This appeared in The Week recently.....
Women and funerals
Mumbai has limped back to normalacyl after the mammoth funeral of Balasaheb Thackeray. I watched his final journey with a great deal of interest… especially the composition of the cortege. All eyes were on the members of the Thackeray family as they clambered on to the flower bedecked truck that would carry Balasaheb to Shivaji Park for the first public cremation at the historic venue since 1920 when Bal Gangadhar Tilak was granted the same privilege. While most observers and journalists focused on the presence of the estranged cousins ( Raj and Udhav) , desperately looking for signals to decode (“ will they, won’t they… hug and make up? ”) their current equation, I concentrated on the women of the family… the two daughters-in-law ( Rashmi and Smita), plus, Sharmila, Raj’s wife. Their body language was even more fascinating to monitor. There is something about the nature of our funerals that is unambiguously macho, in that women are almost always excluded from active participation in the proceedings. That may have had relevance in another era, when the supposedly delicate, fragile nature of grieving ladies was given due consideration and their tears were shielded from public view. They were expected to mourn their loved ones in the privacy of their quarters. They could beat their breasts publicly only when allowed to do so by village elders.
The story has altered but a little. It is still the men of the family who take full charge and conduct the all-important last rites. It is they who light the funeral pyre and ensure the ashes are strewn in a holy river. Women remain on the sidelines, passively watching the ceremonies, holding back tears and consoling young children, mainly daughters. Little boys are sometimes required to become men within minutes of losing someone precious – a parent. It is heartbreaking to note at such times that the ‘man of the house’ is an alarmingly young lad, forced to confront tragedy head on and fulfill his duties at the funeral. In traditional societies, this is how it is, this is how it remains. But there are progressive families that have boldly defied age-old traditions and literally taken matters into their own hands. I remember the spirited Mallika Sarabhai performing the last rites of her father , the legendary Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, much to the astonishment of the conservative elements within Ahmedavad society. It was a pretty strong statement to make at the time and expectedly, it generated a great deal of comment.
The Thackeray ladies were discreet and dignified through the long ordeal, that saw both Raj and Uddhav breaking down and sobbing. Balasaheb’s grandchildren put on a brave face and it was left to young Aditya (Uddhav’s son and the leader of the youth wing of the Sena), to console his father and take charge of arrangements, even as his female cousins stayed close to their mothers, away from public glare. Apart from Sushama Swaraj, Maneka Gandhi and Supriya Sule, there were hardly any women present near the pyre, as four priests chanted the final prayers and logs of sandal wood were arranged over Balasaheb’s frail body.
Weddings and funerals are excellent indicators of how women are placed in that particular society. While the modern Indian wedding has been rapidly and attractively democratized during the past two decades, with women playing dominant roles, our funerals are stuck in ancient times, still excluding women from the many rituals involved. Elders insist this practice has something to do with ‘impurity’ ( read: menstruation) that ‘defiles’ the sanctity of the solemn ceremony.This is so depressingly retrogressive! Women, no matter how educated, how liberal, how successful… eventually have to deal with that Great Leveller – menstruation! I have discussed this delicate issue with progressive priests ( yes - they exist!), and they plead helplessness. We can’t change the shastras, they point out. To which I argue, it may not be possible for them to change the shastras, but surely, even the shastras are open to interpretation? Concepts of female impurity must be thrown out of the window once and for all. Especially during occasions that demand an intense emotional engagement. Like funerals. Here’s a confession: I have attended several funerals of loved ones – too many, alas. And have organized a few personally. I have broken and bent a few rules while performing the last rites. This, I have done, with full faith in my actions, knowing that my abiding love for the dearly departed would overcome whichever lapses the officiating priests would later discover. And yes, years ago, I have done this while I was menstruating. My private pact with the powers that be in heaven above, provided the required protection. Sure ,I defied. But I neither defiled nor felt defiled. I did what I had to for the person I loved.So help me God.