The men who helped shape my feminist identity
I’ve always translated my family’s less-than-ordinary style of working into a sort of unwritten matriarchal system. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that matriarchy is a conscious choice or an edict among my people, but the assumption is also not such a far cry based on the fact that our clan is presided over by Kaali, the most badass goddess the world has known. Women, and educated women at that, have always enjoyed a healthy precedence in every household I have been privy to growing up.
And I’ll say this here because the one or two people who do not fit in this category will not read this either, but I have firmly held that those few, who fell by the wayside, chose to exercise an all-too-familiar domesticated passivity in lieu of the more pronounced and informed participation in all things family, economics ’n’ all. So to first surrender one’s power and voice and then seek solace in the sympathy of the onlooker, lamenting that they have no power is very much out of keeping with what I have been told, taught and shown; indeed, the tellers, teachers and demonstrators in this context are the very women who brought up the odd ones out, so it’s not like they didn’t have access to the same privileges I did.
My grandmother preferred poised discussions over emotionally charged confrontations and adjudged it a sign of personal failure and churlishness if one went for loud, showy screaming matches over mature, restrained reasoning. My grandfather, ever the well-meaning and Godly second-in-command — when he did have a moment of high-pitched insanity — would often very quickly come off it happier, chuckling to himself at his own silliness to have let his emotions take over for that moment. My grandmother would then shake her head, offer him food and remark (in begrudging affection) on the fact that in the outside world, he was seen as an epitome of wisdom, and called Panditji. The thousands of afternoons, orange and bright, that I witnessed these measured transactions of beliefs and principals (for there was really nothing else anyone ever argued about in my family), without my realising it, also cemented a beautiful equality in binary domestic systems that I saw again in my father and mother and am now looking for in my own, heterosexually single, life. Granted, the equality I seek is from a feline companion, who responds to arguments resting neither on gendered nor age-based precepts, but some day if I requested, calmly as amma taught me, that she get up from my chair, I should very much like it if she just did. I refuse to engage in a physical interpretation of this ongoing tussle and I think she is aware of this limit of mine.
(Also, my hands are a pattern of criss-cross scratches that cannot take more bleeding, but I digress.)
In the years that I embraced the very ignorant Indian female (yes, offence, if you are so inclined today) mindset of ‘I’m not a feminist’, I was essentially still a feminist but gravely misinformed over the term. Fortunately that period did not last enough to make a dent. It should be noted, however, that even as on 2.2.22 (A ‘two’s day’ if you will), a larger majority in any given public setting would dismiss feminism as problematic or downright ‘bad’, a smaller group might admit to the rightness of wanting equality for (all-inclusive) women (and not for all, for fuck’s entire sake) but not at the cost of actually doing anything about it, and a yet smaller faction (and they are my ‘favourite’!) might comment on how they don’t need feminism because it’s just for women who want men’s jobs and roles. How utterly pathetic.
As the girl whose best friend was a must-have-boyfriend-policy embracer of the professional kind, it took a while for my inner feminine power to be realised as something I could exhibit and feel confident about. There were many boys I called friends and yet, in retrospect I do believe not one left a lasting impression on my person nor my gender identity. Which is good, because looking back at my younger self and realising I spent a few summers trying to be someone for somebody (or for the media if we are being honest here), I would very much like to erase some cringeworthy years from my memory and my journals and jump from say, 13 straight to 18, and reading about capitalism and its subtle implications on bodily autonomy.
My father —
I was maybe 10 or 11. One night we were out walking after dinner. That afternoon I had spent my free time snooping around in my mom’s cupboards, where I had chanced upon a not-hidden pack of sanitary napkins (were they Stayfree?) and taken one for further research. On further scrutiny, what had come unfurled was really, a bunch of cotton?! So I just kept the rest of it back, took the mangled pad with me, and repurposed the loose cotton into nail paint removing accoutrements. When my grandmother saw me ‘playing’ with the pad, she smiled in amusement but did not explain nor chide me. Maybe my daytime excursions had reached my papa, and I am just so glad that they did. Sometimes things do happen for a reason.
Back to the walk, then. It was pleasant. We had passed the paan shop and papa had stopped to have his customary chat with Dileep uncle (of the fine paan establishment) and I had been offered the complimentary meethi supaari for the night. I can picture exactly where we were when he asked me. It was right between Grover’s, the big clothing store and the makeshift Hanumaan Mandir before the T-Series market began. (Yes, that T-Series and boy have I got the story for you!) And we were walking by the parked cars on the left, so it would have to be just by my old friend Isha’s house. As soon as he mentioned it, I felt the guilt rise from under my chest to my cheeks. But the reaction was preemptive and pointless, because he followed up the inquiry with a more genuine question about how much I knew about what that cotton was for. I of course knew nothing. So, he, in the most matter-of-fact and gentle manner, went on to explain what it was, why mom needed to use it and why I might too some day soon. No shame. No guilt. No negative emotions of any kind. I didn’t even remember it for the longest time because it was just one of those things that papa was always telling us about, like the latest James Bond story or how once he and his friend fooled everyone on a bus into looking up.
