A Woman: As a Girl, Daughter, Sister, Wife, Daughter-in-law, Mother, and Grand Mother
I went to see my mother at her daughter’s place, where she is living. When I arrived there, she was in the kitchen, preparing a meal. What I saw at that time was not a surprise to me because that was her usual place since her childhood (as she told me) and as long as I have known her. It would be a surprise to me if she was not there. Anyway, whenever I go there she never forgets to ask, “What do you want to eat?” and she tells me all the food she has prepared and shows me the different food items. I also always eat something whenever I go there. Most of the time, I never expect or ask her to serve me because I do not want to give additional work to her. Therefore, the other day also, I got myself something to eat from which she showed me while I told her, “I wanted to talk to you about your life. Finish your work and come. I will wait until that.” Asking or hearing about her life is not a new thing for me because I always wanted to write about her life but it has not happened yet. At the same time, she also tells us about her past once in a while whenever she feels the need. Therefore, my sisters and I know a little bit here and there about her life. However, this time I talked with her more purposefully.
Her name is Vasanathadevi and she was born in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, on May 26, 1946, after the devastated world war two. She had seven siblings, who are younger than her. She studied only up to grade 10 because she said that she was not good at her studies. However, she was interested in sports like track and field, high jump and long jump. But, she married early at age nineteen and had three children within four years. Now she is taking care of her grandchildren, the children of her daughter and supporting them in many ways for a better life for her daughter. However, her life has been not as simple as I have described above.
Her childhood was hard, as usual for all other women, particularly for eldest, especially in those days when no one cared about women’s education, career and even their lives, not only in South Asian countries but in other parts of the world too. Her mother, taught her how to cook. Therefore, in her teenage years, she learned to cook as usual in this society for every girls, so woman.
There was an incident that she could not forget is there was an ethnic riot that happened for the first time in Sri Lanka in 1958 when some racist groups of Sinhala people attacked the Tamil people. She remembers well, at that time, she ran with her siblings to pick up food parcels dropped from helicopters.
Her father was very strict with his children. He worked as military personnel and then worked in Ceylon (Sri Lankan) Railways. He also loved her very much. Whenever he was at home he used to raise, discipline and control all his children according to the Tamil Hindu culture and conditions. She was so obedient to him and had respect for him and did whatever he asked and expected of her. However, her father decided to arrange a marriage for her because she did not study well. Therefore, she did not have a chance to be trained for a work outside the home as a professional or worker either. She also did not have that many thoughts and dreams about her education, career, and future life on her own other at that time than marrying a good person who worked in a government department and had no habits of drinking or smoking. Most of the middle class women like her in those days had no career ideas for themselves for their future other than being good daughters for their families, loving house wives for their husbands, better daughter-in-laws for their husband’s families and good mothers for her children. The lack of education made them not think or dream about their developments, independence and future lives.
Her life entered into another stage when her father arranged a person who was a far away relative for her father to marry her. However, she told that, she could not even tell about her desires and dreams about her future husband but had to just accept her father’s choice. Hence, she got married to that person who became her husband. He was a full time Communist Party member at that time and worked in the Party’s paper as an editor for low wages. However, after her marriage, her father passed away because of a heart attack and her relationship with her family was broken and she did not tell what the cause was for this breakup. Therefore, her life totally depended on her husband-the new man in her life. Since then, she never saw her family except two times, first after fifteen years in 1983 and second time after another twenty five years in 2008 except three brothers, two of them used to visit her until 1983 and the other one have contacts until now . However, she met her mother only in the first time with her sisters and brothers in 1983 and in the second time met only her sisters who settled for a long time in Europe. Now she has the contacts with everyone except one brother because no one knows where he is. However, she has still not met her four brothers after 1983.
Her married life had its own difficulties. After she got married to her husband, she faced a lot of new problems. Her husband was arrested by the Sri Lankan government because of political turmoil at that time between 1969 and 1971 called as “chequvera trouble” and he was in and out of jail for two and a half years. She had been left to face her life alone with her three small children - actually babies, one boy and two girls and without any income in her young age. Her husband was in jail when her third daughter was born. She did not have a relationship with her family, or any basic education or any work experience to look after her children. The only relationship left was her husband’s side but in South Asian countries it is really hard for women who have no money and education to go and live in their husband’s place and depend on them especially without their husband. On top of this, women like her face more problems because her husband’s family had a chance to blame her that because of her fate, her husband went to jail. Therefore, she decided to live alone and did some house work for neighbours and also went to the Party office to get some financial help. In those days she faced many problems as a young mother with three children, without any income and without any help. On the other hand, she tried hard to get her husband out from jail by going to jail and talking to army officers and Party leaders. She used to tell that some army personals like to help her because of her colour which is yellowish but South Asian people call it as white colour and women with that colour has lots of demand. Most of the South Asian men are affectionate with that “white” colour woman.
