“The Brahmin Baldness Gene” by Saila Kariat

My grandmother was completely bald at the age of thirty.  She wasn’t bald because of a medical condition, cancer, or as a statement of protest or fashion. She was bald because she was widowed.  My grandfather, a wealthy landowner, developed stomach cancer.  He died as she was pregnant with her sixth child, my mother.

My grandmother was born in 1909 in a small town called Ongole in the Southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh into the Brahmin caste.  She had an arranged marriage to my grandfather as a child, as was the practice then.  She was his second wife, his first wife died of unknown causes.  By all accounts he doted on her constantly – she was much younger than him, extremely beautiful and charming.  In quick succession, she had three girls and three boys.  Then the tragic events unfolded one by one.  Her husband died.  The custom for Brahmins at that time is that when a woman was widowed, her head was shaved, she was not allowed to wear any makeup or jewelry, she could only wear a single white cloth draped around her body and could only eat one restrictive meal a day – vegetarian (almost all Brahmins are vegetarians), no sweets, specials or rice.  I think about how difficult it must have been for her to be forced to become unattractive and repulsive to everyone.   Every day she had to wake up at the crack of dawn, immerse herself with cold water, and perform the religious prayers that were required of Brahmins.  She had to cook for the entire family while remaining completely wet. She would get hungry, but she could not eat until evening.  Sadly, it was often other women who policed whether or not she was following all the Draconian rules properly.  Although I left India when I was nine years old, and saw them very infrequently, I still remember her, my aunts and uncles vividly and many of these habits and rituals.

When my grandfather died, his eldest son, my uncle was sixteen years old.  He was strikingly handsome, with green eyes and fair, olive color skin.  I remember that his unusual looks and volatile, eccentric personality frightened me when I was young.  As was custom then, the entire management of my grandfather’s vast wealth fell on his shoulders, and he was in no way equipped to handle it.  He lorded over the family – at times tying my younger uncle to a tree and whipping him in order to keep him in line.  My mother would say he would lock him out of the house without food, and she would sneak dinner to him at night.  His methods did not work, as my youngest uncle became addicted to womanizing, alcohol, and gambling.  In small-town India there were no treatments for his problems – he was shunned by his family and society.  He ended up dying of sciroccos of the liver, but not before cheating repeatedly on his wife, abandoning his five children, and drinking and gambling away his inheritance leaving them poverty-stricken.  His wife ended up washing other people’s dishes for a living.

My eldest uncle started several businesses and investments, and my grandmother had no say in what he did. He lost all of the money he inherited, to the point that they had to struggle for food and basic amenities.  Even though my grandmother rarely left the town where she was born and raised, she was actually very street smart.  In today’s world, they would call it high EQ.  However, she had absolutely no power over the finances or direction of the family. 

My mother was still in the womb when her father died, and she has no idea what he even looks like as there are no photos.  Because of his death, both she and her mother were considered bad luck.  My grandmother was too grief-stricken (and probably depressed) to take care of her, and she was largely raised by a priest family who used to rent a couple of rooms in their compound.  She often says how unhappy her childhood was.  My uncle’s nickname for her can be loosely translated as “idiot”.  She was betrothed to my dad at the age of ten as was custom back then, and she was married and sent to live with him at the age of sixteen.  Her education stopped at the eighth grade.  By the time she was twenty-one, she had three children, my two brothers and my sister. 

My father was a renaissance man.  His own story reads like Oliver Twist – he grew up in a village with no running water and electricity.  His mother died when he was six, and his family sent him to a nearby town to be educated when he was ten. He was on his own after that, living in hotels and boarding rooms, fending for himself for food and education.  His passion was mathematics, and he completed a master’s degree at Andhra University by the age of twenty.  They subsequently offered him a lecturer position.  By this time, he already had a wife and three kids, and he supported them in a one-room flat with his meager lecturer salary.  My father believed that everyone, including women, should be educated. He spent many hours teaching my mother English, Mathematics, and Literature. 

He became very interested in foreign work in Mathematics, particularly his specialization, statistics.  He wrote a research paper on a statistical theory and sent it to a prominent professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  After studying the paper, Professor Lehman, who was a founding father in the field of nonparametric statistics, invited him to become a doctoral student working under him.  My father was elated. He would get a research assistantship, a small stipend, and did not have to pay tuition.  So, he left his wife, and his children, aged 4, 2 and ten months, in Ongole at my grandmother’s house and went to Berkeley, CA to pursue a Ph.D.  in Statistics.

The world was hardly global in 1959, so going to Berkeley was quite an adventure.  He describes how he wore a suit for air travel, how he had to take a train for three days to Calcutta to catch the flight, and how he had no idea how to get from the airport in San Francisco to Berkeley.  There were only a handful of foreign students in those days, and he survived because of the kindness of strangers and the professor’s wives.

After one year of living in international student housing and trying to learn to cook and fend for himself while doing a Ph.D., he sent for my mother. He told her to leave all the kids with my grandmother and come by herself.  Surprisingly, my mother agreed.  My grandmother was very worried about whether she could handle the by then two-year-old, my brother, so she told her to take him with her.  So, my twenty-one-year-old mother made the intercontinental trip with a two-year-old without knowing a word of English, while leaving two of her children behind in India.

A few years later, I was born in Berkeley. I often joke that I was accidentally produced along with my dad’s thesis – I was definitely not in the plan.   My brother and sister remained with my grandmother in India for five years, and I did not see them for the first four years of my life.  At that time, we all went back to India, Hyderabad, and were reunited. We lived there for five years and then moved to Canada.

I often think about my family of origin, which is dysfunctional.  I don’t know what the normal level of dysfunction is, but I suspect we exceed it.  I think the root of the issues lies in the decision my parents made to leave my brother and sister in India.  The bonding that happens in the early years with siblings, which helps to weather later conflicts, never occurred.   They have much more of the Indian culture embedded in them, and my other brother and I have much more of the Western culture in our makeup.  Throw in cultural and generational divides, financial and job insecurities, mental health problems and other issues and you have the makings of a family saga.

I had many conflicts with my mother when I was growing up, particularly in my teenage years in Canada.  My mother was self-absorbed, involved with her own needs and insecurities, and unable to cope with the demands of four teenage children. My father’s main focus was education, and in that respect he was attentive.  But he did not have the capacity to nurture or emotionally care for another person.  In all fairness, my mother was very young to be raising four children in a foreign country.  My eldest brother, an intelligent, gregarious person who could light up any room,  developed a mental health problem. My parents had no idea what was going on with him and how to deal with it.  Knowledge and understanding of mental health issues have advanced tremendously in fifty years, but in the 1970s, the doctors did not diagnose his issues either.   My parents were utterly overwhelmed.  Later, one of the saddest moments of my life was when he passed away at a young age, alone and having lived a miserable life.

Underlying many of the problems with my mother was the way she discriminated between the girls and the boys. The rules of behavior and standards for girls was very strict. We had to wear our long black hair in two braids, like Pippi Longstocking, conservative clothes, not date, and god forbid should we smoke or drink.  As I grew up, I of course defied all of these rules, cutting my hair short, wearing tight jeans, and associating with friends my mother did not like.  This did not go over very well with my mother.  My sister, who was much more clever than me, always pretended to go along with every rule.  She was the “good Indian girl”, while I was the “bad Westernized one”.  For this reason, my mother was always easier on her than me.  My sister would, in reality, do exactly as she pleased, but she was never self-destructive like I was.  She was very good at knowing exactly what she wants and getting it while projecting an image my mother likes – a skill I am still trying to learn in my old age. 

As we reached our twenties, my sister and I both completed our degrees (I obtained a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, she obtained a master’s in microbiology) and got married. When I was considering enrolling in a Ph.D. program, I called my mother and asked for her advice.  “Should I do it?” I said. “If you want to go insane, do a Ph.D. she said, if not stop with the M.S.”.   Educating myself was purely my own endeavor. 

