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From Confused to Confident
By Shubha Bala

A Tribute to Pattiamma: Our Silent Feminist

I had just gotten off the phone with my mom in India, and I really didn't know what to say. I awkwardly bumbled through the usual—Pattiamma, my grandma, had a long, wonderful life before passing away in her early 90s. She had witnessed not only grandchildren but great-grandchildren as well. I hung up feeling sad for my mother but ready for my daily work routine. I descended my stairs to the parking lot, but as I wrapped my fingers around my key and slid it into the ignition, that's when I felt her with me. Not in the spiritual, soul-following sort of way, but in realizing that even the simple freedom I have in driving a car was put in motion by her.

Pattiamma, not uncommonly for the time, had an arranged marriage at the age of ten to my grandfather, who was 19. As a child, her wedding day had one significance: party! She got to ride on an elephant; she played fancy dress-up; she devoured a special feast. Then her new husband left their Keralan village to return alone to Madras, where he was studying in university. My grandma continued her carefree childhood in the village, until she got her first period. As per the custom, she was then removed from school and sent by overnight train to the city to live as a dutiful wife and, shortly thereafter, mother.

It was through motherhood that her simple acts afforded freedom to future generations. Pattiamma had seven daughters and no sons. She largely obeyed her husband, also a forward-minded thinker. But when her oldest daughter finished college, she insisted that her daughters all receive Master's degrees before getting married. My grandfather obliged, and now every one of my aunts as well as my mother have at least a Master's degree. Her actions reflect the strength that women can play in their own lives. After being married at 10 and whisked away at 12, Pattiamma wanted to provide this new reality to her daughters, and they provided it to us, defying the narratives of the past.

Pattiamma. Photo by Deepa Swaminathan

Despite my appreciation for my history, I never learned Tamil. I tried when I got older. My cousin and I took lessons in Toronto with Sri Lankan kids who pronounced everything completely differently from my family. I took lessons in London with a sweet, elderly woman who couldn't tell me why some words were conjugated differently from others. My grandmother taught herself English, ultimately understanding it better than I understand Tamil. Still, I have no memories of having a complete conversation with her, besides my fast, nonsensical baby speech to which she would happily respond "babababababababababa." Despite the language barrier, I was determined to document her life. It was her life that incentivized me to buy a video camera and to learn how to tell stories. But when I tried to record her talking about the amazing decisions she made, she would refuse to: "What amazing? It was just life!"

She was a silent feminist. First and foremost, she was a dutiful mother and wife. She did not make placards and walk around in protest. Unlike me, her life was more important than intellectual debates over coffee. For example, as a young mom, she decided not to follow the tradition separating menstruating women from the family, house or kitchen. My aunts grew up never holding to this religious perception that women are inherently dirty. I grew up never even knowing such a rule existed.

She was a silent activist. I called my mom the day after Pattiamma passed away. She told me that all the daughters gathered in Chennai for 13 days of prayers have been reminiscing about their mother. I told her that I was writing this article which prompted her to recount another story. As a Brahmin, in a culture where the caste system ruled, Pattiamma never discriminated. My mom remembered that the servants ate off the same plates as she and her sisters, sitting amongst all of them, equally partaking in a meal.

One of my cousins told me that the beauty of Pattiamma was that everyone felt they had a uniquely, special relationship with her. I didn't see her very often, and when I did, communication was almost impossible. The special relationship I have with her is my whole life. She wanted to create the freedom for others that she did not have, and she did this beyond what her ten-year-old-self could have imagined. I'm free to quit my high-paying job to go to grad school. I'm free to scrape by on a public radio salary. I'm free to wait until 28 to hold out for the perfect guy—and that guy can be whoever I want it to be. I called my boyfriend telling him that my mom was fine, my grandmother had lived a great life and she died peacefully and without suffering. But after those cliché sentiments, I hung up with, "Not a lot of people in my life have passed away, but I really feel that the world has suffered a loss without her in it."

Shubha Bala is currently a producer for the public radio show Speaking of Faith. She has been published in ABCDlady and Ego Magazine and has been known to occasionally mention something about India and Hinduism on her personal blog Ganesha's Scarf (


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