CHENNAI : I belong to a large family with a complicated web of extended relations, most of whom are staunch believers of the Hindu faith. The Ayyappa of Sabarimala has therefore been in and out of my life growing up. I remember as a young child going along with my mother for a pooja that takes place before a group (of men, obviously) set off on their trip — A far away uncle is a Guruswamy (a person who takes the pilgrimage year after year and guides the group that fasts and goes along with him).
Another memory from childhood pertaining to this very God was in the house that had seen the death of a very young cousin; the hallways were filled with murmurs of his time having come after he’d been to the temple an exact 18 times (the number of steps to the temple).
Now, this kind of belief may be routine in several families, and by no means is mine a representation of the world of faith holders. But what I do see as interesting is the women in my very home, and how they each hold an answer to the questions being posed in the post-verdict milieu. We are five of us in the house — across three generations and fit neatly into the categories of presently or post-menstruating.
My grandmother, into her eighties, is obviously post-menstrual, and has been for as long as I remember. Like many other grandmothers, mine is steeped in faith, and believes in the doing of ritual, rite, for God and for others, but I have no recollection of her either visiting the Sabarimala shrine or expressing an interest to go. When she could have made the trip as menopausal and young enough to have gone, her health wasn’t at its best.
My aunt is my grandmother’s daughter-in-law, and the kind of aunt I hope to be. She lives for adventure, has the longest days in the house and manages to keep everyone happy. She is a menstruating woman, a believer and may want to go to the temple before the pain in her legs get worse. But, because she believes in religion more than she does in the rule of law, she may never set foot inside the temple. And if she does, when a group of women gathers to go on a weekend trip, they will all be post-menstrual and within the religious mandate of visit.
My mother is said to have startled my dad in the very early days of their marriage by emptying her purse into the temple hundi. She is a person of faith yes, blindly at times of both God and the goddamn WhatsApp forwards and stand her ground with the ‘Do for God and you will be taken care of’ argument. My mother has one country on her wish list, but ask her about temples — there’s a never-ending list.
So, Sabarimala should technically be part of her list, and given that she has been post-menstrual since her thirties she should have visited the temple by now. The catch is that my mother is not fond of uphill treks or mountain temples and that becomes the reason she did not go even when could’ve two decades ago.
Then there is my sister, only a year younger than I am. She’s out to shatter the ceilings of the corporate world, feminist, and a half believer — partly of faith and mostly of the family’s feelings. That means my presently-menstruating sister may visit Sabarimala at the family’s behest, but because they will not, given the rules of religion, whether she will ever go remains hypothesis.
That leaves me, the person who inherited lists and obsession to perfection from my mother, but not belief in religion. I am mostly atheist, sometimes a closet prayer and always feminist. Though I have no interest in visiting the temple, I know in principle I must not only rebel religion that legitimises discrimination akin to untouchability and upholds a caste and gender hierarchy, but also to reclaim what the constitution holds for Indians.
In the women believers of my home is not a person who needs to be at Sabarimala for doing her job (power to you Shajila), nor those who will publicly participate to support a large cause of equality (each of the 50 lakh women in the Vanitha Mathil), but they speak of women who want to visit the shrine but are unable to, those that may go if the religious mandate ceases to exist, believers who may not want to go even if they can, feminists who are believers, and feminists and atheists who are in the centre of this simply because it is a subject of equality. I myself may not want to go, but I will defend the right of anyone who does — because Ayyappa Saranam and dharsanam is for everyone who cares to believe.