A Foreigner in My Grandmothers’ Country

Earlier this year, I was loitering in a village somewhere in Gujarat. I struck a friendly conversation with an old woman, Bhanu ben. “Tame aa desna nathi, ben? (You are not from this country?),” she asked. I paused and gave her the geographical location of my hometown. Bhanu ben announced en masse, “Ben bidesthi ekli aavi chhe (Ben has come alone from a foreign country)”.

As I noted the fact of my foreignness in my diary, I thought about the discourses of citizenship I have been rallying against. At this cross-section of personal and political, I invoked the wrinkled memory of my ancestresses – my daadi and naani. I restlessly sought them.

It was my last night at home, the last time I felt my roots before grafting myself from city to city. It was a seminal moment in the family history too, I was the first girl allowed to go alone in the outside world. I was dispatched to a law school to become a professional arguer without any conflict, any argument. My cousins wept to the point of unconsciousness during their bidaai. But for me it wasn’t really bidaai as no man awaited me in the car. Yet my relatives thrust hundreds of rupees in my palms.

In the midst of the goodbyes, my grandmother pulled me to her side and asked in a hushed tone, “Jaa thaur ten jaa rai, ba bides hai? (This place you are going to, is that foreign?)”. The 18-year-old girl in me thought of how my unlettered daadi had not been educated in maps and boundaries. I told her gently, “Nahi daadi, wo isi desh mein hai (No daadi, it is in this country)”. That translated conversation has replayed many times in my exiled life and I have felt ashamed at my pride and entitlement to modernity.

Orhan Pamuk, in his Nobel lecture, talks about grappling with the feeling of “not being in the centre”. This displacement from the centre became pronounced for us with our modern, solipsistic education. All the exciting and important things happened at the centre, and we merely read about them. It was possible for us to know nothing about the history, geography and politics of our homelands despite being stationed there. We had no business with the English language in our lived life and yet we had to bear the ignominy of a black star if we failed to speak this damned language at school.

It was a prerequisite for us to be ‘educated’ to discard our unnamed language. The people in power convinced us that our language wasn’t cultured enough to receive state patronage. It was rather a corrupted form of sarkari Hindi. I never learnt or spoke the language of my grandmothers. In one generation, we wiped the diglossia from our identity. And without the intimacy of a language, our conversations were just logistics and transactions. When I see other friends speaking with their family in their language, a dagger pierces my heart.

So, we learned English and our centres shifted from Bhopal and Delhi to New York and London. I became exotic for my people at home, and the people of home became subjects of research for me. Completely established in their language, geography and gender roles, the centre of my grandmothers’ lives lied in their immediate geography. They did not care for the abstract idea of boundaries. They preserved their culture, history and knowledge with little fuss and much labour. However, they were amongst the last bearers of their ways. We did not have the equality needed to sustain these relationships. They stayed far away from intellectual aspirations. At least, until recently.

Also read: Within and Without: A Northeasterner on the Sense of Belonging

My grandmothers were not averse to my world, despite the judgment I reserved for theirs. However, they had no means of exploring the new world. They saw whatever passed before their eyes. For daadi, hospitals were the closest rendezvous with modernity. She described the size and colour of the pills with such child-like excitement. Naani was exhilarated about all “modern” food. We looked at her crumpled face while sipping a Coke with great awe. I wonder how limiting it must have been for them to function through a mediator, the inability to be a customer in a capitalist world.

Not that they succumbed to the dominance. As James Scott pointed out “as vulnerable citizens, the marginalised respond to routine dominance through hidden forms of resistance. They drag their feet, pilfer, evade, gossip and sabotage”.

At my birth, my naani gifted me a gold chain from her savings despite protests from family. My daadi drank the water after washing my feet when she was afraid to die. The Rs 500 note she gave me, I saved despite demonetisation. When daadi was bed-ridden, I would wash her and then dry her with an electric dryer. I made her a Malpua when naani visited us. which she never forgot.

Daadi died a suhagan, and other married women decorated her body for some divine reward. I merely sat on a step and sobbed. I did not have a proper conversation with her. And yet I had a feeling she understood me and the life I was making for myself. Naani died a widow. My relatives photoshopped her display photo for mourners to remove bindi and sindoor. When she spoke for the last time, she asked me when I would start my job. My aspirations seemed legitimate to them. Yet, I’m a product of my patriarchal socialisation.

A few years after their death, I found myself in front of many women of their age whom I addressed as companions, “We will now decide our history, our politics our religion.” I felt I had betrayed my ancestresses. The memory of my daadi-naani bothering me and it seeming to have a relationship with my identity was news to me.

When I was a young girl, my parents had tried to give me an equal place in society. However, as I became a woman, I realised that in a society fraught with inequality and violence, no woman can be liberated or empowered in a paternalistic manner. My family stopped being a context to myself but became a part of my identity. My daadi-naani, who were away from my possibilities and ambitions, came so close. And I started thinking about my limited capacity to understand the social and political processes of their life.

As my entitlement wears off, I find myself in a maze of confusion. I have access to all the quarters at home and to none at the same time. I have no interest in man’s entitled, mansplaining conversations. I have no business in the women’s quarters. It is a unique kind of aloneness. I have given away the porous, open angans and tivaras of my daadi-naani to find Virginia Woolf’s A Room of My Own.

I often wonder, how could I infuse more respect in the feminine worlds of daadi-naani? As I sort pulses in a thaali, I try to treat it with the respect I would give to an excel sheet. Whom am I kidding? Despite no formal bidaai, babul’s angan is an insurmountable mountain for me too, and home a country in which I will always be a foreigner.

Bhanu ben, the answer is ben akli chhe ane koi desna nathi (Ben is alone and belongs to no country).

Shraddha Upadhyay is a researcher, lawyer and Young India Fellow.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty