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Sankranti: I No Longer Accept Only YOUR Enjoyment Of A Festival At MY Cost!

Sankranti accorded prestige and power to a family on the basis of their elaborate menu, hospitality and grandeur, which was based predominantly on the labour of their women folk.

It was Makar Sankranti on January 14, 2023.

I had casually asked my helper, a middle-aged woman and a mother of two grown-up children, about her plans for Sankranti.  The lady lives two hours away from Kolkata and commutes by train every day.

She informed me that after working in eight households, by the time she reaches home, exhaustion takes a toll on her. She somehow washes her clothes; eats the meal she had cooked in the morning and goes off to bed. The Sankranti delicacies are no longer cooked.

‘Don’t you miss celebrating the day?’ I asked her.

‘There was a point in time when it was mandatory to make traditional dishes. No matter how many houses I worked in or how late I reached home, there was no CHOICE. I would often fall sick after the strenuous work and miss my train the next day. The number of ‘pitheys’ (steamed rice cakes) and the variety were all dictated by my mother-in-law and other elderly females in the household. A very tired me would sit through this process, make them and then serve it to all. No matter how much everyone appreciated my culinary skills, I hated it. The appreciation meant nothing.’

‘So what has changed now?’ I inquired.

She smiled. ‘My mother-in-law is an old woman now. I earn a lot more money and contribute towards household expenses. My children are all educated and have a say in family matters. They won’t allow their grandmother to ill-treat me. And the husband is scared. So, that team which oppressed me is defunct, you see. Today, I have a CHOICE.’

It was my turn to smile. As you see, the story is changing across strata.

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Even for me, those days of a lack of choice are gone. Today, borderline diabetes, peri-menopausal weight gain and the enormous labour behind the making of Sankranti sweets deter me. Unlike in earlier days, I am no longer forced to adhere to societal norms. I can choose to make or not make ‘pithey.’ Yes, we have earned this right!

The right to celebrate Sankranti the way we wish to. And not bow down to age-old customs and norms.

A day of celebration – at whose cost?

I have heard many stories from my mother about Sankranti and the accompanying rituals. The early morning Sankranti dip in the river nearby or in any waterbody was mandatory. The women would wake up at an unearthly hour, take a dip in that freezing water and then walk back home in wet clothes. The men followed this norm but they could change into dry clothes in the ghat itself.

Sankranti is a day of celebration. The kitchen comes alive with the numerous dishes that are cooked. The aroma wafting out is irresistible. Guests keep flitting in and out. It was mandatory to invite people to the feast. Guests would often arrive early and leave after a hearty dinner. The men and the children would be up on the terrace flying kites. The cries of ‘bho katta’(announcing that a kite has been cut) would drown everyone’s voice. Cups of tea would be sent up. Dishes laden with delicacies would make their way from the ground floor to the terrace. The men would shout, ‘Refill! This is over,’ and another plate would appear without delay. It was disgraceful to keep the men waiting.

Now comes the big question, where were the women? The young girls?

Oh, they were all huddled in the kitchen, churning out delicacies at lightning speed before the men called out for a refill. The young agile girls were the delivery agents, who climbed up two-three storeys to deliver the delicacies and returned back with the empty thalis for a refill.

The women slogged throughout the day besides other chores and also performed Sankranti-related rituals.  Food was an essential item for the kite-flying festival. And the men needed extra energy in the form of those laboriously made ‘pithey-pulis’.

Sankranti also accorded prestige and power to a family on the basis of their elaborate menu, hospitality and grandeur. The success of the festival rested predominantly on the women folk. It was common knowledge, but there was never any mention of them. They sat in their kitchen, in the cold and grime, invisible to the public eye.

Have you ever seen a young woman flying a kite? NO! Only the little girls could be seen. As they grew up, they became assistants to their mothers. The young girls were allowed some visibility once they reached the marriageable age. Sankranti – the most auspicious day of the year also heralds new beginnings. Many romances are said to have bloomed on the terrace while flying a kite or delivering thaali. If the girl caught anyone’s eye, alliances were fixed on the spot and wedding dates finalised.

But the women in the kitchen went unnoticed, unappreciated and uncared for. At the end of the day, the women would wrap up everything, finish the leftovers and drag their aching limbs up the stairs to catch some sleep before the day broke again.

I have heard these stories, witnessed them happening and even faced them to a lesser extent.

As I grew older and wiser in my marriage, I knew it was time to make a choice

I can never say NO to a festival. For saying a NO, is to lose the essence and the charm of it. With every festival deleted from our life, we lose with it precious folklore, years of accumulated knowledge, interesting customs and the scope to pass down the legacy to the next generation.

Hence began my conscious efforts to integrate the festivals into our lives in such a way that all of us participated equally. There was no dictatorship. None of us could cry foul. For it was voluntary. It was a matter of CHOICE.

Our festivals are a family affair. There are no hard-core rules. Everyone makes what they are good at! If health or work doesn’t permit, we promptly postpone or prepone it. We no longer take a dip at an unearthly hour. Neither do we have stringent rituals governing us. The Sankranti Pujo is officiated by my mothers. As dusk sets in, we are ready to occupy the ten-seater dining table, chatting and soaking in the warmth.

Sankranti today is about how well we exercise our choice. If we learnt to exercise it better, we leave behind a valuable lesson for the children. I keep telling everyone that what we have faced should end with us. It can only end if we sincerely strive to end it by voicing our protest, laying down new rules and setting an example for our children to follow.

My helper is optimistic. She knows that her educated children will lead a better life, for they have learnt the power of the choices they make. I am sure when we spread such stories around, more and more women will join the bandwagon and amend the rules.

Image source:  a still from the short film Juice

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About the Author

S Sen

Sreemati Sen, a Masters in Social Work (MSW) From Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She is a Development Professional, specialised in Psychiatric care of Differently Abled Children. That hasn’t stopped her from exploring other fields. Years read more...

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