The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Presentations: Ravi Kumar
Lost in Darkness
Her face is alive in my memory. I can see her as if she were here yesterday. But she has been dead for over twenty years. It seems to me that she melted away without anybody noticing. Her death, like her life, appeared insignificant. Nobody talked much about either and perhaps did not care. I heard that she died alone in an Ashram near the holy river Ganges.
She was my cousin Manohar’s wife. Her name was Laxmi. Her parents named her after the goddess of wealth, the significance of which may have eluded her completely. But wealth, or lack of it, was the least of her problems.
To go back a bit: Following Indian customs of the early twentieth century, this very young girl—age sixteen or seventeen perhaps--came to our family by marriage, without any choice and without much education. She did not speak or write English. Her education was probably terminated at middle school level. The only role envisaged for girls in those days was that of a wife and a mother.
It was customary to get boys and girls married when they had reached puberty. Some resisted and managed to get higher education. Others, like this couple, just did what was the custom. The elders in the family played the decisive role in these matters. And the boys were perhaps more than willing to marry because there was no other outlet for the surging sexual drive of an adolescent. There was no dating and no opportunity for girls and boys to meet socially. The girls were raised to think of marriage as their ultimate destiny and duty. I doubt if they found much sexual or emotional satisfaction in the union. But they did find social acceptance and security in the extended family of the husband.
So a marriage was arranged between Laxmi and Manohar, who had no independent status or proper job, and who had equally no choice in the matter of his marriage.
Manohar lived with his brothers, sisters and cousins in a joint family of ten or twelve supported by my uncle, Ram Chander Das, a poor schoolteacher, who would be Laxmi's father-in-law. The mother-in-law had already died. The number in the household kept fluctuating as someone died or someone got a job and moved away or someone brought home a bride, as in this case. Laxmi was probably given charge of a brood of children, some of whom would have been teenagers like her husband and some only six or seven years old.
In due course a male child was born to her. That child, I am told, died in early infancy. The elder women in the larger circle of the family blamed her without question, saying that her breast milk was at fault, that it was unfit or even poisoned. There was no scientific basis for the claim. They simply decided that it must be so. And their influence was strong. When she gave birth to her second son, she was not allowed to breastfeed that child. Laxmi watched her son Jeevan from a distance being breastfed by a wet nurse, a stranger. The woman who nursed Jeevan must have been very poor to have deprived her own child of its mother’s milk to earn some money.
Jeevan was just a couple of years younger than me. His father Manohar and my father were near the same age. When Jeevan was about a year old, Manohar came home from a marriage party, fell sick and died. Cholera took many lives in those days in India. Laxmi thus became a widow with a small child, with no income and no home of her own. There was no question of remarriage. Widows were not supposed to remarry. The thought itself was taboo. Laxmi belonged to nobody.
In many orthodox families widows were considered bad luck. Sometimes they were forced out of the household and sent off to live in seclusion in cities like Banaras, which is considered the holiest city in India. In this so-called holy city, widows lived out their lives in extremely poor conditions. They had their heads shaved and were forced to wear white. The holy men and women of Banaras would avoid them like a plague, rushing to cleanse themselves in the holy river Ganges if even the shadow of a widow fell on them. Such beliefs were integral to the male-dominated Hindu society, which found merit in scriptures like this one:
A virtuous wife, who remains chaste when her husband dies, goes to heaven.
A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal.
...from The Laws of Manu, Chapter 5, verses 156-161, Dharamshastras.
But these same Hindu men were not averse to seeking the sexual services of a good-looking young widow when one was available. Prostitution acquired another disguise.
Laxmi was not sent to a place of prostitution. Her father-in-law was an educated reformist. Yet even he could not have let her remarry. If he had wanted to, there would have been nobody willing to wed a widow. She continued to live in his home with her child.
Another tragedy struck the family soon after Manohar died. His younger brother Jai had also married, and his wife had given birth to a girl. Jai used to work in a textile factory to supplement the family income. There he contracted TB. Jai came to depend on Aditya, the third of the brothers. Aditya tells me that he spent some time taking care of Jai. But Aditya wanted to pursue higher education and, much to the disappointment of Jai, left the household to live with my father so that he could study in a college where my father had just been given a job as a lecturer. Jai soon died.
Jai’s wife abandoned their child. I am told that she returned to her parents’ village and was never heard of again. The child, Saroj, was in effect an orphan. And the only mature female living in my uncle’s home was the widow Laxmi. Laxmi now had no choice but to take care of this child as well.
