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The Indian Widow

April 6, 2010

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.

1983

[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.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2010 3:33 am

    Ah, but women are not humans, didn’t you know that? Women are hapless creatures who live the lives of animals…

    In Bengal, they have a custom of chopping off a widow’s hair to make her unattractive…She also has to wear a white cotton saree, and get this, without a blouse! No non-vegetarian food for her lest her carnal desires are aroused…Deporting her to a distant land (eg. Varanasi, Vrindavan) is a good way of getting rid of her…

    Usha: I forgot to mention that! Thanks for adding it Saraboney. You got the whole thing nailed on that one notion- women aren’t humans. Period.
    It is more in India, I think, that this sort of treatment is given to women who, by some sad stroke of luck, lose their spouse!
    Thank you for sharing your views and adding to this write.

  2. April 8, 2010 1:32 pm

    The part I like best and wish women, all women realise and respect is this,

    ‘The Parliament moved into action
    And brought legal, logical changes;
    Law, the agent of social control, gave justice’.

    I have been reading this heart breaking and yet inspiring post for the past two days and finally managed to reach here…

    Another line, and this one annoys, ‘Aren’t modern day Satis still revered?’
    and
    ‘If a widow would like to participate in certain functions, there is a natural bar and she cannot, because she is not a Sumangali!’

    There is a lot more Usha. My mother felt guilty in applying lipstick, her favorite cosmetic, she has always been the kind to not drink water once she has applied lipstick, (when we are going somewhere) – and another time someone told her about another woman around her age, who is missing her husband so much that she does not eat properly!

    Suffering by widows become a good thing! I am so proud that my mother agreed (somewhat) that she did not need to prove to anyone how she felt or not felt about my dad. And nobody has any business to be interested either.
    I even told her she can become a role model for younger women she knows, and in the family and that’s so true! A happy, confident woman is always a good role model 🙂

    • April 9, 2010 4:37 am

      Amongst the West Bengalis, non-widowed mothers of the bride and groom are not allowed to watch the marriage ceremony as they are considered to be non-sumangalis…I really can’t understand this logic…

    • April 9, 2010 5:36 pm

      @IHM, >Hugs< to your mother. She is exceptional, and more so her daughter who motivated her to shed those inhibitions, and live as she truly felt like it. I wish more families were this supportive, so that the transition from being part of everything, to a hesitation, would no longer be there.

      I have several colleagues, at work, at least five of them, who have lost their husbands. And each of them relives moments of tragedy, most often, quite publicly. I do feel sorry, I empathize, but sometimes a petty me wonders if they do so because it is expected of them? They are quite happy other wise, till they suddenly dissolve into this state!

      Also an aunt of a friend whose husband suddenly died, advised her that it was time to start getting spiritual, go to temples, chant the mantras, and spend more time in such activities! Does life end for the poor woman, because of her status?

      Thank you IHM, for your sharing too.

      @Saraboney, that is indeed a strange custom! There does not seem to be any logic in not allowing the so called sumangalis to witness the ceremony!

  3. April 10, 2010 7:25 pm

    Very well written!

    Incidentally, I’ve never had opportunity to interact franky on this issue with someone widowed. So cannot completely relate to the feeling apart from that evoked by your writing.

    Religion heads/influential members of society have thrived on making people feel guilty of one thing or the other. Easiest to achieve this is to make people feel guilty about being happy! Everything that makes one happy or confident about oneself is a “sin”. Because a guilty person never questions – only meekly submits & obeys, & never ever protests! Unfortunately, women have been much more acutely at the receiving end of this grand conspiracy to subjugate. Fortunately things are improving. When people would be able to detach happiness from guilt we will be truly liberated as a society.

    Usha: Thank you very much for your insights Ketan. You do say it well, when you mention how easy it is for us feel guilty about being happy, no matter what kind of person or what situation you are in. It is very difficult indeed, to try to detach that guilt from the happiness, isn’t it? This perhaps is one of the most universal reasons why society, as we see it today, everywhere, is really not liberated!

    Thank you for the visit and your good words for the write too!

  4. April 13, 2010 8:51 pm

    hmmm …. I also think that in a way women get more traumatised by their spouse passing away than men do .. it is the same in the case of love affairs too .. and applying so much of an emotional burden on women during such a time is real inhuman

  5. Kohinoor Devroy permalink
    April 29, 2010 11:40 am

    These rituals are inhuman and made only for a woman,that is the tragedy of our nation.
    “In September the governments of the world will meet at the UN to present their assessments on the status of MDGs in their respective countries. Annie Raja, General Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, wants the Government of India to make the effort to understand the concerns of civil society. Before the Government of India makes its presentation on MDGs at the UN, we demand that our views be taken into consideration.

