Women’s diaries and accounts of religious observances, Madras fieldwork 1974-5, Pat Caplan 110214

In this section


  1. How the diaries came to be written

Towards the end of my 15 months of fieldwork on women’s organisations in 1974-5, I knew a number of women very well, indeed they had become friends. This was particularly the case of the members of a local women’s Club, located near to where I lived in the south of the city. I asked some of its members to keep a 2-week diary of their activities for me and all agreed, although their diaries were very different in many respects, including length. Another woman from a different organisation also volunteered to keep a diary, making a total of seven. My main aim had been to obtain some time-budgets, but of course, many other interesting matters came up to, and I highlight a few of these here.

  1. 2. Who kept diaries?

I do not claim that the diary writers are representative. Seven women kept diaries, of whom 4 were Brahmins, 2 non-Brahmins and one a Muslim. Most of them lived in a suburb built on land allocated to government civil servants, many of whom were Brahmins. Their ages ranged from early thirties to fifties and all were married with husbands still alive. All had completed secondary school and some had first degrees. Given that the majority of diarists came from the suburb, it was not surprising that the occupation of their husbands was primarily that of middle-ranking civil servants.

Although the genealogies of informants showed that most had come from large sibling groups, these women had at most two, occasionally three children, and often the third was something of an ‘accident’. Only one of the women who kept a diary had a large number of children – 6 - and she was somewhat older and furthermore had borne a number of daughters before she had a son.

  1. What was in the diaries?

In the period since these were written almost 40 years ago, sadly, three of the diarists have died, but members of their families are still there. One reason for archiving them is their intrinsic interest for the picture they paint of the domestic lives of middle-class Madras women in the mid 1970s. When considering the ethics of archiving these diaries I decided to change the names of the writers to protect their anonymity, even though none of the diaries contains embarrassing or highly personal information – women did not write about such matters - even though I was aware that some of them had problems in their families which they had shared with me but had not written about.

Rather, women wrote about their domestic routines, what food they cooked, their extended families and get-togethers for weddings, house-warmings and on other occasions, their frequent religious observances, their interests and leisure activities.

  1. The language of the diaries

The women’s organisations I studied conducted all their business – meetings, minutes, reports – in English and all of the members spoke English with varying degrees of fluency. This was and has remained our main language of communication, although during the 1974-5 field trip I had the help of Mrs. Sushila Krishnaswamy, a Tamil speaker, who carried out some interviews of her own, and also helped with translations of Tamil documents.

The diaries, then, were all written in a South Indian version of English. Mostly this is perfectly comprehensible but where it is not, I have added the standard English in brackets, and where an additional word helps the meaning, I have added this in square brackets. There is a frequent use of the word ‘kept’ which is used in south India to cover a multiplicity of meanings, including ‘put’, ‘set aside’.

Where there is transliteration of Tamil words, it is striking how different the spellings are, even by the same author: Pilliar, Pillayar, dhal, dhall, abishegam, abishekam, for example, so I have left these as the writers wrote them and made no attempt to systematise.

  1. The historical period at which the diaries were written

It should be borne in mind that in the mid 1970s, there was no television available in Madras, although all households had radios around which they would sometimes gather, especially to hear the evening news. Not all had telephones and those who did would often allow neighbours and friends to use them.

At this point in time, few women had paid jobs outside the household, and this is true of all of the women who kept diaries, although one taught the making of paper flowers for pay, and another made fruit cordials for sale. There is also mention of a third woman (not a diarist) who had a large food processor (‘mixie’) and would grind grains and pulses for money.

These women would all define themselves as housewives, and indeed, they spent a lot of time on domestic tasks, especially cooking, as only one of them had a cook, although all had part-time maidservants. In their kitchens they had gas burners using bottled gas, but no ovens, and only some of them had fridges – there is an interesting discussion in one diary about the necessity to buy one. A few had begun to buy food processors, but most sent anything which needed to be ground, such as coffee beans, to a commercial outlet, or asked their maid servants to do it using a hand grinder.

Husbands played little part in domestic tasks, although one woman says that her retired husband did most of the shopping, and another mentions her husband’s concern that she should not spend too much time in cooking.

Older children sometimes helped, especially girls who were expected to do far more in the house than their brothers, and particularly to serve food when their mothers were absent.

At this time, there were no supermarkets, and dry goods were usually bought from local stores which displayed them in large sacks, while vegetables were purchased from street vendors who also called at the houses which bought regularly from them. Milk was often bought twice a day, often from a cow (more occasionally a buffalo) which was milked in front of the housewife. This not only served to ensure that it was not adulterated, but sight of the holy cow was also considered an auspicious way to start the day.

Household relations

Although I encountered a small number of ‘love’ marriages during my first fieldwork, all of the women who kept diaries had had arranged marriages. By this time in their lives, most couples had adjusted well. Women managed the money, although they had to account for spending to their husbands, and, even when they were reasonably comfortable, would take pains to be economical. For example, one diarist writes of making rough notebooks for her children out of scrap paper, another notes that she always hand-washed expensive clothing herself, rather than using a dhobi or maidservant.

