Elle Mentors

My father, the feminist

My dad's thesis on feminism is hinged on one idea: self-reliance

For the most part, my father was raised by a single mother. He was born in Goa while my doctor grandfather was away in Africa—a tumultuous relationship that lasted 15 years before the good doctor succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver, a family inheritance. Watching his mother—a polyglot who can still ace mental mathematics at the age of 86—struggle to bring up five children on her own heavily influenced my father’s attitude towards women. It made him a lifelong feminist.

One of my favourite memories of spending quality time with my father was learning how to change a car tyre. Every Sunday, our family ritual began with treating our ears to the melodic stylings of Bob Marley and our brains to Derek O’Brien’s Bournvita Quiz Contest. Then we’d abandon all attempts at highbrow entertainment in favour of Stone Cold Steve Austin and the pyrotechnics of the WWF. One Sunday, right after Stone Cold had administered his Stone Cold Stunner to another silly challenger, my father announced that I was going to learn how to change a tyre. “You’re a girl, but you should never need a man to get things done,” he said.

We gathered up the tools, put on our most dispensable ‘home clothes’ and went downstairs to his precious Maruti 800. Because my father is not one for half measures, this lesson didn’t involve me standing at a safe distance while he demonstrated the right technique. I must have spent an hour fixing the jack, removing the hubcap bolts dragging the stepney into position and then replacing the hubcap, with my father only stepping in occasionally to provide the extra muscle.

When we returned home, tanned and greased like extras in a Charles Dickens play, my mother asked, “Did she manage?” “Manage? She did it by herself,” he replied. “Next week I’m going to teach her how to change a tap.”

In the school of Allan Pinto, feminism wasn’t about one-upping the opposite sex or rejecting the genteel ways of the female. His thesis on feminism was hinged on one idea: self-reliance.

It’s the reason my childhood was bereft of pocket money. Instead, my father insisted I take up internships and part-time jobs. My first paid gig was at age 11 as a child RJ on All India Radio, where a half-hour segment earned me the princely sum of Rs 150. This money was spirited away into a fixed deposit. When I graduated from college at 19, I paid for my first international vacation with the money I had made from summer jobs like that (and the birthday cash my parents had never let  us spend).

My father’s code of self-reliance is why my sister and I can ride his Enfield (she better than me) and drive both stick shift and automatic. Three female drivers in a family of four, all with the same teacher. 

kida scooter

He encouraged us to stay out of trouble, but also to defend ourselves when trouble arrived uninvited. Like the time a middle-aged creep tried to grope me in the tidal pool of an amusement park. All I remember in the moments that ensued was a fury of kicking, biting, scratching and punching. As the lifeguards tried pulling the groper out of the pool—their confused rescue efforts foiled by my determination to draw blood—I could hear my father shouting my name. Within seconds, he had arrived on the scene, calmly asking the guards and the cowering stalker why his daughter was foaming at the mouth. Nobody had a chance to respond. My father’s follow-up question was delivered by force of a cupped palm to my attacker’s left ear. The man saw stars.

Later, when tempers had been reigned in and an appropriate plan of action had been drawn up, my father turned to me and said, “Always remember, cup your hand like this and whack them on the ear as hard as you can. They won’t be able to move after that.”

Feminism: the good, bad and the ugly

Significantly, part of our feminist syllabus involved understanding that the women’s rights movement was not about denigrating men. The whole campaign had acquired a bit of a bad rap along the way, especially in India, where incidents of women subverting laws intended to protect the oppressed had muddied the waters.

He told me of how a family friend had become the target of a rape allegation—the result of a long-term relationship gone sour. The couple didn’t get along any more and marriage was no longer an option. Except, the woman’s family was now threatening to file a case of rape and fraud. “There are laws in this country that greatly empower women,” he cautioned. “You should be careful not to abuse them.”

In my father’s mind, it was not merely enough to hand us the tools of our empowerment—he also took responsibility for teaching us how to wield them.

For all the life lessons dished out over the dinner table and on long drives, the clearest indicator of my father’s feminist leanings is in his relationship with my mother. She’s always made more money than he has. A choir singer, baker, basketball champ and former crochet fiend, she’s also arguably more talented than he is. But theirs is a relationship of equals. He solicits new investment ideas, she vets them for safety. He washes the dishes, she finds a way to fit multiple leftovers into an already overstuffed fridge (an ancient magic known only to mothers). He bought a karaoke machine to encourage her to go solo, she tolerates his off-key accompaniment to ‘You Are My Sunshine’.

To be fair, my feminist ideas can’t be blamed on one person alone. My maternal grandmother was the OG rebel, eloping from a landlord’s family to marry a teacher with a strange accent and no money. My mother’s father insisted that both his daughters get jobs and be financially independent, having seen how poverty can be especially cruel to women. There were aunts who walked out on abusive husbands, classmates who defied conservative families to get themselves an education, colleagues who acted as mentors and close friends who were vocal in challenging societal restrictions.

Even the curated books in my family’s extensive home library were filled with female heroes, from Nancy Drew and Arundhati Roy to Indira Gandhi. And you know how dangerous it is to fill a young mind with such lofty ideas as equality and inclusiveness.

Today, when I call my father to tell him I assembled the new TV all by myself with nothing but the manual for help, he doesn’t sound the least bit surprised. And there is no greater compliment than that.