y Anderson says: But a life and a tale are not the same thing. (Spectrum, p 29). Granted. But they are not entirely separate either. The appearance of a surplus product as a result of labour brought property and monogamy with it, the latter strictly for women only. The Hindu society carried it to an extreme where the woman continued to belong to her husband, even after his death. She could not remarry, i.e. if for some reason, she was not incinerated alive.
Over the years, her situation has been modified. It does not have to culminate in satee any more. The law does not any more recognise the religious ban on her remarriage. But, parallel with it, is the history of the widow herself, of a human who is asked not to expect to be treated as a human any more.
I recall an educated Nepali, quite liberal in his views, who told me that, although he thought it reasonable for a widow to remarry, the thought of any widow actually remarrying nauseated him.
Apparently, the female sexuality has always been an important question for men, a question, moreover, which they feel they have been given the responsibility of managing. Starting from the assumption that it is unbridled, they made great efforts to fence it in. The most difficult part was the young widow, a quite common category before the coming of antibiotics. Satee not being available as a way out after the eighteenth century, the nearest solution was to make her life so miserable and degrading that she would seek death. She was, moreover, treated as being outside the caste system and rendered more helpless by being barred from inheriting property.
The Bengali widow began to emancipate herself under the British rule established in 1757. It gave her the right to inherit property. The property-owning widows could still not remarry until 1856, but had liaisons. However, the law permitting remarriage was still confronted by the social prejudice, reinforced by the religious taboo.
The modern Bengali literature began to take note of the problem and of the efforts to solve it in the late nineteenth century, but obliquely. The writer could not show the widow defying the ban, while living in the society. In these stories, she, therefore, had to change her milieu before she could exercise her freedom. In one story, she is abducted and taken to a forest by outlaws. Another goes to an ashram, which is not bound by religious taboos. Those who break the taboos within the society do so by informal liaisons, but that brings the problem of being deserted by their lovers.
Bankam Chand clearly opposed widow remarriage. Even Tagores female characters ultimately choose self-sacrifice over taking another husband. So, even the emancipated writers could not ultimately escape the taboo.
Ancient Sanskrit poetry, although worshipping human beauty and full of eroticism, did not include the widow as a subject of love. Once she had lost her husband, she was hors de combat; she had ceased to be fully human.
Modern Hindi poetry, specially that under the Progressive Writing, is prepared to confront the question uninhibitedly. Siyaran Saran Gupta writes in Outcastes Daughter:
Aen kia mera kaloop (profanity) bara hai,
Devi ki garima say bhi.
Kisi baat mein hoon main aagay,
Mata ki mahima say?
Strangely, it was the property, which was the original cause and means of womans subjugation through the rise of monogamy in place of free love. And now, it is the possession of property by the woman which opens the possibility of her emancipation from the subjugation imposed upon her by the man, including a ban on the remarriage of the widow.
Another route, though perhaps less preferable, but still chosen by some widows, is prostitution. During a survey of the brothels in Lucknow, a few years back, many women said they would not exchange that life, which gave them freedom, for the shackles of marriage. Here again, their freedom arises from their power to earn money and keep it.
There has been a general improvement in the situation of the Hindu widow, though it has been slower than in that of the other women. But, ultimately, it is linked with the social progress of the population in general. Pre-capitalist relationships ceding place to capitalism has meant a quantum jump in the social sphere. But the full emancipation of the woman can occur only with the emancipation of the population as a whole, that is, through a transition from capitalism to the next higher stage of social organisation.
n The writer is a retired ambassador.