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#MeToo: Managing the generations

Ever been on a trapeze? Me neither. But that is how I feel at home these days…  

brunch Updated: Nov 10, 2018 23:15 IST
Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times
Sabarimala,MeToo,sexuality
(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)

The battle lines are drawn. You name the issue: Sabarimala, MeToo, sexuality. The views are starkly divided. The elders on one side and the kids on the other. I swing between the two on a wobbly trapeze trying to carry everyone along. But this, in the end, may be the only way, to get along and go along. The Indian joint family may, after much argument and irritation, provide solutions and balm in this increasingly polarised world. Because we are forced to talk to each other across the dining table.

Social media affords us the luxury of announcing our views....But when you disagree deeply with the people you love, it ain’t that easy to dismiss or denounce them

On the one side are people over – pick an age – 40, 50, 60. Women who have combated discrimination even if they don’t call themselves feminists. My mother-in-law is 84. An IAS officer, she was the first woman chief secretary of Kerala state, was a vice-chancellor of M.S. University in Baroda, and has travelled the world espousing the cause of women’s empowerment. She doesn’t however, call herself a feminist. Like Laila Tyabji, a crafts and textile expert I admire, she thinks the MeToo movement has gone too far. On her popular Facebook page, Tyabji wrote about how she comes from a generation of women who took a “pat on the bum” as “par for the course” and combated it with a “withering glare, cutting remark, smack on the arm.” My mother-in-law says that she always “dressed conservatively,” covered herself up, when she walked the corridors of North Block in New Delhi. These are women who zigged and zagged as they navigated treacherous waters as minorities in the workforce. They have been hardened by the experience and expect today’s generation to follow in their footsteps without making such a fuss.

I know countless women like this. Heck, I used to be one myself. But now, I have swung the other way, thanks in large part to the 12, 13, and 16-year-old girls who populate my life. They see no reason to put up and shut up. They see slights and patriarchy everywhere. They are angry and “triggered,” as my daughter would call it. They don’t hesitate to call you out when you discriminate even the slightest bit – against women, LGBTQIAs, or any historically disadvantaged group. As a woman, I understand my daughter’s anger. As a mother though, it worries me, because blaming and name-calling will not change minds. My stance as a feminist who fully supports the MeToo movement is a little more nuanced than some of my female sisters and friends. I think the bigots and predators can be converted and saved. Indeed, they ought to be persuaded: brought to our side, carried along. Gender equality is far too important to become a women-only crusade. How do you bring more people into the fold? For starters talk to the people in your house and family.

In our house, the divide is stark and strong. It is like haleem and hagalkai (bitter gourd in Kannada). They don’t mix, except they do, because granddaughter and grandmother live in the same house and are forced to confront their differences over dosa and coffee. Twitter and social media afford us the luxury of announcing our views in 140 characters or less. But when you disagree deeply with the people you love, it ain’t that easy to dismiss or denounce them. My daughter calls out her dadima at every opportunity, but because of our glares, she is forced to do it respectfully. “Do you think menstruation makes us impure, dadima?” “Why do women have to adjust all the time?” For her part, my mother-in-law advises my daughter to “take a shawl,” when she goes out wearing a short dress.

How do you stay open and tolerant? How do you moderate your views and move with the times? How do you respect tradition, culture and faith and all the richness they provide? How do you discriminate between tradition and bigotry? For starters, you have to listen. But in order to listen, you need to be friendly with people you strongly disagree with. A group I am part of called Bangalore Adda has eight women. Amongst us, we loudly articulate every shade of gray. Some of my friends, to my horror, think that MeToo allows women to take advantage of men, to lie and cheat. They are my friends, but I differ 180 degrees from their point of view. Still, we keep talking.

Love thy enemy may be a Christian sentiment, but it is a necessary one in times like these.

PS: When I showed this article to my mother-in-law before sending it out, she said that lauding the Indian joint family was a fool’s errand because the “worst offences happened within the confines of an Indian joint family and were hushed up.”

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, November 11, 2018

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First Published: Nov 10, 2018 22:46 IST