A Place of Honor For Everyone In the Family

Fifty-two years ago in New Delhi, it was not particularly exciting for a Hindu family to have to confront the birth of a daughter or granddaughter. Yet in the middle class, educated family that I was born into, baby girls were actually welcomed.

My father was one of six brothers. My grandparents' inability to have a daughter left them aching for girls. Thus it came to be that I, along with my elder sister and other female cousins, were embraced and celebrated as a boon.

My mother recalls that Grandpa never failed to play me up as someone special. As a very young child, when I was still unable to walk, I refused to crawl on my knees. When I would jump frog-like, using my seat to traverse the length of the courtyard to where Grandpa sat, he would demolish my mother's anxiety about my inability to crawl by attributing it to my indomitable spirit.

''She refuses to crawl because she will not kneel before anyone!'' he would say with a twinkle in his grayish-blue eyes. Later, he even sanctified his diagnosis of my faculty by designating me as chhoti devi or little goddess.

Feared as a lean, mean autocrat by people around him, Grandpa was exceedingly solicitous toward all females - addressing his daughters-in-law, for example, as bibijis or respected ladies. Toward his wife, to whom he was wedded as a child, he was gentle and consistently caring, despite her paralysis early in their marriage. In those days, it would have been par for the course for a man to simply pick up a new wife rather than have to put up with the daily stigma and inconvenience of disability.

But Grandpa stuck by Grandma, placing her at the hub of all family activity. By converting what used to be a hallway into her bedroom, he ensured that everyone using the passage to get across to other rooms would be compelled to interact with her. I remember Grandma being on top of all the family's inner politics and dynamics, as she was throughout her bedridden life.

Nevertheless, harmony, as I have subsequently discovered, is not the same as equity. Perhaps it would be fair to say that it was clear to my young mind that Grandma's status was entirely dependent on Grandpa's goodwill. Like millions of Indian women before her, she lived in a permanently anchored state.

In India, marriage is between two families and not individuals. In an arranged marriage, the individuals come together only because the families are willing to.

In the case of my grandparents, the fact that they came from comparable families, of a roughly similar socioeconomic and educational level, and a similar linguistic, caste, or religious group provided a sound foundation for a lasting marriage.

But there were some visible gaps. Grandpa was handsome and youthful, Grandma matronly and convalescent. Grandpa was well-educated and held a graduate degree. Grandma could barely read. Such literacy as she had was rooted in the oral learning tradition. Yet she was learned in all other respects. And that was perhaps the basis of Grandpa's respect for her as a savvy person in her own right.

ONE poignant episode illustrates Grandpa's special sense of gender justice - without his terming it that way. One of his sons had become involved in an extramarital affair with a woman of questionable moral repute. Among old families in north India and elsewhere, it was common for men of means to have liaisons with dancing girls and prostitutes.

Grandpa had ethical objections to that way of life and, rather than support his son covertly in the affair, he gave him the option to terminate it or be banished from the family. To his dismay, his son chose the latter.

Grandpa - stubborn and principled as he was - never saw his son again. The renounced wife and children, however, became Grandpa's special privileged responsibility. Grandpa was so protective and caring of them that people in his time and subsequently had no qualms in giving their daughters in marriage to a family headed by such a just patriarch.

Today, as I think of Grandpa, I see him seated in his leather armchair, peering at the newspaper and moving it ever-so-slightly to acknowledge my presence. It was the day on which the results of our annual examinations were declared. This year an elder male cousin and I were two among the 20-odd grandchildren to top their class and earn a special audience with Grandpa.

Setting aside my eager, presumptuous male cousin, Grandpa hugged me first and blessed me by placing his warm, protective hand on my head. Then he turned to my male contender and whispered, ''By topping her grade at an earlier age than you ever did, she has beaten your record! Who says girls are not the equal or even the superior of boys?''

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