My grandfather has always encouraged my independence. When I broke off an engagement with a man I know my grandfather had come to love, he surprised me when he said, “For the first time, you are not living under the control of a man.” Last year, when I objected to an ancient Hindu belief that says a grandfather goes to heaven if the firstborn of his firstborn son (which is me) is a son, Dadaji joked: “God is a male chauvinist pig, you must have figured that out by now. No matter what God, what religion, they are unanimous on this!” A few months ago, he told me that he was adding a third meaning to my name. “In Sanskrit, ‘Prachi’ means destroyer of darkness and Goddess of the rising sun. And, in your case, terminator of the male ego.” We both laughed.
These statements are not what one expects to hear from your average American millennial, let alone an 86-year-old Indian immigrant and family patriarch. But my grandfather, who tears up at the mention of Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, the girl who was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school, has, in recent years, begun to identify as a feminist. He is one of the only men in my family to identify as such. When I told my Dadaji (which means father’s father in Hindi) that I wanted to interview him about how he became a feminist, he didn’t understand why. “You want to talk to me about something that I don’t know about!” he exclaimed.
Dadaji’s speech is poetry. His voice is thick and knotty like a Banyan tree, lilted by a slight slur and punctuated by a stutter from a stroke he suffered a few years ago. He speaks in concise, pithy sentences and half-sentences, weaving between the sardonic and the serious so quickly that either he, or myself, is always on verge of laughter. He hugs not with his arms but with his hands, showing me how much he misses me with each light, excited pitter patter on my back. The constant pain from sciatica has made him stiff, but the light in his eyes dances like a flame and in the reverberations of his animated voice I can feel the weight of his life. As all of his children’s children have reached adulthood, he passes his time reading the philosophy of Krishnamurthi, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and history books about the Mughal Empire. I have a tattoo of my name in his handwriting in Hindi, and so now he calls me his “signature granddaughter.” He is only 5'3", but to me, he has never seemed small.
He was born in 1931 in India, the year after Mahatma Gandhi marched 240 miles across the country to defy British colonial rule to make his own salt. On the night he was born, his father, a doctor and freedom fighter, was locked up in a British jail cell for writing articles and inciting protest against the white colonialists. My grandfather spent his first years as a student in one of Gandhi’s ashrams in Gujarat, which roused an intellectual curiosity that he would follow the rest of his life. From there, they moved to Kota, Rajasthan, where my great-grandfather served as a court physician to one of the few remaining Rajasthani kings and ran a hospital of Ayurvedic medicine. Then, when my grandfather was nine, his father caught an infection from a patient. After battling the illness for a few months, he died. My great-grandmother was no more than 30.
In those days, because she was a woman, she was blocked from receiving inheritance, could not remarry, and was not considered a member of her father’s house. Her father was a rich landowner who built a 35,000-square-foot house that took up an entire street block, but tradition dictated that she was now her deceased husband’s family’s responsibility. They turned their backs on her, and so, upon her brother’s insistence, her father reluctantly took her in. In those first few months, as my 9-year-old grandfather was rubbing his Nanaji’s feet with oil, he overheard the men talking about where to send my grandfather’s young uncle to school. “I realized,” my grandfather recalled with a heavy, cracking voice, “they’re training me as a servant.”
Looking back at Dadaji’s childhood, I don’t know which was more painful for him: to dare to dream, or to not dream at all. I suspect he vacillated precariously from one extreme to the other. There were no schools in Haldaur, the town his Nanaji lived in, so he stayed in a neighboring city in the same tiny house as his mother’s cousin, his wife, and their nearly one-dozen children until he was 15. He learned Sanskrit, English, and history, but no science or math was offered in what he describes as a “backwards place.” But when he saw another boy in his class pursue science, he decided he could do it, too. He had earned a reputation as a good student and was admitted into a senior high school in another city where he learned, and then aced, subjects like physics, chemistry, and math while on a partial scholarship. After graduating from the 12th grade, his grandfather had offered him a job as a caretaker for a plot of land, a job that would guarantee Dadaji at least a steady, if meager, income and a roof over his head. Instead, he applied to an engineering college. He graduated from Birla Engineering College (now called Birla Institute of Technology and Science) in 1952 as the valedictorian of his class. He could not afford the train ride back to Pilani to attend his graduation ceremony. He received his gold medal by mail.
