‘If her in-laws didn’t do her last rites, she wouldn’t find salvation’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

The much-watched TV series, Balika Vadhu, was my only window into the oft-unspoken world of child marriage. But all that changed when I got a glimpse into the life of an old lady from my mother’s family.

My mother’s bua (aunt) was a cheerful lady whom I had known since my childhood. My mother and her siblings were very fond of her and so were we. Growing up, I came to know from my mother that her bua was actually a baal vidhva, a child widow. She had been married off as a child and sent to her in-laws’ place. Her husband and her mother-in-law had been her only family in her new home. But when her mother died within a year of the wedding, bua returned to her family to raise her younger brothers. Tragically, her husband died soon after and her mother-in-law did not survive long.

For bua, life as a widow came across as futile and she never returned to her sasural, leaving all her property to her husband’s cousins. She strictly followed all the rituals and traditions a widow is supposed to adhere to all her life — draped in a white sari, she only ate a few select things, as permitted by some unknown law made for widows in some unidentified period of time. She took responsibility of her two brothers, their children and then the grandchildren (the generation to which I belong). In all this time, the idea of a second marriage never occurred to her, nor did her family ever contemplate the possibility. This, despite the fact that besides her husband’s name and the village where she was married, she knew nothing about her in-laws.

Her unconditional love, caring nature and the ability to take firm decisions for the good of the family defined bua’s character. She was also the most graceful person I have known. Being shy, she would always cover her head with her sari and escape when it was time to click her photographs.

My understanding of her life only reinforced my respect for the unshakeable devotion she showed us, never thinking about the family she was married into. However, on her death bed she strongly voiced her only desire — when she were to die, the last rites were to be done by the people from her in-laws’ family. If this was not done, she would not achieve the much-sought-after salvation.

Somewhere deep within her psyche, in some out-of-bounds corner of her heart, there was always the burning notion that she was once married, and despite the label of a widow and the lack of association with her husband’s relatives, her in-laws were her family. Everyone tried explaining to her that the association she still felt accountable to, was broken long back and it was difficult to find someone from her husband’s family line. But in all these years, this was the only thing she really wanted so much. Nobody dared to say no to this request.

In India, there are many people who live with certain staunch ideas that are strong enough in conviction to withstand all the forces of logic. The practices they have known intimately all their lives and the rituals they have followed with extreme vigour are the only real truth for them. The desire to achieve heaven, which they believe is somewhere in the celestial world, is always strong.

One morning bua was found dead on her bed, her face calm and serene. It was time to fulfil her last wish.

Her cremation was done by my maternal family but my uncle went searching her in-laws’ village. He managed to find people from her husband’s family line, who readily agreed to do all the necessary rituals. Her property was theirs now, and so they felt duty-bound to perform the last rites for the peace of her soul. I hope she got the salvation she dreamt of and a dignified place in heaven, if it exists.

Richa Tiwari is 22. She is a student of mass communication based in Allahabad

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