When I Was Told I Couldn’t Touch My Dying Grandmother As I Was A Girl!

When people picked my dadi to place her on the floor, the sheet on why she lay tore. The caretaker came to me and said, ‘Just because you touched her, one of the men carrying her lost his balance.’

The death of my grandmother shattered me. We shared a special bond – she made me feel like I was the best in the world, perfect in every respect.

Apart from losing a person who I loved, her death was also a rude awakening for me about the discrimination women face when it comes to performing the last rites of their loved ones.

On January 23 this year, I lost my 95 year old grandmother (dadi) Nirmala Devi to cardiac arrest. She was that one person who unabashedly praised me. The evening before her death she praised the tea I had made and said that I make better tea than my brother (my brother and I are always competing about who makes the best chai).

While she loved the entire family, she especially had a soft corner for me. She appreciated my not-so-round rotis, the salty dal I made or even when I gave her a glass of water.

She suffered cardiac arrest and was hospitalised for a week. She returned home, but four days later she breathed her last.

I study in Delhi, but came home to Jalandhar on hearing about her ill health. When my dadi was on her deathbed, she had one last wish – she wanted to die on the floor. To fulfill her wish, my father decided to place her on the floor.

When he was about to pick her up, he asked me to help him. As soon as I was about to help him, the woman who was appointed to take care of my dadi pulled away my hand saying that I should not touch her because my touch will curse her.

Her statement infuriated me and I shouted at her saying that my dadi would be happy if I touch her because of the love we shared. After saying this I left the room sobbing since it was not the time when I could fight such patriarchal norms. My parents objected to the caretaker’s statement and asked me to come back to the room. But the woman’s words had such an adverse impact that I just could not.

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However, this was not all. When people picked my dadi to place her on the floor, the sheet on why she lay tore. The caretaker came to me and said, ‘Just because you touched her, one of the men carrying her lost his balance.’

I could not believe what I was hearing. She was telling me that just my touch could curse my dadi in her next life. I was speechless. I was so overwhelmed with what was happening that I could not get myself to tell her that she was wrong or that she does not know the bond I shared with my grandmother.

I have been brought up in a family where sons and daughters are treated equally. My parents have always supported my brother and I in whatever we wanted to do. My grandmother never discriminated between the two of us.

Hearing a stranger say that I should not touch my grandmother’s body as it would curse her pricked my bubble. It was like a double whammy. Not only did I have to deal with the death of someone I loved so dearly, but I also came face-to-face with norms set by patriarchy.

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My Dadi had been an amazing woman through her life

I have been surrounded by strong women since I was a child. I consider my mother as well as my maternal and paternal grandmothers as my inspirations.

My dadi lost her husband at a very young age. She decided not to remarry even though people kept telling her to make this choice. She was firm in her decision. She wanted to study, so she continued her studies. Her hard work paid off when she became the principal of a school.

She never had kids but she loved my father, who was her sister’s son, as her own. We used to call her ‘bade dadi’. She was a strong woman whose happiness was never dependent on a man. She lived her life on her own terms and was an example of being a working woman in an era where women were not even allowed to leave the house.

Her death made me raise a lot of questions

While performing last rites, men are given prominence. But was that something my dadi would have approved of being a feminist herself? If I could be there for her before her death then what was so wrong with touching her when she was about to die?

Nobody asked me if I was a son or a daughter when I was with her in the hospital taking care of her. So how did things suddenly change after her death? I remember my parents and I offered her ganga jal to drink before her death. My parents never stopped me from doing anything knowing how much I was attached to her, but things changed the moment we were surrounded by other people.

This also reminded me of the time when my maternal grandmother died and my cousins and I were asked by a woman, who used to live near her house to not go to the cremation ground and stay at home to clean the house. But my mother and my aunt (my mother’s sister-in-law) made sure that three of us went to the cremation ground. Had it not been for our family we would have never witnessed the last rites of my nani.

These superstitions are why society still prefers a male child

When I asked questions about why only sons were allowed to perform last rites of their parents, I got different answers, none of which were satisfying. At some places women were not even allowed to enter the cremation grounds let alone perform last rites.

Do people prefer a male child over a girl child so that there is someone to perform their last rites? Does it really ensure peace after death? Does God really differentiate between two genders that He created?

When a loved one dies, all you can think about is their room which will now be empty, not ever hearing their voice or feeling their loving touch. Maybe touching my grandmother one last time and being part of her last rites would have given me some sort of a closure.

The one thing I am very sure about is that, had my grandmother been conscious at that very moment, she would have scolded everyone for not letting me touch her.

Editor’s note: This story has been created and published by Women’s Web in collaboration with BBC News.

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