas and flavours of good home-cooked meals, of salubrious localities where neighbours were friends looking out for each other. No high walls or closed fences surrounded our homes. We had a decent-sized playground at the foot of our building, where every evening we played traditional games: marbles, ‘pithoo’ or ‘lagori’, kho-kho, games now lost to the device-obsessed world we live in.

Our routines were regular and life was simple and carefree. My mother somehow found the time to shop, cook and run the house, teach others how to cook her hallmark recipes, knit for friends and family in winter, make squashes, jams and jellies of whatever fruit was in season, and help organise picnics in the mellow winter sunshine in the gloriously green Buddha Jayanti and Nehru Park. At home, we were taught the importance of frugality and academic excellence. We would be home by two in the afternoon. Baths, lunch and homework were followed by music or dance class and play time. All of this was punctuated by the call of the street vendors selling chopped pieces of cucumber or sugarcane on ice in the summer and roasted peanuts in paper cones in the winter.

On hot summer nights we had a ritual of pouring cool water on the roof terrace, laying out charpais or cots made with ropes wound on wooden frames, tossing our cotton mattress and cotton sheets on it and lying there, chattering away about the day’s adventures with the family till sleep took over. No one ever thought it was unsafe to sleep out in the open. There were no burglar alarms or video-phones. Just a single security guard patrolling the entire neighbourhood, banging his stick on the pavement at the street corner below our home to let us know that he was on guard.

Life changed dramatically for us when my father retired in 1976. I was just thirteen. By then two of my sisters had settled in other cities. With two of us still left to educate and ‘settle’ (read: marry off), we needed to move to a city less expensive than New Delhi but one with good colleges and schools. The family had selected a university town in the southern state of Karnataka, called Dharwad. It was famous for its colleges, its mild weather and gentle people and for its classical Indian music scene. Many musicians from the twin cities of Dharwad-Hubbali have made their mark in national and international forums.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Lift Off: Transforming Conzerv’ by Hema Hattangady and Ashish Sen, Published by Westland.

Image source: pixabay

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