Another extended family gathering where my brother begs to turn on the TV. Another dinner where everyone feigns disinterest in watching his idiotic cartoons. Another monotonous day of forced small talk and TV – if not for the kanyadaan ad.
As the commercial break started, we went back to pretending we hadn’t keenly been watching Doraemon. Our attention lingered momentarily on the takeaway food and then to each other, but nothing was as interesting as the screen. So, when Alia Bhatt’s voice came, our attention was snatched right back by the idiot box. As we realised what it was about, the room became tense. I counted down the seconds till Ms Bhatt’s, “Am I a thing to donate? Why only ‘kanya’-daan”.
Turns out, the tension was justified.
The line sparked a terse reaction from our patriarch (also known as Dadu) as an offhand comment about “today’s kids not focusing on real issues, and instead on things that don’t matter”. This comment was so absurd yet exasperating, my head nudged me to respond with feminist scholar Nivedita Menon’s ironic words: “Until the huge radical transformations have taken place, let us not disturb the status quo.” However, the words never reached my mouth. Having recently graduated from the kid’s table, I didn’t yet have the authority to talk back to Dadu. No one else could either. The men never bother, and women arguing with an elder is taboo.
Prepared for another dose of disappointment, I went back to watching TV.
Suddenly, Maasi’s voice cut through the awkward silence and my assumptions. She said this wasn’t trivial; that it represents a drop in a grand sea of discrimination. I knew Maasi was smart, but the boldness was a novel phenomenon. If I had to guess, she spoke up because she’d just been saying she loved Ms Bhatt’s movies. Dadu’s comment was attacking the actress and she felt obligated to speak up.
Dadu snapped that “our religion is very progressive, it allows equality to all” and Dadi concurred. I could show them the Manusmriti, the Rig Veda and thousands of other texts that clearly say otherwise, but that would just infuriate them. The voice in my head was more tactful, saying, “Can we restrict religion just to its books and ignore how it has been practised through the centuries; discard the social element completely?”
Just like that, suddenly, it was just too much to take in. My 12-year-old cousin sensed this and gestured a knife-on-the-throat to signal me to stay shut. But it was too late. My mouth was one step ahead, voicing how religious institutions are all conservative and patriarchal in practice. “Look at the Sabarimala temple. It barred women from the temple to ‘restrain the deity’ from ‘casting lustful eyes on females’. In 2018, the court allowed women inside, but those who tried to go were met by violent mob assaults. When two succeeded, the temple was shut for ‘purification’,” I said.
Uncle jumped in to say that our religious texts do not actually support these practices. Instead of arguing that they often do, I politely pointed out that this ignores the polytheist quality of Hinduism: “With millions of gods and various texts, there are bound to be differences, even contradictions, in religious teachings. Followers largely ignore these variances in favour of a strict and uniform interpretation of texts. On the equality scale, some texts are better than others. Yet, none guarantee the modern conception of complete equality.”
Auntie glared at me, but nobody said anything. My uncle just nodded. At that moment, I felt proud – of speaking up, being civil, diplomatic and not starting a war.
Then auntie wrecked all my efforts.
She ignored me, turned to Maasi, and said, “Well, you aren’t exactly respectful towards women either. You never help in family gatherings.” In every such gathering, the men lazily sit around while all the women huddle in the kitchen to prepare food. She said that Maasi never helped in any of these occasions, forcing Maasi to recount all the times she did. Then, Dadi made a snarky comment about auntie “not being any better” and “acting like today’s women” by demanding a share of the family property. She asked auntie to learn from our scriptures and be less materialistic, more like Goddess Sita. I almost laughed. Spiteful and provocative, Dadi asked auntie to be the ideal of a perfect, selfless woman.
At this point, I realised all my mediation had gone down the drain. The ‘discussion’ had snowballed into an ego battle that would feed family gossip for ages. The diplomat would call it a debate, but Sunday dinner turned into a brawl. Maasi did nothing to calm tempers, saying Dadi was contradicting herself. She pointed out selected religious texts that allow women ownership of some property, while Dadi was denying aunt any.
I made an ultimate attempt to redirect the conversation away from their pigheadedness. I spelled out, to anyone who would listen (i.e., just the annoyed 12-year-old), that no text gives women equal property rights. “At least it allows something” is a cheap bargain to stop people from questioning archaic practices. In our deeply religious society, allowing the rejection of such practices without discarding the religion altogether is not just necessary, but desirable.
This is what the advertisement did. It questioned the environment of sexism that practices like kanyadaan endorse. It deviated from this practice, without renouncing the religion altogether. It made many at the table just uncomfortable enough to start talking. Patriarchy might tell us that an actor who pouts and wears short skirts is the wrong carrier for this message, but someone as popular and established as Bhatt talking about what matters got us to listen. And use her voice well, she did. It was meant to start a controversy, spark a conversation and make us remember it and the brand.
One family dinner, a few Twitter storms and an article later, we can say it achieved its objectives.
And as it turns out, I’m glad the family dinner was uncomfortable.
Featured image credit: YouTube screengrab