Memories are as clear as day. March 8, as it is celebrated today, never existed back in those days. It’s way before the United Nations established International Women’s Day in 1975. My first lesson in how to respect women started with a slap, a pinch and a warning. All delivered by a man, my father.
Dad had just got back from Bombay on vacation. Bombay was to Malayalis as Dubai is to Indians now. He had a bag full of gifts to be distributed among his relatives far and wide. When all the women in the family chatted away in the kitchen, dad opened his suitcase in the veranda to unveil the fruits of his hard work in the past couple of years. In the pale light of a flickering kerosene lamp, faces of a dozen kids from the joint family who had gathered around him beamed an incredulous look.
Amid a cacophony of oohs and aahs, dad sounded like an auctioneer at the Christie’s as he gave brief descriptions about the items — from kitchen knife to Cuticura talcum powder to fine mulmul cloth — before handing them to me to deliver to the chattering crowd in the kitchen. Between the veranda and the delivery point were two treacherous abysses — the living and dining — to traverse. At night, they typically looked like the Far Side of the Moon where kids seldom set foot unaccompanied.
After a couple of trips through the Bermuda Triangle, I didn’t want to try my luck again, so told dad the next time he handed a gift:
“Let the womenfolk wait.”
His reply came as a quick slap in the face, followed by a pinch on the bum.
“They are your mum, aunt, sisters and cousins. How dare you call them pennungal?” He shouted, eyes red with anger and disappointment.
Did I sound like an upcountry boor? Was it a heinous crime to use the word pennungal, a Malayalam slang for ladies? It certainly isn’t a derogatory word. My eyes welled and started to stream. To keep quiet was admitting an act of folly. That’s not possible. No way.
“Everyone uses womenfolk. It isn’t a slur.” I wasn’t quite ready to give up.
“You want to become an everyone?” This time his lips and fingers were in sync. The pinch on the bum that lasted nearly a minute was felt a lifetime. I screamed in pain and shed a Niagara of tears. It wasn’t the pinch that hurt me. I thought the sermon was untimely as I was waiting with bated breath to receive a gift from a father I got to see once in a few years.
“Never use such words. Learn to respect women.” He let me go with a warning, and a gift that was suddenly deemed unwanted. My torrent of howls was drowned out by the din of the elated crowd who had received their gifts.
In hindsight, that slap and pinch were the best gift I ever received from my father, who never wanted me to follow the crowd. A gift I was able to safeguard and pass on to the next generation.
“But you still use the slang.” Never mind, it’s wifey who is — as usual —trying to read this over my shoulder. Old habits die hard. So is the case with me.
While dad advocated respect for women, the menace of gender bias transcended generations. He wasn’t able to change the system that decreed women farm hands served food in the dirty scullery while men were served in a more respectable place in the backyard. I am not sure who ordained the system but the gender bias and pay gap were enforced more vociferously by women than men in a vestigial feudal society we were all part of.
It’s more complicated than mansplaining. Riding piggy back on the feudal system, Indian women used gender bias to camouflage their inherited low self-esteem.
“The place for maid is in the kitchen. Don’t show up in the front.”
“Wash your clothes separately.”
“I will serve sir’s food.”
“Don’t walk around like a raani.”
These are typical hostile conversations a maid hears from her woman boss. Which gender or familial system can stop a maid from feeling like a queen or a princess? Who gave them the right to intrude into a maid’s private space, her world of dreams and aspirations?
Why should my mum have a heartburn if dad gave a woman labourer 10 rupees more than what society dictates? Let him do his two cents worth to correct a system that many women have come to embrace.
“You always had a glad eye.”
“Don’t be stupid. She works hard.”
“Your party and government espouse separate minimum wages for men and women. Follow that, no need to give extra.”
It’s possible such conversations would have happened between my parents. It’s said the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. To rule isn’t enough. One needs to start on a clean slate. A clean state of mind. With no prejudice, malice and feudal hangovers.
I was blessed and honoured to have worked with and be trained by women, from Bombay to Dubai to Singapore. There was absolute harmony though there was a gender pay gap. Of course, in the reverse order: women getting more and me less.
This article and its author are presently at the mercy of two women editors — Anamika and Somya. No gender bias comes in between us. They have the right to edit, chop or even spike this.
“What the hell, Mr Suresh! File the column. You have busted the deadline.”
A female rookie to a male editor.
Such unflinching courage. Such unbiased freedom.
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