My father passed away on December 28, 2020 at 2:40 am. At exactly 10:30 am, when his corpse was brought home from the hospital, the first thing that I remember my aunt telling my 26-year-old sister was, “You need to find a good, well-earning man and get married as soon as possible!”
My sister, who is a guest professor at University of Delhi, was too grief-stuck at the moment to realise my aunt’s piercing words, and didn’t reply.
There are certain conventions in our society that every family aspires to achieve. Marriage, I believe, is one such institutional practice which has been mired by societal hypocrisy. And as I sift through fleeting memories of that very traumatising day, I remember the various kinds of sexist and misogynistic remarks an all-women family (my mother, sister and I) had to endure after the death of my father.
During one ritual, a priest spoke about the burning of the widow after the death of her husband. He even defended it by saying that women today lack the resilience and patience to follow Sati – a practice banned in 1829 with the Bengal Sati Regulation Act.
We are all aware of how our society mistreats a widow, but to see it first-hand burned something inside me. From people trying to talk my sister and me out of doing our father’s antim sanskar (the funeral rites for the dead in Hinduism) as only the eldest son, or a male mourner, or a priest – called the lead cremator or lead mourner – can do all the last rites. The very act of snatching the opportunity to conduct the last rites of a loved one just because one has a vagina is not only cruel and patriarchal but inhumane.
I was quite surprised to find out that during a particular time in ancient India, there was no stigma attached to the concept of widowhood. They followed the practice if Niyog – a ritual through which, if she so desired, a widow could conceive another man’s child, and thereafter spend the rest of her life with him. Alternatively, she could opt for Brahmacharya (rigid celibacy) or she could find another husband. It was in the Manusmriti that the first degradation of women started showing in the ancient scriptures. The book is responsible for the present-day concept of woman and her status in Hindu society. Over the course of time, the Hinduism and Manu’s laws became so interdependent that they almost became one. The ancient Indian families were headed by the father and they usually prayed for begetting a male child. The reason for such a preference was that he (male) would perform religious rights to the ancestors; he is a boat to salvation.
Sadly, even in the 21st century, our society continues to go by the same old rules, where a woman loses her status and people start seeing her as “incomplete” or as an ablaa nari (weaker sex). The two most persistent questions my relatives were constantly worried about were: How are we going to manage financially? Since my father is gone, other relatives would leap at the opportunity of trying to acquire our assets, so how soon would me and my sister get married?
These questions would suggest that as three well-earning women, we were incapable of handling our own finances and that we need a man in the house to be respected in society and to make our family “whole”.
Yet, not all hope is lost. Movies like Pagglait puts some light on the issue and clear the misconception that even in 2021, the attitudes of Indian families when it comes to the subject of widows are still as regressive as they were in the 19th century.
Grief alone can feel like such a heavy weight on one’s soul – the loss of a loved one feels like a collateral damage. Many families have lost their loved ones due to the pandemic in India. But on top of that, women also have to face insensitive remarks that not only devalue their identity but also gravely affect their mental health.
Despite going through all these terrifying life changes, one thing that constantly kept me going were the following words from a song my father used to sing on every rainy day, sitting on a jhoola, asking me to always bringing my truest self to the table and never hesitating to be all the colours I wish to be:
“Barkha rani, zara jam ke barso.”
Bhagyashree Chatterjee is a photojournalist and a third-year undergraduate student of Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi who is currently trying to study for her exams.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty