Meeting Sima aunties in real life — How to pick your battles against misogyny
Chronicles of a neighbor aunty
People are trying out new things this pandemic, so I learned who my neighbors are.
If you’re a young girl/guy in India, there are certain perks to not knowing your neighbors. Don’t let people fool you with the warm feeling of togetherness or the delightful rustic practice of exchanging dishes you cooked or waving to familiar faces when you get in and out of your house — nothing is worth letting someone all up in your business. Because once you become close to a neighbor aunty, she will take it up as her personal life mission to be the CCTV camera you specifically didn’t want for your house. And just like that, your safe haven is gone. Nights when you’re home alone, you’ll really have to be home alone. Can’t gradually ghost them because they’ll show up unannounced asking why you haven’t come over in 2 weeks. All because you got weak and wanted to talk to some real people (other than your parents) during this lockdown. Don’t be like me. Stay away from neighbor aunties.
A family who’s been living one house away from my apartment for 20 years — I met them for the first time at the start of the lockdown.
They have two daughters, one in 5th grade and one in 10th grade and their mum was very friendly. Let’s call her Sima.
If you didn’t already know — Sima aunty is a character from the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking. She’s a personification of the aunty culture — an amalgam of nosy judgemental characters that we all hate in our families. While Sima aunty garnered hate from Indians all over the world, my personal Sima aunty was entering my life, except I couldn’t just press pause on this one.
Sima Aunty: What did you have for lunch today?
Me: Oh, I got bored of having rice everyday so I made sandwiches.
SA: That’s good! Skip the rice. You’ll lose weight.
Okay, yeah, that’s true. I guess.
The first time I learned about this aunty’s fatphobia, I was completely blindsided. She had been very agreeable — as agreeable as you can ever be with an aunty. So I was caught off guard and instead of a witty retort, I ended up awkwardly nodding.
I’ve been arguing with my dad on issues like feminism, caste, and communalism since I was in 9th grade. I’ve earned many labels in my family for picking fights over microaggressions. So this incident bothered me, I should have said something.
Obviously I don’t interact with a lot of aunties in my typical social circle. I’m well aware that our opinions are quite far apart on the spectrum of rationality.
I decided to wait for Sima aunty’s next comment. I didn’t have to wait long.
Sima aunty’s mum also lives with them — let’s call her Sima².
They had called me over for a cup of coffee and we were making small talk.
Sima²: What did you eat for lunch today?
Me: *typical south Indian meal*
Sima²: What did you eat for breakfast? (Because food is a primary source of small talk for aunties)
Me: We don’t have breakfast. Just coffee.
Sima²: You only eat two meals and yet …(grins sheepishly)
Now I knew where Sima got the fatphobia from.
Some grandmas are deadly with their misogyny because they dish it out with zero filters. They cloak rudeness with a matter-of-fact tone and use a lack of education and old age to slither away from the consequences of their words.
And I just couldn’t bring myself to be rude to someone so much older than me. Damn my upbringing.
At this point, I had had enough and I was ready to cut ties with this family. But the kids had grown close to me and they weren’t brats so I liked them too. And it’s hard to explain to a 10-year-old about why you don’t want to hang out anymore. And no, she didn’t get social cues.
We were sitting around watching the elder daughter practice Bharatanatyam (classical dance). When she was done, all of us gave our feedback on the places where she had faltered. Sima aunty was a little snappish, but I had come to learn that it wasn’t abnormal for her.
Daughter 1: *starts crying quietly*
Me: *Shocked because I didn’t know she was that sensitive. I go over to comfort her.*
SA: Let her be, Aparna. She’s always crying. I’ve told her that it’s weak, she can’t stand criticism at all.
Me: Some people are more sensitive than others, aunty.
SA: I’ve gone through worse, I’ve had to take shit from my husband’s family. If she thinks this is bad, what will she do when she steps outside into the real world? She hasn’t gotten my strength. The younger one is more like me.
Daughter 2: She cries all the time, we just ignore her. I never cry, akka!*proudly*
SA: I tell my daughter that I don’t like her on days she cries. I don’t entertain it.
Me: Crying is not a weakness. When I was a little girl, my mum said strong girls don’t cry and I developed a very unhealthy relationship towards crying. I would never cry, my friends in college literally had bets to somehow make me cry. It took me so many years to unlearn it, aunty.
SA: See, that’s how you should be. Your mom’s done it right.
No, aunty. No.
I felt so sorry for that 15-year-old girl. I remembered being that impressionable and the crying thing was resonating a little too much for my liking. Mine happened when I was a kid, this girl was a teenager — I kept wondering why she wasn’t fighting back. I observed a lot of fatphobic comments casually thrown around. Sima aunty declaring that her next goal is to “bring down her daughter to 50 kgs”. The kid wasn’t anywhere near a health risk.
