I scurried into the Tagore dining hall at exactly 1 pm on a cruel Wednesday afternoon. It seemed that the Western Winter had not taken kindly to the sudden break in our long-term relationship. She’d phoned her sister hemisphere and demanded retribution. The East did not spare me a single sun ray. Kavitha had beaten me to the lunchroom—an unforgivable detail since it is located inside of my hostel. She sits, quietly adjusting her pink and orange kurta, and pours herself a glass of water. I apologize for my tardiness- I was five minutes ahead of schedule- and she bobbles her head from side to side to dismiss my concerns. “There is no such thing as late in India,” she says and besides, she was early.
As I settle into my seat, she produces several Tupperware containers and places them delicately on the table. The hostel food is horrible- she has brought her own lunch. I ask her what she’s prepared and she details the spread: daal, leftover veg cutlets from breakfast, and a bowl of egg curry prepared especially for me. It is a vibrant red color, vaguely spicy, and aromatic. I am thrilled.
I accept the food graciously, as I would if it had been offered by my madrina. And as she prepared my plate- without asking for permission- the deeply ingrained tradition of negro ancestral respect and honor was instantly transplanted on to this fairer, foreign woman. The garment did not fit her awkwardly. The respect was justified, so I did not question it. After all, Kavitha is a married mother of two beautiful, rapidly developing children. She completed her Bachelors and Masters in the Arts at the University of Hyderabad. Her field of expertise is social science and women’s studies. She has a lot to say and very little time within her schedule to say it. She is a woman who commands no respect but to whom it is naturally offered as easily as a fleeting smile between two passersby or a Negro head nod.
Aside from her life accomplishments, Kavitha Gooty has a candid, welcoming air about her. When I began my interview, I started by asking a question that I felt I knew the answer to. I couldn’t gage whether I wanted to be surprised or validated.
What are you most thankful for right now?
She needed clarification, “In what sense?” she asks, the pad of a prepared bite resting comfortably between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s a big question. I’m thankful for my family… my parents especially. Whatever I am right now would not be possible without their support… My father never treated girls and boys separate. Maybe it’s because he came from a trade union background.”
In that moment, I realized that sometimes an individual cannot help but answer the question underlying the one explicitly posed. Here we were, a woman and a bud, sitting over curries talking about womanhood when the question was about gratitude.
“I am a 5th and 6th generation educated person. I think that made a major difference. That allowed me to go to University and get an education. They encouraged me a lot.”
She popped the now cold pod of rice and curry into her mouth and looked at me expectantly. In that moment, the remainder of my questions felt inadequate and staged. I was immediately aware that I was seeing what she wanted me to see. But was there any other way?
In my experience, the best way to get a person to tell you something that they don’t mean to tell you is to let them speak for several minutes and then ask them about what they didn’t say. When you interrogate silence, you often find noise.
For Kavitha, the prodding question was “but are you happy?” It was an impulse inquiry that stemmed from the subconscious recognition that I didn’t know something that I ought to have known. That I wasn’t told something that I ought to have been told.
But before I could hear the silence I first had to hear the words that spilled readily out of Kavitha’s mouth. Organized. Prepared.
Is there any life story that you would like to share with me?
She gazes off into the distance, looking somewhere between the 2nd realm and the bug zapper. “I have many stories, but I’m looking to pick one” she jumbles some rice around her plate and frowns- weighing, contemplating, deciding. “Let me share something about my marriage. My father was a very open man. When they began to look for marriage proposals my father asked me, ‘do you have anyone in mind?’
I smiled faintly across the table, noticing her hands shimmer as she spoke- the ethnic accompaniment to oral narration. We had crossed a checkpoint, a small one, but a checkpoint nonetheless. That point came in the form of omission. Never did Kavitha pause to explain that she’d had an arranged marriage. Such a fact could be inferred or assumed. The fact that she trusted that I make that assumption spoke volumes. I appreciated it.
“They [her parents] set up a profile for me on bharatmatrimony.com and I met my husband through that. After we matched, my husband came directly to my home to meet my parents. This was unusual in Indian context. Usually, the man comes with their parents and extended family. However, he came on his own to meet my parents and said that if he approved he would bring his parents.”
When my brow crinkled, her already searching eyes noticed and offered an explanation to my unspoken question. Yes, her husbands’ methods were unconventional, almost distrusting. Her husband hailed from a rural, conservative community. His parents highly objected to their son marrying an urban, working, educated woman.
As Kavitha spoke her cheeks flushed and revealed their passions. A professional woman with unprofessional problems. With steady voice and shaking hands she continued, “My in-laws did not believe that I would be willing to obey my husbands’ wishes, take care of the home, have and raise children. My father was unwilling to permit the marriage unless my husband was sure that he would accept me as I was. [My husband] decided that he was committed and took to the task of convincing his parents.”
