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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
They call me Manu, a legendary lawgiver and the first man. I wrote the Manusmṛiti, the Laws of Manu some two thousand years ago to enable civilized governance. On New Year’s Day, upon discovering the diary below authored by a young woman born to a Brahmin and an Adivasi, I recognized the need to revise my laws for a millennium which is empathetic to both upper castes and tribals, to all of our children, sons and daughters.
Deity must truly begin with DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
My Secret Sharer
My grandmothers named me after a tree: Mandara (Erythrina Indica). While Naniji and Dadiji didn’t make it past third grade in their village government schools, they knew enough to ground me in Matra Bhumi, in my motherland, by naming me after a showy Indian legume with brilliant red blossoms. I was rooted and raised to soar. I never experienced any earthly dissonance between ground and sky.
My grandfathers studied with the British-born Indian anthropologist Verrier Elwin who abandoned his Oxford career, moved to India, learned from Gandhi and Tagore, and was twice married to Indian tribal women of the Gond Adivasis. Nanaji and Dadaji competed during their pursuit of Masters degrees but bonded over the Chipko hug-the-trees movement. One day, while hugging a sapling, they embraced each other and made a promise of life-long friendship through the marriage of their children.
My Papa – Dadiji and Dadaji’s precious son – is the only child of Shrimali Brahmins from Rajasthan. My Ma – Naniji and Nanaji’s equally precious, but also somewhat precocious, daughter – is the only child of Bhil Adivasis, also from Rajasthan.
So where does that leave my baby brother, baby sister, and me? Nose-in-the-air, upper-caste Brahmins? Down-to-earth, tribal Adivasis? Both? Neither? I don’t know.
After a long posting here in Calcutta, Papa will soon be the Chief Post Master General for the Rajasthan Circle. He wasn’t an academically brilliant student and didn’t pass the exams for the prestigious IIT engineering colleges. But even as a youngster, Papa had charm and perseverance. On the back of those two gifts, he left the IITs in the rear-view mirror and put all his energy into the Indian Administrative Service, with a focus on modernizing the Postal Service. As he climbed India Post’s hierarchy, he took our family all over North and Northeast India, living in government accommodations and taking pride in connecting the country through reliable and affordable communication. He is built like the millions of red pillar post boxes that collect mail across Indian villages, towns, and cities: stocky frame, round, bald dome of a head, quietly welcoming input from people of all backgrounds, and easy to blush a deep rosy color if the input is prurient.
Despite his job moving us from home to home like forwarded letters, Papa himself is very much the steady pillar of our little family, keeping the five of us laughing at our inside jokes while embracing the diversity that is India. On the few occasions when I’ve asked him if I am an Adivasi or a Brahmin, he has consistently responded with one word: Indian.
Ma’s responses to the same question have been more mercurial. Through the years, she has told me that I’m Night like her and Day like my father. When I was a child, Ma emphasized the night. She told me that I would grow up to be Kali, the dark and ferocious Goddess who fights for social justice. I imagined Kali Mata to be like Ma herself: beautifully dark, intolerant of evil, and gracefully moving her body between home and away.
Ma is the real academic brain of the family, having received her Masters from the University of Calcutta and studying with the renowned anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose. She almost received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago but was called back to India for her and Papa’s wedding. She bitterly jokes that while all the men in her doctorate batch completed their dissertations and graduated into tenure-track university positions, she was an ABD: “Some say ABD means ‘All But Dissertation.’ For me, ABD means that ‘All But Daughters’ graduated.” Ma ended up teaching in Indian government schools wherever Papa was posted. She also quietly worked as an independent scholar, publishing ethnographic studies of child-rearing practices of each village, town, and city neighborhood where she taught.
My brilliant Ma stopped being a Kali devotee around the time my fair-skinned baby sister, Lavya, reached puberty. Always protective, my mother stopped calling me her dark, little Kali and began calling me Gauri. Over time, I learned that Gauri is the golden version of Kali, both serving as polar avatars of Parvati who is Lord Shiva’s consort. Ma taught me to perform spiritual austerities to look more like Lavya. When my complexion didn’t change, the austerities expanded to include daily rubbings of Fair & Lovely beauty cream. And when I still didn’t possess the whitish pigmentation that Papa – the Day to Ma’s Night – had bequeathed to his younger daughter, the rubbings became scrubbing with painful chemicals more severe than cold cream. Interestingly, Ma never put even a dab of Fair & Lovely on my brother. Although Eka is a shade darker than I am, Ma continues to call him her Krishna or, even more lovingly, her Krishna Kanhaiya. In Sanskrit, Krishna Kanhaiya not only connotes darkness, it also conveys the attractiveness of the blue-skinned son of Yashoda.
