I recently attended a funeral at the home of a seemingly educated family in a semi-rural area. Hurtful rituals involving women left a lasting impression on me...
Her husband died after a prolonged illness. She was by his side every minute of every day for three years. He was tired, she was exhausted. Sadness at a life cut short, on the verge of physical collapse. she grieved at the loss of a lifelong companion.
Does it end here? Is it over for her? Mourning, crying, pacifying, its not over. Tend to the children, attend to the infinite rituals of most Indian funerals. No, it’s not over yet. She keens, wails because what will the neighbours think if she doesn’t? Her grief must not be private. She must prove again and again that she cared, that she loved her husband. Cry, weep, keen, every time she gets a visitor, she must, for what will the neighbours think?
She is quiet, tired from all the weeping. Every relative who comes through the doors hugs her, cries into her shoulder, rocks her back and forth. She tries to keep her balance as she lets out a wail. No tears come, they are all dried up over three long years, but she wails again. After all, if she doesn’t what will the relatives think?
It’s not enough that she served her husband his meal every minute of every day for three long years. It is not enough that she washed his face lovingly every day. It is not enough she helped him to the bathroom when he became weak. It is not enough that she changed his soiled sheets and cleaned him up intimately when he no longer could. It is not enough that she suppressed her desire to step out of the house for three years. It is not enough that she didn’t wear a new sari for three years. No, that’s not enough, thank you very much.
Funeral over. Time to relax and recover you say? No, we are not done. Now comes the Third Day rituals. The dreaded day. Her sons protested in vain. They were summarily ignored. Their mother admonished them, “Let them do what they must, my brothers. They will be angry otherwise.” She is taken from her home to her father/brother’s house. She is bathed, dressed in silken finery & jewelry, wears turmeric, Kumkum and glass bangles and of course the flowers of the married woman. She is sent to her home. After all, what are parents and brothers for if they can’t even do this much? What will the in-laws think?
At the designated time, she is taken by kindly women in a ritualistic march and rid of her finery. Off come the bangles, flowers, the turmeric, fine sari and jewels and the thali. Rub off that Kumkum that sits so proudly on her forehead. Wrap her up in a plain cotton sari, she is a widow. Let her cover her head, wrap her sari around her so no hair shows. Sit her down, let everyone look at her. She is the widow, didn’t you know? We must, we must, for what will the dayaathis (relatives of the same lineage) think? Her sons are in tears, helpless to stop it. Who cares? After all, what will the dayaathis think?
I protested on behalf of the widow; were these rituals necessary?
“No, no you know nothing. It must be done. How else will the dayaathis get cleansed?”
Relatives gave me weird looks. Whispers could be heard, “She is a strange one” “Does she live in India?”
I stood my ground, refused to make her a spectacle, my conscience wouldn’t allow me to.
Ah! So now she is free, thirteen days have gone by, relatives, neighbours and other well-wishers have gone home. Back to their offices, schools, movies, TV shows, dining out, weddings, parties. So now she may spend some time away from home, perhaps find some peace, come to terms with her aloneness? No. no we shall keep vigil, let her stay at home. Three months she must stay in that house, contemplating the walls and maybe talk to visitors who kindly consent to come home. After all, how can she leave the home? What will everyone think?
A million, no millions of women go through this every day of every year. Is there no respite? Does she need to prove her love and loyalty again and again? Is there no other graceful way to go about this?
I asked several women about these rituals. Many say that of course it is a must. The widow herself, she says that yes, she must do these things for otherwise her children may suffer in the future. The elders of the family have said so. A veiled threat if there is any.
I protest, no it is not so, we can do better, be better. But her brothers and father, they say that they have seen many WhatsApp messages that say there is hidden meaning to all these old traditions that we don’t even understand. We must do these things for the family and her peace of mind. All rituals must be done, even if we don’t know the meaning of them. There is a hidden meaning to every one of them, a wise guru has said so…
The funny part is the way the women themselves are conditioned to believe that they must follow the “rules.” They are so conditioned by whom?
Men don’t need to do anything, say anything. The women are well-trained to carry out the rules, the laws, the rituals men created long ago.
In fact, a few stopped talking to me. I could only shrug and go back to my city life.
Have I done the right thing? Will they think before they do these things next time?
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