Geetu Hinduja and Her Three Daughters Talk Family Ties
Avani Raheja’s three-month-old son Neev has just woken up. And all the action in her mother’s living room suddenly swooshes towards the third gen rep in the house. Her older sister Neha takes over the baby and coos away. Younger sister Veda, awaiting her turn, is delighted: “I was hoping he would get up before I left.” The air is high on love and estrogen, the room is filled with comfortable chatter and laughter. And Geetu Hinduja, rockstar grandma and our host for the afternoon, presides over the scene with a blend of contentment and poise which lights up her face and the conversation.
At 57, Geetu is entitled to a sense of fulfilment. This family scene has not come easy; it has taken some work on all their parts. And their story is testament to how important it is for a mother to first find her own happiness and journey.
Geetu was a young mother: she had all her three children in her twenties. When she was divorced in her forties, she had to carve out an entirely new life for herself and her daughters. Those were difficult years: “From living a life where I was surrounded by family and staff, I went to a very pared-down life. I had to re-learn how to live. But I’m very grateful I got a second chance at life. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says, the rich timbre of her voice adding depth to her statement.
In her new life, she channelled her love of art and music into deeply fulfilling career streams. She started off as an art consultant, setting up The Fine Art Company, and working on various consultancy projects. After she decided to get full-time into music, she has released three music videos and has been singing, writing songs and performing for over two decades now.
It was a journey of self-discovery that brought her and her daughters together in a bond that is clearly strong but not overtly saccharine; there’s that easy camaraderie and a celebration of differences that marks a happy family.
Perhaps it helped that there’s not much of an age gap between mother and daughters? “When you’re a child, you’re almost scared of your mother. But when you’re an adult the bond changes to one of friendship,” says Geetu’s second daughter Avani. “Though Mom thinks she’s from another generation” (much laughter all around, Geetu’s rising full-throated over the rest), “we can all relate easily and talk to her about stuff. We’re really close.”
Says the 33-year-old food entrepreneur, “I’m so glad we were brought up being scared of Mom; that’s how I want to bring up my children too — make them into good people that I’d like to be friends with.”
Neha, 36, who has two children, thinks differently. “I always see it in the parent-child frame,” she says, her film-maker vocabulary kicking in. “As you grow older, the need to have your mother in that role lessens, but I don’t agree with the friendship model; I think it messes up the relationship.”
“A friend is something you should never try to be,” chips in Geetu, more as a thought than advice.
“I think I’m somewhere in-between the two of them,” says Veda, the youngest sibling at 28. “I mean, I like to be able to talk to Mom about things, confide in her, but there are limits.”
The views vary. And the similarities between the four women are not obvious at first. But Geetu offers, on my prodding: “Avani and I are slightly more similar and Veda and Neha are more like each other.”
“Mom and I are both outgoing, love socialising and exercising. And we’re more outspoken than these two who are more reserved and diplomatic,” says Avani.
“Diplomatic? I don’t know,” laughs Geetu.
“Definitely not diplomatic!” insists Neha.
“But as a general trait, you’re the calmest one,” persists Avani.
“Yes, I don’t like confrontation, so I play it down,” admits Neha, her soft-spoken tones stressing the point.
But when I ask if they’ve ever had blowout fights, Geetu leads the chorus amidst guffaws: “Of course!” “All the time!” “Often enough! Yes!”
When the laughter has subsided, Avani says on a more serious note, “We have the comfort of knowing that no matter how much we fight, at the end it will always be the same between us.”
Though the age-gap is small, Geetu’s early family life was from another time, another school of thought. Growing up in a conservative business family and getting married into another one meant that there was “so much conditioning — you can do this, you cannot do this; you must do this, you must not do this. I remember once I was whistling, and someone said, ‘You’re whistling?!’ All I was supposed to do was get married, cook, clean, have babies and produce sons and daughters.”
She did make an effort to be the obedient daughter and bahu: “I really tried and tried for a very long time. But I was not made in that mould.”
What was the trigger or turning point at which she broke free? “I think it was a gradual process,” she says as she casts her mind back a decade and more. “Even after I got divorced, it took me a very long time to realise that I was truly free to live my life as I wanted to. I was living on my own and doing my own thing, nobody was asking me any questions; I was financially independent — I had all of that. But all those voices in my head continued for a very long time.”
But, on reflection, there was one life-changing moment. One day at a jazz concert where an avant-garde Japanese musician was singing but also creating “the sounds of the trees and the forest,” Geetu was so struck by the performance that she confided to a friend who was with her, “I’d like to perform like that one day.” The friend asked, “So what’s stopping you?”
