By Neha Rajan
Illustration by @ravinartoor
The dining table is laid every morning. Three bamboo mats await the arrival of two noisy steel plates and an appealing ceramic one. My grandmother, ‘Ammumma’ as I call her, sits at the head of the table, a deceptive position refusing to betray her mild personality. Amma sits opposite me, before a bright red plate, for she does not fancy the ‘ordinary’ steel ones that Ammumma and I use. It was not always like this. Busy weekday mornings meant that we would eat separately, gulping down our food with such speed that digestion seemed a miracle. Then, the pandemic forced us into our homes and with the restriction of space, time froze. In our house, the slowing down of time meant that our schedules no longer segregated breakfasts and lunches. When chairs are drawn more often and the table is occupied more frequently by three women whose bond is beyond blood, the chit-chat is bound to extend past full stomachs and burps.
I recall one such morning (though it could easily be a conversation pieced together from the talks of many mealtimes) when I sat for breakfast while on a particularly painful period. The cramps interfered with my sincere desire to relish the perfectly crisp yet soft dosas Ammumma had made. As is likely to occur when women are on their period around other women, we began to talk about it. However, our collective mourning over the aches caused by the menstrual cycle soon assumed another direction, towards the patriarchy that deems it taboo.
Ammumma recollects the isolation she experienced as a teenager made to sit on a mat in the corner of a room when she bled. Food and water handed to her from a distance, the days of menstruation were accompanied by embarrassment and alienation. ‘Sure, we did not have to do any work during those days but we were made to feel so self-conscious. And if this happened during a festival, we would be so mortified because everyone would come to know’, she says, adding that she fortunately never had to go through the awkward ordeal of bleeding during a festival. Just as it began to seem like my eyes could not widen any further from shock, Ammumma reveals that the previous generation faced much worse. Trapped within the borders of the mat all day and night, menstruating women could not wear bindis nor take a bath until their period ended. Amma, thankfully, was not separated within the house for what occurs within the body. But she was still isolated, from her own body. The announcement of one’s period was made in whispers. ‘Chums’, she called it, when speaking about it with her friends (only the girls, of course). The logic behind this euphemism was that it’s a ‘chum’ because it loyally turns up every month. The pad still stayed invisible to the male eye in the house, hidden from my grandfather’s sight. The cramps endured quietly and the pads disposed discreetly, the period was cursed with invisibility.
But on that particular summer day, it was a strange sight – Ammumma for whom dining with the family when menstruating was unimaginable, was serving me dosa as I complained about cramps, and Amma for whom her ‘chums’ was far from a friend, was telling me, ‘oh my periods were a pain too!’.
We have come a long way.
As Gen-zers and Millennials, it often seems like the gap between us and the generation above us - our parents and grandparents - is one that increasingly widens. We grew up and live in a globalised society that is more connected to people outside of our immediate community and this, naturally, has an influence on us. It’s so different from the world of our elders. When it comes to adapting progressive values or breaking free of the constraints and binaries that we no longer want to conform to, elders can often be confused as our enemy.
Traditional views, conservative values, and a refusal to acknowledge change is one of the reasons many new-gen South Asians, especially young women, feel distant from the generations above us. And of course, every family is different. Some of those things may never change. But when I sit across from Ammumma and Amma at the dinner table, I think about whether or not they wished for those same changes. I get a glimpse of how our feelings align, despite the years between us. And it makes me think that maybe we should give them more credit because as we move forward, we realise that their worn-out shoes carved the path for our footsteps, just as ours shall for the generation that comes after us.
‘Marriage is not a priority for this generation. Let her focus on getting a job and the rest is up to her.’
Another morning comes to mind. Ammumma had just got off the phone with a distant relative who, in the middle of a conversation, had remarked that I will soon be ‘settled’ once I find a job and get married. As we dig into the fluffy golden-roasted upma served at the breakfast table (Ammumma is tagged the ‘upma-expert’ for a reason), she narrates her response – ‘Marriage is not a priority for this generation. Let her focus on getting a job and the rest is up to her’, Ammumma said, stunning the relative into silence. She then continues to state that progeny is a choice, and a ‘timely’ marriage is necessary only if one wants children. I myself was astounded at this answer, which in retrospect, I see as being shaped by the several discussions we had at the same table, like when Ammumma nodded along to Amma remarking that marrying an almost-stranger is absurd when Amma listened intently as I pointed out the casteist basis of an arranged marriage when I smiled in agreement as Ammumma dismissed the idea of a ‘marriageable age'. These seemingly small exchanges hide significant messages, that my choice will be protected against social pressure, that my worth will never be linked to marital status, that love will be encouraged. In the random utterance of opinion, I find the silent expression of support.
As I look back at our conversations, I realise that to have three generations often discuss, sometimes debate, and eventually arrive at the values which bind us together has opened my eyes to a truth: that ways of thinking need not be restricted by the disparity of age. Ammumma’s willingness to listen to the ideas of ‘this generation’ as I animatedly explain why people make different choices taught me that curiosity and empathy carries one beyond the narrow context of personal experience. From Amma’s ability to interact with every generation with equal understanding, I grasped that compassion invites one to accept individuality, irrespective of background. These observations nudge me to eagerly await our breakfast talks, for every morning when the table is laid, it transforms. In our shared articulation, we create a space for shared thinking and re-thinking. When Ammumma speaks about oppressive customs, she merely recalls a childhood memory but in the space of sharing it with other generations whose contexts differ, she receives a new lens to re-examine her own experiences. When I tell Amma about the Pride March happening in the city, I am only reading an Instagram post aloud but after that announcement, she asks me to explain the spectrum of gender and sexuality. And just like that, twenty minutes of breakfast turns into an hour of conversation as we travel through time, exchanging experiences and delicately picking the values we choose to nurture, across generations.
About the Author
Neha Rajan is from Bangalore, India. She loves sunlit afternoons, philosophical musings, and cuddling animals. When not distracted by these, she writes. You can find her hesitantly sharing writing and photography on Instagram - @nehaha.rajan