Your culture is killing girls,” a friend says as we take stock of the fresh vegetables at the Davis Farmers’ Market. I turn my attention away from the pile of snowy white cauliflower heads.
“Your culture is killing women,” she repeats, this time waving a well-manicured finger in my face.
This wasn’t what I was hoping for on my weekly shopping trip to the outdoor market. I wanted to pick peacefully through the carrots, peas and purple potatoes. I just wanted to fill my cloth bags and get back home to my family. Instead I sighed and moved toward a perfect bunch of ruby red beets. “What do you mean?” I asked over my shoulder.
“Didn’t you see that 60 Minutes report? About how in India pregnant couples go for an ultrasound and when they find out the baby is a girl, they have an abortion. How can your country people do that?”
I let go of the beet that I had intended to juice and replied in as even a tone as I could muster, “Really, that may not be the general situation …”
“But why does your culture have no respect for women?” she interrupted.
“Listen, I said firmly. “In my own case, my family is matrilineal and girls are a welcome addition to families. In fact, the matriarchy stops with me because I have two sons and no daughters.”
She paused and cocked her head to one side, “Oh, I didn’t know. I’m sorry. It’s just, well, that segment on India was so upsetting.”
I nodded, “I know. I saw that 60 Minutes report too, and it made me angry to think it goes on. But my own family has been a matriarchy for hundreds of years. Girls are very important to my family.”
My friend apologized again and headed toward the bakery stall. I thought about what she’d said. It is true that society misuses privilege in India, and the media’s need for sensationalism focuses on the evils of our culture to elicit just the reaction that my friend had displayed. While I am aware of the heinous practice of sex selection in India, in my own life I have had the privilege of being brought up differently. Right there among the fresh eggs, jars of chunky almond butter and baskets of sweet strawberries, I closed my eyes and conjured a vivid memory of my wedding day more than 25 years ago.
The thirty-odd guests were squeezed into my mother’s living room for the ceremony. The priest had just lit a ceremonial fire on a metal plate and the smoke from the burning twigs mingled with the melodious Sanskrit chanting. I breathed in the perfume of the garland of fresh jasmine blossoms around my neck and blushed at the attention from the more than 60 eyes on me. The priest finished his chanting and motioned to my mother to bring the “thali” or auspicious leaf-shaped gold piece tied to a saffron-yellow thread. He blessed the “thali” and my husband tied it around my neck with three knots, symbolically binding us together. As part of the ceremony, each elder in attendance blessed us. When it was my mother’s turn to bless us she placed her hands on my forehead and said, “May you bear a hundred daughters.”
My mother’s wish didn’t come true. I was blessed with two boys who have my family name “Ekkanath” as their middle name. Stories about Ekkanath men and women have been part of my sons’ bedtime stories. Both of them are familiar with the history and culture of my family.
But thinking of my friend’s reaction to the news story, I realized perhaps more people should hear about our unique history. What better way to honor my mother’s memory on Mother’s Day than by sharing the glories of matriarchy?
The matrilineal Ekkanath family has lived in the same village for hundreds of years in the state of Kerala. The matrilineal tradition was a way of life for my mother’s family and it flourished before that. During its heyday, the Ekkanaths lived in a spacious ancestral home with more than 80 women, men and children as part of the extended family. The Ekkanaths were farmers and owned rice paddies, coconut groves and mango orchards.
In this small tropical village the oldest female member was the “keeper of the keys.” She managed the household and family. The men, usually brothers and uncles, looked after the family’s lands and were treated with respect and reverence. But it was the women who were the heart of the ancestral home, secure in their homes with property rights and other financial benefits. Widows were not shunned and orphans were welcomed into the household.
In the matrilineal tradition lineage is traced through the mother and so only Ekkanath women can pass on the family name to the next generation. Luckily, my mother and grandmother’s lineage will continue in India through my sister and her daughters. My sister, Geetha, lives in the bustling city of Bangalore and is bringing up her two daughters in a modern household where the girls learn Sanskrit as well as karate. Geetha and her husband are partners in a spice plantation in south India. They cultivate black pepper, vanilla and cardamom plants in a sustainable way and plan to keep the villagers employed.
Even though the practice of matriarchy is on the decline in modern India, I keep it alive and well in Davis by talking about it. My hope is that my sons will grow up to be young men who respect women and will love their daughters as much as their sons. They will do this, I hope, because they will be men of character but also in memory of their own matrilineal lineage.
In this case, history repeating itself will be a good thing.
Meera Ekkanath Klein lives in Davis and is working on getting her first novel published.