“That’s when I asked myself,” says, Geetu, “what is stopping me? And I realised that the prison was in my head; not around me. So I started working on myself consciously, saying: You are truly free to do whatever you want — go for it! Every year I would say ‘Ok, I’ve done it!’ But it took me six years and more to find that equilibrium.”
During her long years of self-discovery, Geetu was surrounded by women in her maternal and married homes — an experience that she remembers with some gratitude despite all those caveats. “When I was going through rough patches, it was my girlfriends or sisters or mother who stood by me like no one else,” she says. Last year on the eve of International Women’s Day, she released Sisterhood, a music video that celebrates female bonding, and was, fittingly, a collaboration between nine musicians.
“The bond that women can share is not explored or appreciated enough,” she believes. It’s not a rose-tinted statement, though. “I think one woman can be another’s best friend or worst enemy. Much more her worst enemy. And I’ve had my share of both,” she remarks. Not one to dwell on negativity, though, she adds, “The women in my family were all strong but in a different way from me. And my girlfriends have pretty much been the same — which is why they are my girlfriends.”
Geetu’s independent spirit is reflected in varying shades in her daughters. “Something I’m constantly trying to work towards is to be strong in my thoughts and practical needs, to not be physically and emotionally dependent on anyone else,” says Veda. A designer with her own eponymous label, she has interned with fashion magazines and worked with Shivan and Narresh and Payal Khandwala before she made her debut at Lakme Fashion Week in 2014. Her career is obviously her prime focus now.
Avani picks up the baton: “There are many women who say, ‘Oh, we don’t need to do this, we don’t need to know that, because we’re going to get married and have a man who’s going to take care of everything.’ ”
“They can’t function without a man in their life,” interjects Neha.
“None of us ever thought like that. Each of us is independent in her own right,” affirms Avani. Her company Burgundy Hospitality, co-founded in 2012 with husband Samir Gadhok, specialises in experiential confectionery. So far, they have brought in Royce Chocolate, a Japanese brand with a cult following and Papabubble, a handmade artisanal candy company from Barcelona.
“However,” says Neha, “women can be very judgmental about each other especially about the choices they make. That’s why we become each other’s worst enemies. I feel it even more strongly now that I am a parent. Just because you make a certain choice, you judge the other person’s as being negative, mainly to justify your own decision.” She adds candidly, “I tend to do it myself. So I’m now consciously working on it.”
Avani continues, “The challenge is really a personal battle. Look at me — I have great career aspirations for myself and my business. But there’s also the guilt: Oh no, am I supposed to sit at home with my baby? Should I be at work?”
“You only realise that challenge once you become a parent,” says Neha, who lives with her husband Rajeev Thakker and their children in Mumbai. “We were brought up to believe that we were the same as any man, and can do whatever we want to. But once you have a child, biology kicks in, and at the end of the day it’s not the same. And that, I think, is the biggest conflict.” She hasn’t let the demands of motherhood hold her back, though. She’s currently working on a web series, has done a Hindi film (Goal) while she was pregnant, has written and directed TVCs and short films, made a public service ad for the girl child and a music video for her mother among other Indian and international projects.
“A man’s way of dealing with the situation is very different,” she argues. “They will do a lot for their young children, but they don’t get those compartments mixed up; it’s a lot clearer in their heads and there’s far less guilt.” (Interestingly her bio says her films ‘seek to tell stories that concern gender, social inequities and the urban landscape’.)
While motherhood is much on Neha’s and Avani’s minds, Veda and Geetu are in different mental spaces right now. “The biggest challenge for women of my age and situation is constantly being reminded that you have to get married,” Veda laughs. “But I’m clear that I want to get my company going and put my life together before I get to that.”
Says Geetu, “It’s all about where you’re at in your life. I’ve had a whole bunch of experiences that have got me to where I am, whereas they’re still starting their lives. The other day, Veda was telling me about all the things she wanted to do while I was talking about all the things I don’t.”
For now, it’s totally about her music — contemporary folk, alternative, pop or soft rock — says Geetu. “It’s all I really want — to be able to sing as long as I possibly can. Music is a celebration of life, with all its strife and joys. Human beings are amazingly resilient and I love to tell their stories and hear about what people go through and how they process things.”
She adds, after a pause: “If you weren’t interviewing me right now, I would have been interviewing you and getting your whole story.” She looks serious. Time to get out while I still can, I figure.