Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan: Keeping Corners

2 min

A shameful Hindu tradition kept Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan's grandmother from caring for her dying child.

1951. My grandma’s 1-year-old baby daughter was dying of bronchitis at a time when antibiotics were not easily available. My grandma was on her period. This tradition of “keeping corners” was one that was practiced strictly by upper-caste Hindus. No one was allowed near menstruating women. As per tradition, my grandma sat in a corner away from her dying baby.

They say maternal instinct is so strong that a woman would put her life in danger to save her child’s. But the stranglehold of tradition was stronger: My grandma had to watch other women in the family try to give solace to the baby as she coughed and cried herself to death. She couldn't even touch her baby to say goodbye.

My grandma talked wistfully about this baby decades after this incident. The pain of the loss cast a shadow on her face every time the memory came back to her. My mother grew up traumatized by having to watch her baby sister die without being comforted by her mother.

My mother questioned tradition. That taught me that tradition is not sacrosanct. But I could sense even in my mother confusion about which customs to keep and which ones to discard. I was taught to avoid temples of worship when I was on my period because menstruating women are unclean. But wasn’t that the same line of thinking that prevented my grandma from holding her dying child?

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Today, women’s empowerment is a popular topic in corporate America. I have a rough idea that I had more choices in life than my mother. I could get an education and hold a job. But there are unspoken rules and invisible boundaries in my life, too. I want my daughter to understand the age-old traditions that did not serve women well that her mother, her grandmother and the women who came before them sometimes fought, sometimes lived with, and many a time passed down to subsequent generations.

With a Perspective, I’m Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan.

Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State and lives in Los Gatos.