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Stop It! Don’t Tell Me How I Should Mourn My Husband!

"This is not acceptable. I am not undergoing any breaking of bangles, wiping of bindi, or draping of white saree. No, I just cannot. No means no."

“This is not acceptable. I am not undergoing any breaking of bangles, wiping of bindi, or draping of white saree. No, I just cannot. No means no.”

The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another’, coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering. So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed. Including the ridiculousness of this traditions-stained village – Thembaanam.

I stood there watching the heavenly dance of the reeds and reminiscing the early days of my marriage to Selvaraman. A tap on my shoulder broke my reverie.

‘What are you doing here? They are going to bring him home,’ said Malar.

Malar, one of the victims of internalized misogyny – also known as – the second last sister of Selvaraman. Malar, who told me that I should be ready with the vest and brief as soon as my husband finished his holy bath after my father-in-law’s funeral. Malar, who picked up her sons’ plates after eating, instead of asking them to wash the plates by themselves.

‘I was just-’

‘Okay, okay, I can understand. Let’s go.’

I trudged along with her. We crossed many mud paths before we reached our place. The stench of raw manure welcomed me as I entered that ill-fated street. Even after fifty years, I’d have the same foreboding. Even after my death, my ghost would regret that one decision that turned my life topsy-turvy.

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No, I must stop thinking about death. There’s too much death in the air already, I chided myself.

The shamiana was already hung in front of the two-storied, forty-seven-year-old house. Strong wails emanated from inside, yet I maintained my composure. A few rugged women with unkempt hair, saggy breasts, and scrutinizing eyes were sitting on the chairs that were placed under the shamiana. Ignoring everyone, I removed my slippers and entered inside.

My daughter, Saanvi, came running towards me and hugged me. Her entire body shook as she let all her bottled-up emotions out. I soothed her by caressing her back gently. She wasn’t wailing like everyone else, but I could absorb her grief through her muffled sobs. My eyes brimmed with tears. But before they could spill out, Malar tugged at me and whispered,

‘Aishwarya, you have to change into a saree. If not, you must wear your dupatta over your head and sit on the floor beside the freezer box. That’s what wives of dead husbands do. You mustn’t stop crying. It is a huge disrespect to your husband if you don’t ululate.’

‘What the hell!’ I hissed, while my tears spilled as I blinked. ‘For fuck’s sake, it is 2035. I know how to mourn my husband’s death. Don’t ever think I am going to give in to any of your wishes. Not anymore. Stay away from me!’ I yelled.

The women who were ululating till then stopped suddenly and gazed at me with a mix of wonderment and disgust.

‘But, anni…’

‘Don’t but anni me,’ I replied and slumped on the floor. Resentment rose like a tornado from the pit of my stomach. I peered at Selva’s lifeless body. I had cried buckets of tears when I found him dead on his bed last evening. I had shaken him, patted his cheeks, and even screamed at him to wake up, but I couldn’t get any response from him. Then the doctor had come and pronounced him dead. Sudden cardiac arrest. I had collapsed at that moment. Hours later, we all had flown to Trichy and then another hour of bus ride to Thembaanam.

I moved near the freezer box and placed my head on the glass. I wasn’t crying or muttering illegible phrases. I had met Selvaraman at a conference in 2014. I was just 20 and he was 26. Love blinded me, as I ignore his deep-rooted misogyny and married him when I turned 22. As I exposed myself to literature and social media, I learned and unlearned things that made me see the world through a different lens. I was a partial feminist before my marriage, but I turned into a full-fledged feminist after two years. Then I knew that Selva was a wrong choice and vice-versa. I was young, but he could have weighed the pros and cons of marrying a modern woman like me.

Amidst all this ruckus, Saanvi was born. Motherhood changed me into a woman who could voice out anything. Though I had fallen out of love with Selva two years into my marriage, I still tried to revive my love for him, as he was a good father to Saanvi. However, I just couldn’t fall in love with a misogynist again. There was affection, care, and respect in our marriage, but not love.

A sob escaped my lips as I tried to remind myself about all the good things in our marriage. I wanted to cry, not because the villagers would stamp me as an immoral woman, but I didn’t want Saanvi to know about my lovelessness. Somehow I willed myself to shed tears. I even wailed a bit, clutched at my chest, and pretended to turn numb with grief. I let my tears flow freely, like how the women of this village let their self-respect, self-care, and self-love flow away while they serviced the misogynistic men in their life. Saanvi sat beside me and held my hands.

‘47 is not the age to die, but the heart doesn’t know age, Saanvi,’ I whispered to her.

‘Yes, Ma. I don’t know how I would cope with his absence,’ she lamented. Her 17-year-old face was flushed with an overbearing sorrow and I couldn’t do anything to alleviate her from the turmoil that she was undergoing.

Selva’s other three sisters also sat hunched, with their heads pressed against the glass. I observed their mournings and teary reminisces of their sweet brother’s memories.

Three hours later, Selva’s family and the other villagers began the proceedings for the funeral procession and the burial. As usual, Kanimozhi, the eldest sister, called me aside and relayed a list of customs I have to undergo so that I could be upgraded to the status of a widow.