    http://bit.ly/dl9Cgt

  6. May 13, 2010 5:30 pm

    very nice post.
    i would like to add here that in a patriarchal system, a woman’s identity is intrinsically linked with the dominant man in her life, father or brother before marriage and husband or son after marriage. hence, when the husband dies, then a major part of the identity vanishes and she has to hide behind being a nobody as we are not used to treat “women as a human being” like some one said in one of the comments. a woman can not have an identity just for herself as “she” in our society, unless she has made a mark for herself socially in corporate or politics or in other sectors.
    secondly, i quite agree that instead of understanding and empathizing with the pathos and deprivation of the widows, it is us the women who most often decide to side with the dysfunctional systems and either turn away or force the widowed woman to follow the archaic and in human rules.
    unless, we as women can provide new meanings and make new action choices, the patriarchy will continued to influence and shape our system.
    thanks for your post

  7. Lakshmi permalink
    May 21, 2010 2:14 pm

    Such a touching piece Usha. Widowhood carries such a stigma in India, your piece breaks through heart. Thank you for writing.

  8. June 13, 2010 1:19 pm

    Though I am a man myself..but I can certainly identify with whatever you wrote here about the way women are treated in our male-dominated society.. I could identify because My Mother had to face some of same problems and atrocities you mentioned here 😦 ..

    Thank you for sharing.

    • kamakshi permalink
      August 8, 2010 7:21 am

      I found this article about Sumangali meaning
      Written by Guhanatha Swami
      Monday, 09 March 2009 15:03
      The Position of Widows in Hindu Society

      Recently, I received a question from a concerned Mr. Bala regarding the position of widows in Hinduism. Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative misconceptions on this issue which leads to needless pain and misplaced disdain in the society. Below are excerpts from his email and my response.

      Bala wrote:
      “Radhe Krishna,
      Namaskaram Swami,
      I would like to know why widows are not allowed to do any pujas or activities in the temple. For example: Doing aarathi, they say only sumangali (explained in my response) only can do it…”

      “Recently I went to the temple for some special puja, after all the puja finished the gurukkal (priest) asked for three sumangalis to perform aarati, then came three ladies to perform the aarati, of which one of them is a widow. Immediately one of the ladies told her that she cannot do the aarati because she is a widow, later arguements broke out.
      I was very upset about the incident, more over it happened in a temple. The worst thing is that the widow cursed the other lady saying that she will also be a widow one day.”

      My Response:
      Vanakkam Bala,

      In Hindu tradition widows can choose to remarry or remain single. Widows who intend to stay single dedicate their life to the upbringing of their family, to live for a cause or to live in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. If a widow chooses this path she is respected as a brahmacharini (celibate women dedicated to spiritual pursuits), and is generally enjoined to live a life similar to monastics. One of the signs that they have choosen this path of life is that they wear plain white clothing (though these days many will wear either whitish saris or white saris with designed borders).

      Widows who choose not to remarry may also be initiated by a swami to be a sannyasini and may wear yellow or orange saris. These widows follow the tradition of sannyasins, where they do not participate in community functions such as weddings except to observe and give their blessings. They may however, lead prayer groups during holy festival, give discourses if they are qualifed to, and can certainly do pujas and perform aarati on such occasions or on any occasion where there is gathering of people for spiritual purposes.

      Widows who intend to remarry will follow the customs of an unmarried girl. Her attire would be what she normally uses, though she is enjoined not to use the red kungkumum on her forhead and as with an unmarried girl, use the black kungkumum instead. These signify that she is open to marriage proposals.

      These are the general guidelines for widows in Hindu culture. Widows have a choice on how they apply them. For instance, a widow who choses not to remarry may still her usual attire and wear the red kungkumum as a remembrance of a late husband. There is no bad karma in this and the community is enjoined to respect her wishes. There is actually no Hindu scriptural reference that regulate what a widow should wear and what she should not, or what she can or cannot do. In general Hindu society, widows are given the choice of indicating their status by what they choose to wear. By status I don’t mean whether they are a widow or not, instead it is to indicate whether they intend to remarry or not. I must also state that these same guidelines also apply to a husband who has lost his wife. However, if you observe our community men are not enjoined by the community to observe the guidelines as much as women.

      When it comes to the incident in the temple you brought up, the simple answer is that, it would have been alright for the widow to perform the aarati along with the other ladies. In this situation, the priest should have known better and advised the congregation to avert the arguement.

      I can see why the arguement took place. This is because of the misunderstanding about the concept of sumangali, which has created a ridiculous taboo about widowhood.
      The basic mistake in this situation is where people understand sumangali to mean good luck when actually it means the bearer of goodness, and has nothing to do with good or bad luck.
      The tradition of sumangali was created to culturally and ceremoniously honour womanhood as the nurturer and nourisher of society (the Lakshmi of the society).

