You should have been there...

You should have been there...


The other day, one of my female students was whining to me: "Ma'am, being a girl is so hard nowadays. You people must have had it easy growing up." Shocked to my core, I stared at her as I thought back on our GOD - the so-called Good Old Days.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was... the 70s. Parents had a different rule book for boys compared to girls, and the rule book for girls was thicker than the Indian Constitution (unabridged version) - filled with 'shouldn'ts', 'don'ts' and 'can'ts', especially in orthodox, middle-class families. We were brought up to be demure, society-fearing and husband-worshipping damsels. Yes, I'm serious!

It is true that for girls, there was no pressure to study. If the boys failed their PUC exams, they were punished. If we failed, the marriage broker began visiting. For us, there was only one main objective - marry a respectable boy in our community and earn praise from our in-laws. We had no real role-models except Indira Gandhi, but we knew it was a dynastic thing. Our only option was to live boring average lives like everyone else.

Now for the shouldn'ts, don'ts and can'ts.

To put it in a nutshell, boys were the privileged sex, and girls were the protected sex. Parents were police officers, aunts were High Court and, where girls were concerned, grandmothers were Supreme Court. We weren't allowed out by ourselves, we couldn't go out at night, and we had a  strict curfew. When we asked why, our parents had only one answer: "You aren't a boy!"

We were like circus animals. We were completely protected and well-fed, but expected to perform some tricks. We could go to school and study, but we had to be home by 6 pm, come hell or high water. Our parents knew all our friends and their addresses. Anytime we had to go out, we needed an ironclad reason. If we had to go out after sunset, we were escorted. Yes, our parents, uncles, brothers, cousins, even maids would be employed to escort us gate-to-gate, standing around aimlessly, while we girls exchanged notes or did 'combined study'. Remember, only a privileged few had phones, and there were no photocopiers.

As for going out with our girlfriends, the strength had to be five or more. Any boys included had to be brothers or cousins of the girls in the group. If we had to study or work outside our hometown, family or friendly 007s would be recruited, to keep tabs on us. And we had to live in a women's hostel or in a relative's home.

Valentina Tereshkova went into space; we went into the kitchen - to make tea and coffee, wash dishes and clothes, grate coconut, chop veggies, cook, clean house and help Mother. The kitchen was No Man's Land; it was solely the woman's.

Men didn't demean themselves sweeping, swabbing or washing clothes.

We had to set the table or the floor (most of us ate sitting on the floor) and clean up afterwards. These jobs were NOT to be done by the men of the family, be they two, 10, 20 or 200 years of age and perfectly capable of lifting a used plate. It was our sacred duty to serve them any time of day or night.

Any other tricks, you ask? Of course. Girls had to be 'accomplished' - in  rangoli, cooking and singing. The  rangolis  had to be at least one foot in diameter and coloured. The cooking had to be praised by neighbours. And the singing was not  Dum Maro Dum  - it was Carnatic music. Girls also had to be able to do crafts - paint, make dolls out of something or the other, weave baskets with plastic wires (the fad of the day), or do embroidery.

We were also forced to learn typewriting, shorthand and Hindi so that we could be 'employable'. We were not encouraged to go out and play sports; that was for boys. Reading was not on the preferred skill set list.

Long hair was in, braids were up, and skirts were down. Sundays were wasted on oiling hair with gingelly oil, soaking for an hour, and then washing with  shikakai  powder. Every day, we had to apply coconut oil, braid and tie up our braids with coloured nylon ribbons in a bow.

As for clothes, Dimple Kapadia wore handkerchiefs as skirts, but our hemlines had to be below the knee. The dress code was  langa-blouse  or half-sari. Uniform skirts and pinafores were barely tolerated. If you wore pants, dark glasses and high heels, and left your hair loose, you could give the Supreme Court, i.e., your grandmother, a heart attack. A black blouse in your wardrobe was mandatory because, in the 1970s, black was a match for all colours.

The average time spent on make-up by us was about a minute-and-a-half. Eyetex (a small round box with kajal), Shringar (a small cylindrical container of colloidal solution for  bindi) and Ponds Dreamflower Talc were our beauty essentials. If we wore lipstick and nail polish, we catapulted to ultramodern.

The worst was that we were responsible for everybody's morals. We girls had to save boys from the eye-popping-tongue-lolling-hands-wandering syndrome that afflicted them when any female two to 2,000-years-old walked past, by dressing ourselves very modestly and trying to be invisible to them. Of course, if anything untoward happened, it was our own fault. So we suffered in silence.

At this thought, I barely suppressed a shudder. Looking at my GenZ student, I put into use the three things my years growing up as a girl had taught me: passive-aggression, black humour and sarcasm.

"It was a piece of cake," I dead-panned. "You should have been there!"

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