Who Are “They”, Anyway?

Written by: Keerthana Raveendran

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had to follow some bizarre rules:

Don’t shower, cut hair, or clip nails at night—or on Fridays.
Don’t touch anyone on the shoulder. They will not grow.
If you touch someone on the shoulder, touch them on the head immediately afterward. Then they will grow.
Don’t exchange items on the stairs.
Don’t rest your head in your hands.
Don’t rest your chin in your hands.
Don’t rest your cheek in your hands.
Don’t rest any part of your face in your hands.
Don’t ask anyone who is leaving the house where they are going.
Don’t call out to anyone when they are leaving the house.
Don’t sneeze when leaving the house.
If you sneeze, sneeze again for an even number.
Don’t return home when you leave the house until you finish what you set out to do.
If you return home because you forgot something, drink a glass of water before leaving again.
Don’t pass a safety pin from hand to hand.

The list goes on…

Thinking back now, I can’t believe I was ever able to keep track of these little rules. At the time, they were considered almost as laws at home. My mother’s favourite line before every rule was always (in Tamil, of course): “The ancestors said…” It wasn’t until recently that I stopped to think about who these ancestors, or moothaatheyar, were in the first place.

According to my family, the moothaatheyar were our parents’ parents’ parents’ parents, whose wisdom was endless and whose advice one should follow on all matters. They have opinions on how the youth should behave, what career options are best, right down to how someone should comb his or her hair in the morning. I’ve heard the ancestors be quoted so many times that I started to wonder whether they’d written a book of rules at some point. But the problem for me is, and has always been, the fact that we have never met them. What exactly gave them their authority?

Now, as much as I respect the older generation, we have to remember that they were young too once upon a time. In fact, they were probably, at our age, just as lost as we are now. To put things into perspective, take for example that scene from that old sitcom, 8 Simple Rules. The mother, Cate, talks to her husband about an old tradition that existed in her home. Her mother would always cut off the edge of the Sunday pot roast, simply because her own mother had done so all her life. When she questioned her grandmother about this, she too claimed to have cut the edge off the roast because her own mother had. When Cate finally visited her great-grandmother, she found out that she had only cut off the edge of the roast, not because it had some sort of significant meaning, but because it had not, at the time, fit in the small pan she owned.

The point? The younger generation often has a habit of copying the older generation without questioning their motives. Cate’s mother and grandmother cut the edge off the pot roast simply because they saw their mother do the same, without ever debating its benefits. And the older generation isn’t always so wise. While this simple act of cutting off the edge was helpful in Cate’s great-grandmother’s era, it does not translate into her own generation.

Just as well, as the younger generation, we live in a world that is very much different than that of our parents or our grandparents. Though there are some rules that never change (“Don’t smoke”, for example—because let’s face it, the motives behind that one are pretty obvious), there are also some really tedious habits that our parents have, those that may have helped them in their day, but will only hinder us in ours.

It’s very easy to make up a rule and have the younger generation follow it. I can very easily decide that one should always jump on one foot three times whenever someone coughs, in order to ward away bad luck. I can pass this “rule” onto my children, and they can pass it onto theirs. But the fact remains that I made up the rule, and that it was entirely baseless. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to follow small rules such as, “Don’t pass a safety pin from hand to hand”. But you may enlighten yourself if you stop and ask “Why?” Perhaps your parents have a legitimate reason deep-rooted in culture.

Who knows, you might learn something worthwhile.

Television reference for the win:

Like what you read? Read more by Keerthana:
Remembering Our Literature
Society and Expectations: Negotiating Between Boundaries
Opinion Piece: To My Tamil Friends

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