Doing things just because…

July 7, 2010

Every time I cut my nails, I think of Nani, my maternal grandmother.

She visited us briefly every other year – couldn’t stay for long, since it was her daughter’s house. Over the years mom rationalized with her…telling her she was not a “burden” and that if she ate in our house, she wouldn’t be committing any egregious sin.

But Nani was set in her ways.

She had the same issues with garlic as Daadi did, but, oddly enough, she would eat onions.

She’d practice the same daily rituals, but prayed to a different set of gods.

She wouldn’t eat pumpkin. I asked her once why she hated it so much that she wouldn’t even taste it.

She said, “I love it, that’s why I don’t eat it.”


A snarky 11-year-old, I could care less.

I didn’t really know Nani — she never stayed with us long enough.

But when ma retired and I was preparing for my GRE and TOEFL, Nani decided to spend some time with us.

And that’s when the conversations — nay, debates — began.

She’d tell me not to wash my hair on Tuesdays.

“Why?” I’d ask.

“Because it isn’t good,” she’d say.

“Not good for whom?” I’d question.

“For you! Bad things will happen,” she’d retort.

“Really, Nani? If I wash my hair? Like there’s someone in the cosmos monitoring that?” I’d look at her incredulously.

“Do whatever you want,” she’d respond defeated.

There were similar other things she would check me on — don’t get a haircut on Sundays; don’t leave the house if you’ve sneezed at the door: either wait for a second sneeze, or wait 10 minutes to let the evil spirit pass; don’t drive on if a black cat crosses the street in front of you: either park on the side and wait for another car to drive by or take another route; don’t jump over your cousin’s legs: he will shrink; don’t shake your legs when you’re sitting: your parents will get divorced; don’t kill any bugs intentionally: you will become that bug in your next life!

But the one that got to me most — even more than not being “allowed” in the kitchen during my periods — was her mandate of not cutting nails after sunset.

She wouldn’t let ma — her grown up 40-something daughter — cut her nails inside the house, so for me to cut them inside and in the evening was the horror of all horrors.

One evening, as I sat with a newspaper sheet sprawled under my foot, clipping away at my big toe, Nani entered the room. Aghast at the sight that greeted her, she yanked the nail clipper from my hand.

“How many times have I told you not to do this?” she furiously asked.

I had never seen her this angry.

Instead of reacting with the same passion, I calmly asked her to sit down and explain to me why this was wrong.

“Because you just don’t cut your nails at night,” she said.

“That’s not a good enough reason,” I responded.

“There was no electricity and people lived in tiny one-room mud huts, when this ‘tradition’ began,” I narrated. “They couldn’t have clipped nails scattered around the cooking area…and there was danger of them cutting themselves if they weren’t careful. So, the warning: cut your nails ONLY during daytime and outside the house.”

That seemed like a rational explanation, I thought.

Nani shook her head. “You’re just making that up,” she said.

“Sure I am, but doesn’t it sound reasonable?” I asked earnestly.

“Maybe…” she said, still unconvinced.

“Same thing about you not letting me enter the kitchen ‘when I am down,’ — there were no sanitary napkins or tampons in old days…they couldn’t have bleeding women, who didn’t have any running water and really were unclean prepare the meals…also the blood loss made them weak, so it was probably good that they got some respite for a week or so from their cooking duties.”

She scowled and said, “You think you know everything, huh?”

“No, Nani, I don’t.”

“You are well educated so you negate all these traditions and customs; you think nothing of them; you come up with all these scientific things to explain them; but this is who we are.”

“You are this way, because this is all you know,” I said calmly. “And when you find out something that is contrary to what you believe — even if it makes sense to you — you choose to ignore it.”

She kept sitting there, looking at me.

“Do what you will, just don’t do it while I am here,” she said finally.

We had agreed to disagree.

A couple of nights later ma made pumpkin. Nani wasn’t served any.

“Why don’t you eat it even when you love it so much?” I asked.