At 15, I was learning about feminism and arguing with my dad about victim-blaming. I remember the Times Now debate blaring in the background and my mum trying to get us to calm down enough to eat. It irked me that this kid was just passively taking it all in. Does she even have her own opinions? Is she educating herself enough?
I wanted to scream at her that she shouldn’t let her self-worth be affected by what her mother says. I wanted to tell her all the ways in which parents weaponize shame to browbeat their opinions onto us to help us “fall in line”. I wanted to tell her its okay to disagree with her mother and that she should start speaking up. I wanted to tell her that her little sister subconsciously picks up on everything that happens at home and is getting equally affected.
I could already see the negative reinforcement on the elder daughter working wonders with the younger one. I grew up with a sister, it was easy enough to draw parallels.
We were raising 6 pups and a mama dog in my backyard when one of the families in my apartment decided that they were terrified of pups and decided to call the corporation to come to take them away. We weren’t expecting it and I was devastated. Sima aunty came over with her younger daughter to comfort me that evening.
SA: *standard comforting words, we’ll get another dog, blah blah*
Daughter 2: I teared up Akka, but I controlled myself. I didn’t let the tears fall because Amma has said that girls shouldn’t cry on Fridays.
SA: *smiles proudly*
But then, I remembered how I had struggled with my self-image when I was 15. I was learning about fatphobia but I didn’t go easy on myself. I fought with internal misogyny even in college. I hadn’t learned the enormity of the role shame played in my life until very recently. And I still have a lot to (un)learn.
So I stopped blaming the kids and decided to be the cool adult in their life. I could still make a difference.
Sima aunty went for walks in the morning and the evening. I decided to accompany her in the evening because I thought I could get her to engage in some uncomfortable conversations, maybe try to change her mind a little. She wasn’t at all suspicious when I asked, she thought I needed the exercise (obviously) and was about to ask me herself.
Sima aunty and I were walking. A couple of guys on a bike race past us trying to get our attention.
Sima Aunty: You should wear a dupatta over your tshirt, Aparna.
Me: Because of those guys? They would have done that even if I was wearing a saree aunty.
SA: But still, we should do whatever we can right? If you wear shorts, you can’t really blame the guy on the street for eyeing you up and down la?
Me: Are you seriously telling me you believe that clothes are the reason women get harassed or raped? What about children getting raped?
SA: People who rape kids are animals, I don’t even want to talk about them!
Me: You don’t want to talk about them but they exist. There is a bigger problem in our society and it isn’t about dupattas or short skirts. We need to start with our boys.
*I explained the entire problem the best way I could*
SA: See, I understand all that. But look at the end result, we’re the ones getting affected so it's our problem. We have to take care of our property, nobody else will.
*Wondering whether I should continue to explain how victim-blaming marginalizes the survivor and perpetuates rape culture or tackle the problematic phrasing of calling our bodies “property” and the implication that my body somehow loses value each time someone looks at it in a lewd way.*
Me: Aunty…*I press on about raising boys right and we dive into the disapproval that boy-girl friendships receive* (She wasn’t ready for the “property” talk yet).
SA: I had guy friends when I was in school, Aparna. It was pure friendship, no strings attached. We had some great days.
Me: Oh, that’s nice aunty! Tell me more. *smiling because there was finally some common ground and ignoring the “pure” bit because baby steps*.
SA: We used to commute to school by cycle every day. So we’d ride together in the morning and in the evening.
Me: That’s cool, it sounds like fun!
SA: Yeah, we had to ride through some SC/ST areas, so they’d accompany me to make sure I reach home safe.
During those walks, in addition to giving up multiple times, I also learned more about Sima aunty. I learned about how she was once overweight and had to listen to people asking if she was her husband’s big sister. I learned about how desperately she wanted her daughters to never have to listen to shit like that. I learned about how she battled PCOS, lost 15 kgs, and heard her brag about sharing clothes with her 15-year-old daughter. I listened to her talk about her husband’s limited emotional intelligence and how she struggled to connect with him when I said we should start raising boys right. I detected pride in her voice when she spoke about her uncompromising adherence to ‘tradition’ and a slight earnestness when she reassured me of how close her community’s rituals were to brahmins’. I didn’t know how to tell her I didn’t care without acknowledging her caste insecurity.
It will never cease to stump me how women uphold and perpetuate the very beliefs which traumatized them. It’s cruelly funny how the victims of one generation don’t think twice about passing on their trauma to the next generation. If you spin ‘family honor’ and ‘culture’ right, you can get a whole gender to develop a tolerance for emotional abuse and glorify suffering enough that breaking the cycle starts to seem impossible.
