India: Women

#12 in my India series.
“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back”
– Malala Yousafzai. 

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This is #12 in my series on India.  If you are new to my blog and would like to start at the beginning, just follow the link below.

  1. India: Impressions

 

“Words are the memory twitching after the reality of the dance” -Robin Davidson, Tracks, 1980

A cheeky smile and quick to laugh, soft palms and a faded baby pink saree. These are the things I remember about Neelu. She was also courteous, friendly and relaxed in the living room/bedroom of her concrete house in the backstreets of Udaipur where chooks flapped about with packs of street dogs. She soaked my sore, dry feet in hot water before giving me the longest and gentlest pedicure I’ve ever had, with great attention to my comfort and safety. With sweet black tea in a tiny teacup and the company of her younger brother acting as interpreter, I felt welcomed into her small home. A rustic space; her sarees were neatly folded, her shrine well-maintained and her stone floor swept and decorated with Lakshmi’s feet, ‘pagalya’. When we arrived, she was folding a pile of faux silk shopping bags made from old sarees and sewn on her treadle machine. I told her, through her brother, that I was also a seamstress, which made her smile.

Afterwards, Neelu introduced me to her figurines of Hindu gods and goddesses before dressing me in a lurid green and orange saree from her collection. We took photos together and her teenage sons (well-dressed in grey woollen school uniforms) helped me send them to their mother via WhatsApp. She was excited by this and I was grateful to have seen inside this family’s home, to have been less of a tourist and more of a traveller, to have had a conversation with real people about their real lives. I have seen and heard the things they laugh about and have observed the dynamics of brothers, sisters, mothers and sons. Her brother was particularly kind to me, astounded at first by my single status before assuring me he knew I would find a great love one day because he’d spent his afternoon with a good person.

Tonight, I went to dinner at the house of Bhavna, the shoe lady, whose ramshackle shop caught my attention on my first day here in Udaipur. As a female saleswoman, she stood out immediately and I read her as a lively character. Her big smiling face and her warm eyes were paired with a relaxed outfit of saree (her head scandalously uncovered), pink grandma cardigan and shoeless feet. We laughed about the irony of her distaste for shoes. She then invited me to dinner after I purchased three pairs of embroidered camel leather shoes at the remarkably bargain price of $10.00AU each. Through our lengthy chats, Bhavna understood I was spending money with her as it is my belief that I should shop to support local women in each country I visit. Women’s rights are human rights, after all. I encourage all travellers to do the same, regardless of your own gender.

As a saleswoman, Bhavna was an anomaly in Udaipur. Her husband’s own shop up the road sells the same shoes, so she is considered fortunate to be able open a parallel business (with his support). She has no bank account or credit card and is living purely on cash throughout the currency crisis, feeding her two school-aged children (and me). Keen to show me how she makes her much-loved chapattis, Bhavna displayed her ingredients before me; fresh fenugreek stems, garlic, ginger root, flour and water, plus some unknown spices. She kneaded little balls before rolling them into flat pancakes. They were deep fried and delicious, served with tomato sauce, cauliflower curry and rice.

After dinner with Bhavna, I shopped very late in two stores near my haveli, owned by some too-familiar men young enough to have been my students. Conversation turned to marriage, attraction, singledom, sex, my ex-boyfriends and his desire to have several girlfriends like me. One spoke about the owner of my haveli’s habit of bringing women back to the family-owned establishment ‘for fuck’. This had been obvious the moment I’d met the manager – a hairy young man trying to be charismatic, yet with no charming bones in his body (only a large family inheritance). Next time I travel, I will know to look for accommodation owned and run by women.

I am still in disbelief at this point knowing that back in the Western world, a misogynistic racist will soon be leader of the free world. He will not be my country’s president, but his influence may spread like poison. Trump deserves no praise for his words or actions; he will never be able to achieve what feminists have in their lifetimes. Women have gathered their strength in numbers to battle for the vote, for education, improved working conditions, safer streets, maternity and paternity leave, child care, rape crisis centres, environmental sustainability, social justice, law reform and safe refuges (Dale Spender, Man Made Language, 1980). They say the future is female, yet this assumes that males have always played the dominant role in leadership and creative invention (Merlin Stone, When God was a Woman, 1976). This is not the case, as it is archaeologically proven that the earliest civilised societies, where written language, law and government were initially developed, worshipped goddesses far and above male deities. Bhavna, Neelu and Lakshmi’s feet are a small reminder that goddesses are still present in India.

Back in Jodhpur’s early days, women were far from worshipped, despite the exclusive practise of Hinduism until Mughal rule brought Islam in 1556. At the Meharangarh Fort’s fortified entranceway, bronze or clay-looking plaques have been placed ominously, facing toward one another across the cobblestoned path. They feature the hand prints of the many harems of women who were forced to commit ‘sati’ or ceremonial suicide upon the death of their Raj. These plaques are haunting reminders of a world gone mad; where men rule and women follow (literally, following them to the funeral pyre). Queen Victoria banned the horrific practise fully across India in 1861, ending a tradition believed to date back to 400AD. It took a woman to disentangle this practise from religion and superstition, to end a barbaric form of ‘purification’ where widows were (and still are in some parts of India) considered unclean and at fault for their husband’s death. Queen Victoria recognised sati for what it was; the ultimate objectification of a woman’s body and the glorification of a wife as a disposable possession.

Women hold up half the sky and, in India, embody bravery at every turn.

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Pagalya –  Divine Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth and prosperity) is worshipped in almost every Hindu household in India, particularly on the day of Diwali. Her feet are seen at the thresholds of houses, facing inward to invite her presence into the family home. The feet are either stickers bought in the market or carefully hand drawn in white or vermillion. 

Want to keep reading…?

13. India: Dogs

14. India: Art

15. India: Rupees

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