Diary of a Feminist: The Gentlewomen Callers

How shall I begin? The same old story — the quaint ritual of match-­making that goes on in our society. Well, if you are a woman and single too, the subject is emotionally charged, especially so if you belong to a bourgeoisie set-up where your parents and you have no way out but to allow people — prospective mothers-in-law, to be exact — to come and have a look at you.

Perhaps at this stage of my life I can talk about it with ease. All the emotions and the rage have gone out of it. The mist has dissolved and I can see clearly now. Or so I think.

When I had first read “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams way back during my college days, the play had a strange effect on me. The characters were so dream-like, yet at the same time so crude and real. Laura was so pathetic and her mother too, and her brother. They were all so helpless, tragic. What excited me most was the phrase, or, the con­cept of ‘Gentlemen callers’. That was quite romantic, I thought, at least lower-middle class American women in the 30s had ‘gentlemen callers’.

What do we have here? Gentlewoman callers, to use the phrase rather strangely, because the elderly women who call are not at all gentle. They are usually hawk-eyed with a terse expression on their faces and their gaze is so piercing, so incisive. Well, you can’t blame them really. Con­sidering the fact that they come to judge you physically. That’s all they can do. They can’t look inside you.

Poor gentlewoman callers. They have no choice but to look at your skin, whether ifs unblemished, rose-petalled or pimply and freckled; your hair — are they jet black, thick with long tresses or hair that have silver  streaks,  falling,  lack-lustre hair which you are try­ing to hide in a bun; and your eyes — are they small, and or­dinary and human or large like a gazelle’s; and your height — are you tall and wearing flat sandals, or short and have to have spiky heels; and your teeth — are they alright or protruding. The list can go on and on, rather cruelly.

And how do you and your family take it all, that can make a difference. If you are not beautiful, this scenario may range from being annoy­ing to torturous.

So here they come. ‘Gent­lewoman callers’ courtesy a third person, an acquaint­ance, a relative and you have to endure them in your own way.

I was lucky in the sense that not many women called on me. I was so hopeless a case. Initially I found it horrid. Be­cause they don’t usually talk to you with the exception of one or two questions and you feel so uneasy, so tense.

At times I had a strong urge to talk to them, to question them, about their home, about their sons. But of course I never dared. Generally these elderly women are homely, traditional women. Once it happened that the lady who came to see me turned out to be a principal of some unk­nown school. So I talked to her.

I asked her since how long she was teaching and how did she find this profes­sion. And she talked to me ab­out the standard of education.

But she wasn’t articulate, or else shy, so after asking her what her staff strength was and about the enrollment rate, I got so fed up with that deadly bor­ing interview that I left the room. That was the only time I had talked to a ‘Gentlewoman caller’. Later I restrained my­self lest I ask embarrassing questions.

Once, however. I did go through a painful experience with a “gentle woman caller It so happened that once when the women guests tame my contact lenses were with the optician. I had sent them for cleansing. And was wearing glasses. I had two pairs of glas­ses. One was photosun which was always a bit dark no mat­ter if I was sitting inside for hours and hours. But I liked its frame. The other metal-framed glasses made me look owlish. So that day I was wear­ing photosun. T told my mother I didn’t have my lenses on. My mother had no objection. Very much like me. So I went with my glasses on to have a small chat with the lady’s daughter who was a medical student.

Some days later the third person involved informed us that those people said. “What’s wrong with the girl’s eyes? She was wearing thick, dark glasses. We don’t want a girl with weak or dubious vis­ion”, or something of the kind.

I was so down and out and suffered a black mood of the worst kind for two days. Inci­dentally, that was the last black mood in my life and that was four years ago.

But that’s how you learn, that’s how you grow wise. I had hit the bottom. And what do you do when you hit the bottom? You surface up. You don’t drown. Life is cruel/merciful.

What makes it painless now for me is the fact that these women don’t like me and I don’t like them. So it’s be­come a smooth, tension-free interaction. If I ever get the slightest hint that they might have liked me, I get disturbed. Once the same lady guest turned up thrice and I got real panicky. But thank goodness, she disappeared.

Though they rarely call on me now, what irritates, me when they do is the odd tim­ing. Once I was watching ‘Children of the Fire Moun­tain’, I was told “Ammi is cal­ling you. Some guests have come”. The screen was full of fierce volcanic eruptions, with red, molten lava spewing out in bursts. All the fire and the panic and the glow made me spellbound. And come to think of it, I had to get up and sit with a lady who had a cold, stony look on her face!

Usually when the ‘Gent­lewoman, caller’ has had a good look at the plain Jane who has missed the train (they don’t know the plain Jane would rather miss the train that  heads  towards a  dead-end, and instead would love to laze in a sail boat under the sun), they invariably ask my mother. “Where’ are your younger daughters?” And my poor mother. She is so simple and adorable. She just doesn’t have the heart to disappoint the honourable guests and break the news that one of her younger daughters is already married, the other engaged, and the third studying medicine. If I was in my mother’s place I would have said with a sweet smile and courteous bow “Sorry, Madame, you have got no choice in this house. I have got just this eldest, elderly daughter.”

For many girls it’s not easy. Everybody handles this sensitive issue in their own way. Sometimes, or most of the time, they become very touchy and emotional. For in­stance my sister-in-law’s elder sister. She simply hates this game. And makes no preten­sions about it. Many times it happened that she refused to appear before the guests, creating an emotional chaos in the house. Mother and sisters would plead her to come just for five minutes but she wouldn’t listen and the guest would leave without seeing her. The incident would then embarrass, haunt the family members for days, sparking guilt, helplessness and shame in parents, sisters and brothers. As it’s a family issue, it effects everybody in the house.

Similarly, a cousin of mine. She would, do the same thing. And every time her younger sister had to appear and, as she was beautiful, she was ap­proved  by  many,  creating another crisis—too many choices!

I would personally never do such a thing. I would hate to upset anybody, least of all my mother. I believe in ‘live and let live’. I would let my mother do her way because that is the only way she knows of. If I hin­der her she would feel guilty. She would feel she isn’t mak­ing any effort and she would be hurt, considering my fai­lure as her personal failure. Besides, she is not at all de­manding. She never imposes her ideas on me. Like she never asks me to change. She knows I would never change for any guest even it happens to be Princess Diana. I know of many communities where the girl has to dress up accord­ingly — some eye-catching colour like Pink and a light make-up.

You can’t change the world. Can you? It’s too solid, like a rock which doesn’t budge an inch no matter how much you kick. And when you can’t change the world what do you do?

There are two things you can do. You change yourself, your perspective, and, you laugh or cry. And crying hurts me, I mean physically. When I cry I can’t breathe properly. I get choked. My eyes become red and swollen and I get a splitting headache. And I must cry alone. So I have to get up, shut the door close, or pretend to sleep with a pillow on my face. So, crying is such a nuisance and besides, while crying I have to worry about my lenses — tears might wash them out of my eyes and I am almost always broke. How would I afford a new pair?

So I don’t cry. I laugh. At myself. At the world. And laughter suits me fine.

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