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Can An Indian Daughter Truly Mourn Her Mother?

Posted: October 20, 2012

The mother-daughter bond is special, but gender inequality rears its ugly head to bar an Indian daughter from being a part of her mother’s final journey.

By Madhu Arora

My mother died of terminal cancer almost two months back. For two years, starting from August 2010 and ending in August 2012, she fought a very brave, even though an ultimately losing battle.

And I, her daughter and her closest friend, was with her every step of the way.

For the last two years, I took up freelance jobs, short term jobs, jobs with flexi-time options, jobs that weren’t the right option for me career wise, so that I had enough time to spend on and with her.

For the last two years, I ignored my newborn son, two months old when mom’s cancer recurred, to take care of mom. In the last two months of her life, I moved in with my parents, which meant I would not see my son for days on end. My husband and in-laws took care of him.

I am not complaining nor am I staking claim to a halo for my greatness. I made the choices I made because I loved her. As much as I needed to take care of her, I also needed to be close to her, knowing well that our time together was limited.

During her final months, I did everything for her. EVERYTHING. I bathed her, took her to the toilet, held her as she puked blood, cut her dirty clothes when she was too feeble to get out of them, stayed up through the nights as she started losing her senses, just so she wouldn’t harm herself.

She was in my arms when she died.

And as soon as the last breath left her body, it started. Unknown to me, my relationship with her had instantly changed.

The Indian daughter: Expendable at convenience

When they started to move her body from her bed to the floor, they told me I could not help in picking her up. Anyone else could, including my brother and his wife, in fact especially them, but not me or my husband. I was the daughter and he the son-in-law; our contribution to any of the last rites would ruin her “parlok” (afterlife). “Paap chadaogey apni ma ko, chutkara nahin milega ussey” (You will make her a sinner, she will not find peace). I screamed at the person who said this, knowing little that the next few days I would have to fight every step of the way, to touch my dead mother, to do stuff for her for the last time.

I lost her and then I lost her again.

As visitors poured in, everyone would go and touch her feet. When I got up to do that, an uncle who had visited my mother perhaps twice during her illness, stopped me. Apparently, daughters can’t touch their parent’s feet, not even dead parents.

I lost her and then I lost her again.

I wanted to put a shawl over her dead body, as they were taking her away. I was told only the sons’ side of the family could do it.

My husband, who was much loved by my mom, couldn’t help carry my mother during the funeral procession, nor add wood to her pyre. I was told that neither the husband nor I could go to collect her mortal remains.

And every time, I was given the same reason for being stopped.“Maa ko paap chadega.” (You will make her a sinner.)

Why is the mother-daughter bond any lesser?

I was forced to wonder, what flipped when mom died? How did I go from being her primary care giver to the only unwanted person around?

Ultimately, I fought a few times but then the fight left me. It was exhausting, grieving over the loss of a parent while being judged for being a “pointless troublemaker”. By extended and close family alike. The extended family I could ignore, because where were they when my mom really needed help? It was the behaviour of the near and dear ones, people who were part of this struggle over the last two years, which hurt the most.

…what flipped when mom died? How did I go from being her primary care giver to the only unwanted person around?

It’s not like my family suddenly stopped loving me, but that they really believed in what they were saying. They were genuinely concerned that I was ruining my mother’s chances of ending in heaven.

Whatever “concessions” I received, were “granted” when my husband and my brother intervened. My brother for instance made sure I went with him to pick my mother’s remains. But needing men to stage an intervention on your behalf, isn’t that just more of the same?

Gender inequality stays all the way

Gender inequality won’t go away till it is equality all the way. You could give me the best education and opportunities, but by refusing to let me fulfill my duties same as my brother, you are keeping me unequal. Equality, just like everything else in life, is a two way street.

People will continue to want sons over daughters, as long as they believethings like heaven will be denied to them, unless they are laid to rest by a son. And if we are part of a demographic that claims to “value” our daughters and see them as “equal”, then it is our moral responsibility to STOP following traditions that help maintain the status quo.

Else, whether you agree or not, indirectly if not directly, you too are guilty of propagating a culture that is happy to kill its infant daughters and burn its brides alive.

*Photo credit: notsogoodphotography (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)

About The Author: Madhu Arora works as a content specialist with a leading multinational IT firm. In a previous avatar, she was a professional do-gooder and worked with non-profit organisations in India and the US, in communications and research capacities. She is an advocate of gender equality in both her personal and professional life, and currently walks the tightrope between full time motherhood, the idiosyncrasies of family life in India, and a demanding career. She blogs at Madhu Arora and her twitter handle is @aroramadhu.

बच्चा होने के बाद - Motherhood And Career - How To Plan?




  1. Scary this is……

  2. Forty two years back my mother and her sisters were allowed to go to the cremation ground and watch their brother perform the last rites of my maternal grandfather. They were the ones who bathed their father’s dead body. My sister in law also participated in certain funeral rites when my father in law passed away. How come your family excluded you from even prostrating at your mother’s feet or objected to your husband’s participation? I think Hindu rites are the same. It is the community that twists it out of shape and context. You are lucky to have the support of your brother. Don’t let the action of a few unthinking relatives bother you.

    • @hip grandma, I agree with you, it’s the community that’s twists things out of context. My family, I feel, is completely progressive in all other ways, this was a shocker. The choice before me was either argue to get my way, or just let things be, because beyond a point it felt disrespectful to mom, to make every thing a conflict. But, with all the feedback that I have recieved, it’s good to know that for many women like you, my story is an aberration, not a rule..