My sister’s husband is, what I would call, a traditional Indian chauvinist.  He tells her how to use Saran Wrap, he criticizes her looks, her driving, her intelligence – you name it.  He controls all the finances and watches her spending.  My sister and I are not close because of all the history, but it still saddens me when he treats her like this.  My husband, on the other hand, is sophisticated, kind, and considerate – he treats me as a complete equal. I manage all our finances.  My rebellion at the role my mother tried to pigeonhole me into has had some benefits in my life.

Growing up, both my brothers were clearly aware that they were more valuable than myself or my sister.  They had received this message in a myriad of different ways throughout our entire childhood.  To this day, when my mother talks about my brother her face lights up.  He does not have to do anything to win her affection. I, on the other hand, have taken care of my parents for the past fifteen years.  Their old age is my responsibility, and I am still the recipient of much negative reinforcement from my mother, oftentimes without any awareness on her part.

Gender discrimination exists everywhere, not only in the far East – America is rife with examples of it.  In subtle ways, women are taught that they are less than – we make 82 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same job. The pressures to look good and stay thin have led to rampant and dangerous plastic surgery, anorexia, and bulimia.   In more extreme cases, women are exploited, objectified, abused, and disbelieved.  An overqualified woman who dares to run for president is subjected to chants of “lock her up”.  She loses to an incompetent, overtly misogynistic man who brags about his sexual abuse of women.  All this almost forty years after Indira Gandhi was prime minister of India. 

I am now in my fifties and have two adult daughters.  My daughters are strong, independent, and make their own choices.  They did not have to develop their values and morals through painstaking introspection.  They did not have to dismantle a framework they were taught which was meant to diminish and undermine their self-worth.  “One doesn’t have to self-sacrifice all the time”.  “One can do things for oneself and still be a good person”.  “Having a glass of wine every once in a while does not make you morally bankrupt”.  “One does not have to forsake one’s opinion for that of their husband”.  And so on. 

For many years I carried a lot of anger toward my mother for all the ways in which she treated me unfairly.  More recently I have learned to empathize with what she went through in her life. She felt powerless to make any decisions for the family. My father always discarded her opinion as that of an uneducated person, not noticing that she too has an extremely high EQ.  They could have utilized each other’s strengths if their relationship was different, his high IQ and her high EQ.  He wanted to assimilate into American culture.  She did not know how to deal with the vast cultural divide between the East and the West, and she remains to this day fundamentally a Brahmin woman from a small South Indian town.  

They say that pain is transferred from generation to generation until one has the strength and capacity to process it.  For good or bad I am a part of the generation that if not ended, at least thwarted the pain.  Yet every once in a while, I see traces of self-doubt and lack of self-confidence in my daughters. They do not give themselves the credit they deserve for the incredible individuals that they are.  But I know one thing – they are empowered.  If they become bald it is because they have chosen to make a statement of protest.

Saila Kariat at SRK Headshot Day in Menlo Park and Silicon Valley

Saila Kariat is a writer, filmmaker and entrepreneur with a diverse background. While her real interest and passion has always been writing and filmmaking, she has had a career as an electrical engineer and builder while pursuing her dream. After obtaining her Ph.D. in electrical engineering Saila worked as an engineer, manager and marketeer at IBM and a start-up, and founded a residential construction company. She pursued her education in writing and film in parallel, obtaining a degree from San Jose State University, where she was valedictorian of the class of 2008. She wrote, directed and co-produced The Valley, the story of an entrepreneur who seeks answers after the suicide of his daughter. The Valley was in twenty film festivals and won best feature film in four festivals, in addition to being invited to the Mumbai Film Festival. Her other screenplays include Gods and Demons, Love in the Time of Corona, Release and Gray. She has also written essays and short stories. Saila lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area and has two grown daughters.