“You won’t understand,” she said. “Since there’s nothing ‘rational’ about it.”

Turns out she had given it up as a young girl — her mom had asked her and her siblings to give up eating something they really enjoyed. She chose pumpkin.

But even in making that choice, she didn’t know why she was being asked. And she never thought to question her mother.

She didn’t think of it as a test of her will power.

She did it just because…

Ma didn’t follow most of what Nani did…but she never argued with, or openly flouted, Nani either.

I see Nani every time I go back to India. She is in her 80s now…doesn’t keep too well; but she is as staunch as ever. Firm in her beliefs.

It used to baffle me … even bothered me to an extent when I would see Indian friends here blindly following the same things Nani did.

What was wrong with them? Didn’t they know better?

I questioned them, too, and more often than not got the response: “It’s our custom. This is who we are.”

I can’t not question things that seem irrational. I can’t perform rituals or conduct day-long fasts just because I am Indian and this is what we do.

But I’ve come to respect those who can and do.

Those from my generation choose this path knowingly.

They follow customs that even they know don’t mean anything.

They saw their mothers and grandmothers do it, so it’s familiar … and comforting.

I’ve adopted a policy of live and let live.

But even so, every time I cut my nails, the memories of that conversation with Nani come flooding back to me.

I shake my head, smile, and carry on.

Nani can’t see me here, so it’s ok.

16081BD1A60533E0F1173D28DE4F0D3F Doing things just because…

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8 Responses to Doing things just because…

  1. AmericanepaliNo Gravatar on July 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Wonderful post, such a great read! Thanks for linking to my site. The superstitions that your grandmother talked about are similar to a lot of Nepali superstitions that my partner and our friends have told me about hearing when they were growing up. I talked a little about this in “Don’t sleep with an onion in your armpit!”

    • MansiNo Gravatar on July 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm

      Thanks, P. Your blog has been a wonderful discovery and I am looking at the ones you’ve linked through your BlogRoll as well. I remember the onion story from Malgudi Days — have you watched that series? Very insightful AND entertaining.
      Thanks for visiting and I look forward to reading more of what you have to offer.

  2. BillNo Gravatar on July 8, 2010 at 3:27 am

    Nice story Mansi. I think traditions are important because they give us a grounding we don’t get anywhere else. To me it’s the history of who we are so we’re grounded to many generations in the past.

    Now that being said some traditions are built on superstitions & they don’t have a place in the modern world. I’ve always loved history so I still love to hear about the traditions even if I don’t choose to follow them.

    Thanks as always,



    • MansiNo Gravatar on July 9, 2010 at 11:20 am

      Thanks, Bill. I agree with you. Every culture has its oddities, but every culture also evolves with time, as it should.

  3. Susan DeborahNo Gravatar on July 8, 2010 at 6:36 am

    Ah! Malgudi days. I used to love those series. Shankar Nag and his ta na na na . . .

    A simple action can lead us into a lovely trail of thoughts and then . . . a post is born.

    There was something mellow about this post. I remember my grandmother and others who were very similar to your nani.

    Inspite of all that we love them dearly. Such stuff is life made of.

    Joy always dear Mansi,

    • MansiNo Gravatar on July 9, 2010 at 11:22 am

      Your comment brought a smile, dear Susan. And it stayed there for a long time…

  4. Pat T.No Gravatar on July 8, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Love to read stories about your family Mansi. Your grandkids are going to be so lucky one day. I myself like to curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea and read your stories. I can almost see you sitting in a big comfy chair telling them. You remind me of Sylvia with her stories that everyone enjoyed so much. Being from the South, my grandma had many, many superstitions that I have grown up with and I have never thought to question why she had them. I’m sure they were passed down from generation to generation like your Nani.

    • MansiNo Gravatar on July 9, 2010 at 11:23 am

      Thanks, Pat. You’ll just make me write that book, won’t you ;-)


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