My grandmother is one of the smartest people I know. She didn’t have much of a conventional education and has no degrees to talk of: but in terms of curiosity, practical knowledge and eagerness to learn, she’d leave most of us clear out of sight. She went to school for a few years, as long as it was respectable back then in her little Tamil town for girls to study, then helped around home and was brought up to be a good wife in the future.
Married at twenty- not considered very young then- she had a number of unfulfilled dreams. She wanted to learn to play the violin, stitch magnificent things, and perhaps most importantly, speak English. This was during the years of British colonial rule: educated men wrote and spoke impeccable English, and for bright girls like my grandmother, knowing the language was perhaps on top of the to-do list. A traditionally dressed Tamil teacher led them in singing God Save The King (those were the days of King George V) in the school assembly- though nobody there spoke or understood a word of English. My grandmother remembers it to this day, and recollected it word by word two days ago, as we discussed music in the kitchen.
She enjoys cooking and feeding people: she also loves to watch F1 racing. As I watched the Korean GP on Sunday, she sat down next to me and wanted to know how the grid and the winner were determined. She wanted to see how the cars overtook one another without crashing. Her powers of observation are remarkable. On slow evenings, she observes the different kinds of cars on the streets- she can remember the names of the more noticeable ones. She barely ever sits in the same room as my father, out of a traditional deference to the son-in-law of the family (irrespective of his age), but knows very well that he does crossword puzzles after work.
My grandmother’s generation of women, brought up under the undeniably modernising influence of British rule, but still constrained by certain orthodox practices, was on the brink of a breakthrough but missed it narrowly. We have a very long way to go in terms of acknowledging the importance of women and their contributions, and it is a pity that for many of us, being “progressive” is restricted to how we dress, what languages we speak and the number of degrees we possess. Those of us who have been brought up in cities, lived in a liberal, accommodating atmosphere that has facilitated independent thinking, cannot really harp on our achievements. Most of us don’t have to bring up eight children or learn English on the sly. We don’t have to manage families on a shoestring budget- our immediate worries don’t concern ensuring there is enough to feed our own family and the guests who keep pouring in through doors that are never shut.
It is a pleasure to see the gleam of delight in my grandmother’s eyes as she describes a trip to Calcutta forty years ago with her husband and young son; she remembers how she forgot the little boy’s new shoes at a temple. She is very clearly a romantic at heart, saving up her husband’s old letters carefully and taking them out only if you promise not to read them. In many ways, she is just a little girl- if only the girls of that age had not had to grow up too early. Theirs was a generation with few chances, and they still grew up beautifully well, fighting for and making the most of their opportunities; not half of us can hold a candle to them now.