Papa never made anything about gender or sex. He indulged in my most feminine and most masculine traits with equal pleasure. He taught me how to file my nails into perfect little ovals when he saw that I was starting to want to grow and paint them. He bought me gorgeous and soft leggings with abstract prints on them — and I must tell you, these leggings were no ordinary piece of clothing. When I wore them to my coaching class the next day, I was sent back for they were too sheer! Gosh. Growing up with him around, it was never a matter of being a girl or a boy — I was his kid and he loved me for all that I was at any given point in time. The comfort I found in being myself around him has carried me through many years and many phases where the same luxury I could not afford myself.
As I grew older, his ‘a-gendered’ method of rearing us also translated into a complete trust in our choices and a 100% back-up policy for when we failed. With an incomparable sense of humour and a spirit that wouldn’t quit, he brought us up with an ineffable sense of ‘yes-ness’ [TM] in whoever we were. I was encouraged to go camping and explore travel on my own from a fairly early age. My brother was given the space to be a gamer and an introvert till whenever it served him. Never was there a prod or a poke into ‘what we were doing with our lives’. When I started dating, it was so obvious that I had to share it with him that I have forgotten when I actually began dating for real. I think I handed that set of memories over to him and let them be there in a peaceful preserved condition.
As an opinionated know-it-all in my 20s, when I started questioning politics and ethics, he encouraged me to question and challenge all manner of received notions, even if that often meant a heated discussion with him. His support of my person grew as I grew into a woman, and despite being in a woman-hating country, I saw a nurturing space with him that accommodated more and more of me till I had become.
My grandfather —
Our oldest cat is named in his fashion — Anjeer Lal Gaur, from Mohan Lal Gaur. He, my grandfather (my father’s father), was the absolute best guy to have around. Quiet but not bland, well-read and never prideful, always content, always loving, with a routine that could shame a gym bro on his best day. He lived his advice in the most teachable way — his brand of ‘show, don’t tell’ was for all to see. For him, like for my father, it was never about girl and boy, and that trickled down to us in the purest form. We, my brother and myself, were more siblings than we were brother and sister. For someone who came from a different time altogether, he positioned himself in such a way that his presence was observable but never intrusive. He taught me the value of learning languages and knowing about scripture. Never one to force religion on anyone (which ought to be the true manner of the pandit to my mind) he instead helped me navigate faith, spirit and knowledge, without my ever realising that I was receiving such exhaustive wisdom.
Watching him foster his relationships with his wife (old-fashioned love and support that only they could muster), his daughter-in-law (kind, undemanding paternal affection), his son (non-macho-manly, non-toxic, welcoming warmth) and his friends (conviviality and camaraderie in spirit, action and word all the time), I took away some invaluable insights into the idea of ‘a good man’ (and not ‘the nice guy’). Today, the only sort of person I automatically respect is one that bears resemblance to my grandfather in mannerism, values or if I am being totally honest, hands. His hands were uniquely square. Always a bit dry, with broad nail beds the size of a large almond, and a big pukhraj (yellow topaz) set in gold, which funnily enough (and might I say, completely in keeping with who he was) rested on the wrong finger for twenty years before someone corrected him into wearing it on his index finger! What a laugh that was! Oh, I remember how it irked him that his ring finger had a dent and now his index finger was swelling up from the ring being too tight! Silliness abounded.
My grandfather was special in a special sort of way. To use other words would be to take away his specialness, which won’t do. The fine sense of purpose, virtue in action, equality and fairness, and calm that he embodied comes back to me in waves now, as I near the halfway mark of my assumed lifespan, and I feel incredibly privileged to have had access to that wealth. It defined in me not only a keen sense of being enough as a girl (and a woman, today) but also a human being as an isolated agent of will.
Honorary mentions —
Ritesh Hemrajani, my first real boss, mentor and guide. The man gave me endless professional inspiration. But beyond that, he also showed me the importance of being valued as a team member, a teacher and a colleague. Without ever making remarks on our sexes, our clothes or our office behaviours, he drove us from goal to goal, season to season with a masterful hand and a technique that always taught us something. He was encouraging and friendly and indeed, he nurtured a similar disposition in my male colleagues, all of whom came from smaller towns and still had ways to go in understanding city girls, to be fair but not judgmental. I remember one of the day picnics we had been to — it was a water park resort (Wet’n’Wild?) and so we had to bring swimsuits for the pool activities. All of us were there, teachers, accountants, counsellors. We all changed into our swimwear, and went into the pool and played for hours, splashing, going for rides, drinking and smoking. That is all I remember. Just the fun. There was no mishap. No comments on girls in swimsuits. No shame and no fear of being groped or harassed. Everyone drank. Nobody regretted it. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?
