This is a story about two women from different countries and cultures: two women who never met, would not share the same fate, and two women who experienced other extremes of a culture gone wrong. One of those women was hardly a woman but a girl of 18. Her name was Roop Kanwar, and she lived in a village in Rajasthan, India. Some seven months into her marriage, her life ended as she was burned to death-forcibly, according to witnesses on the funeral pyre of her husband.
Her death caused controversy and divided a nation steeped in religious superstition and misquoted scriptures. The other woman was just a year older than Roop when she first contacted the same land, the same people, the same culture. Some years later, she moved to India, where she lived in a village on the banks of the River Ganges.
That other woman is me. I will never share the same fate as Roop Kanwar because I was born and bred in Australia. Some would say my upbringing was devoid of real culture, and they may be right. Others would say I had freedom of choice and the ability to avoid the same fate as Roop, and they are also right. Whatever, the fact remains that both cultures- Eastern and Western- have something to offer, and somewhere between the supposed decadence and moral bankruptcy of the West and the pseudo-spirituality of the East lies a truth that can set anyone free—even Roop Kanwar.
I came across the story of Roop for the first time in 1998. I was living in Jaipur, and now and then, her name would come up in newspapers and magazines. Five years later, I was given a book entitled “Death By Fire” by Mala Sen. It was the story of Roop, leaving me dissatisfied. That wasn’t the fault of the author-it was the story itself.
Most disturbing was the acceptance by a large portion of the nation that this was somehow “okay,” that the burning to death of a beautiful young girl was a result of her purity and righteousness, and that seven generations before and after her were benefited by such a violent and gruesome death. I concluded that only a twisted form of a rich and philosophically powerful culture such as the one Roop came from could condone such a barbaric act.
Throughout Sen’s book were references to another, considered the definitive study on sati, the practice of widow burning outlawed by the British in the 18th century: “Sati: A Study of Widow Burning in West Bengal,” by Sakuntala Narasimhan. By this stage, I was a resident of West Bengal, so the topic was ‘local.’ I began to read Narasimhan’s book with some trepidation. My concern was twofold: an angle of vision from both sides of the fence.
Firstly, I wondered how much Narasimhan’s study was drawn from an extreme feminist viewpoint, which was, as far as I could see, no solution to the problems forreaction. Secondly, from the opposite end of the argument, I was concerned about how much of the book was based on a proper understanding of the scriptures quoted by those who were propagating widow burning based on some so-called “religious” standpoint and how well Narasimhan could therefore argue the point on a reasonable and logical basis without being drowned in the religious melee that surrounds such issues.
I found Narasimhan’s book fascinating. She held a Ph.D., was a published author, and was a noted performer who toured India, impressing audiences with her beautiful singing. She was someone with an educated concern about the topic. This beautiful and feminine woman hadn’t hardened her edges in her desire to right the wrongs of the culturally warped environment of which she was a product. Her writing was solid and based on a clear and unbiased understanding of the scriptures that those she was arguing against were quoting. Overall, the book was an appealing and refreshing approach to an old and ugly problem.
After reading Narasimhan’s book, I realized that she had missed one crucial point. For a culture that has its roots in the most intricate and detailed spiritual philosophy available, no one seemed to have much understanding of it. Certainly, it wasn’t being offered to solve the country’s ills. It led me to question what this culture was that the entire country claimed to follow, and I soon realized that it was something way off track from what it started as. It seemed to be steering course out of control, heading with a determined foot on the accelerator towards the materialistic mecca of the West, far from the spiritual roots that had bound it so long.
What does the Western culture have to offer that can substantiate its claim to being “more advanced” than the culture that did this to Roop Kanwar, and why does her country seem so desperate to find its solutions in the West? While the women of India have an ancient culture as their protection (and for a reasonable amount of time, it does work that way), stories like this Roop’s are evidence that discrimination is rife and, worse, that it is entrenched in the “culture” of the entire country, crossing all religious boundaries, thereby granting it an immediate bonafide with any religious sector in any social class.
The added hypocrisy is hard to swallow: a country that follows a stricter moral principle than perhaps any country on the planet suffers from the reluctance to admit its human frailties or disguise them as “spiritual strengths.” Roop’s case is a sad reflection of a culture that believes a woman whom her husband can no longer enjoy might just as well burn on his funeral pyre.
Her only other choice, according to neighbors, was that Roop live a life devoid of any social status: shave her head, wear only white saris, not eat fancy food (basically just rice and dahl for the rest of her life), not remarry and have children, not partake in any religious festival or public event-in fact, that she never be seen in public again, not even to draw water from the village well; her presence would be considered inauspicious by the entire village-the fact that she continued to live would be sufficient to bring all bad fortune down upon the residents of the village. In other words, even if she lived, she would be considered “dead.” Such a conclusion hardly seems to fit into the tenets of a compassionate, spiritual culture, and one would be forgiven for thinking that the Western culture seemed more ‘advanced.’
Yet humans share common experiences, regardless of boundaries of culture, country, and bodily designation. The surroundings may differ, but the pain is the same. The only difference between the plight of women in the West and the East is that the Westerners, with our innate independence and concepts of equality between the sexes, usually manage to escape. The Roop Kanwars of this world don’t have that option.
I met my first husband at 19 and married shortly after. I don’t know why it went so rapidly to hell the way it did, but I remember the first punch. I thought it was a cliche that people used when they said they “saw stars before their eyes” when they’d been hit. It’s not. The contents of my head swam in a murky, thick blackness; shooting stars exploded before my eyes, and my movements slowed to a surreal pace.
