Making a simple choice – Mangalsutra

Sometimes making a simple choice can be so exhausting. 

I’m talking about the Mangalsutra.  That chain that would be sinful not to wear.  Only bad women, evil women, women who don’t love their husbands, refuse to wear it.  And so, on the attitudes go.

It is a symbol of love between husband and wife.  It is symbolic of their bond. It is our tradition (and yes woman, you are responsible for keeping our traditions alive).  And so on goes the advice.

In my 20s, my head was filled with the above by my many aunts and cousins.  My mother herself never lectured me on this but she did wear hers as a matter of habit.

I was reluctant to wear one for several reasons:

One, I am uncomfortable with jewelry in general.  The most I like sporting is a single pearl in each ear.  If the occasion were more formal, I might don a thin chain or a bracelet. 

Two, the mangalsutra seems forced.  It was never seen as a choice.  Anything forced automatically arouses my suspicion.  Women who did not wear it were treated with intolerance. 

Three, if you look at the traditional significance of it – it was yet another symbol (besides kumkum, bangles, etc.) denied to widows and used to discriminate against them.  It was mainly to celebrate the “state of being married”, to separate that state from the “unfortunate” states of being single, divorced, or widowed.  Having a husband is what got you into the coveted Mangalsutra club and to keep the perks, you had to fast, pray for and serve one’s husband and in-laws and proudly display your membership with the sutra, kumkum, and bangles (the latter two also not allowed for widows).

So, I chose not to wear something that glorifies the concept of being married, something that says – you do not exist as an individual, without a man, you have no worth. And by making this choice, I quickly became “evil incarnate” for some, “that arrogant woman” for others, and “she who has made a coward of her husband” for yet others.  My husband is one of the most obstinate, individualistic people I know, so this last remark usually cracks him up.

When I was younger, I often felt hurt at people’s ugly reactions.  I felt compelled to explain that I loved and supported my husband – that a chain meant nothing to me – that you can wear it and backbite and manipulate your husband.  Over time, I realized that all these explanations and scenarios were unnecessary.  Justifying a choice means that you are giving someone the right to question your choice.  Then it’s no longer a choice.

Since I’m in my mid-40s, I keep assuming that these are things of the past and the girls and young women nowadays have it different.  I do hope I’m right.  But every now and then, I’m in for a surprise. 

My niece (cousin’s daughter) recently joked: “I should take my very modern friend who dresses in shorts to my in-laws’ house, so that in comparison, they would be thankful they got someone like me as a daughter-in-law who will at least wear a salwar kameez – but may choose not to wear the thick heavy wedding Mangalsutra but prefers a lighter, more fashionable version”.

I smiled politely but her remark made me wonder.  Why try so hard?  Why not just politely tell them what you prefer to wear?  Why let them disparage your friend for wearing what she finds comfortable?  If they required a nose ring, would you get your nose pierced?  Where does the control end? 

One aunt told me “my house, my rules”.  “I don’t care what my d-i-l does in her own house, but in my house, she needs to wear it.”  Really?  House rules extend to personal things like jewelry?  This is news to me. 

So, can my parents say the following to my husband:

“In my house, all men wear the sacred thread, so you must too.” 

Or “All men sport beards, so you must grow one.  You can shave it off when you get home.”

Or, “We don’t like facial hair.  Shave off your goatee.  Grow it back after your vacation.”

Or “We consider pants indecent.  Please wear dhoti at our place and when you go home, you may switch back to pants.” 

If they did, I’m sure he’d say, “I love you guys but would you stop kidding around so much!”

If he thought they were being serious, he would tell them to take a hike, probably. 

Most arguments that justify unfair traditions do not survive the reverse-the gender test (or reverse-any-role test). 

And yet this never really happens, does it?  Why would no one ever dare suggest such a thing to him but think nothing of calling me names for my most personal choices? It’s simple.  It’s mostly habit.  Misogyny is a habit that’s hard to break.  Most people unthinkingly assume they can give advice to, criticize, admonish, berate, slight, humiliate, or punish women for things that they wouldn’t dream of interfering, were those choices made by men.  They have seen others do it all their lives – it is so ingrained. 

