Lessons I learned from my grandmother’s silence over the conflicts in a dysfunctional Indian joint family.
When I was seven, I loved writing poems.
I turned every new experience into my childish poetry.
As a seven-year-old, almost everything that happens to you is a brand new experience.
My first train ride, the first time I rode a bicycle, quarreling with a friend I thought would stay forever, wanting someone to be a friend but being met with disdain in return — I turned all of them into poems.
My parents loved reading these, even though they didn’t always know the context behind the poems. They showed their appreciation by sharing it with local newspapers. I loved the validation being published gave. The awe in my classmates’ faces when my name was published in the newspapers their parents read every morning motivated me to keep writing.
Of course, I loved sharing my poetry with everyone I met, including my favorite person in the world: my grandmother. Aita, as I called her in Assamese.
She would sit on her comfortable chair, cushions propped up against her back, wearing her white mekhela chador (like a sari but a little more elaborate). Her lined face would light up when she saw the newspaper clutched in my tiny fists, the smile seemingly taking away ten years from her age.
We lived in a joint family while growing up. I shared all my poems with her. Even as a woman born in the 1940s in India, she knew enough English to be able to appreciate the beauty of my childish poems.
One of my uncles didn’t like the appreciation Aita kept showing me.
His daughter was almost my age, and apparently, she felt insecure when Aita praised me and left her out, even though she never had any interest in writing. She was a very talented badminton player, and whenever she won a medal, the whole family — including Aita — showered praises on her.
There was a big quarrel one day, with Uncle shouting at the top of his voice to his mother (my Aita), and her cowering before him.
This might seem absurd, but in the patriarchal society of India of the 1990s, a woman talking back to a man was unheard of, even if that man was her own son. When the head of the family (my grandfather) died, the world conferred the position of seniority to male children and not the wife.
Even though my uncle was several decades younger, he had the right to impose his wishes on Aita. And, of course, he had a right to scold her, to forbid her from doing something (like encouraging me to write more poems) that came naturally to her.
I wasn’t supposed to have heard this, as I was supposed to be playing with my cousin and a few friends outside. But someone had left something inside and I was to retrieve it when I overheard a part of this heated conversation.
My mother heard all this, and was so angry, she wanted to slam the door to our room and lock herself inside. But she couldn’t. As a daughter-in-law, she had even lesser say over what happens in the family than Aita. Nothing she said or did could have solved the issue.
According to the hierarchy, my father, who’s the eldest of three brothers, should have been the one to make the decision, but he didn’t. He wanted to let his younger brother have his way and maintain “peace” in the house rather than stand up for his mother and daughter.
My uncle’s will prevailed.
Aita stopped appreciating my poems.
I saw her face light up when she saw the newspapers, but the moment she spotted Uncle lurking around, her smile drooped like a flower closing at dusk.
When she frowned, I could see the lines time had etched on her face as if marking her grief forever on her skin.
I almost wanted to stop writing.
Aita’s compliments meant a lot to me. But even at seven, poetry had already become an important form of self-exploration. I couldn’t just give it up.
My poems became darker from then on. I started writing about caged birds and defeated queens, about having two feet in two boats, and eating the chocolate you hate because everyone thinks it’s cool.
I learned several things from this incident and my Aita.
I learned that family isn’t all you should rely on; that you need an identity outside of the relationships you hold. That way, if the relationships crumble, at least your whole world won’t come crashing down.
Most importantly, I learned that often, you’d get worse than what you deserve. And if you accept it without protest, Life will hand you something even worse the next time. This will keep continuing until you keep accepting, and a time will come when you can’t take the pain anymore.
If you rebel against your situation, refusing to accept the pain handed out to you, and demanding better instead, maybe life will grant your wish.
After reading this, your first instinct might be to say, “That’s not how things work!”
But how do you know? Have you ever tried it?
From my Aita, I learned that if you keep demanding good things from life, you’ll keep getting them. Even if you’ve settled for the mediocre all your life, the moment you decide you deserve better, you’ll get better.
I took this lesson and made it my life’s mantra, always speaking out when I felt I deserved better. This has helped me draw better boundaries in relationships, and never be ashamed of asking for what I want.
It’s helped me create new opportunities when there were none.
In her poem progress, Rupi Kaur writes about how the contribution made by women helps the next generation of women:
“our work should equip
the next generation of women
to outdo us in every field
this is the legacy we’ll leave behind”
My Aita was more educated when it came to reading and writing than most women her age. But when it came to standing up for her rights, she wasn’t equipped with the necessary skills, information, and mindset.
Her struggles with her identity helped me realize my own.
I learned to never be shy of demanding what I’m worth, about being brash and loud, and to never apologize for taking up space. I learned that if I stayed silent, men would lay down the rules for my life.
Without my grandmother, I’d have never learned to be so stubborn about dreaming big and not stopping until I’ve achieved my dreams.
And sometimes, especially after I accomplish something people had underestimated me for, I close my eyes. I can still see my Aita sitting in her plush cushioned chair, wearing a simple white mekhela chador, smiling her sweet encouraging smile at me.
I know she’d approve of what I did and who I’ve become. I know she’d encourage me to dream even bigger.
I know she’d be proud.