My uncle, with the help of my mother, did what he could to provide for the growing family, now consisting of his own two surviving sons and a daughter, a widow (Laxmi), her baby son (Jeevan), a baby girl (Saroj) and a number of nephews who were accommodated in his house as they kept arriving from our ancestral village, where there was no high school, to continue their education in the city.
The joint family survived many ups and downs. Some years later, my mother acquired a house in the suburbs of Delhi and offered this house to my uncle to live in and start a business there. His youngest son Birjo set up a book shop in the house and my uncle, having retired from teaching school, helped in the business. Laxmi, Jeevan and Saroj lived there, as did Aditya from time to time while he was preparing to go to England to acquire a degree in architecture.
Aditya left for England in 1947 to return after five years, having become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. This was a high time for the family. But Aditya had had to abandon his lady love in England because his father would not let him marry a foreigner.
Laxmi tried hard to give Jeevan a normal upbringing and to mitigate his fears and fill the hollowness of a life without a real home, without a father, dependent for everything on others. Over the course of the next decade, Jeevan grew into boyhood. But he was not physically or academically strong. He seemed a bit slow. Being of the same age group, Jeevan had always been close to me and had looked up to me as an elder brother. He must have watched me with envy for a place to call home and a set of parents to provide security.
Jeevan’s life and mine took different paths when I left home at the age of 16 to join the National Defense Academy. He graduated from college, secured a technical education and got a job at a hydroelectric power plant. I became a fighter pilot and was commissioned into the Indian Air Force as an officer.
Some years passed while I was busy flying jets and learning to cope with a life so alien to my upbringing that I wonder how I survived. It was a world where fighter pilots were considered elite. I was catapulted into this world from an average orthodox Hindu family. A mild-mannered vegetarian who did not drink or smoke, with no pretensions to high status, I was generally intimidated by colleagues who had been to military boarding schools or were from permissive Anglo-Indian families. Life now consisted of days spent flying single engine jets in mock combats and nights of drinking and smoking to calm our nerves and to show off our status as wild, reckless, bold pilots. In terms of lifestyle, I was about as far from Jeevan as I could be.
I was about twenty-five years old when one day I received a call from my cousin Aditya (Jeevan’s uncle) that Jeevan appeared to be quite disturbed. Aditya was my senior by about twelve years. Aditya asked me to come immediately to help him take care of Jeevan. The summoning of family members in a time of crisis was not unusual. I asked for and was granted leave. I took a bus to Chandigarh, in Northern India, about 150 miles from my Air Force base.
When I arrived at Aditya’s home that evening, I found Jeevan lying in bed talking in a way I had never seen him talk before. He was normally introverted and quiet. He did not look sick, but his talkativeness was abnormal. Jeevan was pleased to see me. He was highly animated and asked me when I planned to get married. I said there was no hurry. He laughed and said something about his own desire to get married.
Laxmi was watching him closely. Jeevan had been the center around which her whole life revolved. She had coped with humiliation, indifference and loneliness for his sake for over twenty years. She had clung to him as a drowning person clings to a piece of wood. She was looking forward to his marriage and then to a family, which would be her own and where, at last, she could take refuge and live out a dignified life.
It seemed obvious that there was something wrong with Jeevan. What ailed him was a mystery. Somebody mentioned that he might have received an electric shock at the power plant where he worked. But it was all conjecture. The family came to the conclusion that Jeevan was mentally disturbed. Nobody knew the reason for it. We could not even ask him, for it would mean telling him that he was not behaving normally.
What struck all of us was the unusual amount of words coming out of Jeevan’s mouth, as if he had had a sudden urge to say everything that he had kept to himself. We humored him and behaved as if all were well. But with secret whispers in the house that night, a gloom was settling in.
A day later Jeevan was taken to a nearby town where there was a psychiatrist and a hospital for mentally ill patients. Laxmi put her faith in what the elders had decided. She had no other choice. Many of us accompanied Laxmi and Jeevan to the hospital, where he was admitted. Next day, I learned that the doctors had decided to administer electric shock to his brain. There must have consultation with the family, but I did not hear of it. No psychiatric evaluation was done. No brain scan, no medication--no other course was even suggested. In the 1960’s, CT scan, MRI, and such technologies were unheard of.
After receiving shock therapy, Jeevan was wheeled back into his room. He was unconscious. His tongue protruded from his mouth. Laxmi was in a daze and did not understand how and why her son’s situation had deteriorated so dramatically. None of us understood anything about what was happening. We were in a stupor.
When Jeevan regained consciousness, he stared at us, unable to speak or to change the position of his tongue. He remained like this for the next three or four days. We tried feeding him and talking to him, but he could not eat or speak.
