They don’t celebrate Raksha Bandhan in Assam. Growing up, I could look at Hindi movies that showed women tying rakhis and asking their brothers to protect them and feel superior about how progressive we were. At the same time, I somehow got the message that this was an outdated culture, in older movies — “educated” people wouldn’t do this.
At least, that’s one kind of memory I have. I have another kind in which I longed to have a brother, or even a male cousin or friend I’m close to, who I’d tie rakhis on every year and who would love me and pamper me and protect me when I needed protecting (because of course I was a girl and would need protecting sometimes).
When I was in Class 10, I was in a co-ed school in a small town, having moved there with my parents. My classmates at this school were very different from the overprivileged sophisticated young women at my earlier school in Guwahati. The change took me a bit of getting used to, but I made friends and that last year of school was the most fun year of my life (until this year).
Raksha Bandhan rolled around, and three of us girls who formed a very tight group of friends decided to get rakhis for a couple of our best guy friends. But when we were in class that morning, another boy, also a friend, expectantly asked if we’d tie a rakhi on him. We wondered what to do.
I suggested we tie rakhis on all the boys in class. After all, they were all our friends (speaking very broadly — we’d barely exchanged a word with a few of them, but what the hell, school would get over in a few months and we should make friends now if we hadn’t in so long).
There were 15 boys in our class (and 15 girls, though we weren’t progressive enough to think of including the girls). We pooled our resources (each of us had brought in a couple of rakhis) but it wasn’t enough, and we had no way of getting more in time. We cut up hair ribbons and I think, hankies.
And later that day we went around and the three of us together tied our makeshift rakhis on all the boys. (I think one escaped because he had a crush on me, but whatevs). We also demanded gifts, especially from the one friend who’d asked for a rakhi. For some reason I don’t remember, I asked him for a Walkman and kept bugging him till he got us a gag gift a few days later, which we much appreciated, but that’s a different story.
Some boys did give us chocolates — I think one or two offered the more traditional gift of money. But that wasn’t the point. We spent the rest of the day in a hazy glow at the thought of being connected to our boy classmates.
So basically, Raksha Bandhan to me felt like an outdated ritual from a culture I wasn’t really part of, but which could be fun to borrow and subvert (or at least to de-fang).
Nine years later, I married a Gujarati guy.
The fact that he was from a Gujarati upper-caste Hindu family seemed incidental. (Full disclosure: my family is upper-caste Hindu too.) He was my best friend and even more blatantly atheistic than I was. We lived without religion or ritual, we got married at the registrar’s and only agreed to let his mom do a few rites at home later to keep the peace. He was new to feminism, but he responded to my reasons for being feminist and started reading up, and soon called himself feminist too. I was so glad to be living a life that reflected my values.
Until Raksha Bandhan rolled around again. Every year, his sister in Gujarat would send rakhis. There would usually be more than one — sometimes one from his niece, and in later years, always one for me (not a regular rakhi, but the kind made for women that look more like jewellery). This made it seem more like an expression of love and less an outdated ritual, so I didn’t mind; I even appreciated her affection for her brother.
But he also had a sister who lived in the same city as we did. Every Raksha Bandhan he would go over. A couple of times I accompanied him, but it made me uncomfortable, so I’d look for an excuse.
Last year, my sister-in-law and her husband and son were in our home on Raksha Bandhan. She asked, as she or my mom-in-law have asked before, if I wanted to participate, and tie a rakhi on her husband. I said no, as I’d done before, feeling ungracious (and perversely grateful that they don’t seem to mind my ungraciousness, that I truly have the option of saying no, and then angry again that I feel grateful for this).
She sat my husband down and waved the tray around him (if you’ve ever watched a rakhi scene on TV, you know the drill.) All three males — my husband, her husband, her little son — sat while she stood in front of them and completed the ritual, anointing tikas on their forehead and feeding them mithai.
Later, I raged at my husband. “How does it not make you uncomfortable that your sister symbolically worshipped you? How could you not speak up, at the least do the same for her?”
He was feminist enough to listen, and calm enough to offer that he had changed the ritual in past years. He apologised for not having thought of doing so again. But it wasn’t enough.
“Not in my house,” I said. “I can’t stop you from doing what you want, but I refuse to have this degrading ritual in my home.” In our home, I thought, where we never put up an idol or a picture of a deity. Where we celebrate Diwali by lighting a few lamps and cooking a nice dinner, just because we have the day off and we’re together and why not celebrate that? Where we go down on each other, but I don’t bow down to him (nor he to me).
For once, my feminist marriage — and let’s be honest, my feminist husband — had disappointed me. I wished he had the conviction and the courage to have an honest conversation with his sister about this, instead of going along with tradition. I imagine them coming up with a fun, subversive ritual together.
I know that’s just my fantasy, and there’s a limit to what I can expect even though I hate being told I expect too much. I do have a feminist husband 364 days of the year. And he agreed readily to not having the ritual at home and to me absenting myself. I am not content, exactly, but none of us is feminist 100 percent of the time, and I have my faults (probably many more than he does).
Early this year, I was visiting one of my best friends in the hills. One morning, they had a few guests — teenage girls from the US, and a few grown ups, one or two of whom were local people. Someone brought up Raksha Bandhan, about how Indian culture lets you make siblings if you don’t have any.
That evening, the three of us — my friend, her husband (who is American, though settled in India), and I — were discussing the episode over drinks. We realised all three of us had been uncomfortable at the laudatory reference to Raksha Bandhan, and too polite to speak up.
“Raksha Bandhan is one of our most sexist festivals,” I said vehemently.
“I wish you’d said that,” he said.
I shrugged. “It’s not really my culture to criticise — at least it seems unfair to do so before people for whom this is their culture.” And I added, “That’s another problem. This is just one part of India’s many cultures. It’s not all of India.”
A bit of my discomfort is admittedly at the mainland Hindu-ness of it all. The very first time we discussed Raksha Bandhan, I told my sister-in-law that we don’t celebrate it in Assam. She contradicted me, “Everyone celebrates Raksha Bandhan.” I was shocked at her obliviousness, and angry at her refusal to listen, at her presumptuousness in telling me what my culture celebrates. But she is a sweet person and this was a rare instance of privileged prejudice, so I’d moved on and forgotten about it till I started writing this piece.
A few days ago, both my husband’s sisters contacted me to ask for our address. Two packages have arrived, and haven’t been opened yet. I’m trying to think of them as expressions of affection and not as trappings of an oppressive patriarchy. I think of how nice and supportive and affectionate his sisters have always been. And I wish we — he — had something better to offer them in return.