Marginalia: On Celebrating Raksha Bandhan

[For a bit more cultural context and history, see this earlier post first.]

Growing up in India, during our school and early college years, my sisters and I were deeply envious of our girlfriends who had older brothers. This was because it made a huge difference to a Bombay girl’s social life in those days. If you had an older brother, and if you were lucky enough to be accepted by his gang, you could hang out all hours at various trendy spots around the city. My three best friends in school had older brothers. And, while they talked often of taking off in their parents’ or brother’s cars to posh restaurants, town-side theaters to watch English movies, elite bars or night clubs, ice-cream or coffee joints, my sisters and I would barely be allowed outside the Juhu-Parle-Andheri-Santa-Cruz-Khar-Bandra environs — and, only if we were not going alone, took private transportation (taxis or autos only), and promised to return at a respectable time.

A couple of worldly-wise friends who did not have older brothers managed to latch onto older male cousins or “rakhi brothers” (boys or men whom they accepted as brothers through the rakhi ritual every year). For us sisters, even these options were not possible as none of our male cousins lived near enough. And, our parents were not at all fooled by the whole “rakhi brother” concept, nor did they fully trust any man who wasn’t immediate family — which, actually, was rather a relief to us because we did n0t care much for it either.

When our younger brother came along, he was a decade or so younger than all of us and, rather than him being our chaperone, we were his babysitters as he grew up. By the time he came of an age where he could potentially be a protector of sorts, we were all either married or global career professionals, taking care of ourselves and other loved ones.

Looking back now at those sheltered (and, sadly, somewhat deprived) lives, we understand the abundance of caution our parents, who were first-generation immigrants to the big, bad city of Bombay themselves, had taken. In those pre-internet, pre-cellphone days, young girls could be picked up by strangers against their will and, often, never found again. Though we sisters prided ourselves on not being naïve to the ways of the world, hindsight now shows how truly innocent we were then. Even if nothing bad might have happened to us, had we been allowed to go about freely without male family protection, the stigma that was attached, unfairly, to middle-class girls and women who roamed about freely would have ensured that we did not find “good” husbands. Because, even in big cities, gossip among social circles could annihilate one’s character entirely without one’s knowing it. It just took being spotted once in a mixed group at an odd hour to get the rumor mills going. And then, the social shunning that began also quickly extended, beyond the hapless girl, to her parents and other family members too.

It did n0t help that, in those years, the two most popular forms of media, Bollywood and TV/billboard advertising, portrayed the sister-brother relationship in the age-old ways too. We were inundated, from all angles, with overt messaging about how women needed strong brothers to take care of them till a husband came along. And then, sometimes, even after that.

What eventually allowed us to break house rules was, quite simply, a change of heart on our mother’s part. When we were not allowed to go out much, we girls started to invite our girlfriends home. Through some of them, our mother, who had led a pretty tethered life till then herself, learned that the world is not such a wicked, bad place after all. Here were our friends, all from respectable homes but with jobs and quasi-independent lives, marking their places in the world. She also saw that, given our Westernized outlooks (honed through years of reading Western literature and cable TV), we were not made for her kind of wifehood and motherhood. Her enlightenment was gradual and came, mostly, in the form of wry realizations that none of us could live a life like hers with the typical Indian husband and his family. She would, in moments of unexpected candidness, worry out loud that, if we did not have something of our own to fall back on, if we did not have our own means of survival in our hands, we would not have happy lives. Often, I wondered, when she talked to us like this, whether it meant that she had been unhappy all the while, her entire life given to the servitude of our family. Of course, she must have had her ups and downs, like all women.

So, on this Raksha Bandhan, I think of how, rather than some male protector looking out for us, we sisters have our mother to thank more than anything else: for how she eventually decided that we all needed to have independent careers and lives of our own rather than being beholden to any brother, or husband, or father. If it had n0t been for her, my older sister would not have taken a city job right in the middle of her degree, even going full-time and finishing the rest of her education via distance learning. If it had not been for my mother’s pushing, I would not have passed my A-levels and gone to the UK to study engineering. Both my younger sisters were also encouraged to take jobs in fields they chose and, when my parents moved to another city for business reasons, the sisters stayed on in Bombay to continue their work. Our mother did all this by pushing back against our father’s reluctance, telling him that the world was changing and we had to move with the times. In the face of her passion and enthusiasm for our futures, his cautiously-drawn boundaries fell away.

Over the years, when I have tied a rakhi to my younger brother’s wrist, I have also felt a silent relief that I have not had to be dependent on his or anyone’s “protection”. The ritual, to me, is symbolic of my appreciation for him as my brother, and of my wishes for his well-being and success. That is all. And, since my mother’s passing away last year, this annual ritual will now be yet another reason to remember and thank her for ensuring that we sisters can take the world on our own terms whenever and however we choose. That, because of her, though it has not been easy at all, we have both happy AND meaningful lives. And, that, because of her, we understand the very important differences between the two.

Of course, thinking this way about this ancient tradition got me questioning why we do not have one for celebrating our female siblings too. As we grow and create our own worlds, most siblings tend to drift apart, no matter how close the bonds might have been during childhood. Certainly, this has happened in our family. So, a thought: why not make Raksha Bandhan about renewing, celebrating, and appreciating the sibling bond — with both brothers and sisters? Some might groan that this sounds very “Hallmark-y”. But, when a tradition is so deeply entrenched in our culture, clearly, we cannot simply do away with it. Rather, we can and should definitely adapt that tradition to be relevant to the way we live today. After all, we don’t still practice Sati, the tradition that originated about the same time as this one did.

So, on this upcoming Raksha Bandhan day, I urge you all to do just that: renew, celebrate, and appreciate all your siblings. Protect and cherish your unique bonds with each one of them. Go on, tie a rakhi to the wrists of all your siblings.


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