Grandma to Gandhi

by Pummy Kaur

In the first half of the last century I was born in India, the second child of my mother, who was the eldest of 8 children. Hence, my brother and I were treated as the youngest of 10 children by my maternal grandmother.  Being considered the youngest of 10 in this extended family, I was almost always in tow with my grandmother, and so I learned a great deal about self- sufficiency, conservation, creative living, family and household management.

We grew most of our own vegetables and fruits in our lovely garden, fertilized by the composted organic kitchen waste, mixed with yard waste and the dung of the cow and the chickens in the back yard. Most of the cow dung was made into cow patties slapped to the garden side of the house, till they dried in the sun and fell off, becoming fuel for the fire for food preparation. Early every morning my grandmother would milk the cow, collect the eggs and any ripe fruits and vegetables. Often I would help her with these tasks.  Most mornings my grandmother would sit on the low stool on the kitchen floor and churn the milk in the clay pot held upright between her feet.  Some milk would be cultured to make yogurt and some would make buttermilk.  Any starting to sour would be made into paneer (cheese). Occasionally some would be used to make kulfi (Indian ice cream) or other sweets.

There was little we bought for daily consumption that I can recall: lentils, flour, and fabrics were generally all we bought. Not because we lacked money, but because we seemed to like growing and making our own, and any alternative was not even a thought. I realize now how much that contributed to the closeness we still have between us. And also how much those values contributed to who I became as a mother, an adult activist, author and educator.

All my maternal aunts and I learned how to knit, sew, grow and prepare food and make fermented vegetable drinks, raise a family, manage a household and money, and many other domestic arts. As adults my aunts also went to university and became professors who brought home as much “bacon” as any of the men (I cannot say what the men did other than make money because I never saw them do anything whatsoever at home).

After dinner, evening walks for the whole family were common. We had no TV, running water, or indoor plumbing; just a radio that worked sometimes, a water pump in the back courtyard, a big bucket for bathing water, and a brick outhouse. We sang, danced, played music and games, created things of use, read for fun, and studied for school as a privilege. We even unraveled old sweaters and clothing to make new ones. Packages were mailed in cloth wrap sewn together, later unraveled for future use. There was no such thing as disposables, or waste. Everything was either of use and reused, or just not brought into our lives.

Upon moving to the West in my early teens I was surprised at the amount of waste created, since we had virtually none in our home of 10 plus my grandparents.  I was equally shocked by the readiness to discard perfectly good items because of a minor flaw, such a missing button. To my friends it seemed like magic that I made my own clothes and prepared food from scratch, and they were bewildered that I read non-fiction for fun, and enjoyed learning.

As an educator I passed on my childhood values to my students and their parents. For example, processed food was very strongly discouraged, no disposables were allowed in my classroom, and domestic skills like sewing buttons and hems, knitting and crocheting were taught during art classes while making wall hanging quilts for auction to raise money for a local cause. As a parent, I taught  my children all that I could teach them. This  was made so much easier inside our home because we modeled the behaviour of creative production for self-sufficiency, rather than watching TV all evening as a family activity.  Outside of our home it was not so easy, since the way we lived was something of an anomaly, and confusing for children. Nonetheless, their friends loved to hang out in our home, create things, play board games and puzzles, eat freshly prepared food, and get help with homework.  As adults all of my children have come to appreciate the anomaly in which they were raised.

Approaching elderhood I turned to writing books about individual responsibility and simple solution towards global problems based on the principles and values of my childhood and those of the non-violent father of India, M. K. Gandhi (What Would Gandhi Do: Simple Solutions to Global Problems, and also A Season of Non-Violence: 64 Ways for 64 Days)

I have come to appreciate the treasure of knowledge, wisdom and values my grand-mother passed on to me, simply by living it, and not just lecturing about it. I dream of a day when all teachers and parents will stop talking and start living the world they wish for the children.


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