Today on Mother's Day, my thoughts are returning to someone I have never met. She was my great-grandaunt. My mater's grandmother's sister. She died a year before my parents were married. Her name was Girija. She was a child widow.
My mater is a story teller. Incidents and anecdotes from her life, especially from her childhood she had laid out for me, rich and vivid. Tell me that one again, the one where you used to leave wicker-lamps in the pond... whose house was that, again, on the shore of the pond? I still ask on the phone. One such anecdote was about her grandaunt.
A burglar had sneaked in to steal the grandaunt's silver marachembu (small water pitcher), from under her cot at night. Girija-mamma, (Girija-grandma) as she was called by my mater, woke up just in time to see the intruder's shadow. She wasn't afraid- she fought back. In vain, though. She was spirited and courageous, even in her 60's when this had happened. Her colorful verbal expressions directed at the intruder were the most charming part of the anecdote, at which point my mater typically bursts out laughing.
Amma, when did her husband die? How old was she?
Ayyo papam, even she probably didn't know. She was just a child was what I heard. In those days they used to even shave the head of hair along with the other observations even for child widows. She lived just like that.
How did she look like?
Good, she was tall and was well-built. She held her own.
Yes indeed, my mater's paternal side was blessed with imposing physical features and presence (which I certainly did not inherit). I can see that from some people I've met or seen the pictures of. None of the pictures were of her, though.
Girija was probably born around 1890. She was only a child when the person she was wedded to, died. Customs of that age prescribed a strict behavior code for widows, such as not having a partner again and making oneself terribly unattractive so as not be induced into the world of sensuality.
In constrast, her younger sister had the fortune of her child-husband not dying on her. The boy, from a zamindar's family in Berhampur, grew up to be an advocate. They lived well and had a full life. They had many children, one was my grandfather, my mater's father.
At that time I can imagine the fear of consequences of a husband dying to be so strong that the crying was more about the impending suspension of personal rights rather than mourning a dead man/boy, however loved he may have been. The stigma of widow was and is still strong.
When I was a girl, my forehead had to have a bindi or else my mater would freak out. For that was a sign of widowhood and so, complete doom. My school didn't allow bangles and accessories, so I was spared of having to wear those. Once, in 6th grade or so, I wanted to cut my long hair to shoulder length, like some cool girls in school. My mater objected, it is a bad omen, she said, shocked. Being the rebel I was, one afternoon I waited for her to nap, took a pair of large scissors and went to the backyard. I cut my two thick plaits at half length. Or so I thought. They turned out uneven. I didn't try to ask her to even them out.
Even now, when I visit, I soon spy a hand quietly slipping some bangles onto my wrists.
My ancestry has a twist. I believe some of my forefathers likely migrated from Karnataka to coastal Andhra, probably less than 200 years ago,. They settled on the coastline, ranging from the borders of Orissa to Machilipatnam. The assimilation is still not complete- the customs, festivals, rituals and marriages follow the Kannada way. They follow the philosophy of Madhvacharya. My own people were in and around the town of Vizianagaram. This town was a cultural center of Andhra, along with Rajahmundry and Chennapatnam (now Chennai) in the undivided Madras Presidency.
Vizianagaram was known for music and literature. There was a street in Vizianagaram, according to the mater, called Vina street, because the strains of music could always be heard. Girija lived in this street, in a large house she inherited.
Vizianagaram was perhaps the most conservative of the three. Gurajada Apparao's famous play, Kanyasulkam was based in Vizianagaram. Written in 1892, it espoused widow remarriages and exposed the practice of old men marrying young girls. The couple, Girisam and Bucchamma (a young widow) finally elope and plan to travel to the more socially-forward Rajamundry to get married. It was a revolutionary play.
For widow remarriage was such a taboo. Gurajada used humor and farcical scenes (and a generous prostitute) to make the idea of widow remarriage palatable. The protagonist Binodini, in Chokher Bali, Rabindranath Tagore's sensitive novel about a child-widow, remained single. Written in the same time period, it apparently left Tagore dissatisfied with the ending.
Madhwacharya's vedantic philosophy was dvaita or tatvavada, that the paramatma and jivatma (the universal-self and personal-self) are separate, as opposed to Adi Sancharacharya's advaita, that they are one and the same. But for many followers of both groups, their faith and identities unfortunately came down to narrow observations of correct rituals and custom rather than absorbing the beauty, logic and hence, the higher sense of spirituality of either philosophy.
The mystery here is in the extremes – upholding the pursuit of art, language, music and philosophy at the highest level on one hand (the men routinely were scholars in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada well until my grandfather's generation) while at the same time unquestioningly subjugating the rights of one gender in the name of sampradaya (culture). My pater once said that as a small boy, it was not uncommon to see little girls in white, widows, playing thokkudubilla (a variation of hopscotch) in the streets of Vizianagaram (which was his ancestral town too). How did this happen?
An extremist position, an overreaction to some incident, now lost in history overtook the entire country? Because this practice was not limited to my forefathers or this region. The entire Hindu society followed this in some form or another, with ironfisted discipline. For a long time.
Somehow, a delicate, beautiful balance in regarding a woman as sacred, to be cherished and loved, a goddess of society and culture, became a dismal, horrifying stance of wresting control of the womb and so, her life.
This hasn't changed that much or is restricted to India. Trying to define the morality of society by the way we regulate the uterus has been the center stage of news in the last few months because of the health-care debate in the US. Actually across nations, whenever the sanctity of a culture's values come under question, we never fail to go after women's rights over their bodies.
Girija was one of the victims. Simply forgotten. She never had a chance to fully live her life. She was cutoff from the love of a partner and of a child. In her old age she apparently took in one her nephews hoping he'd take care of her and property. But she was swindled and was sent packing from her own home. She lived on the generosity of her relatives and died soon after.
Wasn't that a yearning for someone of her own? If she wrote off her property with such trust? There is no saying what one's own child might do but motherhood was a main form of self-identity that was available to women of that era. Holding a child- innocent, full of life who looks back with complete trust is a powerfully affirmative feeling. She didn't have a chance, let alone the choice of deciding to want this experience or not.
I keep thinking of her on this Mother's Day. What I have, what I take for granted and what she didn't have and perhaps did not question. Being denied love, a child's love, being denied motherhood is beyond terrible.
Please take, if you wish, a little of smiles and laughs for today, a little of this pure, unconditional love of a child, I want to tell her.