The cruel character of custom…

A special message from my aunty Dr. Bindu on the occasion of International Women’s Day.

“I am what I am because of who we all are.” ~ Leymah Gwobee, Liberian Peace Activist

The eminent economist Dr Padma Desai dedicates her autobiography “Breaking Out – An Indian Woman’s American Journey” to Kaki (her father’s brother’s widow) “who endured”. Widowed in her teens Kaki had her head shaved, wore a red cotton sari all her life, cooked all the meals and did many other chores in Padma’s father’s house. She never wore any jewelry or possessed sandals and very rarely left the house. She always covered her head. Her Cambridge educated brother-in-law, who loved Shakespeare and was the principal of a college, never thought of stopping the repeated shaving of Kaki’s hair when it grew some. Padma was born into the same sub-caste as I. She writes of the rubbing off of the bindi on a widow’s forehead, the removing of her glass bangles when the husband died, of widows committing suicide as they contemplated the awful fate that awaited them…

It brought back memories of my visit as a teenager to the grand haveli that was my maternal grandmother’s ancestral home in Hanuman Bhagda. I went with my mother who had long regaled me with tales of the wealth and power of her mother’s family. The haveli was impressive. We sat on the floor of a large kitchen where we had tea. In trooped 3 women in red cotton sarees, their heads covered, Motimami (my grandmother’s elder brother’s widow), Palimami (younger brother’s widow) and Jeemami (Jeemama’s widow). Something about them disconcerted me. The red colour of their sarees conveyed not cheer but foreboding. I felt uncomfortable near them. Maybe I sensed that their appearance was the result of a monstrous custom of coercion. I was shaken and later asked Mummy why they were wearing red. “They were widowed at a time when this was the custom” she quickly replied and said no more. My sister related that Palimami had lost her husband very soon after her marriage…

The ‘unrespited, unpitied, unreprieved’ marginal status of Padma Desai’s Kaki, made me think further of other widows in our family. Aside from the 3 mamis at Hanuman Bhagda, none was forced to wear red. In that my paternal grandfather’s family was a bit better. Mummy’s Motafuiba (older paternal aunt), though a widow, wore all sorts of saris and did not shave her head. Dignified, even regal, I remember her in her elegant town house in Valsad. Bespectacled, she sat gently pushing her swing, preparing paan as she split a supari with a nut cracker. My maternal grandmother too was not compelled to shave her head or wear red. 3 widows in our neighbour’s house in Bombay, Jains from North Gujarat wore coarse white cotton sarees but were not shorn: Lilaben, Hirikaki, Mainakaki were widowed at different ages, Lilaben in her late twenties. They wore no adornments or jewelry though and there was no question of remarriage.

A stifling repressive power structure demands a living symbol of mourning the dead male no matter how many years had lapsed since his passing. Quoting Elizabeth Bishop: “So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss was no disaster”.

Padmaben remarks that Kaki “helped me master the art of losing”. A horrible way to learn this with such enormous deprivation, of youth, of desire, of expression, of untold suffering for decades on end. Fie on such vile custom!

I wonder if friends from elsewhere in Gujarat, India and beyond have memories to share of the customs for widows in their families. What do widows today have to conform to? What is required of them in various communities on this earth? Most likely for the vast majority severe societal constraints distort and deform their lives.

Sober thoughts then this International Women’s Day, saluting the memory of these widows, anger at the society that subjected them to these lifelong insults and in solidarity with those who struggle long and hard for women to be full citizens. We have traveled some on the road to citizenship but as we know only too well an arduous road still lies ahead…

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