It was a tale of agency and robbed personhood. Assertion and unspoken sacrifice. Before she accepted her prospective proposal, Kavitha made 2 demands.
- She would complete her Ph.D.
- She would remain financially independent and work until she wanted to retire.
She speaks of her pre-marital contract with a distinct sense of pride. In some ways, she accomplished more with two demands than many women accomplish in a lifetime. In the end, she fulfilled one of her wishes. She continues to work within the Social Sciences and contribute to her independence. However, due to pressure from her in-laws and a wish to disprove their stereotypes she was unable to complete her Ph.D.
… but are you happy?
The question spilled out of my mouth with all the clumsiness of American assertion. I regretted it and so, I think, did she. I began to second guess my decision to use her name in this interview.
What if her husband found our transcripts or her children? Did she fear a backlash from her in-laws or her own family or did she hope that they find it? Had our discussion developed into a private affair or was this interview a platform from which she could voice and amplify her opinions?
I lean towards the latter. Moments after I posed my clumsy question, Kavitha leaned forward in her chair, bangles clanging against the table and said:
“No matter what, in India, no matter how progressive men are, they still expect their wives to serve and satisfy them. When [these men] leave the progressive women’s march, you will see them go home and sit watching television while their wives cook for them.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if the woman across the table was familiar with one of these men.
So, do you think these stereotypes and conservative expectations about women are widespread?
“Yes, absolutely. I’m afraid that they are everywhere.”
When Kavitha spoke, her mouth turned downwards into an anti-smile. She did not appear sad, just bemused and I was afraid that there was no more to be said. As she continued to eat, I flipped through the transcripts of the interview. What I found was an utter absence of the woman sitting across from me.
I repositioned myself in my seat and gazed across the table. When I realized that I knew nothing at all, I suddenly wanted to know more.
What does womanhood mean to you—or does it mean anything at all?
“What I feel is… It’s very difficult because I wanted to go beyond womanhood if it is permitted. I think the more we start- though it is important to talk about the issues and such- but when we talk about things in isolation it is impossible for everyone to fully understand. A man will never understand the pain that a woman goes through in pregnancy. I tell my husband and children: “this is not my own problem, this is all our problems”… Inclusion adds to the strength of your fight”
For Kavitha, womanhood and women’s issues are human issues. The sooner that she can escape the confines of womanhood and become, simply, human the better.
“My son is only 5 and he is too small to understand these things. Now he’s watching movies and television. That is my problem.” She shakes her head and finishes her last sip of water. “The sexist messages are pervasive in this culture. While playing, my son told his sister, “I am going to work and you go cook the food.” After some time I asked him, “Why did you say this? I cook and go to work and your dad goes to work as well.” He replied, “but Dad never cooks the food”’
We both smiled humorless smiles, “So you see how much a child can absorb unconsciously.”
“To beat something with a culture is very difficult. Finances we can beat. Politics we can beat. In Pakistan, they had a woman prime minister… we can barge into those [political] spaces and take over. Culture is never “wrong” but the interpretation is difficult. People will say, ‘this is your role and this is your role’ and that is sealed. But there needs to be dialogue and discussion within the household… and between partners. It is hard to solve these challenges with cultural barriers. There is a dichotomy. Men and women might have different strengths but these strengths must be treated equally. Every moment women fight for equality. Even to fight is a challenge in many communities. Women in India wait for someone else to take the responsibility to fight for them—not in all cases of course—but women are often trained to wait for others to move. Parents will say, “oh you want to go out? Take your brother” or “you want to do something? Ask your father.” Women are taught to put their individual freedom in the hands of men, even though men rely every day on the strengths of women.”
I smiled at Kavitha. She had become noticeably more invested in the conversation than before. Her plate of food had gone largely unfinished, water had been furiously gulped down, and our chairs were at least five inches closer. I checked my watch. The time was 1:49 pm. I had a 2 pm class. I should have ended our discussion, but I did not. Instead, I said,
It seems like you crave balance. Social balance, gender balance, familial balance, balanced representation etc.
“In the olden days, my Grandma used to give the example of the bullock cart… In order to move the bullock cart, you need two tires. It is not a question of superiority, we all agree that we are all born with certain inequalities, but we should not do things to highlight these things. We never have the patience to appreciate each other’s talents and help each other when they are weak. Without having equality and understanding between the genders and the disparities between genders created by society we will not move forward as a society.
I closed my laptop with finality. The time was 2:16 pm. There was indeed nothing left to say.