In fact, on one of our retreats, I had made the mistake of spending the night with a slightly older (and friends with my boss) organiser who’d be ferociously flirting with me since we had reached the site. And when Ritesh sir found out (we were both late to breakfast the following morning and he was asking), instead of making it into a shaming ceremony for either of us, he just asked me if I had gone on my own volition, and if I was okay. That was his concern. I’m a lucky son of a gun for having had him for those formative professional years. Not everyone gets this shot. Twice. :D
Rajeev uncle, an old family friend. You know the reputation that travels around ‘uncles’, don’t you? Well, all the uncles that took me as their dime piece were actually much closer and much more related to me. Rajeev uncle was a friend of my parents because he worked at the bank right outside our house where both papa and mummy had (and have) accounts. Uncle being of the jovial punjabi mould that he is, made friends easily and became part of our family quickly. This could have gone awry in many ways (and I think it did do, but that had nothing to do with me). Uncle was a part of my life when impressions were being made still. With him, I learned how it feels when an older man compliments a young girl or woman and has no sexual, lecherous or otherwise dirty connotation behind it. Till date, when I see his compliments on my photos on Facebook, I light up. The avuncular affection I got from him extended not only to words but actions. He took me to friends’ birthdays which were too far to get to on public transport. He got involved in a bad situation with my abusive ex when he wouldn’t leave me alone. He drove my father over to see me and hand me a new phone when I was alone, scared (of that same ex) and struggling to cope in my rented apartment. Later that week, he drove down with my brother to take us out to a nice dinner and relax for a bit.
For years, he was like a second father and a friend, and I never even realised how strong his influence was in forming my trust with men. Were it not for such an influence, I might have succumbed to the scumbags who did abuse me despite being related to me, and might have grown up much more scarred and disillusioned that I did. Being a feminist is in no small part also about being a feminine woman (for some), and having a positive, encouraging male figure who was not my father or brother helped me shape my narrative on men in a much more affirmative way.
My posse in my 20s — Atin, may he be in peace, Ankit, Amit, Puneet. Ugh, you guys, this was the group you wanted but never had because I took them all. Here are some fabulously equality-embracing moments I enjoyed with them during our time together.
- We met through work and when they saw me doing well, writing brand presentations (even though I was new and inexperienced) and being knowledgeable about things (I’m not sure I was/am, but it was certainly nice to be made to think that), instead of shaming me, calling me names or othering me in any way, they celebrated me and my quirks and fondly gave me the name ‘bavaal’ — roughly translated to ‘chaos’. I loved it in every sense because they called me that in the best sense.
- Whenever we went out, they picked me up and dropped me home without the slightest hint of machismo or overprotection, but just because we had to cross the seedier parts of Darya Ganj and they knew what men could get up to. It was always an unspoken thing with us, and made me feel comfortable and safe without the need for the words to be uttered. One morning, after a fun Divaali night out at Atin’s, we had to dip out early and so Puneet and I got on his bike, and set off on the longish ride from Greater Noida to Old Delhi. It was biting cold, so Puneet asked me to sing (read: scream through a blocked nose) Lips of an Angel by Hinder to distract us both, and till date I don’t know how it worked but it did. I have a million such moments, and not one of them is marred by sexism.
- Once, one of our ‘friends’ tried to come on to me during a sleepover. I didn’t like him so I said no. A few nights later, we all had plans to meet up and he came over to my house early and tried to kiss me, and I had to ask him to leave. He in turn went full incel and started spreading lies about me among the boys. Without missing a beat, they came back with the nonsense to me and told me what he was doing, that they obviously didn’t believe him and that I would do well to just stop acknowledging his presence if he shows up at common events. I didn’t even have to say my side of it for them to believe me. Cute, right?
- When I told them that our common friend, my abusive ex, had done what he had done, they instantly switched off of him and cut him off. I had not told them about this for years, so I don’t blame them for being their friend, but when they found out, they chose me over the bastard. That’s what counts.
- Our conversations often traveled the universe and included everything from the mundane to the sublime. Dating, food, clothes, education, sex, families, music, work…we talked about it all and we were there for it all. The friendship we had built did not rest of things we did together but the respect we held for one another during the best and the worst of times.
As I have grown older, I have come across many good men, feminist men, downright brilliant men — I have begun noticing the stark difference between a man who espouses notions of equality, equity and fairness and accepts the much worse end of the stick constantly doled out to women and a man who sees it all and chooses to deny it still. There are of course men in whose wherewithal it is not to understand the loftier subject of treating women like human beings and to them I say, do stay away. But cry as I might at the despicable state of womanly agency in this day and age, I would go amiss to not highlight, pronounce and rejoice in the bounty of equality-inducing men with whom I have had the pleasure of sharing some of my life.