And it will REMAIN ingrained – unless we correct it.  It will take a lot of women to keep saying ‘no’ to attempts to control – to break this habit.

What about you?  Do you feel pressured to wear the mangalsutra?  If so, what forms does the pressure take?  What do you do about it?  What would you like to do about it?

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Identity

I got this email from J1289, a regular reader and commenter here and sharing this with her permission:

(In context of something someone said to her) “…… I feel there are only two options for all of us, be part of the herd and get all the joy sucked out of us where we are miserable, or be happy and do what you love to do and get rejected/ignored by others since your actions don’t fit their mold. It’s never a win-win situation IMO.

Indian culture (or perhaps most Asian cultures) can be very beautiful. There are certain aspects I love about it, however being pressured to be this ideal “Indian girl”, get married, have kids, live in servitude and act like a doormat where toxicity takes over, sucks all the positive vibes about being Indian and makes you have a strong disdain towards it.

Especially the fact that in Indian culture, non-Indians are inferior to Indians, we must “stick” with people of our caste and people from our state only (I HATE THAT!) so that we keep the “culture” alive where it will not lose its “purity”. (Emphasis mine)

I hear this all the time, and it makes you think, can we still keep a homogeneous culture? How come people from conservative places, despite living abroad and exploring the world will not look at any other perspective?

Also lack of equal respect is another factor I dislike about being Indian. I would never show I am superior or treat someone ill because I’m much older than them.  I made it a point for myself that I’ll take a blend of cultures because I have equal respect for all,  (not only Indian) and incorporate into my life. Sure I’ll keep some “Indianness”, but I will also make sure to get rid of some of the toxic aspects (arranged marriages, being a slave to in laws, and be firm when I have to). I will make sure my life is full of diversity and not just one sided.”

My reply to her:

“I think you have the right approach when you say you take a blend of cultures and incorporate them into your life.  No culture is perfect; each one has strengths and failures.  I agree with you on all those unpleasant aspects of Indian culture.  I think we can reject those parts and take the parts we like.  I think that makes logical sense – why should it be all or nothing?  We take what makes sense, what feels right, what makes us comfortable.  We reject regressive thinking and practices.”

But then, when I thought about it more, I was intrigued by this idea of “cultural purity” and “protecting one’s culture”. I could relate to so many parts of J1289’s email because I’ve been in her place many times.

I have often been accused of “becoming too American”.

Because I let my children disagree with me.

Because I let them make choices and decisions that impact their lives.

Because I don’t fall on elders’ feet at weddings.

Because I don’t cook up a feast in the kitchen while the men discuss “important things” in the living room.

Because I sit next to my husband on the couch.

Because I hold his hand when we walk.

Because I wear what I want.

Because I don’t fast or pray.

Because I like to run/hike in my shorts.

Because I read and write and express opinions.

Because I don’t need permission for a host of things.

Because I make choices.

Because I laugh aloud when I’m happy.

Because recently, I told my husband’s aunt who came to the US to visit her daughter, “No this is not a good time to visit. The children have exams. We will come and see you.”

Instead of “Yes, you are always welcome in our home.”

And with the predictability of sunrise, she pulled an Athidi Devo Bhava on me.

We are constantly told that this kind of behavior goes against Indian culture. That it is a betrayal of Indian culture. But then, what exactly is Indian culture? Allowing your elders to control your life – until it’s your turn to control your children’s lives?

More precisely, WHO gets to define Indian culture? Who ARE these dreaded guardians of Indian culture? Why should they be in charge of defining Indian culture and identity? Because what they are defining happens to suit them? Because “tradition” can be a great way to avoid the tough questions and accountability?

I’ve seen other Indian American families struggle with identity. Some (if not all) first generation immigrants keep a little nostalgic piece of India in their hearts. It is a soft-focus, rose tinted picture that ignores the negative aspects of our culture.

But not seeing the truth is unhelpful. This holding on to an “ideal Indian culture” never allows you to take a rational standpoint. It never allows changes. It is stifling, both for them, and for their children, whom they have chosen to raise in a different country.