  3. Madhu, I wish I had an answer for you, but I do not. I was the sole caretaker for my parents , since both my brothers live outside India. My mothers death was rather sudden, and one of the brothers reached in time.I took most of the decisions in the hospital, and crematorium, though when the priest asked for the son to step forward for some rituals , i had to stay behind. When the stuff was outside the purview of the priest, I ensured I was by my mothers physical side till the end. I even offered my shoulder on the final trip to the cremating area (electric), despite some folks showing their displeasure but my brother supported me.

    My father passed away 6 years later, and Iike you, I moved to another city to look after him, and even took early retirement from my job. The rest of the family came to look after him for short periods as per their convenience and I simply kept filling in the blanks. I insisted on cremating my father, didn’t have a religious ceremony because he did not believe in it. But a male cousin suddenly disappeared from the cremation place when he found out that I was taking care of everything, and he wasnt getting the “honor”. Makes me wonder . whether people really feel something at someone’s passing away or they come to show attitude .

    I could do all this, because that’s how my mother brought me up. I did everything my brothers did. My father never opposed this . People knew about this and so they did not interfere with the last rites and me.

    What sometimes , however, amuses me, is when I recall how my mother once mentioned to someone that I was like her third son. We are so unavoidably patriarchal, I wonder if there will come a day when a mother will look at her wonderful sons and say how like her daughter they are. And I hope no one objects ……

  4. Unavoidably patriarchal, so true. Its still a compliment to daughters to be told they are just like a son..

  5. Very sorry for you loss. My parents have two daughters – my sister and I. I remember my aunt grinning, and mocking my mother that you know one must have a son! Else who will perform the last rites? To which my mother (never the one to take it) said, “Oh so one should have sons only to burn their parents in the end?”

    I don’t believe nor am I ready to accept such horrible things people say if a daughter has to perform last rites or touch their dead parents. In my case, if and when my parents die (I cannot imagine), my folks will be at the mercy of some guy cousin? Nope. I really wish for things to change for the best.

    It is not about a girl or a boy. Burning the pyre of one’s parents is tough for children. Period. But then each child has a right to do this, irrespective of the gender. I don’t think outsiders should have a say at all.

  6. “The choice before me was either argue to get my way, or just let things be, because beyond a point it felt disrespectful to mom, to make every thing a conflict. ”

    I disagree with you here. She would have wanted you to stand up for yourself and DEMAND that you get your rightful place right next to her. Honestly, who are these “they” who decide what you should do and should not do?? Especially when they have done nothing for your mother when she was alive?

    My grandfather had two daughters, my mother and her elder sister. My aunt has a son, and I am my mother’s only child. Unfortunately circumstances were such that only my mother and I were present at the time of his death. My father was separated from my mother by then. Mom’s elder sister and family refused to turn up for his funeral (just the aunt and husband came much later).
    I stepped forward, initiated last rites, led the party to the cremation ground, and lit the pyre myself. No one dared questioned me.

    In situations such as this, a degree of assertion is required. If they see you mean business, nobody will disagree. I agree though…. it is tougher for daughters than for sons…

  7. First of all, I am very sorry for your loss. I can imagine how difficult it was and is for you. I too watched my mother and my aunt nurse my grandfather during his final days with cancer. My mother was the fortunate person whose house he chose to breathe his last and who took care of him, along with my father and grandmother, during his final days. My aunt who lived in a different city, could not be present at his last moments and she was devastated. She requested that she be given the privilege of doing the last rites. I went with her to the funeral site along with my father. The priest requested (this is Calcutta…they know better than to demand) that a male relative do the final ritual along with my aunt. She agreed because she was not in an emotional frame to argue this but she alone took his final ashes and put them in the Ganga.
    Change will come…..and we will live to see it.

  8. Very sorry for your loss. It is a very important point that you have raised and the conclusion para is bang on. Good to see from the comments above that things are changing. It is high time we changed our traditions to reflect gender equality.

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  10. Fighting traditions, especially the ones that hurt are never easy. The ones concerning death of a loved one is the most hurtful. It would be nicer if we could be allowed to mourn in solitude, peacefully. But the customs do not allow that. They require you to do this and that and worse, in this case, NOT do this or NOT do that. It is annoying to see some relatives who would have never cared about the deceased when they were alive, suddenly in the center of all action and are giving commands on what to do. But one could take solace in the simple fact that the loved one who passed are spared of seeing all this, as far as they know, they died peacefully knowing that they are dying in the safe arms of their loved one. And, there ends the living relation with the loved one. The rest are only in memories.

  11. Sad indeed. Have seen quite the opposite in my family. We all (daughters, grand daughters et al) went for the funerals of my grand parents. In fact we grand daughters were called to light the fire along side with the brothers. Also son in laws play a very important role, just like sons of the family. Change happens from within, once a precedent is broken, no one questions “tradition” again. Hence I do believe you should have stood up for yourself to change the precedent. Not easy especially during such a time, but must be done!

  12. Hope you are at terms with your loss now. I lost my Dad in 2010 and I was the one who did all the rites. My uncle found a priest who had no problem with girls performing the rites and we did everything by the book. the priest told me that I was the seventh girl he was helping do this. I think at some point we have to stand up for ourselves and tell “society” that the wishes of the deceased also matter. people who did not care for them when alive have no right to dictate terms and conditions once the person dies

  13. I like the how the girl is helping to do this, and we should gave a message to society that daughters are makers of society

  14. This brought me to tears. These kinds of stupid traditions where woman cant do this and woman cant do that are the shackles of our feet. These put us on disadvantage emotionally. Irony is that its only the woman who enforces these traditions.

  15. I totally agree with you… you know.. as a child it’s also difficult to talk about a situation like this to your parents.. Because you’re implying their death… I remember having this talk as a child .. when my father told me that I couldn’t light their pyre or shoulder the arthi when he died.. but my cousin could and his own brother could… when I made my displeasure apparent and objected and fought passionately against the idea… I was told by my mom… are you so eager for your parents to die?

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