She had gone through another level of life experience after her husband got out from the jail because he was expelled from the Party since it had internal political conflicts. As a result, he was without a job but became addicted to alcohol and smoking. How he became like this is a question because, it was reported that he used to be a joint secretary for youth organization of communist party (Chinese wing) with Rogana Vijaweera who was the leader of JVP and led the 70’s uprising against Sri Lankan government but he? This is another story to write about. However, she had a terrible time in those days without money, proper food and housing. Since then most of the time she lived in a very small place, actually one room which can accommodate only five people that is her family members and also moved place to place and had food one or two times day because of lack of food and money and never had a house of her own. Even though, she did her best to feed her children and keep her family alive. However, later, after 1990, at least for some time, her life recovered from these day to day life problems. But it never lasted for a long time because in 1994, her husband was killed by an unknown person in front of her and children when they prepared to have their dinner. This incident happened because of another political conflict and conflict political situation. This might be a small incident compare to what happened in Northern Sri Lanka between April and May 2009. Because of this she got a chance to migrate to Canada in 1996. Therefore, she decided to adopt her husband’s sister’s daughter who has been with her since she (husband’s sister’s daughter) has born and then she left the country with her children. Since then she has been taking care of her adopted daughter and her daughter’s three kids. Now, she is sixty five but still has more energy and is still working hard like young girl/women. She is still young in her mind and she can take better care of any child up to five years of age. After that she does not know how to handle this new generation of kids because of her traditional mind and lack of knowledge about child rearing in this developed country. She likes to cook and eat different food items especially hot and sweet foods and after long time it is available in her life but having lot of health problems, she has been prohibited to eat them. However, her only expectation is to see that her children are living happy with their family and if there is a chance, she would like to meet all her sisters and brothers in her parent’s home where she grow up some time in Sri Lanka, before she dies.
I said good bye while I began preparing myself to leave. She went back to the kitchen to finish the rest of the work for the day. This is what she has been doing all her life. Born as a girl and has been grown up as a female, she cooked as a daughter for her parent’s family. Same time, as an elder sister helped her siblings, as a obedient daughter listened to her father to marry someone whom he arranged, then, had been a lovely wife and served for her husband, had been a good daughter-in-law by respecting her husband’s family. After that, has been a caring mother by taking care of her children, actually husband’s children because that is how it is defined in this andocentric society and mother’s duty is to take care and raise his children for his heritage. That is why they prefer children as boys than girls. Finally, being a caring grandmother looking after her grandchildren and also serving as a mother-in-law. Since her childhood, her duties and social and gender roles has been changing according to others needs, expectations and situations but no one ever asked her what she likes and her needs and expects. No one cares about those matters as long as she follows whatever she has been assigned to as a duty as a social role that was/is fine with everyone because she fulfills her responsibilities/ duties. However, she never stops as a working woman as a cook which is an unpaid and under-valued or “not counted” as a job until now. She has been living like this because she has no basic education at least to do a basic level job. The same situations have been faced by many women in many countries even in developed countries but particularly in developing countries.
Women have been discriminated against like this by this andocentric society, by restricting or not giving an opportunity and encouraging for a basic education and not showing or guiding them to be an independent individual human being for themselves in the society. Even she as a woman and human being not only never questioned her life and status, but also had no ideas or dreams about her future life like what she likes to become. Other than being a good daughter, marrying a person and being a wife, having children and being a mother and being totally an unpaid house worker because of her lack of education. However, she always likes to share her experience with others, therefore, she felt happy when I asked for an interview and wholeheartedly participated. May be your mother too. Why do not you try?
Here is some sample questions you can asked your mother, unfortunately, if she is not alive, you can ask her relatives. We can publish a book about our mothers’ stories for our future the generations.
Here is some sample questions you can asked your mother, unfortunately, if she is not alive, you can ask her relatives.
It is not enough to provide a transcript of your interview, you must also think analytically and reflectively about the questions.
Questions you ask her:
1. When and where were you born?
2. What were your parents like? (e.g., ethnic, religious, and economic background).
3. What were the important influences on you as a child?
4. What was your relationship like with your mother? Your father?
5. Did you work outside the home?
6. What are your main interests?
7. Are there some things that you have always wanted to do but never had the opportunity?
8. Add questions of your own.
Questions answered by you:
1. What have you learned from doing this interview? Are there areas of your mother's/mentor/wise woman’s life experience that you have learned about for the first time? Do you have any new understandings about your mother/mentor/wise woman now?
2. How do you feel about your mother/mentor/wise woman now?
3. What was your mother's/mentor/wise woman’s reaction to being interviewed?
4. Other comments.
Source: Howe, Karen G. (1989). Telling our mother's story: Changing daughters' perceptions of their mothers in a women's studies course. In R. K. Unger (Ed.), Representations: Social constructions of gender (pp. 45-60). Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company, Inc.