The Unconventional Woman
Sometimes being a woman can make you wince and cringe about your very existence. I can easily say every woman would have asked “the” question- “Why was I born a woman?” at least once in her lifetime. Besides enduring the biological fluctuations of various degrees in physical and mental health at different points in time, she has to remain strong, empowered, and independent regardless of situations that might bring her to her knees. This is my humble attempt to share a story very close to my heart and has been long due.
When I was a little girl in the 90s, it was customary to spend our summer vacation at my grandparent’s farmhouse. It was a joint family where my third and fourth maternal uncles and their families lived under the same roof with my great-grandma and grandpa managing the estate. My second uncle’s family lived in a nearby village close to my grandparent’s home and his daughter, who was around two years older than me (38 in 2023) also came to spend her summer with us.
Summer vacations transformed the farmhouse into a madhouse full of rampant kids, in the absence of parents, who seemed like unleashed prisoners from a year-long grinding of school and enslavement, awaiting an ultimate passage to freedom. We knew we’d be coaxed, fed, spoiled, and undoubtedly brushing our teeth twice a day or going to bed on time weren’t obligatory anymore as they’d go unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. Talk about the perks of being one of the many kids in the household. My granny singlehandedly tried her best to keep the menace under control while we went around infuriating the house guests, molesting the pets, wrecking the farm, climbing coconut trees to harvest honey, plucking mangoes, etc. Granny used to scream — ’Hushaaruuuu’ (Careful).. To add to that havoc, my brother wouldn’t leave the neighbor kids alone and was frequently summoned for lectures by my youngest aunt, other times also got a spanking or two. I must say, I was not only happy to be part of the beautiful chaos but also looked forward to finishing my exams and meeting my very special cousin Rathna (meaning “gem” in Kannada) who was a soul sister to me.
Rathna was quieter than the rest of us, she was bright, street-smart, and wasn’t much into studies. Nonetheless, she was confident and had a warm persona. At nightfall, she’d narrate horror stories about paranormal activities in her village that spooked the pants outta us. She took care of me and protected me from my other cousins who were plain evil and picked fights often! I knew we had a bizarre attachment to one another like we were sisters from other mothers. Whenever it was time to leave and get back to our lives we cried truck loadsa tears and refused to go home as we knew this was an annual thing.
The madness ensued until we almost reached high school, after which most of us stopped visiting our farmhouse because like regular teenagers we had much cooler things to do like attending a summer camp or going swimming. Also, for me it wasn’t the same anymore after we lost our ajji when I was in 9th grade, going back just made me sad. Naturally, at the time, since we didn’t have mobile phones or even telephones widely available, and as Rathna’s family lived in a village 80 km from Bengaluru our meetups became rare.
I hit puberty like a farm bred chicken -as my aunt called it, the day I got my first period at the age of 12. I could sense my family was worried, they said but she’s just a child. As a result, they started imposing restrictions on what I could do and what wasn’t allowed like before. It was time to say Goodbye to childhood. On the other hand, girls in my school were growing annoyingly curious about menstruation and had all these questions I was too awkward to answer. They looked up to me like I was some female Jesus born to tell them the truth about turning into a woman. The boys and men in the family started to protect me like I was some kinda treasure a stranger would wanna steal. I felt like everyone around me was onto me for having my period. All in all, I hated every bit of it.
I remember when I was around 16, our family gathered to celebrate Ugadi [Kannada New Year] festival like every year. Sitting under the shade of the big blooming Raspuri tree next to our family house, one of my aunts as she oiled my hair turned to my other aunt and said Rathna turned 18 and still hasn’t got her period yet. By then it was an open secret in the family. She had been visiting different doctors for a while but the diagnosis didn’t differ much. She suffered from a reproductive disorder, which when googled, figured was called “Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser” syndrome where women usually do not have menstrual periods due to the underdeveloped or absent uterus. After taking a second, third, and “n” number of opinions from doctors all over India, her parents gave up and just hoped that she would somehow learn to live with it someday. As I sat there hearing them talk, I wished I had it too so I could go back to being a child again.
In the coming years, I noticed a complete transformation in her behaviour as she absolutely refrained from attending any gatherings or public events as people talked about her disability to her face. They looked at her with their snobby pitiful faces as though they’d just discovered she was an alien from another planet. She house-arrested herself and strictly disagreed to go out which eventually disconnected us for quite a few years. I and another cousin who is two years younger than me Rashmi had completely stopped discussing boys or crushes when she was around. We told her we all hated to undergo puberty and she was if anything but the luckiest. I realise, we were only naive and failed to acknowledge the gravity of her pain. Now that I’m way older, I might have the slightest idea of what she might have craved and missed as a young woman.
I pondered how society was responsible for a wonderful girl with tremendous potential for being wasted due to her fertility issues. She was to society like those discarded bones on the plate after they’d juiced out every last bit of meat on it. No man wanted to even meet her, leave alone date her after hearing her story. Because at the end of the day, women are just baby-making machines serving a purpose. At least that’s what society wants you to believe. She was another victim of society’s ways. Breaking free is like trying to tuck in octopus’ arms in bed.