Dadaji went on to become a computer software engineer for companies like International Computers Limited, a competitor of IBM that in 1990 was sold to Fujitsu, and General Electric (back when they had a computer division). We joke and say that he invented buffering (“It’s a good idea, but,” he shrugs it off, saying, “I hate to call it an invention”). After three months of training in the head office in England, the new class at ICL was given a timed test. One of the questions asked them to find a way to cut down the time of a particular computing process. “Everybody was trying to cut down on instructions, and I sat down for 20 minutes to think about it as to where is the time being lost,” he says. “And I found out the time is being lost in waiting for the data to come back from the disk to the data. So I then and there thought of buffering.” That cut the processing time down to “almost nothing,” he said. ICL sent the other trainees off, but asked him to stay for another few months. “They asked me to write a number of programs for the computer,” he said, but ultimately didn’t hire him in the British division because of immigration issues. “So at the end of a couple of months, they gave me a free tour of Europe.” He returned to the India branch and was happy with the compensation.
Later, a prominent Harvard-educated industrialist approached him with a project and a chance to make my grandfather a rich man in India. But he rejected the offer, reasoning, “I can’t feed my kids money,” and brought his wife and three kids to Canada. He hoped they would have more opportunities in life than he had. “After my father’s death, I felt like a train derailed,” he says, looking back at his life. “He left without any money, without any place to live, and I see myself as I brought the train back on the track.”
As his native country struggled to build its own identity, Dadaji never quite found a place for himself within it. “This is what happens when, in a foster home, you are told: you don’t belong here. We will educate you, we will feed you, but that’s it,” he told me. “You don’t interact with the world. You are not part of family discussions. They keep you out of that. You cannot participate in the decisions. You are an outsider. And you are told, nothing here belongs to you.” Being an outsider, never truly having a home—those are things he says made his personality “lopsided.” When I suggest that it also allowed him to view a system from the outside-in, to always question his surroundings, and to continue to hope for better, he agrees. “Yes.”
His challenges, inextricably linked with his mothers’, awakened him to the realities of women, and imprinted upon him the belief that education was the way out of poverty. “I have seen how difficult it was for her to live after she became a widow,” he says of his mother, who was not college-educated. “And I have seen how difficult it was for women without education.”
He grew up witnessing the feats of strong women surviving, like him, in improbable circumstances. One woman, especially, who impressed him: the principal at an all-girls school for low-caste women known as “untouchables,” where his mother had found work. Dadaji only visited it in the summers, but he got a glimpse of a single mom who was raising three daughters on her own, running a school, and had somehow also completed a PhD during that time. “She was a very impressive character,” he recalls. Of some other girls and women he knew growing up, he said, “Later on, they were teachers and they were principals, and I found their company very enlightening. They were very progressive, they were very capable.”
Well into his adulthood, in both America and India, women were a man’s economic burden. “I see the world is a better place when women are educated and they work side by side with men,” he says now. “It’s much better for the family and for the world. I see the results. You know, for 10,000 years, women were second-class citizens, and it didn’t run very well.”
Unlike most Indian men of his generation, he balks at the idea of arranged marriage. “I think life is much happier if husband and wife, both are equal,” he said. “I just don’t like the idea of arranged marriage. I just don’t like the idea. What is this? This may have been, at one time, it may have been okay—the girls were not educated and the parents have to marry them. But nowadays when there is education, [women] are sensible enough. They are reasonable, and if they make mistakes—so do parents. In arranged marriage also.”
