“Being born a woman is an awful tragedy. “
-Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
“She stared at her reflection in the glossed shop windows, as if to make sure, moment by moment, that she continued to exist.”
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
7th October, 2018
It was just our usual Sunday outing to the neighborhood mall and as always I was people watching. 🙂
After running behind Agastya all through the mall, while he whined and threw tantrums at every toy store we passed, we had finally settled down in the food court to eat. A Hungarian family was sitting a couple of tables down from us and having their lunch. The first thing I noticed was how incredibly poised and reserved the mother looked. She was sitting ram-rod straight, had spread the napkin on her lap and took dainty little bites of her food, as if she was eating in the presence of the Queen of England. The same was the case with the daughter, who must be around 10 years old. On the contrary, the father and the son were more expressive and flamboyant. My immediate thought was: Indian or Hungarian, the story is the same everywhere. Women are expected to behave a certain way in public while there are no expectations whatsoever from men. 😉 Ahh! Patriarchy. A curious and cunning thing, is it not? Creates such disparities in the personalities of members of the same family.
The second thing that I noticed was their clothes. Even though the whole family was well dressed, the mother’s clothes looked a bit drab and her handbag was dilapidated to say the least. That’s when I saw the existence of “the shiny new handbag”. It was a thing of marvel for all them except for the mother. She kept on eating, solemnly, eyes downcast, immune to all the “bag-worshiping” going on around her, while the rest of them took turns to hold it, touch it, smell it (in case of the little boy). I was amazed by her apathy towards the simple yet endearing materialism shown by her family. I thought to myself, “The way she ordered the least expensive dish for herself, her clothes and her shabby old bag (which she was still carrying and which must have seen as many bargains as herself) hints for a bigger story than typical indifference!”
So, I am naming her Stella, and dedicating this story to her. 🙂
When Stella was a little girl, she was unlike most of the girls of her age. She liked playing football and roughhousing with her brothers. Helping her father in doing small projects around their house, she’d learn how to fix the plumbing, cleaning choked pipes, repairing small electrical glitches. The whole time she’d earn the scorn of her mother, who disapproved of her tomboyish ways. Wearing her brother’s hand-me-down shirts and jeans, she would always be on her bike or running around, never afraid of a little dirt from the mud or the scorching heat of the sun. But then alas… she had to grow up!
When she got her first period, she saw the visible relief on her mother’s face, the pride and joy that leaked out of her eyes in the form of happy tears. At first Stella could not comprehend how menstruation would inevitably change her life. And then suddenly one day, she started feeling uncomfortable indulging in the usual wrestling matches with her brothers. Running and kicking around a football started feeling like such tedious activities with all the new changes in her body. She had to abandon cycling too, daunted by the idea of spillage and spotting on her clothes. She became increasingly forlorn and despondent, while her mother, ignorant of her inner turmoil, rejoiced. Finally her little tomboy, was growing into a woman. Her mother’s happiness was so infectious that Stella started leaning towards her to find some for herself. They became close over her mother’s teachings about “how to be a proper lady”.
Under her mother’s tutelage she learnt stoicism and poise, from sitting up straight when in company and how to properly cross her legs, to the perfect way to braid her hair and cook the best goulash in their town. She learnt how to express herself in the least offensive way, and how to hold her head high and smile in the face of adversities. And most importantly she learnt how to ask as little as possible from life, how to give and not expect anything in return, and all the aspects that’d make her the best mother and wife.
She was married rather early, for love of course, but mostly because she wanted to escape her mother’s tough regime. But by that time, the doctrines of patriarchy were so deeply rooted in her psyche that she didn’t know any other way to be. She had children early into her marriage too, whom she loved dearly. And finally all of her mother’s teachings came to fruition. After all, this is what she was trained for. To be a vessel, always overflowing with compassion and love, with no space left for her own desires.
She never fancied new clothes, as long as her children were covered in the best attire, she was fine wearing her old jeans with sewn up holes. She didn’t buy herself new shoes until the soles on her old ones were so worn out one day, she could feel her socks rubbing against the asphalt on the pavement. She used the same lipstick from two years ago that she had bought for her cousin’s wedding. Her white shirts had started showing yellow stains from over-washing. Her handbag, a gift from her father on her wedding day, was in tatters and yet she carried it everywhere with pride.
So on one Sunday, when her husband suggested that he is going to take them all out to the mall and buy her a new handbag, she was shocked and completely flabbergasted! She tried to bargain and talk him out of buying her anything by saying that her current handbag was completely functional and that it was of emotional value to her. But he wouldn’t listen to a word. He wanted to give her something for their 10th anniversary and it had to be both thoughtful and symbolic of his love. (“The nerve on him!”) When he took her to the showroom she was so discombobulated that she started sweating. He asked her to pick a color, she blindly pointed to the brown one, and took off making excuses about using the restroom where she tried to pull herself together. When they finally sat down to eat, she felt shame and remorse hitting her in giant waves. She thought, “How dare I own such an expensive item?”. She wondered where else they could have utilized all that money. Her husband needed a new winter coat, her daughter and son had outgrown their snow shoes. So she ordered the least expensive item in the food court and never once looked at the bag which was now a source of great discomfort for her.
But then a miracle happened. She lifted her eyes from her sad lunch and saw the look of wonder in the eyes of her children. Her little boy, who was just so taken by the softness of the expensive leather of the bag, her daughter who looked at her as if she was her hero for choosing something so stylish and the look of utter relief on her husband’s face, who finally was able to accost her into buying something of value for herself. That’s when she realized that this thing she is struggling with? She was not in it alone. Her family was right there with her and she was, inadvertently, stifling them by projecting onto them her own struggles with expressing her needs. With that realization came the tears and the epiphany and later, the resolve, that she will never let her children live a life of discontentment. She shared a secret smile with her husband, and watched the excitement of their children and ate her food in peace, which tasted a little less of guilt. 🙂
P.S. : I am not sure what the real story of my “Stella” was, but the conflict of emotions on her face about the bag was very evident. I just hope that she uses her new handbag and it won’t be gathering dust in some dark corner of her cupboard. 😉