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A self-sufficient feminist when it was unheard of, my great grandmother Vithabai is someone I look up to. Here's her story!
A self-sufficient feminist when it was unheard of, my great grandmother Vithabai is someone I look up to. Here’s her story!
I studied in an all girls’ school, so sisterhood was a part of my upbringing. But sometimes, I think, it has reflected on my life in a way that I naturally tend to trust, or my go-to person has always been a woman.
All the fabulous ladies in my family, my class teachers, my principles, my friends have left some impact on who I am today. Even now coincidently all my managers or the people I report to are women. Obviously, I have a difference of opinion with some of these ladies.
However, had it been the opposite gender, I probably would’ve flipped or reacted in a different manner. There’s a good chance I would’ve begun this article by calling them names. Hopefully, that helps you imagine the situation.
We have all met people who serve some purpose in our lives. They touch our lives in one way or the other. I, too, have many such people in my life. And most of them are strong, intelligent, funny, beautiful and independent women.
I am not saying that I lack male role models However, I do understand women and their unique ways. I can relate to them and believe their behind the scenes stories. Since I relate to them and their lives, trust comes naturally.
So here I am writing about one such woman who changed my life. I am not claiming that I have had major life-changing impacts due to these women. However, it has definitely altered who I am today. I am trying to write about the women who have no relation to me or stayed with me for a long time. These are women who were around for a few hours or day but I can’t forget them.
At the same time, there are also women with who I have lived and whose actions have had deep impacts on my mind. All I am trying to do is remember them and thank them.
In these crazy times, there is a divide is between the Right and the Left, conservatives and liberals, traditions and modernisation. There are increased demands and a need for equal rights, gender neutrality and individuality. And in such times, I often wonder about the idea of feminism.
If you were to ask me my socio-political stance, I would tell you that I am a feminist. I would tell you that I believe in equal rights for everyone – both humans and animals.
When I’d first begun to think or read about feminism, I obviously, went online and did my research and read loads of articles. And I realised that each of my idols had their own definition of feminism. After going through thousands of Twitter threads, Facebook posts and books and Wikipedia pages, I had too much information and I was confused. So I started doing my own research on it.
Despite all the research and reading, I was still not satisfied with where I stood on it. So, I kept looking. But like they say, some times your answer is right in front of you but you keep looking everywhere else.
I don’t want to project my definition of feminism on the readers. It’s just something that I have seen and believe in. This is just me giving you another aspect or outlook on the very simple yet complex subject of feminism.
As a society, we always set standards of what is right and wrong, what is acceptable and what is not. But if we look at history, it’s full of people who went against the norms set by society. Our history is full of rebels.
And I had one such rebel at my own house. A rebel who broke all the rules and lived life on her own terms. This rebel was my great grandmother – Vithabai.
Her husband fought for the freedom of our country and died in 1961 and they had only one daughter. Vithabai was a midwife and governess.
She used to nurse pregnant ladies of rich Marwadi and Gujarati families and bathe both the mother and newborn baby. And she would take care of them for five months. She used to work at a khanavali (food provider) and made flour using millstone.
Despite all this, she raised my grandmother no less than a princess. My grandmother Parvathi was the apple of her eye. I would say my grandmother was spoiled by Vithabai.
According to today’s standards, she was financially independent. She was a person of principles. And she worked all her life. She lived for more than 100 years. Some say she was 107 years old, some say she was 117, it’s debatable. Though she got a pension for her husband’s contribution to the freedom struggle, she paid for her expenses through her own pension.
If I have to apply all these characteristics, Vithabai was a proud feminist. She was a single mother to an only girl child. While she lived the latter part of her life at her son-in-law’s home, she never took his charity. She used to work and help as much as possible.
In a society where a girl’s mom and MIL don’t get along very well, Vithabai and my grandmother’s MIL were close friends. I remember my great grandmother telling us stories of my grandfather’s mother Nimbabai. Apparently, when Nimbabai died her last words were, ‘Aaj Nimababai challi aahe pan Vithabai ajun jivant aahe! (I am leaving today but I leave you as the head of my family).’
When I would visit my uncle’s house during vacations, Vithabai often gave me advice. And I, obviously, didn’t pay too much attention to it since I was more engrossed in the cartoons on TV.
However, I still remember some of the things she would tell me. From how to behave while visiting someone else’s house, to doing my own work to helping my mom in the kitchen and studying hard so I was financially independent. She was a little disappointed with my grandmother, I think since she was financially dependent on her sons.
Now that I think about it, I can say that the things she taught me were those that would be called liberal principles today. She would say, get married only after completing your education, earn your own money and don’t be dependent on anyone.
Vithabai never discriminated between her grandsons and granddaughters. She would tell all of us to learn to cook, clean and knit because you never know when these skills will come in handy in the future!
Until her last breath, she walked on her own, without anyone’s support. She was physically fit and never took anyone’s help. In fact, she was the most self-sufficient person I’ve ever met.
The only non-feminist thing that she did was probably that she adopted a son. He was a distant relative and maybe she wanted to pass her bloodline or legacy on to him. However, he turned out to be a terrible person who was an addict and also sold all of her property. However, she had no regrets.
I guess what I am trying to say is that there is no set definition of ‘ideal’ feminism. Whenever I go online these days, I see a ton of opinions on this – all it does is confuse me. So I decided to start looking at people around me for inspiration and to even learn from their mistakes.
I don’t want to be a feminist of words, I want to be like my great grandmother. In fact, I want to learn good things from her life experiences. I want to look at her mistakes and learn and be a better woman.
All I want is to not be confused by the definitions. I want to be a feminist through my actions and my principles. And I want to be like my great grandmother, I want to be like ‘Vithabai.’
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Cheeni Kum
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