That was the first time he broke my nose-it wouldn’t be the last. We had a rifle in the house, and I woke up one morning simply knowing in my heart that I was about to use it on him, and if I didn’t do the job right, he’d use it on me. I decided he wasn’t worth spending time in prison for and certainly wasn’t worth dying for, so I left him. I have never seen him since.
One night, though, I was surrounded by so much sheer terror that it was hard for me to relive. So, I don’t repeat it as an observer. It seems to have happened to someone else; in a way, it did. I am no longer the girl who went through this, but I saw it all over again in Roop Kanwar.
I can’t remember the details of how it happened. I remember going home alone, leaving my husband where he was because he had to learn that he couldn’t talk to me like that. It wasn’t long before he followed, but I thought I was ready for him this time. The house was locked up, but that infuriated him further. As he smashed the window next to the front door and reached in to unlatch the bolt, I grabbed my purse and keys and fled out the back door before he saw me. I ran across the road and hid in the bushes.
I still remember the terror of hearing his voice calling out to me, oblivious to the neighbors and the late hour, yelling about what he would do to me if he got hold of me. As I sat crouched in the bushes, trembling with the fear that he would find me, too scared to breathe, I knew that he meant it, and I knew if I wanted to live, I couldn’t go back into that house. I sat and prayed. It was all I could do. Finally, the rage diminished, and he left the house, walked down the street, and disappeared into the night.
I didn’t hesitate. I ran toward the house, quickly unlocked and threw open the car trunk, and ran inside to collect as many of my belongings as possible. I jammed the box full, slammed the lid, filled the back seat, and backed out of the drive. I drove for 2 hours to the nearest city. I was thousands of kilometers away from my family, alone in a town where I knew no one. But I got out. I had a car, money, and a way to save myself, and that’s a lot more than most of the women in India have. According to the “culture” in India, I’m a fallen woman. But at least I’m alive.
There’s not much difference between Roop’s situation and mine. Would I have been thrown on a fire? Undoubtedly, that doesn’t negate the principle that women live in fear for their lives in every country; those who claim the strength of culture to serve their own needs are as dangerous as any unprincipled, materialistic country with seemingly no cultural foundations. What lessons or inspirations can a Western woman hope to derive from such a culture? Is there anything positive it can offer Western women?
Roop Kanwar’s home state, Rajasthan, was and still is, to a great degree, a condition that recognizes “purdah,” or the veil. Women were still covered at all times by a blanket and were rarely, if ever, seen in public. Their living arrangements were separate from the men’s, and their lives were based around an enclosed community of women. The last reigning Queen of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi, was a well-traveled woman who graced the cover of Vogue, headed the list of “Most Beautiful Women in the World,” rubbed shoulders with British royalty and American society, and whom John F. Kennedy claimed was, on her entry into politics, “the woman with the most staggering majority that anyone has ever earned in an election,” a claim backed up by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Originally a Princess from the Bengal state of Cooch Behar, she married into the Jaipur royal family as the third wife of the reigning monarch, Sawat Man Singh, known to the world as Jai Singh. He was a gallant, handsome, romantic figure; an instant headline maker, the polo-playing Maharaja of Jaipur whose team trounced the British repeatedly and who took the world by storm with his social and sporting escapades in London, Paris, Rome, and Monte Carlo.
When Gayatri Devi married Jai, he already had two wives, who observed full purdah. He wanted Gayatri to lead women out of what he perceived as an oppressive situation, and she dedicated her life to the emancipation of women across India. Although her life was only slightly touched by purdah, she had this to say in its support:
“It is difficult for Westerners to understand why women were perfectly content with what seems, from the outside, a hopelessly dull and claustrophobic existence. Their lives in purdah were much fuller and more active than one would imagine. Apart from running a large household, a woman with a wide circle of children, grandchildren, and relatives was the focal point of the whole family. As a girl in her own home, she would have been taught the basic accomplishments necessary for any Hindu girl: cooking, sewing, and caring for children.
Later, as a young bride, she would learn the ways of her husband’s family, and eventually, as a mother and grandmother, her authority and responsibilities would increase. Perhaps most important of all, she would never be without companionship, and she would always be needed. Zenana life [the women’s quarters], with all its limitations, had profound and solid compensations, too.”
Gayatri Devi makes a strong point about the development of the inner community of women. This female self-reliance is part of the original Indian culture, known as the Vedic culture. There are more positive accounts of its benefits than negative ones towards feminine feminists. Women find balance in a strong support group of friends and advisers upon whom they can rely, as the women in cultured India did and in some parts still do. Such a network of support also alleviates the stress placed on a man to be the sole provider of everything, which is only a banal cliche.
Those who pursue it or are willing to settle for it are inevitably disappointed. Of course, this is not meant to cast aspersions on our men. It’s simply a matter of the fact that their ability to be everything that a woman needs is a Hollywood myth, propagated repeatedly in every form of media. Unfortunately, much of the world is weaned on such tales; our conditioning runs deep and impacts our responses and choices. We are products of our upbringing, without a doubt.
For Roop Kanwar- for all of us- the past is irretrievable; for those who suffer similarly, the future may not look any brighter, be they in the West or the East. I don’t have any solutions; maybe none of us do. Some things, like the Indians will tell you, are simply karma.
I can’t help thinking, though, that all over the planet, from London’s High Streets to downtown Sydney, India, has been the year’s flavor for a long time. I’m sure in our pursuit of all things Indian, we might examine a little more closely the richness of their fabrics and interiors and the finer elements of their ancient culture. Somehow, I feel that Roop would appreciate such a positive approach.