But as progressive as his views are now, my grandfather was a traditional husband and father who could be overprotective, strict, and overbearing—especially with his daughter. When my aunt and uncle were considering moving in together before marriage, he was so angry that he refused to speak to my aunt for days. But then he came around, and told her something like this: “I didn’t ask you for your permission when I brought you to this country, so I can’t get mad at you for following the rules of the culture you are in now. You should do what you want.” On her wedding day, my grandfather forbade her from keeping her surname. “I regret my answer that day,” he says to me now. “I should have talked to her, I should have reasoned with her.”
His attitudes have since softened and his approach with his grandchildren has been far more accepting. When I ask him about what he thinks of his granddaughters dating and living with their boyfriends (by which I am referring to just myself), he pauses. “I think, you know, that the 1000 year-old model of family of marriage, of husband and wife and family life—that has come to an end. That’s not workable. So I see the young people are experimenting with new ways of living. And they will make mistakes, then they will find out a new order.”
“[In the] old traditional way, you know, women had no place,” he continues. “They were secondary. When half the people of the world are second class citizens, it doesn’t work. I can see the results. The world is a much better place that women are educated now and they are taking part in the society.”
I asked him how his life and his upbringing may have been different if the women around him had had equal rights. “Very difficult question,” he said. Then, with some soberness: “I might have reacted in the wrong way, thinking that an injustice was being done to me.” Despite that admission, he is confused by men having that reaction in today’s world, when it’s clear that women’s equality has not caused the world to implode. “Even in these modern days, why do men feel threatened?” The question is not rhetorical, it is earnest. “I really don’t know,” he said. Echoing Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, he says, “This is 2017.”
His feminism, like everything else about my Dadaji, is bootstrapped, but it demonstrates an admirable and rare agility of thought that gives me hope as the pendulum of history swings America back to the 1950s. Though he lives in Canada, the results of the 2016 election have unsettled him. “I still am not sure, did I do the right thing by coming here, or not?” he asks. He thought he had left the close-minded, backwards thinking of 1940s Haldaur, but in America he sees it again. “It doesn’t make a difference, their education or not,” he says, incredulous. “American people are still very backward. Donald Trump just encouraged them and he depends on them.” (When I ask him about what he thinks about Donald Trump’s statements about women, he said, “That’s not even worth commenting.” He shakes his head. “For a president to say such things...” he trails off.)
To him, feminism exists on a spectrum. “I’m a moderate feminist,” he says. “It means that girls should get educated. They should be able to do everything that men do. Equality. They should be equal to men.” It wasn’t until the last two decades, however, that he came to embrace the term and put its ideals into practice.
His grandchildren introduced him to what he calls “the modern world.” “The new world is not all bad. It’s good. There’s hope,” he says. “There’s tolerance. There is acceptance of others. They don’t have as much of a closed mind as our generation had in terms of religion, or race, or from which country they are.” Removed by a generation, he is able to see his granddaughters not merely as future mothers or an extension of himself, but as individuals who should move through the world unencumbered and unafraid. On previous occasions, he has cautioned us against marrying any man who expects us to stay home to cook and clean for him. But his optimism is tempered. I ask him what he would say to any of his granddaughters if we told him we wanted to find rich husbands to take care of us. “You have already grown up and you have not said that yet,” he said. “But you know, it takes time. In a few generations, your children and my great-grandchildren will say that....it is bound to happen.”
One of the greatest gifts my grandfather has given me is the freedom to live as I want to live, to encourage and nourish and even revel in my decisions, despite how uncomfortable that must be for someone who has dreamed of laying a stake in the land and finally having something to claim as his own. I, the 30-year-old granddaughter of the would-be servant from Haldaur, am unmarried, rarely cook Indian food, and can barely speak Hindi. But when I ask him what he wants of his granddaughters, he looks at me, confused by the question. “What do I want for them? Nothing more than they are,” he says. “They are already what I want.”