Women managed the children: ensuring they were ready for school, feeding them and preparing food in advance for them to take to school, having food ready on their return. They also ‘coached’ children and helped them with their homework. Most of the children of these women were at school or college, and were still living at home. The diaries reflect the great importance given to the education of children, the efforts to gain entry to ‘good’ schools and colleges, the help given by mothers in tutoring, and the efforts of youngsters themselves, such as the son who would get up in the middle of the night to study.

Food and meals

There is frequent reference in the diaries to ‘tiffin’, which in south India (as in much of the rest of the country) refers to snacks such as idly, uppma, or vadai, taken usually with coffee, which are eaten for breakfast and again in mid to late afternoon (sometimes with tea, sometimes with coffee). Meals, on the other hand, which were consumed some time during the morning and again last thing at night, are lunch and dinner/supper, and consist of rice (sometimes chapattis), cooked vegetable curries of various kinds (often in the form of sambar) and peppery soup or rasam. Only three of the diarists – two non-Brahmins and a Muslim – ate meat, and that sparingly.

Religious practices

From observation, conversations and from the diaries themselves, as well as participation, I became aware of the frequency of religious rituals in the lives of Tamil Hindu women, and asked some women to write down the pujas which they observed. Their accounts are included alongside the diaries. There is a regular and frequent cycle of religious activities observed by all women, some which are only kept by a minority. Some pujas involve going to temples, but many are domestic rituals in which the puja room, found in the houses of all of the Hindu diarists, is decorated and in which women play a major role. The pujas are determined by the Tamil months, as discussed by Mrs. Parvathi.

In all Hindu households, a kolam would be drawn early in the morning at the front gate. Sometimes this was done by the housewife, sometimes by a servant. In some households, the kolam would be renewed in the later afternoon. On special days, the puja room might be decorated by drawing a rangoli. I have included some photos of kolam and rangoli alongside the diaries.

Women’s leisure activities

As the diaries make clear, most of these women had little leisure, but after rising early between 5 and 6 am, preparing coffee and finishing most of the day’s cooking, they would see family members out of the house bathed, properly dressed, fed and often carrying more food in tiffin boxes. At this point in the middle of the morning, they could begin to relax a little – take a bath (shower) themselves or look at the newspaper. Some women record having a sleep in the middle of the day before preparing to receive and feed home-coming children or husbands.

But these women also had hobbies: one made pictures made from straws, another played the veena while a third wrote poetry. Women also record attending concerts of Carnatic music, and going to the Tamil cinema with other members of their households.

All enjoyed reading the regular Tamil weekly and monthly magazines like Dinamani and Kalki, and several also read English-language publications ranging from newspapers (The Hindu) to novels.

Nonetheless, there is no mention of political issues in the diaries, in spite of the fact that some of them were written around the time of the beginning of the infamous Emergency period (1975-77) declared by the then Prime Minister Mrs. Gandhi.

All of these women belonged to women’s organisations the main purpose of which was social welfare. The suburb’s women’s Club involved about half the households in this small area in south Madras. Its activities included running a nursery for pre-school children, a variety of classes, and social get-togethers. Another club raised money to help poor children get an education, and then began working to set up a home for indigent elderly women. I have written a number of articles and a book about such middle-class women’s organisation and these are listed below. The bibliography also includes information on later work on more radical women’s organisations and on changing food practices.

* The banner photograph is of a group of women belonging to one of the organisations studied. It is not a photograph of diarists.


1977: "Professional women in India Women Speaking 15: 12-14

1978c "Women's organisations in Madras city, India" in P. Caplan and J. Bujra (eds) Women United, Women Divided: Cross-cultural perspectives on Female Solidarity. London and New Huork: Tavistock. 99-128.

1979b: "Indian Women, Illusion and Reality: a Review of Some Recent Books" Women's Studies International Quarterly 2, 4: 461-79

1980: "Joiners and non‑joiners: an Indian city suburb and its women's club" Sociological Bulletin 29, 2: 207-21

1984: "Women's voluntary social service in India ‑ is it work?" in K. Ballhatchet and D. Taylor (eds.) Changing South Asia Hong Kong: Asian Research Services: 69-80

1985a: Women's Voluntary Social Welfare Work in India: the Cultural Construction of Gender and Class" Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 17, 1: 20-31

1985b: Class and Gender In India: Women and their Organisations in a South Indian City. Tavistock Publications, London and New York (258 pp.)

1985c: "Celibacy as a solution? Mahatma Gandhi and Brahmacharya" in P. Caplan (ed.) The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. London and New York: Routledge. 271-95

1994: "Distanciation or differentiation ‑ what difference does it make?" Critique of Anthropology 14, 2, l994: 99-115.

2001: 'Food in middle-class households in Madras, 1974-94' in B.C.A. Walraven and K. Cwiertka (eds.) Food in Asia: the Global and the Local ConsumAsiaN series, Curzon Press.

2006. ‘But is it real food? Responses to globalisation in Tanzania and India’ Sociological Research Online, Volume 11, Issue 4, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/11/4/caplan.html (also in David Inglis and Debra Gimlin (eds.) The Globalization of Food. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.

2008. ‘Crossing the veg/non-veg divide: practising among middle class women in Chennai’ in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 31, 1, 118-42. 2008.