The Indian Widow
She was once
Ostracised by society
Thrust into the obscure background
to be an inauspicious entity.
Ten, twenty, thirty-
However many summers
Her life may have seen
She was now to lead a wintry existence.
Her mind was a darkened room
No ray of happiness to relieve the dull decor
Happiness? A thing of the past
Memories, of another life, dreams
Were all she had.
Unwanted, wretched, miserable, neglected-
With a shaven head and a haggard look
Draped in a faded white sari
She sat (nigh on two centuries ago)
In a corner of a room in her brother’s house.
A little boy saw her through the window
And exclaimed: Oh look Ma! At that dirty ol’ ayah!
Ma looked up, and turned her nose up too
With her lips curling into a sneer, said-
Don’t look, son, she’s an Indian Widow!
The hands of the clock move on steadily
Untiringly they passed, ten, twenty, thirty…
A hundred years more.
And steadily occurred changes
The Parliament moved into action
And brought legal, logical changes;
Law, the agent of social control, gave justice
And widows figured mighty prominently.
She moved forward, and away
From the obscure mists of injustice
And developed an entity, and identity.
Some said, (the laws did her such good, that)
She positively bloomed!
Well, to say the least
As the years fled by,
So did her inhibitions
She became a woman, normal as the next one
And sustained her authority in society.
Yet, again, she became the cynosure of all eyes…
Married women said, of her, (enviously)
She was lucky, she could have such FUN
It was like this young man, who asked his mother
About a beautiful, gregarious lady he’d seen at a party
Oh look Mom! who’s that dazzling beauty?
And Mom, poor Mom, turned green with envy
And replied: Don’t look son, she’s the Merry Widow!
Down it echoed through the halls of time
Till it reached the ears of Ma-
Who still maintained that the lady was
An Indian Widow.
[The above is an ancient, rather childish write, of an aeon ago, written at a versification competition, in college]
Widowhood in India is an exceptional status, for ever so many reasons. Centuries ago, as per the rules laid down in Manusmriti, and a male dominated society, who perhaps thought it would be life-threatening to accord too much of a status to women, women began to be subjugated. It is interesting to note that in the Srimad Bhagvatam, in the chapters on the Varnas, and the Manvantaras, and the Canto XI, in which Uddhava is given advice on life and society, there is much said about how women should behave, and their comport, etc. which is highlighted by the different acharyas who explain it, at the Sapthahams, but never do they give any emphasis on what men are to do, as part of their duty as well, which is clearly outlined as well- that they respect women, undertake certain duties in the household…; that part is conveniently glossed over!
And so to the status of a widow, in India. From someone who fell to being no-one only because her husband is no more, she has a load to carry. Of expectations, of non expectations too. Expected to be a certain sort of person. Not expected to ever be happy without her spouse by her side, or be part of any auspicious things in a household.
Well, law has banned the practice of Sati. Which perhaps is unique to India. The ultimate proof given of how devoted one is to one’s husband. Indeed a crime, it is by law. But how far has it been implemented? Aren’t modern day Satis still revered? Has anyone ever asked them if they truly did want to be one?
Ok, Sati is perhaps a bit extreme. Why don’t we discuss re-marriage? A widower who does, gets empathy, advice, and encouragement, more so if there are children to take care of. A widow? Even in this day and age, there is only a small percent of women who actually re-marry, and those who do, face much by way of opposition, maybe not confrontational, but subtle and equally disturbing.
A colleague of mine, someone I really looked up to, had this to say, about how undertaking and observing certain fasts, and special days, makes you blessed. There is version of the Karva Chauth, here in Kerala, where women celebrate their marriage, and those who are single pray for a good man. It’s called Thiruvathira, and it occurs sometime around December/January. It is supposed to mark the celebration of Lord Shiva’s birthday by his consort, Parvathi Devi. Women, on that day, pay their obeisance to Lord Shiva, and do not eat rice, or anything to do with rice that day. A special payasam made of arrowroot powder is prepared; they are to eat only certain kinds of vegetables, and finally have beetel leaves and nuts (like paan)- at least 101 beetel leaves! They sing songs, do the Kaikottikali (it is also called Thiruvathira kali), play on swings, etc.
Now, this colleague was telling us how a woman from her hometown was blessed because she observed this day, and the fast religiously all her life. She had an abusive husband, and alcoholic too, but she was blessed because of this observance on her part! Another friend and I rejoiced, when we thought that it must have surely helped change her husband! The kinky part is here: our mutual colleague tells us, in hushed tones, that she died, before her husband did, as a “Sumangali”! That was the blessed part!!! Jeez! To say I was aghast at the thought of an educated, literate, woman of the world mouthing this to me, is putting it way too mildly. So, in effect, all those whose husbands are no more, are sadly not blessed at all! What a thought!!
Even in this day and age, is prevalent, such notions, and much discrimination.
So, if a widow remarries, is she brazen? But a widower who does is given sympathy!
If a widow would like to participate in certain functions, there is a natural bar and she cannot, because she is not a Sumangali! Is that Justice?
A woman who can go on with life, and seem to enjoy it, without her husband, who is no more, is being disrespectful to his memory?
I find myself deeply angered by these notions, these expectations we foist, when we forget she is just another person, and woman, with the same needs, fears and life as others.