Today, International Women's Day I remember the widows of South India and the lives they were condemned to live. This is about one of them, written in short story form.
GChithi picked coconut barks and dried twigs that were strewn all around the garden of that old house, gathered them in a basket woven from bark and carried them over to the bathroom located beside the well. Inside, a big copper pot filled with water had been set to boil. Chithi added the fodder to the fire which then blazed with an orange glow. A column of smoke escaped from the top of the pot and caught by the sunlight which entered through the tiny bathroom’s open chimney revealed a discotheque of dancing dust particles. Usually, Chithi would have reveled in its beauty while enjoying her few minutes of solitude and privacy. But today, she was preoccupied. She removed her faded saffron coloured saree which she wore without a blouse, and soaked it in a bucket with soap powder. She then wrapped herself in a piece of cloth which she wore while bathing, reveling as the warm water she poured over herself soothed her aching limbs. She was 65 years old and had lost her husband when he was only 25 and she 16. He had been a school teacher. She found out about 10 years ago that she was entitled to a small pension as a result of his service in a government school. On this day every month, she made the trip to the government office to inquire after her pension entitlement. She then stopped by the ration store, picked up her meager monthly quota of rice, sugar and, sometimes, 6 yards of coarse cotton cloth in beige. She dyed this cloth to saffron to wear as a saree. That piece of cloth was the extent of her security in the world. With no source of income and dependent on the largess of others for food and shelter, she had to make this dreaded trip every month.
Today, after her quick bath, she would once again make that trip. She had woken up an hour earlier than her usual time of 5:00 a.m., to cut the vegetables and grate the coconuts for the day’s meal. There were guests in the house from America. Sudha’s son Mani and daughter in law, Vidya. They had just arrived last night and there was much excitement. Although the visitors enquired after her, she felt like an intruder and compensated by doing all that she could to make herself useful. She felt awkward to abandon the kitchen on a day like this. But what could she do? She had to go. She quietly slipped out of the bath, hung her washed clothes to dry in the yard, and went into the dark and dingy store-room which afforded her some privacy. Since she slept on a mat in the living room, there was no corner in that house which she could call hers. She peeled off her wet cover and wrapped a dry saree, with no blouse inside. Her large breasts and nipples that showed through the thin cotton fabric, embarrassed her. She worried about the young men who stared at her their cruel gazes dehumanizing and their crude, obscene remarks painful and oppressive. She shut out the many times she had been molested and fondled by strangers and relatives alike. She made a mental note to threaten to slap anyone who did that today. Maybe she should break free from a tradition that condemned widows to be “blouseless” and start wearing a white blouse she thought. She could ask Mani for some money? After all she had known him since he was a little baby. God knows how many times she had asked Sudha to no avail. As she smeared ash on her forehead and covered her bald head with the coarse “saree”, she made a mental note to send for the barber to shave the stubble on her head. The 50 years, since her widowhood, had desensitized her to these rituals that were meant to deny her femininity. She placed her worn purse, which contained all the money she had in the world, ten rupees in change, in her little cloth bag and quietly bypassing the watery breakfast gruel, left the house. She walked barefoot, as had always been her practice. Maybe she would have Mani buy her a pair of slippers, for those summer days when the tar sizzled and melted under the merciless sun. She did not dwell too much on her desperate financial straits. She thanked God that for now she had a roof over her head and 1.5 square meals a day. Brunch at 11 after everyone had eaten, and a light tiffin around 5 pm. Widows like her were condemned to a monastic life with no food after sun down and many foods, which could stir up desires for sensual pleasure, denied to them. Her niece was kind to her. Granted she used and exploited her. But Chithi rationalized that it was infinitely better than living in one of those old age homes for the desperately poor, where non-Brahmins cook the meals and where she would live along-side people from lower castes?
The bus stop was right beside the market. She bought herself a banana as insurance in case she felt faint from hunger. She got on the bus and bought a ticket. Then her cloth bag in one hand, she held on for dear life to the back of a seat with the other. The bus was packed and tilted to the right as it moved, trundling through traffic. No one stood up to offer her a seat. Young men deliberately grazed against her body, some touching her breasts as though by accident. She gritted her teeth and glared directly at them. She did not want to cause a scene and bring further shame on herself.
