Anecdotes from my Grandmother

By Kaammini Chanrai

My whole life I have been told how much I resemble my grandmother. I have been approached at parties by people I don’t know, commenting on the uncanny likeness. Friends and family alike have said that our facial expressions, our mannerisms are the same. I once even received a remark about how we share identical eyebrows. My grandmother and I are, indeed, very similar. However the lives we have lived are, quite literally, oceans apart.

My grandmother, or Nani as I call her, was born in Hyderabad, Sindh in 1929 – at the time where the British imperialists were still based in India. After the Partition of India, Nani, as well as all of my other grandparents, were forced to flee their homes. My grandmother and grandfather married in 1954, then moved to Lagos, Nigeria in 1960, whilst it was still under British rule. They have been based there ever since. For every year since I can remember, my grandparents have had a routine. They spend six months of the year in Nigeria, three months in India and three months in the UK. My mother uses this as an explanation for why we are such nomads ourselves – it is truly in our blood.

I think if my grandmother were born in my era, she would classify herself as a feminist. However, Nani is very much product of her time. We very rarely talk about women’s rights because I fear we will argue. I am, to put it lightly, an opinionated individual. And the apple, in this case, does not fall far from the tree. However, I recently found us in a discussion which I have not been able to shake since.

My Nani, reading the latest version of the Evening Standard the other day, began to shake her head in shock. She started to discuss the article that caused her such disgust, and explained that a recent case of honour killing had occurred in the UK. She bemoaned over this tragic occurrence for a few moments, expressing her sadness that such things still happen today. She reflected, to my surprise, about how all cultures are guilty of poor treatment towards women. Then she began to talk about sati.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, sati is a practice whereby a recently widowed woman burns to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, mostly by force but occasionally voluntarily. This heinous Hindu funeral custom was banned in India in 1861 during the British rule. Although this did not occur during my grandmother’s lifetime, her relatives would tell her stories of this growing up. Her dismay was visible as she spoke.

Nani then began to share her own stories with me. My grandmother’s marriage to my grandfather was arranged, and although they have been married for over sixty years, it is quite clear that it was not always an easy ride for them. She tells me about her in-laws.

“They don’t think they have a new daughter-in-law. They think they have a new slave.” She tells me that, in her case, having a joint family was not easy. Every night, she was forced to massage her in-laws feet. Birthday celebrations for her children were cancelled due to family politics. She was not treated like family, she was a second-class citizen. She repeats the word rhabab over and over again.

“Power”, she replies when I ask her its meaning. “I was the youngest. I could not talk. Who would take my side? Who should I complain to?” She is emotive as she explains the family dynamics of her generation. The behaviour of families towards women was a way of asserting control, emphasising authority. She discusses how this has moulded her into the person she is today – the advocate for women that she might not even realise she is.

“I never interfere”, as she describes her relationship with her daughter-in-law. She reflects that times have changed, that mothers-in-law are different. We briefly discuss dowry and how, with my mother’s encouragement, she refused to accept any gifts during her son’s marriage. This might not seem like an achievement, but in a culture where dowry was the done thing, this was.

Whilst there are still gender discriminations that exists within our family, my grandmother has always subscribed to equality of opportunity. She has always supported me to be ambitious in my career. She has always wanted me to strive for more. Perhaps this is because she was never gifted with these same opportunities. The Partition prevented her education, although her father was always keen for her to study. Circumstance dictated her pathway, as it does with us all.

Nani felt that she was denied a voice in her new family. She felt that she did not have the opportunity to express these dreams, these desires. She felt she was silenced.

I truly hope she knows that we are all listening to her now.
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