Opinion I From my grandmother’s feminism to mine
In this weekend’s instalment of Mother of Invention, columnist Diksha Basu looks at the trickle-down effect of her grandmother’s unspoken feminism on her own career and family
Ivideo-called with my grandmother in Delhi the other day and she said my face was glowing. I assumed she was going to say that must be because of my children but instead she said it must be because of my book doing well. It was lazy of me to assume my grandmother would dismiss my writing, my book babies, in favour of my human ones. I forget, sometimes, that even though she’s not shouting on Twitter or vocal in her feminism, she embodies it more fully than most of us do.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was determined to do it all unconventionally. For a large part of my pregnancy, my husband and I were living in two different countries. I gave myself only four weeks off before I showed up for publicity events around my novel, The Windfall. Late at night, when we chatted about possible names, my husband and I didn’t even consider any names that sounded like names.
When my grandmother insisted on holding a small godh-bharai, I said yes out of grand-filial duty, nothing more.
“Just a shortened version," I said to my mother. “Please tell Mai I don’t want long religious rambling and nothing that goes on and on and places the entire burden of parenthood on the mother in disguised terms."
Fortunately my mother didn’t pass on any of the messages because a) they were rude and b) they were unnecessary.
On a bright, cold spring day in Manhattan, my grandmother, in her crisply ironed sari, sat me and my husband down and blessed us both with all the same, religiously-vague, terms. She placed home-made sweetmeats in our mouths and told us we were going to enjoy the ride ahead. And then she said to me: “Go, go change out of your sari. I’m sure you will be more comfortable in your pants with that huge bump."
She was right, and I did.
My grandmother was the only woman in her entire school in Vadodara. There is a picture of her standing to the right of the principal, separated from all the boys in her school. She worked, she had four daughters and raised them the same as she would have raised boys. With my grandfather, she travelled around the world, including across the US on Greyhound buses. When she was suddenly widowed at 67 years old, she took charge of her home and her bills and refused to stop wearing colour and refused to move in with any of her daughters. She equally loves the kitchen and cooking and reading and having a good glass of wine. She reads big heavy works of fiction and non-fiction in English and Marathi, her mother tongue, and also in Hindi and Gujarati.
When she heard that my book had been optioned for the screen, she smiled and said about my husband, “Michael can now relax" (she doesn’t know that publishing success doesn’t necessarily translate to financial success and I am not going to be the one to tell her. Michael, however, might be, because he doesn’t particularly like being seen as a man of leisure). She keeps stacks of my novels on her shelves to force on guests and makes sure everyone who goes to the local library in her housing complex checks out my novels along with the old issues of Reader’s Digest and Women’s Era.
When I finished writing Destination Wedding, I gave her one of the first advance reader copies. A lot of that novel, and indeed most of my writing, draws inspiration from my grandmother’s world in Delhi. She herself is sprinkled throughout my fiction. Her opinion matters to me. She called to tell me she had finished reading the book and I rushed over to hear what she thought. I was wearing a somewhat short maroon dress and sneakers.
“It’s good," my grandmother said. “The book is good. But why aren’t you wearing pants with that shirt?"
Diksha Basu is the author of The Windfall (Bloomsbury). Her new book, Destination Wedding (Bloomsbury), released in July.