Power in a Woman’s Duty

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In a world full of women leaders, celebrities and entrepreneurs, there are many women to look upto. But sometimes inspiration lies hidden not in the far fetched and larger that life lives of celebrities but in places we have never looked. The lives of ordinary women around us, in the midst of banality of everyday life provide surprising rays of insights and lessons.

My great aunt Sheila was married to my great uncle Nanik, who is my grandmother’s brother. If you know of a person who genuinely loves and cares for every person in his family that would be uncle Nanik. He is the one who remembers birthdays of everyone in the extended family through all the generations. In all my very intimate contact with my uncle, even in honest disagreements I have been left with a tender warmth, cradled in the safe arms of a no better well wisher in the world.

Last month, Sheila Aunty passed away in her sleep at age eighty four in Bombay. Having thought a lot of the impending possibility of losing my uncle one day and how that would affect the continuity of the binding thread that he provides to the family, I must admit I never thought of aunty’s going away. She had been such a constant in uncle’s life and thus in our lives that her death was a shock. Being here in America, I could not say goodbye in person, I could not give her a last kiss, nor attend any funeral rights. All I can do is think of her with utmost fondness, lay flowers at my altar and peel at the layers of her impact on my own life.

When I think of her the one word that comes to mind is dutiful. If there were another word that would be cheerful. And mind you, those two words are not mutually exclusive. At any given moment that I saw her, she was cheerfully dutiful, as a wife, a mother, friend, relative and grandmother. 

She was a young and beautiful air hostess when she met her future husband who was a pilot for Indian Airlines in the 1950s. She gave up her career to be a wife and a mother. She did not do that because it was the order of the day but because she saw it as a sense of duty. She raised three children, helped take care of her father- in- law until his death and maintained social relations as a wife of an esteemed Captain for 63 years of her marriage.

What I saw most closely was her role as a wife. For decades uncle Nanik’s favorite thing has been to host dinner and cocktail parties for family and friends. My close observation of her was during these times. She was always part of these get-togethers, day after day. I wondered as a child  about the times when she was just not in the mood. Like all of us, I was sure she was not immune to that. But with complete equipoise, she was always present. Over the last many years her health was not great, she appeared more detached but still a servile hostess. She did not have to participate, just her presence was soothing and inspiring. Even during their bickerings like any older couple, they were a whole together, a team. It was his constant reliance on her that ran the show and her choice to support that sustained their life together.

Thinking of her today, I realize how the modern world associates values like independence, courage, feminism to women. We believe these are traits of progress but we have completely lost the world duty from our lexicon. We now think if a woman does not fight for her rights, she is weak. We think of giving in is a negative and tolerance as mediocre. But will the women of today be remembered in this light? Have we also forgotten the intricate complexities of life as a woman? To love, to be faithful, to fulfill one’s duties even when one does not feel like them, to put family before one’s self, to be kind through that very selflessness, to take life’s inevitable challenges in one’s stride and come out a winner. These are virtues of a woman far superior than any revolution. This is an inner revolution to transform our spirits to recognize what is worth fighting for and what in the long run will create character by wisely looking at the larger good outside of ourselves.

What we forget is that there is much thought and inner work involved in the lives of such women. Life of a woman is not black and white, her embrace of the grey is what defines her. What might appear a  passive supportive role is actually a conscious effort at all times involving intelligent thinking.

They don’t make them like her today. She has left no eye dry with her death, because she is fondly remembered like a flower by everything she ever touched. Whether it was her commitment to her faith every day in the form of morning meditation or the goodwill of everyone or just the reaping of her kindness, she was thus blessed with the most peaceful death one can imagine. I cry for my uncle’s loss, his shattered heart, another colossal pain to crush him in the length of a long life but I also rejoice that he had her. For she surely was the spark behind the man he was, is and always will be; deeply loved.

Preeti Hay is a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in publications including The Times of India, Yoga International, Khabar Magazine, India Currents and anthologies of poetry and fiction.

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