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 At the same time, I somehow got the message that this was an outdated culture, in older movies — “educated” people wouldn’t do this.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.
August 18, 2016 at 2:23 pm
It’s a wonderful thing that you are a feminist , but why force all your beliefs on your husband? Is that a right thing to do. You mentioned he is a feminist now and supports all your views 364 day, so why can’t you put up with his beliefs, nay habit for one darn day. Maybe later, much later you would come to know that he was putting up with your beliefs for the rest 364 days . You may believe this is a feminist culture, let me assure you I don’t care about this ritual (except the gifts of course) ; but if someone throws a tantrum because I go through the motion I would speak up. Feminist you are, and that’s your choice but I don’t think it (or for that matter) any belief let you cone in between another man’s /woman’s habits/beliefs. Nothing personal though.
August 18, 2016 at 5:15 pm
Thats a very convoluted way of looking at it. Thats all I can say. Dimwits like you would be ok with wishing Happy Mother’s/Father’s/Women’s Day and even Valentine’s Day, but something very tender like Rakshabandhan is an outdated culture to you. Think before jotting such nonsense.
Being feminist is about treating everyone equally and well….and respecting others as well. It’s definitely not about a faking a sense of superiority by treating others like shit. Very very disappointing…and just FYI…what they show in the movies that whole aarati thing doesn’t happen in real life AND for your knowledge its not worshipping…if anything a sister ties a rakhi which is a Safety Band (Raksha=Safety Bandhan=Band/Tie) so her brother stays safe. Further, its a day of connecting with your brother/sister not the other way around.
August 19, 2016 at 1:51 am
This is why they have started referring to feminism as nazi feminism. The way the author treated her husband doesn’t even mask the fact that she doesn’t respect his views (looks to me like he was even afraid to speak up). There is no desire for equality. A simple tradition is being seen as a mark of the patriarchy. I have heard this from a feminist in my house. “It’s ok, men only have two days in a year”.
August 19, 2016 at 10:20 am
I think we may be overtly critical of this tradition. It’s inception may have had patriarchal connotations which have disappeared over time.
August 19, 2016 at 4:12 pm
Do not despair at the negative criticism you receive here in the comments section. Because you’ll get a lot of rage over the fact that you’ve spoken up about this. You’ll be called a crazy feminazi because you’re choosing to speak up against inane traditions. Some one calls it a “harmless simple tradition” but no one understands the deep rooted sociological impacts it has.
August 20, 2016 at 6:30 pm
Feminism isn’t about bucking tradition or getting angry at those who follow it. It is about having the freedom to follow or not. Just as you want others to respect your beliefs, shouldn’t your sister-in-law’s beliefs too be respected?
August 24, 2016 at 9:33 am
Right around rakhi every year, I see quite a few of the raksha Bandai is the most-sexist-festival-ever articles crop up, leaving me bemused and annoyed. Not because I necessarily disagree with the politics inherent– but because they are plainly and even embarrassingly ill-informed. If I look at perhaps raksha bandhan is practiced as a boy worshipping ritual in some families, but that is certainly not the prevailing cultural norm or even the purpose of the festival. I am from the hills as well, Garway in Uttarakhand to be precise, and the rakhi story we grew up on was that it i’s about the sister offering the brother protection and not the other way round. she does so by tying the “raksha” or the protective circle around his wrist, not very different from the practice of tying a talisman or giving a loved one a ring– all symbols of love and protection and common across many cultures. If we look at origin stories from scripture, one of the earliest is of Indra”s wife tied a rakhi around his wrist as a symbol of protection before he headed into battle. Draupadi ties a scarp of fabric around Krishna’s wrist too in a similar situation. It ought to be noted that she isn’t even his biological or adopted sister, but his “sakhi” or friend. So raksha bandhan also is linked with celebrating the bonds of non-romantic friendship btween the genders.
If I take the example of my own extended family– younger brothers always touch the feet of elder sisters and seek their blessings during the ritual and the other way round. Both siblings or cousins feed each other sweets and put a tilak on each other. No one worships the male in particular nor is there any suggestion of the girl being inferior. For decades, family elders — particularly matriarchs– sometimes give children a rakhi — or a raksha– especially when the young person is going overseas to study or pursue a career. Again, the protective aspect of the gesture — and to whom the protection is being offered — is evident.
In many families from Rajasthan, the norm is to tie rakhi to everyone in the clan, irrespective of gender or particular relationships, the rakhi here being a symbol of a bond.
Culturally, raksha bandhan also symbolised a day where bahus shed off the weight of the marital home and prioritise their birth families. Rahi day was seen as the one day, the duties of being a wife and a daughter-in-law could be ceded. Women looked forward to this day for months– as many still do, all over North India. This may seem like a trivial point but is the lived reality for lakh of women. Viewing the politics of the festival through an unimaginative, dogmatic lens disallows us from seeing the significance of the festival in its entirety.
Possibly in practice, the original tone of the festival may have been corrupted by overwhelming patriarchy in many families and cultures. But ythis is by no means the norm. So let’s stop trashing what is on of the world’s most unique festivals– one that celebrates love free from romantic or filial baggage.
August 8, 2017 at 12:01 pm
Well, after tying the rakhi isn’t the ‘brother’ supposed to waste his money on useless gifts? Honestly, apart from the ‘milk your brother dry, while his kids may starve’ attitude is exploited well- enough by gift industry. And every consumerist/capitalist looking to expand their business. Same goes for that person who commented on the Father/Mother/Friendship day brouhaha
August 8, 2017 at 12:59 pm
I absolutely agree with the point that the politics behind “culture” needs to be understood and its sociological impact needs to be acknowledged. Just because something has been done for a long time, doesn’t mean it’s right.
As a North India from UP, I’ve been raised on the narrative that brothers will do “raksha” for sisters and that’s why the whole festival. For peoples in India for whom this is not the narrative, good for you. I’ve even heard that in some communities, poor people tie rakhis to well-off people, asking for charity and protection. That still seems logical to me. But if you have been raised in a society where they tell you that because you’re a girl, you need protection – that’s just warped. And it is for those communities specifically that this article is targeting.