      According to the tradition of sumangali any lady or girl can be a sumangali for any occasion that calls for it. There is however a general hierarchy in who is given the first consideration to take on the responsibility of the sumangali. In this hierarchy the first choice is given to mothers
      (the sumangali can also be a highly respected elder mother of the community even if she is widowed),
      the second choice is given to ladies who are married though are not yet mothers.
      The third level of this privilege is given to unmarried women or girls, this includes widows who intend to marry.
      So as you can see, even a widow can perform the duties of a sumangali.

      Concerning widowhood there is also unjustified taboo about widows wearing white in the community. Many widows who intend not to remarry shun this practice because of the misplaced view of the community where wearing white is associated with bad luck, when in actual fact this is a noble and profound tradition. White, in Hinduism, is the colour of spirituality. It indicates the purity, virtue, justice and dedication to high-minded causes. It is simply so far from the truth that white colour is associated with bad luck or anything of the sort.

      The information that I am sharing with here was learned from highly respected and learned priests in India, the Sivachariyas and the Deekshitars.

      Aum Shanti,
      Swami

      If you have any questions on Hinduism or Hindu culture you can send them to guhaswami@myhindupage.org

      • Vaidehi B. Mehta permalink
        November 24, 2010 2:14 pm

        Thanks to everyone who has written here.

        I have been a widow for a little over five years. My husband was a wonderful, wonderful man who died so suddenly. We had never discussed matters like widowhood or our expectations should one pre-decease the other. The unwillingness to accept our mortality, I guess?

        While everyone has been kind and nothing is overtly said, much is implied and there seems to be a code of conduct to be followed by widows. I would like to share a couple of personal experiences in the last five years to underscore my point.

        I had attended my cousin’s daughter’s engagement ceremony in Bangalore. We are a well-educated and ‘progressive’ family. Everyone was kind and warm and I was thrilled to see so many of my cousins and relatives. As I sat talking to some of them, I looked up to see that the ritual blessing of the young, to-be-married couple was taking place. All the sumangalis/suhagans went up and applied tikka/kumkum on the young girl’s foerhead. I was sitting amongst my widowed female relatives, who did not participate in this – either by choice or by pretending they have not noticed anything or whatever. Neither they nor I objected or insisted that we too should go up and join the others.

        On a recent occasion when my husband’s niece was getting married, all manner of blessing and formalities to be done by her maternal uncles and their wives, were – by unspoken agreement – the exercise of my younger brother-in-law and his wife. Being a widow, I was neither entitled on my husband’s behalf or on my own, although I made my material contribution just as we would have done had my husband been alive. No one thought this was odd or sad.

        While this bothers me, I am not sure what I am supposed to do. I thought I could escape by not attending such functions. But invariably, pressure is brought to bear by ‘well-wishers’. So I go and …

        I am the first to say that I too am contributing to all this. Sometimes I wonder if the conditioning of our traditions and upbringing have ingrained these taboos so deeply in our psyche, that the Indian widow herself begins to take for granted that she is to live in a particular way. If she passively accepts her lot without question, if she worries that all this about bad luck and karma have some basis – given that there is so much about the metaphysical that we do not understand and which remains unclear to us.

        I am not sure I have any answers. All I know is that I hate being a widow and I hate the symbols of widowhood. I want to wear a bright red bindi, I want to wear nice clothes, I want to use nice jewellery and i want to colour my hands with mehendi. I miss my husband every day of my life and do not need another man in my life. I know it is unfair and all this angers me.

        But I do not know what to do.

  9. garimakapoor permalink
    July 7, 2010 7:32 am

    Good read. Let us all encourage women and empower them to stand up against all the attrocities of the society. Women empowerment is also a part of Millenium Development Goals….

    Also

    Globally more than 173 Million people stood up against poverty and other goals (MDG’s) in 2009, a Guinness World Record!

    Let us break this record in 2010!

    Be the voice for the millions of poor people living across India.

    It is Time for You to STAND UP AGAINST POVERTY NOW!

    Join us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/unmcampaignINDIA and check out the photo album section for the event pictures.

    Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/unmcampaignIND

  10. Vaidehi B. Mehta permalink
    April 21, 2011 3:08 am

    That there is poverty in India needs no re-iteration. We know it and witness it around us each and every day as a fact.
    Many right minded people do their bit everyday – in little ways or big – to help the poor. I repeat, ‘to help the poor’. Most of us do not do anything about lessening poverty. Our gestures, no doubt sincere, stem from a liberal guilt rather than a true desire to arrive at a solution to the problem.
    I am not any better.
    How may I help? What can I do to make a difference and truly contribute in terms of my time and energy to tackling the problem of poverty in our country.
    I make my small contributions according to my ability to causes close to my heart. I want to know what I can do beyond this. I shall be glad to receive positive and workable suggestions by email.
    I have a basic degree in Economics and an M.A. in English. I also have a B.Ed. and am currently studying towards a Law Degree. This is FYI.

  11. June 1, 2012 2:22 am

    Woman has the right to remarry

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