I remembered the fat-shaming she faced when she replied “Super, go play and lose some weight!” when I told her I’m going to play badminton with her kids.
I remembered the awe with which she spoke about the brahmin headmistress at the school she teaches when she asked me “Would people even call you a brahmin girl? You still haven’t taken a shower!” at 12pm on a Saturday afternoon. Sue me, I wanted to chill — which is what I told her.
I remembered her agreeing with some of my beliefs when she eventually stabbed me in the back. She told my dad “Yes yes, she argues a lot with me, Uncle. But I tell her, you can’t change my opinions haha”, they laughed about my raging feminism and attacked me together. And all through the war of reasoning (from my side), platitudes, denial, and privilege (from theirs), I kept thinking of what those two girls would take away from the conversation.
Some hard-to-swallow pills
My war with Sima aunty taught me how big a barrier language is.
We conversed largely in Tamil and I realized that when it came to issues I’m passionate about, I’m passionate about them in English. I’m a lot less eloquent in Tamil. I couldn’t translate ‘self-worth’ in Tamil, let alone ‘masochism’ or ‘emotional doormat’. I could roughly translate them but the conviction of some ideas are lost in translation when you’re busy taking pauses to think of synonyms.
I was also faced with the sobering realization that changing a real person’s beliefs is way more challenging than making a post on social media. Real-life arguments with adults in denial rarely reach any conclusion much less a logical one. So it becomes this thread of conversation that you keep picking up occasionally, argue it within an inch of damaging the relationship, and then drop it, only to pick it up again.
I felt like I was stuck in the tiny overlapping part of two spheres in a Venn diagram. One was the sphere of my friends and acquanitances, conversations we had, and the beliefs we held. The other sphere was my family, our practices and our circle of family friends. I had one foot in each sphere and felt unauthentic in both.
I know that social media is a powerful tool which is directly changing millions of lives but it can be disillussioning to realize that your online life has almost zero overlap with your real one.
Making a mountain out of a molehill?
India is littered with a generous amount of Sima aunties so much so that you actually develop a banality for casual misogyny. As young adults, we subconsciously compartmentalize our practices. Post an article about ambedkar and oh, what’s that, I stepped into the kitchen while I’m on my period? Better get out before Paati starts to yell.
So. Was I overreacting to one aunty? No.
I don’t know if it was the lockdown finally getting to me or the sheer lack of real-life interactions which made me hyper-focus on this one. Maybe because I had come to know the girls quite well, the issues became very real for me. Or maybe in this shitshow of a year, I desperately wanted to do something nice.
But the inability to have an impact was maddening. I got to know this family over a course of 3–4 months. Sima aunty was becoming an obsession for me and a source of high blood pressure.
SA: She argues a lot with me, Uncle *playful smile*
Appa: She’s been arguing with me since her school days, haha
Me: They are discussions, aunty. Not arguments.
Appa: I keep telling your daughters, don’t learn the wrong things from Akka nu, haha
Me: Discussions are important so that you actually talk to your kid about important issues. Find out where they stand, what they’re thinking about. If you refuse to talk at home, you can’t complain when they develop opinions of their own and you feel “alienated”. There is always going to be a generation gap, what we can do is atleast listen to each other’s beliefs. You refuse to talk about anything besides food and then complain that your kid feels like a stranger?
SA: We don’t have arguments in our house, Uncle. *smiles proudly*
Me: THEY’RE NOT ARGUMENTS AUNDY, THEY ARE CALLED DISCUSSIONS!!
SA: What I tell them, stands. There’s no talking back. *more pride*
Me: THAT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE SMOTHERING THEM, THEY’LL RESENT YOU AFTER THEY GROW UP!!
SA: Tell me if she argues with you, Uncle. I’ll come set her straight.
Me: GET OUT OF MY HOUSE, AUNDY!
After struggling with helplessness, I decided to give in.
I’ve always known that some people are incapable of change and that change is gradual. So maybe Sima aunty would never do a 180 on her belief system, but her daughters could leave home, go to college, meet new people and form new opinions. Like I did.
They already adored me (the 10 year old wore short shorts once and rushed over to show that she was just like me :’)) so maybe I’ll have to settle for small changes like getting them to read books or making them watch english news debates. Baby steps.
Over the last few months, repeatedly dragging Sima aunty into arguments helped me understand why she was the way she was. While this neighbor aunty series may not have been a resounding success, I’d like to think I made a dent. Imperfect growth is still growth.
Maybe my next Sima aunty would be a bit more receptive, eh?
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Psst Jenny Zerin, I finally got over my slump and wrote something. Hope you find the time to take a look :)