Banu shares her journey towards emancipation and independence
It was a killer kaara kozhambu with it multi-tentacled flavours that captured me, leading to an acquaintance with Banu, its creator. That was over a year and a half ago at the Aspiration dining hall and I still remember that it was a Wednesday, for I made it a point never to miss that day's lunch as long as I stayed there. But Banu is more than her culinary skills – with mischievous dancing eyes, an extrovert's sunny personality and a mass of the curliest hair that flies behind her as she speeds down the Auroville main road, she would be hard to miss anywhere. An embodiment of a free spirit, and she is aware of it.
“Maybe it was the way I was grown up,” she grins disarmingly. “I was the seventh in my family, the littlest one. And I always got what I wanted.” Being the youngest with the older siblings almost like parent figures, Banu was not included in the general family talks. “Basically I was like a lone child, not included in family discussions. Being always shooed away like ‘Go… Play… What are you doing here?… Go sleep…' So I had my time thinking, thinking what I want, creating my own imaginary worlds, imagining why is this not possible, or that not possible…”
With both her parents coming from Edaiyanchavadi, Banu received her education at Udavi School until her 10th standard, and later went to Pondy for high school. “I wanted to study more, but the nearest college I could get into was in Tindivanam.” Her two options were to do a 1 hour commute daily from Edaiyanchavadi or be a boarder in a women's hostel in Tindivanam. While she was ready for either, both options were ruled out by her family. This brought an end to her educational ambitions. “Had I gone to college, I'd have done Economics or Accountancy,” she muses softly. Almost twenty-eight years old now, she still hopes that one day she will be able to study and enhance her work skills. “I feel that I still have to improve myself a lot, and I'd love to do a course in management.”
Following the abrupt break in her education, Banu began to work at the Visitors Centre, where she met her future husband who was an Aurovilian. Against all opposition from her family in the village, they got married and she moved into Auroville. Her ‘action' allegedly affected the marriage prospects of her last unmarried brother, because of the gossip that ‘a girl from this family had gone out.' “And for two years, they did not speak to me.” Only when Banu became pregnant, the feelings thawed and she was welcomed back. She has this to say of the experience, “You know this is the problem of the middle class – they have their own cages with so much stress on prestige and pride. The women especially have to face a lot of problems. So much pressure that they can't live what they are; can't express what they feel; can't honestly say what they think!” Perhaps this is compounded by the Tamil vernacular not having the vocabulary to communicate certain feelings and emotions pertaining to modern times.
Banu is very critical of the quiet acceptance with which women put up with these ‘cages'. “My sisters, for example, are really into it,” she fumes. “Sometimes I am like, ‘Don't be stupid. C'mon do something.' One of them has got so many options, especially with her husband encouraging her to do this course or that. But she always has the excuse of family duty – I have to cook, I have to clean, I have to take care of my children… and in my free time, I prefer to sleep!”
This attitude frustrates Banu sometimes and makes her ‘freak out'.
However these frustrations have also brought some learning to her. “I have begun to feel that people can't be made to understand what I think. Things have to be presented in such a way that they will be accepted.” This lesson came to Banu as she was going through a major crisis in her own life when her marriage began to fall apart and she decided to separate from her husband. “From the beginning, when my separation started I was going on my own. This is my theory, my experience, why should I make my parents understand…” But one day, while flicking through a woman's monthly magazine, a sentence caught Banu's eye and changed something for her. “It said, ‘Everything is acceptable if it is presented in a way in which the others can accept.' And I thought, hey, maybe this is true; maybe this is how it works.” She changed her attitude and approach, and was able to explain to her family that the decision she had taken to step out of her marriage was for her own good, and to her surprise, they listened. “Up until then, no one was even hearing me because I was breaking all the traditions and shaking the structure. But the moment I put myself differently, presented what I felt and explained how it works for me, things started happening!” It was a personal breakthrough, and a point that brought her deep understanding.
Banu has no regrets about the course her life has taken. Being an optimist, she always manages to find the positive in every situation. Of motherhood, she comments that her daughter is her speed-breaker. “Being of such a different personality from me, she slows me down and grounds me. And made me much more responsible in the process.”
When the positive is hard to find, she looks for humour. She shares her experience about coming back to live in Aspiration in her original hut. “I wanted to be in Aspi for my daughter as it is a great place for kids. But I had to face a lot of resistance, and then too, I was let in with so many restrictions.” Banu narrates how she was sitting there in front of them, and they kept on speaking and laying one condition after another, and how she stopped listening to it. “I kept thinking of something else!” she grins. “Then when they wanted to give me a smaller house, while I insisted that I get my original hut back, what tilted the decision in my favour was the belief that there was a bad energy in that house that keeps separating couples.”
What supported her in these times were friends and colleagues. “Since then,” she says, “I have started making friends also outside Aspiration. It is very important to have friends from different walks of life, and different backgrounds.” Asked about cross-cultural issues and labels amongst Aurovilians that create divisions – Indians, Westerners, North Indians, South Indians, locals – she confides that she does not like it, does not see people in such boxed categories and does not want to see people like that either.
Banu feels that Auroville is a very special place especially for women. “It really gives you the opportunities to see beyond your physicality. It widens your vision. If I were living outside, perhaps I would have made the same decisions that I am now making, but outside, it would have taken much more time.”