So where does that leave me and my blotchy skin? Maybe I’m a BrahmAdivasi hugging both branches of my family tree? Maybe mine will be a lifelong search for identity. And even though my medical studies have deferred my marriage prospect toward the “unsuitable age” category, perhaps these studies will teach me why genetics matter beyond the body and into the soul of brown people. As I said, I still don’t know.
I know that my family has played up our high-caste status. Like the sacred thread that Dadaji and Papa wear, our last name, our education level, our religious rituals, our vegetarian food, our alcohol abstinence, and our temple attendance mark us. And by “our” I mean Papa, Ma, the twins, and me. Before they returned to the village, Dadaji and Dadiji lived with us in Bombay. Or more accurately, we lived with them. When Papa was posted to Maharashtra, we left the government accommodation and moved into the house that Dadaji’s father had built. It was quite a shift for Ma, because Dadiji ran the household with a steadfast Brahminic fussiness. We all learned to follow Dadiji’s rules, rules which had been handed down through generations of Brahmin mothers who became mothers-in-law. It was around this time that Ma began mirroring Dadiji’s daily Hindu rituals. It was also when I stopped being my mother’s Kali Mata, and she began calling me Gauri.
The funny thing is that Ma, who had grown up quite free of all this casteism nonsense, has somehow embraced her Brahmin-by-marriage, social ladder. She even convinced her father to begin wearing a sacred thread. At first, my proud grandfather resisted, saying, “We Adivasis are the original people, the first people on this land. Why should we adopt the Brahmins’ Laws of Manu when our laws have served us so well for so many centuries?” But Nanaji softened to his daughter’s way of thinking after I became a teenager.
On my 13th birthday, when asked by her father what he should gift me, Ma pleaded, “Baba, please wear the janoi sacred thread. You raised me to believe that our sacred version of ecological Hinduism is no different than that of your best friend, Mandara’s Dadaji. You told me that playing in the forest with trees kissing the sky was like playing with Gods and Goddesses. You are the one who gave the twins a name from the Mahabharata, proudly saying that in offering his son in marriage to me, your friend had offered to cut off his right thumb like Ekalavya did to honor Drona, his guru. Now imagine how proud your guru, Professor Elwin, would be if he could see that your family has risen in social status. In a few years, Eka will be of age and it will be time for his yajnopavita, time for us to plan his upanayana ceremony and for him to wear his janoi. Your wearing the janoi will be a gift to Eka, Lavya, and Mandara. When it comes time for their weddings, no one will know or care that we were once Adivasis.”
This is the story that Ma told me and my brother and sister. When I asked Nanaji about it, he just smiled with a forlorn dip of his head and said, “The thread is convenient. In my old age I no longer wear trousers. With this dhoti, I need a substitute for pockets. Your mother says that the janoi is the key to your brother’s future. I think it’s just a good place for holding my keys.” I’ve never pressed Nanaji about the sadness of his resigned smile. He was just content that I would press his forehead, arms, and legs, briefly relieving him of old-age aches and pains. Maybe someday he will tell me his full story. Or maybe I will never know what it has been like for him to give up a part of his ancestral history.
I grew up thinking that I was a child of the universe, eating the same dirt as my twin brother/sister that all the trees in Nanaji’s village grew from. I don’t know when Eka/Lavya and I understood we were of what some call “mixed parentage.” I don’t know why we learned to play down our tribal background.
But I do know that when it came time for Lavya’s marriage, Ma had the family astrologer emphasize our gotra that was traced to Lord Shiva. As a result, my sister married a nice Brahmin boy, and they now have a plump son who has made my sister’s in-laws very happy. The same is sort of true for my brother: proper gotra gets a spouse who checks off all the Brahmin lineage boxes. Okay, things aren’t perfect for Eka like they are for Lavya. Unlike his twin sister, my brother has not produced a son who will continue the family name. Three daughters later, Eka’s wife is still being taunted by Ma for not having delivered a “male issue.”
Why is it that most of India, or maybe most of the world, gives such importance to patrilineal descendants? Doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s Hindu/Muslim/Christian, Brahmin/Dalit/Adivasi, or Indian/American/Chinese. Everyone wants a son, even my brilliant, forward-thinking mother with all of her research into how maternal culture shapes us.
Imagine what life would be like without mothers and daughters!