For Tomorrow and More
No Ravi, I don't want to go to Vrindavan, no Ravi, I don't want to do a photo feature on the widows, and no Ravi, I don't want to get married to you. At least, not yet. But Ravi was surprisingly impatient and persistent. Why, I asked him, should we get married? We had a relationship that served us well—compatible at work, he a photographer, I a journalist. And after work too, in the adjoining flats where we lived. So why look for a social bond when the bonding was complete. Children? Of course. Eventually. Whenever eventually presented itself as a demanding, irresistible force.
Two days later, we reached Vrindavan in the growing shadows of a cold winter evening. At six-thirty, the roads and ashrams were deserted, and the dim shadeless bulb in the hotel room lowered my spirits and vitality even more. Before I had begun to unpack, washed my face or taken a sip of the lukewarm tea, Ravi said, "What's wrong with getting married? With being together?"
"We are together," I said.
"No, with being married and together, for God's sake. What's wrong with it?" And that evening, tired and dispirited, and fed up with his zero sense of place and timing, I told him. Why abolish slavery? That's togetherness too. Marriage for women is just that. Bondage where we mortgage ourselves, our spirit, our souls, and become slaves. Sometime physically, but always always emotionally. Underbelly up, to be hurt and destroyed. And it is a weakness the world recognizes, and punishes us for, especially here in India. Else why do we brand the widow, never the widower? Why are we here, doing a feature on the widows of Vrindavan and not the widowers of Jaisalmer, Jaipur or Jhoomritalaiya?
It was a bad start, and the next day our work suffered too. Stiff, stilted, superficial, for the depth of focus was elsewhere. Our rooms in the hotel defined our separateness, as we retired early, on the pretext of work. My mind was crowded with the layered images of the many ashrams we had visited, with an out-of-sync soundtrack of the widows as they sang for a handful of grain and two rupees. In cavernous tomb-like halls, they sat huddled together in a collective shade of grey. White, that had faded into a new colour created by cheap detergent, time, frail hands and scant sunlight. It was the mass that hit me first. Later their faces gradually came into focus. Faces that were old, tired, anxious, suffering, resigned, grieving, impassive, stoic, wistful—so many words that still did not capture their sense of desolation. Derelict souls, abandoned, adrift. Left in isolation by families that have shrugged off an encumbrance, a joyless presence.
Unsettled, unsure and confused, late into the night I fell asleep. And after a long time, I was back in time in Varanasi and in Peeli Kothi, racing into the courtyard, all of nine years old. Nothing could penetrate the joy of being there for a wedding, not even my secret, somewhat uncomprehending dread of the perennial chants of "Ram Naam Satya Hai" ("Rama is the only truth") as the mourners carried the bodies to the ghats on the bank of river Ganga. My earliest memories of the ancestral house were of crowds—all gathered under one roof for the wedding. In the scorching heat of May and June the family came together to get a son or daughter of the house married. The men sat outside in the verandahs—sipping thandai, neembu paani, Khus and other assorted cold drinks and sherbet, as they discussed and detailed the jobs outside of the house, while the women busied themselves with menus and cooking, children and gossip, and urgent decisions on what to wear, when.
What a bouquet of colours the women were! In sarees dyed by the "rangrez", melon pinks, soft blues, mauves, pista green and the gold of "zard chameli" flower. Sprinkled liberally with abrak (mica) and edged with tinsel, that glinted when it caught the light. There must have been the small tensions that happen in all extended families when they gather under one roof, however large and generous. But I can only recall with the clarity and selectivity of childhood, the laughter and talk, the banter and playfulness. It was especially precious because these were adults, usually so full of do's and don'ts, dictums and discipline.
I remember how pretty she looked, in those soft pastels, her head covered, the saree unwrinkled, its pleats edged. And her tika-bindi, the red vermillion on her forehead. I'd watched her put it on, with the middle finger of her right hand. She made a perfect circle, in the centre of her forehead. And there it stayed all day, untouched by careless hands, unmessed by beads of perspiration in the kitchen, as she helped serve lunch. The bangle woman would arrive with a large basket on her head, and the colours of the rainbow captured in the tinkling of glass bangles. And the women would gather round jostling for favourite designs and wear dozens on each wrist. Hers were slender, delicate, and she wore only red, which seemed so right, so festive.
From wedding to wedding we visited Varanasi, and at one such gathering, her image is burnt into my consciousness. Thin and white—from pale face, colourless and drawn, to the white saree, bare wrists. I was in shock and couldn't take my eyes off her. And I couldn't understand why? Even more difficult to understand was her standing apart, silent, unquestioning, segregated. A few voices did ask, but they were drowned by others—uninvolved, uncaring, but aggressively all knowing and unthinkingly articulate, who laid down the rules. No widows they said—only five "suhagins", or those made auspicious by living husbands, tika, bindi, glass bangles and the colour red. Only they could come forward and bless the bride. And she learnt to stand back in the shadows, away from people, laughter, colour and life. And weddings came and went, but they were never the same for me. She grew older, and became frail, and no longer thought of herself as a part of family weddings, and so reconciled, perhaps felt armoured.
I awoke, vaguely uncomforted, and Ravi and I, civil but distant, left for Delhi. We talked determinedly of work only, which naturally precluded my mentioning that I was leaving for Varanasi the same night.
This time it was my cousin Sourish's wedding, and when I reached Peeli Kothi, he was sitting on the "Peedha", a low wooden stool, as the women gathered around to bless him before the wedding tomorrow. All the symbols of good fortune lay on a silver thali beside him: rice, vermillion powder, turmeric and clarified butter. The women were resplendent in their finery, no longer cotton, but rich Kanjee verams and Banaras Silk. The sound of the ancient folk songs rose and fell according to the memory and lungpower of the singers. The Haldi ceremony when the groom was smeared with turmeric was about to begin, when, just then, she arrived. Prematurely silver haired, frail and prepared to move aside for the auspicious ones. But strangely a voice called out to her. It was the groom's mother. "You are the oldest person present here," she said, "and your blessings must come first." The groom smiled in welcome, and halting, hesitant, she came forward. She couldn't bend too easily, for age and arthritis limited the movements that the ritual demanded. But she completed it five times as required, and one by one, other women followed suit—sisters, sisters-in-laws, cousins and aunts. As the ceremony continued, in a friendly, chaotic and haphazard, fashion, she sat on a chair to one side, with a half smile.
Twenty-five years, ago, fate had taken her husband from her, and society had given her a new title of "widow". And all those near and dear ones who loved her, and hurt for her, had not got past the unseen, but armoured wall of "society". Today, a casual voice had called her forward and placed her where she belonged, first among the auspicious ones. For she was the eldest here, and at this stage had only blessings to give. Blessings that came from the depths of her memory, and consciousness, for she recalled the groom as a babe, and his mother, as a playful child—one she had held and loved and watched grow up.
I was torn by anguish and shock that the wall so mindlessly accepted was not armoured steel, but a thought barrier that had held her captive. And I raged at the impotence, the helplessness that had let the prison stand for twenty-five, long, lonely years. Years that had burnt the word "widow" on her forehead.
The mobile rang insistently. It was Ravi. Where are you, why didn't you tell me, I've been so worried, are you alright, what have you decided, will you be free tomorrow?? He suddenly stopped. I moved outside slowly, away from the crowded room—and took a deep breath, of relief and a load shed. Yes, I answered, yes. Yes I'm free, for tomorrow, and more.