... and please read on to the end before you chew me out!!!
"Don't be selfish," must have been the adjuration I have heard the most in my childhood apart from the constant instructions on how "good girls" have to behave. My Mom still enjoys telling me how I hated sharing my toys with my friends. She especially remembers how my closest chaddi-buddy used to complain, "Kala, when you come to my home, I let you play with all my toys. But you let me play with only this one-eyed teddy bear." (Well, she didn't know the honor I was conferring on her by allowing her to play with my personal confidant, nightmare-keeper-away and best friend, still!)
But this "selfishness" adjuration when accompanied by the dreaded finger wag and aimed at a little girl means much more than the simple meaning of the word. It means she has to be obedient, to never talk back, to be always gentle and humble and to be ladylike in all circumstances.
Having had the time and opportunity to look around and see for myself how this works, especially in the case of a couple of women who have taken this adjuration to heart and put it to work in their daily lives, I will tell you how I came to the resolution above.
One of the women is one I have grown up with. Having been tomboyish, loud and contrary while growing up, I was constantly compared unfavorably with her and ordered to be "more like her". She was and still is the Beauty of my family, the best at domestic arts and the most lady-like of all the girls. It speaks volumes about my love for her and my restraint that she grew up to womanhood without being strangled at my hands. And having been a contemporary, I also knew firsthand that her meekness and obedience came from the goodness and piety of her heart and that she was by no means weak inside. I could not but admire her innate goodness.
I thought she was very happy till recently when she started talking to me about how her meek nature had always been taken advantage of by her spouse's family and how she had been treated as a drudge all along. The breaking point came when there was a tussle in her own family regarding property and she was accused by her siblings of insinuating herself into a better position with her father by being "all very subservient and charming and oily" with the cantankerous old man. She was shocked to the core of her being when she found out that this was how she was being perceived.
The good thing is, after the shock, she no longer feels the need to be subservient and obliging all the time. She continues to be true to her essence, but no one gets away with taking advantage of her any more. It did turn her a little bitter, but she has learnt her lesson. The people around her are astonished at "how the worm has turned" and are not quite pleased. But now she does not care that much for them.
The other lady belongs to my mother's generation, but essentially she is also the same. Quite like my relative, she too is a very strong and opinionated woman - the only thing is, she had hidden this part of her so long that she became very good at passive aggressiveness. It amazed me once to observe her having to lie to her mother-in-law about having to go to the hospital when all she wanted to do was to go shopping. She went to great lengths to conceal any activity (none of which were criminal or reprehensible) that would make her "an object of censure" (oh horror of horrors!). She burst into tears at any hint of remonstrance for anything from others. If she accidentally broke something, instead of owning up like an adult would do, she hid the evidence and protested her innocence like a scared 6-year-old - to people young enough to be her kids!
Now, in her old age, she herself is suspicious of others' motives all the time. When her daughter-in-law tells her that she needs to go to the hospital, she checks with her son whether he is sure that she is going there and tells me that she suspects that her daughter-in-law has just gone to meet her friends or have fun. And she is bitter, bitterer than the greenest bitter gourd. Her favorite topic of conversation is how everyone (no exceptions) in her life have only exploited, ruled over and hurt her in various ways - which does not make for good conversation. The bitterness is so pervasive that she cannot appreciate all the good in life. It shows in her face - her perpetual expression while at rest is that of a person who has just downed a dose of the bitterest kashaayam. In all the years I have seen her, I don't remember her producing more than a single halfhearted "heh-heh" at the funniest of jokes (Ladies do not guffaw).
Both these women are not foolish, silly or evil. They are both pious, good and generous people and I admire them both. They do have another thing in common - they both don't have good friends. My relative became a housewife right after graduation and has not kept in touch with her old friends except very occasionally. But now she opens up to me and has made a few friends of her own and is getting to be more sociable. The older lady I spoke of had a good career and is retired. But she does not keep in touch with any of her old colleagues or childhood friends - which I think is an important factor in keeping up a healthy mental attitude.
These are just two cases that I have noted. We have all seen that archetypal Indian mother who has to remind her offspring of the "9 months and painful labor" when she is ignored by them in her dotage. If they don't listen to that, then she enumerates the instances of her "unselfish slaving for their welfare". Well dear friends, I think it is much better to be selfish, assertive and happy to the end of life than be unselfish and end up bitter and complaining. I also think that it is very important to hold all precious friends close to your heart all your life.
Don't you agree?