You know how rituals are colourful, joyous and always accompanied with a variety of food. But these same rituals are restrictive in nature if you scratch below the surface. They keep some people out. Have you noticed how in most Indian festivals and poojas, women are at the forefront. Planning, executing and celebrating. When I was younger, I watched mum keep her vrats (fasts). Both my sister and I never kept any fasts and our entire interest in the festival was from the point of view of wearing new clothes and eating the delicacies that mum made. She would guide us on how to do a particular pooja especially Diwali pooja. She would patiently narrate the Karwa Chauth katha dressed in her finery and do the rituals after seeing the moon. It was quite beautiful. I never had any questions back in those days. No narratives around why a certain ritual was done only by a woman. Why did men not fast? As kids, we follow what our parents tell us to do, don’t we? That is the way traditions are passed on. Do it, we are told, and we bow our heads.
Then, I remember the passing of my maternal grandmother. I was only 6 at that time but seeing her mortal remains disturbed me deeply. This was my first close encounter with death. I did not understand it. I asked the wailing adults but no one told me. All the time I was worried that her body was laid out on a large ice slab. She must be feeling so cold, I remember thinking. I hung around her body waiting for her to wake up. She never did. My younger brother was asked to touch her feet, and he didn’t want to. He was frightened of the still person on that ice slab. He started crying when some people insisted. Then there was time for the funeral. Only men went to the funeral ground. The women stayed back. I wondered why? But, I knew not to ask pesky questions. No one answered them, anyway.
Many years later, when my mother passed away, and I sat holding her hand in the ambulance that was bringing her body home, I remember thinking how cold her hand felt. When your mind is numb with grief, it concentrates on details like these. Her eyes were shut tight, her body lifeless. Do you know that a dead person’s body is very heavy, the reason why something very heavy is called dead weight. Even a hand feels very weighty.
Some women were gathered at home. They were wailing. I, somehow, can never wail. Silent tears that had fallen earlier were now held back. My grief is private. I walked out of the room.
They took over the responsibility to dress her as a bride. She had died a suhagan (married woman) after all. Apparently, that is considered very auspicious for the departed soul. With bright vermilion in her hair parting, jewellery and a lovely sari she looked so beautiful and serene. My sister and brother were there as well along with papa. We were going to the electric crematorium for the final rites. Dad and the three of us were together in our grief. There was no question of holding back women. We were there when she was consigned to flames. I don’t know what the rituals prescribed, but I was going to be with my mother for as long as I could. It was easy for me and my sister because we had our father’s support. No one voiced dissent.
Many years later, I was there when my father-in-law passed away. My mother-in-law wanted to be there for the final rites, but the elder women in the family protested. How could a woman go? I wanted her to go, but she asked me not to argue with the ‘elders’. Oh, how I dislike such nosey elders who materialize out of thin air to sermonize. Well, she did not accompany her husband on his final journey. How it must have hurt her? Why, another woman, was unable to fathom her grief? I’ve read how my female friends faced insults when they wanted to do the last rites of their dead parent only because females were not supposed to do so. On what basis? How sad that makes me that even in urban India in 21st century, we are still shackled by such prejudiced thoughts. Why must we face ridicule for doing something that feels right.
Now, I have begun to observe how our customs honor married women. Pre-wedding functions, various poojas, some festivals etc., you get the invite only if you are a married woman. Widows and divorcees are kept out. Single women too. Why should a marital status make so much difference especially to a woman’s life? It does not for a man. What’s so special that a woman needs to be married to be respected and socially included in festivities especially by other women? Can we not try to be more inclusive of all kinds of women? Serious questions that still have no answers. Uncomfortable too because we often choose to ignore these scenarios and continue along the prescribed path.
Don’t you think it is time for us to ponder these questions and modify our rituals and thought processes to be kinder and more inclusive?
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