Finally, as Jeevan lay sick in his bed, Laxmi pulled me out onto the hospital verandah that overlooked the parking lot. Her face distorted with pain and fear, she asked, “Will he survive?” I was astonished by her question. I had not even contemplated the possibility of his death. I told her she should not think like that and assured her that he would survive.
The next day Jeevan died. Laxmi was inconsolable. We all were. We cremated him in that same town, retrieved his ashes, and returned to our homes.
That was the end of Laxmi’s world. Life had dealt her a final and a fatal blow. If there is such a thing as a ‘Heart of Darkness,’ she became its permanent resident.
She lived with the family for some more years and then isolated herself in an Ashram to finish her life and die there, forgotten by the world.
The Ashram is on the banks of the Ganges River where it emerges from the foothills of the Himalayas to make its journey across the northern Indian plains towards the Bay of Bengal. One has to cross a suspension bridge over the river to arrive at the Ashram. It has residential rooms built on four sides of a rectangular layout. On one side is a large prayer hall with a dais where a religious teacher gives discourse on Hindu scriptures. The audience sits on a floor covered by a cotton carpet. Attached to the building are a kitchen and a dining hall for residents. Many people have donated money to have private rooms; some are air-conditioned and well furnished.
My family must have had a private room, for my mother used to spend a couple of months there every summer. She was highly disciplined. Even on cold winter mornings at home, she would get up at 5:00, take a cold shower and sit in the prayer room to chant mantras quietly and read. Then she would sit in the warm morning sun wrapped in her shawl and have her breakfast of milk and fruit. For her, the Ashram’s strict schedule would have been easy to follow, but not for me.
I have been to the Ashram on occasions when I visited my mother. The 5:00 morning prayer started with a loud bell to wake everyone up and was followed by chanting that could be heard over a loudspeaker in all corners of the Ashram. People sat in the prayer hall or in the open, on benches or on the ground. One of the chants was the famous Gyatri mantra, which has been on the lips of Indians for thousands of years. Nobody was allowed to remain in the residential room when the bell sounded. That is why I did not spend many days at the Ashram.
In all likelihood my mother arranged for Laxmi to stay there. Mother was always kind and supportive of her.
Laxmi must have spent her days in prayer and in thinking of her son and her life. I imagine that she found some solace in an atmosphere permeated with religious discourse, devotional songs and the ever-flowing murmur of the river Ganges just a few steps down from the Ashram. I am ashamed to say that I do not know more about how she lived and how she died.
Why did I forget about her? Was I that careless of someone whose distorted, anguished face I had watched suffer irreparable loss many years before she died? I had refused to believe what she feared. And when her fears were realized, there was nothing anyone could say to console her. By then her plight seemed beyond redemption.
And why has her memory come back to me more than forty years later? Perhaps because I spent the first part of my life looking ahead to what I wanted to do, and now the time has come to look back, to reflect on my experiences, to wonder why such and such a thing happened or did not happen in the changing circumstances of my life.
Perhaps I never really forgot Laxmi. Perhaps I did not permit her memory to surface because everything about her life was painful, and I was too busy to absorb that. Even when Jeevan seemed healthy while growing into adulthood, her smiles contained a tinge of fear and desperation. She moved awkwardly, as if she were trying to cover up her shame. I was too young then to comprehend her situation. But now as I reflect on her, I think I understand why she kept up an appearance of cheerfulness. I believe that she was trying hard not to let Jeevan see how lost she felt and how fearful for him, and for their future.
Such valiance in the face of unbearable misfortune is worth remembering.
India is a highly diverse country with so many languages, varieties of food, local deities, and in rural areas, much superstition as well as many ghosts and spirits. The country has very low as well as very high levels of education among both women and men. Things are changing fast. You will see rich life styles in India that would surprise even a Hollywood super-star. And you will see life styles so poor as to seem scarcely human. The rigid social customs are loosening their hold, particularly in big cities. Arranged marriage is still common even among the highly educated. Now girls and boys have far more freedom in selection. But the remarriage of widows may not be considered common.
According to Indian custom, one’s elders in age and relationship are never addressed by their first name. The first name is not used even when a junior writes a letter or an article referring to elders. I have used first names for my elders only to make it easy for Western readers.
For Indian readers, knowing from the article of personal relationship in this case, the form of naming family members would sound jarring. The correct Indian way of addressing persons named in the article would be as follows:
Laxmi Bhabhi Ji (Bhabhi means the wife of an elder brother or cousin and Ji denotes respect)
Manohar Bhai Sahib (Bhai means brother and Sahib shows respect)
Jai Bhai Sahib
Aditya Bhai Sahib
Birjo Bhai Sahib
Ram Chander Das, the uncle, was my Tau Ji (Tau means father's elder brother).
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