The more you realise your limitations eventually you’d find yourself suffused by the obsession to pursue what you can’t have. That’s just human nature isn’t it? In India, there is no concept of being a single mother like in the west. You either have children with the man you marry or you don’t. If you can’t have a child then you adopt one — As a couple. But there is no way a woman is going to adopt one by herself. Something never heard of!
My ajji was a single mother majority of her life, she died at the age of 96. When our taata(great-grandpa) died she was just 19 years old but she already had a daughter. She never remarried or dated anyone as we don’t have the concept of dating in Indian culture. Even now it’s a taboo in rural areas and among the conservatives. My ajji was a one-man woman. You marry once and that’s it! If your man is dead you are a widow for life. That’s just destiny set in stone. ‘You accept it and move the heck on’ — she once said.
We grew up watching our ajji who was a strong role model for us girls. We admired how she commanded respect from everyone. Rathna could’ve been a single mother if she wanted. Her family was well off or rather some might say even rich. But adoption didn’t even occur as an option to her as it was a notion uncommon in the culture. No seeds of such empowering ideas should be sown into women. You can’t let women think and want things for themselves. It’d merely break the foundation of the society and disrupt its crooked plans to keep women oppressed isn’t it? On the other hand, she herself felt like a liability to her parents because of giving up on her career and education, how’d she ever provide for a child? Who was she kidding?
When we were kids, she always talked about — how she felt like an ugly duckling, and now she felt worthless too. In my eyes, she will always be the prettiest and the strongest girl I know.
Unfortunately, after all that Indian culture boasts of, it boils down to the fact that infertility is yet one of the major issues our society finds socially unacceptable. The mentality of self-righteous people who think adoption is taboo and every woman is meant to bear children or fails to fulfill the primary credential of womanhood is an abomination. The very idea makes me rethink and question if I want to be a part of it. It smothers you and leaves you feeling helpless, hopeless, and unworthy of existence when every human has the right to be respected and treated equally regardless of what society finds acceptable or unacceptable, theoretically.
In the summer of 2013, when mangoes were ripe and trees were bursting with jackfruits outside, sweltering in the peak summer sun’s heat, my uncle paid us a visit. His visits were intentional and occasional. Other times he’d always come up with excuses like how the cattle needed to be fed, or he had to help the neighbors with milking their cows and yada yada. He was a silent observer one could find in the pictures only during historical events of our family. Sadly, he passed away due to cancer a few months ago. When he visited us back then, he said- a family approached them with a marriage proposal (because arranged marriages are still very much common in India), the man had a two-year-old daughter and a bedridden wife with an incurable neurological illness. It was her wish to entrust the future of her child in the safe hands of a woman. Someone who could promise her love like herself. She didn’t want to depart the child motherless. My sister was moved by their situation and agreed to the marriage. Her happiness was boundless. She thought she had been bestowed with the opportunity to foster a child and help someone in need. ‘Probably this is God’s will’ — she exclaimed priggishly. Some women have always amused me by demonstrating extraordinary levels of kindness and compassion stepping up like no other human I’ve ever known. I sometimes wonder if men would do the same for women.
To summarise, she had agreed to an arrangement where the wife was still alive, who she had to take care of her, while she was not even legally this wedded man’s wife. Because in India, like most countries, you can be married to just one person at a time. Now, don’t ask me about legal rights when it comes to consensual polyamory, I can’t be sure the lawmakers have heard about certain “western ideas” yet! Though polygamy has been a common practice for thousands of years in India among certain groups and majorly Muslims. It became an abolished practice when the constitution was copied verbatim from the Brits in 1950. One could if they wished to marry anyone consensually, it’s a free country, but wouldn’t fly in a court of law. So, the second wife though wedded in front of hundreds of people had absolutely no legal rights but still very much had social rights and a sense of authority. Surprisingly fascinating isn’t it? But somehow being the other woman didn’t seem to bother her. She was okay to be the other, as long as she was a mother! Tears rolled down when I heard the news. She had spoken like a real Rathna — an unconventionally phenomenal gem of a person.
Rathna’s wedding was a small, intimate ceremony in a temple with just family (of course of almost more than 100 people, that’s India). I was her trusted wedding photographer, which explains the kind of satisfier she is. I was also the only one with a DSLR, so technically she didn’t have much of a choice. She seemed happy.
I felt like maybe this was the magical ending to her suffering. She was just a woman who wanted a family. Something she had only dreamed of! After facing a million rejections you’d think it can get to your head but she had a stoic perspective which is more or less the Hindu way of life. You accept things as they come. You don’t judge and try to suffer less.
Countless women in India undergo such mental trauma and hundreds of children are devoid of parental love. Not all women have the courage to stand up for their rights and not all children have the privilege of leading a regular life. They silently wait to be embraced and accepted with their disabilities and shortcomings. I’m quite certain my sister feels alive and empowered all over again but the scars left behind by society will remain forever.
First appeared in my blog, with some modifications, editing, and changed life facts ever since. Based on true story.
Hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed writing it!