The Influence of India's Women

RETALIATING against injustice was a sign of great weakness to my grandmother. Her reasoning was baffling to me in my youth. When I would come to her in misery from some schoolyard quarrel, she refused to offer sympathy, no matter the provocation that prompted me to enter the skirmish. ``If he does something bad to you, all the more reason you should do something kind to him to set him right,'' she would say.

Simple and unlettered, she was the essence of India's ancient matrilineal heritage, a woman of great forbearance and compassion, whose patience imparted wisdom that stirred something deep inside.

Of late, my native state of Kerala has confounded experts with a literacy rate and health standards that surpass the rest of India, even though it falls below the nation's meager economic average. I have very little doubt that an important factor in this state of well-being is the strong influence of the local women, with their genius for elevating ideals through their personal example.

Kerala is a green staircase rising from the south coast of India. Coconut palms hedge the dirt roads and surround the villages, shielding houses from onlookers even a short distance away. Rice fields carpet the flatlands as far as the eye can see, while rich green coffee and tea bushes ascend the foothills to the Blue Mountains up north.

In my village we had a partnership with the land and our animals, whom we considered our friends and co-workers. Although things may have changed since my last visit 25 years ago, we grew much of our own food in household gardens and purchased goods from merchants who would come to our homes. The village goldsmith would fashion jewelry right on the veranda, while clothing merchants would roll up in bullock carts.

The state has many hardships. Kerala's gross national product per capita during the 1980s was only $182, compared to $290 for India as a whole, according to a National Science Foundation study. In contrast, per capita GNP in the United States in 1986 was $17,478.

But Kerala continues to have a properity that cannot be measured by economic indicators. Even in this impoverished setting, strong family bonds prompt mutual sacrifices to provide equal access to education and health care.

Kerala's women have a much higher literacy rate then the rest of the country and greater economic rights, even more than some of the Western countries. We inherited much more from them than our names. Feminine strength provided the unifying force for our families.

Women participated equally with men in decisions, and it was a mark of their influence that the good of the family was valued more highly than individual desires in any situation.

There was no lack of child care because the women saw to it that their children were not segregated from the school or the clinic where their mothers worked as teachers or doctors. Young people were welcome in almost any setting as valued members of the community who could learn from adults and bring vitality to their surrounding. This unity required the patience and unselfishness that brings richness to life, a richness that affluent children today too often seek in vain at shopping malls.

Though in my early years I did not understand my grandmother's admonition against unkind words, her quiet example and that of my mother were living proof that returning kindness for unkindness could be accom-plished only by someone secure enough to endure disappointment. Their trust in fundamental human goodness left an indelible mark on me. They refused to harbor ill will even when someone hurt or provoked them.

In the 90 years of her life, my mother was not known to utter an unkind word against anyone. And people responded to this good grace - not always immediately, but we witnessed through the example of our women that even the hardest of hearts would succumb to patience over time.

These women took responsibility for putting others first because it was the right thing to do, a mark of their faith in the highest of precepts in every great religion: to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We were humbled by their unselfishness, and we listened to them and respected them because we knew they were acting for everyone's benefit. Even the most callous man could be stopped mid-sentence for criticizing a woman with the question, ``Don't you have a mother?''

This attitude was true of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews throughout Kerala, and it promoted a religious unity that has protected South India from much of the religious strife that has occurred elsewhere.

Village women occasionally would attend each other's festivities and on high religious holidays this sharing often became a family affair. I marvel now at the inner toughness it took to cast aside religious differences to see the basic goodness in their neighbors and set this kind of example.

As the head of an extended family, my grandmother delegated the work necessary to keep the homestead running. I remember one year as the monsoon approached she asked her brother to stack our firewood on teak beams under the roof to keep it dry during the heavy rain. My granduncle, who was inclined to put things off, neglected the chore until too late, and when the rains hit, she was outside braving the weather to climb the roof and store the wood. My granduncle discovered this with alarm as he came down for breakfast, and without recrimination on the matter, he never procrastinated on anything important again.

In my youth, I was advised to give up salt for a year, a terrible deprivation in a tropical country where the mineral helps prevent dehydration. I didn't know how I was going eat. Then my grandmother announced she too was refusing salt for the year.

For a young boy, this sacrifice was a demonstration of the depth of her love. It turned sadness into exhilaration, and to this day I use very little salt.

``These hands are for wiping other people's tears away,'' my granny always said. ``When you do that, it makes your eyes shine.''

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