Widowed and a menial all her life, Chithi was cursed with upper caste pride. In a previous era, as a Brahmin widow, she could have acted outraged and sanctimonious against members of the lower caste. Of course, those occasions would have been rare because she, an inauspicious sight, would not have been allowed in the public sphere. Now, in a political era rife with intense anti-brahmin sentiment, she was just a “bald Brahmin woman”, a pejorative, symbolizing society’s disdain for everything the caste represented and aimed at its most vulnerable members. Due to some vestige of caste loyalty fiercely held by her family members, she was the object of their pity and was provided shelter and food. Sudha was her late husband’s older brother’s daughter.
Usually she stopped by at Sudha’s sister Akila’s, on her way back from the ration store, to rest a bit after a strenuously long wait in the ration queue under the strong Chennai sun. The minute Akila saw her by the gate, she would soak rice for murrukkus or begin preparations for some other snack that took time and effort. She would offer Chithi lunch and then make her grind the rice manually on the stone mill and toil before the hot stove, making murrukkus or vadams from scratch. Chithi would have to finish a huge batch of murrukkus or vadams before she returned home. As she entered the house, after sundown, Sudha would greet her at the door with a scowl demanding where she had been loitering all day and stating that she had chosen the wrong day to abandon her with all the housework. It was a no win situation.
These days Chithi had developed a sharp tongue and gave as good as she got. “Well what do you want me to do? Don’t you realize my age? I can’t do any more than I am doing, my body is giving way”. Chithi tolerated Sudha’s moods, her fits of temper and her hurtful remarks. She survived purely using cunning strategy. She knew what she had to do to be Sudha’s physical and emotional crutch. Besides offering her sound advice on running a household on a tight budget, she planted greens in the backyard, made brooms from coconuts leaves and innovated in the kitchen. She was lively and entertaining, with lots of stories from her visits to relatives’ homes and from her colourful past. She also capitalized on Sudha’s insecurities, praising her often, urging her to wear her nice silk sarees and jewellery, validating her at every turn and serving as an ally when her husband or children yelled at her. All this took a lot of effort and sometimes she found her patience wearing thin, but she forebore. Chithi had come over to help Sudha when she delivered her second child and had stayed.
Chithi got off at her stop and moved quickly towards the Central Government building which housed the department responsible for pensions. The clerk looked up when he saw her enter and smiled. She was a familiar sight and he had hoped someday to convey the tidings that he had for her today. “Paatti”, he said “Your pension allocation has come. You will receive Rs. 75 every month and there is an arrears of Rs. 10,000 which you will receive in one lump sum. You will need to open a bank account and deposit the cheque. Tell us what your address is and we will send it to you. You don’t have to make this trip anymore”. Chithi was overwhelmed. Heart of hearts she had not even dreamed that her efforts would come to fruition. Now that they had, it all seemed anti-climactic. She suddenly had control over her destiny. She did not know what this meant for her future. She could not live by herself anyway. But with the money, how would her relatives, especially Sudha, treat her? Would she exhibit palpable greed and try to extort money from her now. How could she use this money to protect herself? Her mind disturbed by this turn of events, she rode back home without going to the ration store or making her usual detour to Akila’s. Brunch was just getting over and the young woman from America told Chithi she would serve her. Grateful, Chithi sat down and ate in silence. She then mechanically cleared the kitchen and went to lie on her mat to take her siesta. She suddenly felt stifled, invisible and alone in a house full of people. She did not count as anything, other than a caricature, a two dimensional relic from the past. No one cared that she had a mind, thoughts or feelings. She could hear Sudha say “ we will have to do something about Chithi, she is becoming too much of a liability.” Chithi’s mind was made up. When the cheque arrived, she would give Sudha Rs. 5000 for all that she had done for her and donate the balance and her monthly pension to a home for the aged, in exchange for a room and the same 1.5 meals per day. At least then, her mind and body would be rested, and she could spend her last days in dignity.