It is a disservice both to their birth country (to hinder truth, learning and progress) as well as the country they’ve immigrated to (to reap the benefits of another culture while condemning it). It keeps them in a time capsule. India and many Indians living in India have moved on with the times in many respects, but some Indian immigrants still hold on to the past, afraid to let go.

To some extent, I can understand this love for one’s country of birth.  It has a sort of magical pull.

I recently visited India for my niece’s wedding. I delighted in dressing up in kancheevarams and donning jhumkas. I re-watched 3 Idiots and laughed like one in some scenes. I sat on my brother’s balcony, watching the vendors below, as the evening darkened, cups of chai in hand, discussing Indian politics with fervor, knowing very well that governance in India is still a distant dream. I listened to my sister practice her Veena, her hands now faintly aging, but the music flowing strong and confident as ever.

I smelled coconut water and Aarti in the Ganesh temple my mother makes me go to, on every trip. My mother still sticks bits of turmeric to the new clothes she gifts to my children. I visited my childhood tailor, Arif, who must be in his 70s and can’t see well anymore but still seems to be turning out beautiful dresses with his old hands through sheer habit.

On my last evening there, I went to the Old Town – the most neglected part of my hometown and hiked up the highest peak (now I realize it is a small hill) that overlooks a rocky shore. At the foot of the hill sits my old convent school.  I visited the strict nuns of my elementary school, now softened with age, their disapproving looks replaced with welcoming smiles. I sat peacefully in my school’s worn down church as they conducted their Catholic service, not really understanding their rituals, but calmed by the angelic singing.

To me, all of these things are uniquely Indian, or define the part of India I was raised in. Who can take away this Indianness from me?  This “love” is about  people and places and memories.

BUT, why does being Indian have to mean giving up the right to think, analyze, question, discuss, disagree, and express?

You don’t have to feel like you are betraying Indian culture when you think for yourself. Rabindranath Tagore thought for himself. So did Sarojini Naidu. And so did Gandhi. And those 3 eminent thinkers spoke and wrote their original, independent, rebellious thoughts eloquently in Indian languages as well as in English. They looked and sounded and felt Indian, but they were far from being subservient. They were certainly not part of the “log kya kahenge” crowd. So, let’s stop defining Indianness as conformity and fear. It isn’t nor does it have to be.

I love my country of birth – it is colorful, vibrant, unique, energetic, evolving, boundless. I love America too – my adopted country – it is a place of equality and respect for the individual and immense personal freedom. Neither country is perfect, and both have numerous problems. And I love them both.

No one has the right to tell us what parts of which culture we adopt. One’s identity is a complex combination of one’s background, nature, experiences, and influences. It is ever changing, growing, and developing as we undergo new experiences. It is not to be determined by one’s aunt, mother-in-law, neighbor, pastor, or politician. It is up to us to determine who we want to be and how we choose to define ourselves.

And perhaps the same thing goes for India too. Indians should stop defining their country in terms of their Vedic past, the colonial legacy, the Islamic influence, traditions and customs, and other hang ups – these burdens only serve to limit us. While our rich past undoubtedly makes a fascinating study and understanding it is crucial, dwelling there forever is a sad mistake. Maybe if we start looking forward, India can be as beautiful and boundless as she wants to be.

Related Posts:

If our love for our people and our country needs being ‘proud of them’ then, here’s what we should be proud of.

When married Indian women (travelling or living outside India) strive to look unmarried.

Why do Indian women like to wear western clothes?

Why do some women see western clothes and being able to flaunt their bodies, without fearing being called sluts, as empowerment?

Mommy Guilt: A Western Influence.

Proud to be an Indian today…

I am Proud of India Today. Not India of Yesteryears.

Indians invented planes 7,000 years ago — and other startling claims at the Science Congress

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Adarsh Bhartiya Nari – Ideal Indian Woman… !!!

Letting an outsider see or comment upon our imperfections is washing dirty linen in public?

“This is reply to BBC for making video on rape cases in other countries…”

“If we have people of your ilk in Bharat we do not need external enemies at all!”

“I am trying to make a list of soooooooo many advantages a girl can have if she is born in a Western family as compared to being born in india.”