My daughter reaches for a scalpel in an Oakland hospital because my grandmother Ammu refused to shave her scalp. It was mandatory in South India in the 1920s for a Brahmin widow to be subjected to tonsure as a lifelong act of renunciation and mourning. A shaved scalp marked a woman as a widow—someone to be pitied, but shunned. In a heartrending ritualized ceremony a few days after her husband’s funeral, the older women of the family would strip the widow of her jewelry and the flowers in her braid, wipe off the vermilion dot, which symbolized her married state, from her forehead, then make her wear a buff-colored sari without a blouse. A barber would shave her long tresses. Thereafter, she would never again wear jewels or be allowed to remarry. She would be forced to spend her life in grieving seclusion, dependent on the goodwill of her husband’s relatives, holding herself responsible for her husband’s death. Had Ammu followed the dictates of tradition, her fatherless children might never have received an education. Ammu felt that that would have been a double tragedy, for it would have spelled the death of her husband’s dreams for their children.
Ammu was 21 when she lost her husband to appendicitis. She had four children: the oldest, my father, Dorai, was 7, the youngest, Ramu, only 7 months. Sandwiched between the two boys were two girls, Thangam and Savithri. She and her husband had great ambitions for their children, particularly their oldest son, who showed remarkable aptitude. “He’ll go to England to study; he’s going to make a mark,” her husband, a mathematics teacher and high school principal, would predict, and she would glory in his pride.
So when the barber came to shave her scalp, Ammu adamantly refused to adhere to tradition. She begged her father, who had come to Ootacamund for the funeral, for help. She desperately hoped she had a sympathetic supporter in her father, for he, too, was a teacher and principal. She described her husband’s dreams for their children and said, “My 7-year-old son, according to custom, set fire to his father’s body in the funeral pyre, but can you allow the same customs to set fire to his father’s ambitions for him? Help me; educate me so that I can educate my children.” By focusing on her husband’s hopes for her children, she found the chink in the patriarchal wall of tradition—a grandfather’s heart.
Ammu’s father took his widowed daughter and her four children to his village in Kerala, an unusual act of solidarity, for married daughters were the responsibility of their husbands’ families. He admitted Ammu in his school. Married at age 10, Ammu had completed only the first few years of schooling. Enrolled in class with children just a tad older than hers, she tried to school a brain grown used to measuring rice, salt, and sambar powder.
Tongues wagged because the widow’s braid still wagged, because she was not wearing the buff-colored saris commanded by custom, because she had not given up wearing blouses. The widow was in school when she should have hidden from society. Had her father lost his mind? Wasn’t a widow impure? Didn’t she usher in ill omen?
Undaunted, Ammu studied, ushering in a work ethic that her eldest son emulated. Just a few classes ahead of him in school, she would come home, do her household chores, and study. Dorai would do the same. Following their example, Ammu’s daughters too grew studious, while Ammu’s mother took care of the baby. After Ammu completed her primary school education, she did a training program to teach nursery school. One of her father’s friends found her a job as a teacher’s aide in Ootacamund, in the hill station where her husband had been a principal. She returned to the town she had gone to as a bride and left as a widow to start her life anew as a salaried worker.
The first problem she faced was finding a place to rent on the pittance she earned. She finally found a room in an old house, situated in a very narrow alley. However, the landlord did not wish to have a widow and four children traipsing through his entire house each time they needed to get to their room. Would she and her children be willing to use a window to step in and out of the room? She readily agreed, preferring this novel form of entry and exit because it made the little room an independent home. The landlord put a padlock on the door that connected Ammu’s room to the rest of his house. For several years, the small room, with a window for a door, was kitchen, bedroom, living room and, most importantly, study room for the family of five.
Opportunity can knock on windows as well as doors. The principal, impressed by Ammu’s work, hired her as a teacher, even though she was only qualified to teach nursery school. This meant a better salary, but presented another challenge. Ammu was asked to teach math problems that she had not fully mastered. Her son Dorai became her tutor. Paying ferocious attention in school during math classes, he’d come home and teach his mother what he had learnt. Ammu would go the following day and teach her students what she had learnt from her son. Thus Ammu’s math class lagged one lesson behind her son’s section. The bond between mother and son became one of intellectual camaraderie.
Rich families who summered in Ootacamund to escape the sweltering heat of the plains heard about the widowed teacher. They hired her as a tutor, even though they knew her children would tag along. Since the alley Ammu lived in was too narrow, the carriages the parents sent to transport the teacher to their palatial homes could not come right up to the window-that-was-a-door. The drivers would leave the vehicles at the start of the alley, walk to the window and knock. Ammu and her children would step out of the window and ride like royalty to the spacious homes with their beautiful gardens. These glimpses into how the rich lived impressed Dorai. He vowed to provide such a home for his mother.
From one of these wealthy parents Ammu heard about a Widows’ Home in Madras, providing scholarships for fatherless children. Her children needed these scholarships because there were no tuition-free schools in India. Using her meager savings, Ammu and her brood traveled to Madras to apply for these scholarships. The children did brilliantly in the qualifying tests and won the scholarships and free boarding. They were able to finish high school. Dorai excelled in math and chemistry, his sisters and brother in math and physics.
Though he wished to study medicine, Dorai felt he could not afford to stay in school for a prolonged period. After he completed his undergraduate degree in chemistry, he found a job and took over the financial responsibilities of the family. His happiest day was when he told his mother that she could now retire. She made her home with my father from then on, living with him till she died, moving with us from one large house to another. My earliest and first childhood recollections are of my grandmother Ammu’s room. “Once our entire house was just a room this size,” she would tell me, “and we’d go in and out of our house through a window.” “Tell me more,” I’d beg, curled up in the cozy security of her bed. Even now, it is her room that I conjure up when I think of the warmth of home.
The searing experience of watching his widowed mother struggle to support her children impressed on my father the importance of educating the women in his family. His pride was boundless when his two sisters went on to graduate school and graduated at the top of their classes, the younger one winning a gold medal for topping the state in physics, the first woman ever to do so. After he married, he made sure that my mother completed her college degree and then her teacher’s training. He quipped that compared to his sisters, wife, or daughters, he was the least academically qualified, but none of us could have studied without his faith in our potential.
By seizing a window of opportunity, my grandmother, Ammu, opened doors for her descendants. Neither she nor my father, Dorai, lived to see my daughter, Anjali, become a surgeon in Oakland, California. It was a full circle moment for our family when my daughter performed her first appendectomy, the simple surgery that might have saved my grandfather’s life. Because my grandmother had the courage to defy society, because she refused to subject herself to a barber’s knife and a shaved scalp, because her struggles made my father so aware of the importance of educating women, my daughter reaches for a scalpel to heal. Breaking with tradition has started a new tradition.
Freelance editor and writer Radhika Kumar lives in Federal Way, Wash.