‘Anni, can I tell you something? This is not acceptable. I am not undergoing any breaking of bangles, wiping of bindi, or draping of white saree. No, I just cannot. No means no. I have said enough yes in this village. Hereafter, you will get to listen only to my no.’

Kanimozhi looked stunned. Immediately, she gathered her other sisters and conveyed my callousness to them. Later, all the villagers came to know about it. The senior ladies quacked abuses at me, while the men tried to bash me with phrases like ‘this is why we told Selva to not marry a city girl’ and ‘these city girls are always cruel and mean’. Saanvi stepped in at that very moment and spoke, ‘Enough! I said enough. I know I don’t have the right to speak here, but I can’t let my mom undergo anything in the name of tradition.’ Her Tamil was tainted with a UK accent, but the villagers were rendered silent.

‘Do whatever you want!’ Kanimozhi thundered and asked the others to start the proceedings.

Since women were not allowed in the burial ground, we stayed back at the house. Thankfully, no one spoke to me during that time. I sat along with Saanvi and we recollected all the good memories of Selvaraman. An hour later, the men returned and we were asked to take a bath. After the bathing session, we were provided the traditional after-funeral food in banana leaves. The rest of the day passed in villagers visiting the house to offer condolences.

Bedraggled, Saanvi and I retired to our room upstairs. We couldn’t sleep, so we just fiddled with our mobile phones, cried a bit while reminiscing, and just sat through the whole night.

The next morning, there was a furor downstairs. Saanvi and I had finally fallen asleep at 5 AM. We had just two hours of sleep before we heard voices engaged in a heated argument. I alighted the huge steps and found myself facing all the sisters and their husbands.

‘Oh, good morning, queen!’ bellowed Thaamarai sarcastically. She was the second eldest sister of Selvaraman.

‘Look at how she looks at all of us! How could you be so rude yesterday, Aishwarya?’ asked Anbuvalli, the last sister of them all.

‘I wasn’t being rude. I was just being me. Is there any problem?’ I tried to play cool.

‘We all have many problems with you,’ started Thaamarai. ‘I can’t fathom how our brother married you. You are an ultra-modern woman. He should have thought a hundred times before marrying you. And I even wonder how your marriage worked for the past nineteen years. First, you refused to tie a saree during your visits here. Then, you never followed the tradition of daubing turmeric while you bathe. Then, you never once kept sindoor on your forehead while you were in Chennai and Scotland. You kept it here because you had to act in front of us. You never followed any home remedies that our mother suggested. And, worst of all, you didn’t want to have another kid! Which sane woman will not give her first-born child a sibling? Saanvi should have had a brother to continue Selva’s lineage…’

‘Stop it, anni! I don’t want to listen anymore. You women have no idea what it feels like to have dreams, be career-oriented while taking care of the family at the same time, and struggle to pursue one’s passion while supporting their child’s passion. You seriously have no idea what I went through to keep myself and my family happy. Tell me, are anyone of you really happy with the way you live? I know you love your husband and children very much that you don’t bother about them being misogynistic, but are you really happy? Just tell me.’

No one replied to me. They were looking at me as if an alien was making a speech.

I continued, ‘I wish that every woman in this world lives for herself first before she lives for anyone else. I wish that they choose themselves and their mental health always. I did all these and I am happy today. Saanvi is happy too. Maybe Selvaraman might have drowned in regrets because I was being myself and I was living a life that only a few women could imagine. Have you ever thought about yourselves just for a second? At least for a day, live for yourself and see. Then, make it a practice. You will see how happy you and your family have become. You will surely notice a change in the men. It all begins with you, but you don’t choose yourselves and you don’t even think about betterment.’

‘I am leaving Thembaanam for good. I don’t have anything to do with you people anymore. If at all you all change at some point in your life, just remember me.’

For the next one hour, Saanvi and I packed our belongings. All the villagers whispered to each other about how I was leaving the village the very next day after my husband’s death. I ignored all the comments skilfully and boarded the auto to reach Trichy railway station. We never waved goodbyes to anyone.

During the auto ride, Saanvi said, ‘Ma, you know, Malar athai was telling to someone that she was so proud of you. She told them that you were an ideal woman which she could never become.’

‘What?’

‘Yes, it’s true.’

Immediately, I fished out my phone and called Malar. She picked up on the fourth ring.

‘Anni, what’s the matter?’

‘Malar anni, can we become friends? Thembaanam needs to change and it must start with you.’

This story was shortlisted for our September 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Our juror for the month Manjul Bajaj says “I liked the setting of this story. The descriptions of the village, the tradition bound family were picturesque. The device of setting it in 2035 was a clever way of showing that nothing ever changes in terms of the treatment of women. However it was weakened by the fact that it didn’t feel like 2035. It felt like now. The future could have looked different in some way to make the point better.”

Image source: a still from the film Talaash

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About the Author

Kavya Janani U

Kavya Janani. U is the author of the romance novel, With Love, Forever, two standalone sci-fi novelettes (Time Maidens series), and the poetry collection, La Douleur Exquise. She wrote her first short story, The read more...

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