The Tribune - Spectrum


, February 24, 2002

On the other side of society
Anupama Roy

Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood Edited by Uma Chakravarti and Preeti Gill.
Kali for Women, Delhi. Pages 263. Rs 280.

IN the past several months we have lived through animated and acrimonious debates around history writing. Fears have been expressed that history may be recast into a mould where the histories of multiple oppressions and the numerous sites of struggles they threw up may be pruned to produce a sanitised account which does not compel any person, class or community, to acknowledge its complicity in the oppressive past, and absolves them, moreover, of the responsibility to affirm an investment in a democratic future.

A corollary of such history writing would be that while oppressive practices continue, they may not be seen nor heard, shrouded and silenced in a hegemonic, inoffensive and faultless history. Feminist scholarship which has over the past few decades struggled persistently and persuasively to recover absences in history has once again through this remarkable work sought to prise open the complexities which are shrouded in universalist histories.

Taking up the theme of widowhood, the anthology, Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood, edited by Uma Chakravarti and Preeti Gill, identifies widowhood not merely as an oppressive tradition; it also seeks to delineate the oppressive structures within which these traditions are embedded. Thus the numerous writings on widowhood which are brought together in this work, provide a broad historical canvas of meanings surrounding the social category "widow" and the manner in which these meanings are embedded in and derive from structures of power. This exercise has assumed particular importance in the present context when there appears to be a resurgence of the defenders of a past, recast as an unbroken saga of celebratory practices and pristine institutions.


The emblematic woman is inevitably imbricated in this celebratory history as the focal object around whom the past is woven and who provides cohesion and continuity to this past.

The pre-eminence of the emblematic woman in history has meant that the "real lives" or the lived experiences of women have been sieved out as extraneous, irrelevant and in some instances even anomalous to the main story. Nowhere is this embeddedness of women in an unsullied past more evident than in the complex discursive practices around the figure of the widow, which made itself apparent most recently in the controversy over the filming of Mira Nair’s "Water" in Varanasi. At a time when Hindu cultural superiority was at its most aggressive pitch, with a Hindu bomb lending it more pugnacity, a focus on the Hindu widow threatened to add an embarrassing dissonance to the construction of a glorious Hindu culture.

Uma Chakravarti and Preeti Gill wonder why "Water" evoked the kind of response that it did, given the fact that a long history of writing, in various genres and languages by men and women, from the beginning of the 19th century shows that incidents of exploitation of widows were routine in the lives of young widows and were in fact openly acknowledged as such. The anthology painstakingly puts together documents which show how the "oppressed category" of the widow, the "shadow" or krishnapaksha of womanhood, figures in history initially as a subject of male legal and social discourse, symptomatic of the "guilt" of the emerging bhadralok, and simultaneously, as a preponderant theme of creative social writing.

The early writings on the "status" of the widow were, however, marked more by rhetoric rather than any analysis of the social and economic structures which sustained and throve on her oppression. It was not until the women’s movement in the last quarter of the 20th century that feminist scholarship changed the terms of the discourse to replace rhetoric with an analysis of the relationship between ideological and cultural practices, the manner in which caste, class, community, religion and region mediate in specific constructions and experience of widowhood, and how widowhood was enmeshed in the production of "national", "religious" and importantly, "male" identity, community and camaraderie.

The anthology traverses all these phases and facets, combining the textual and prescriptive with the experiential, giving the volume a depth of substance and analytical rigour. Spread over three sections, the collection coalesces extracts from the prescriptive legal and religious texts, both classical and modern, with lived experiences of widows as found in personal narratives and images of widowhood deriving from fiction.

The extracts which form the prescriptions, injunctions and laws for widows, are drawn from a selection of texts, including the Dharmasutras and the Dharmashastras, particularly the Manusmriti, which have historically provided the authoritative framework determining the life of the widow.

The 19th century debates around child marriage, sati, enforced widowhood, and the remarriage of widows take shape in the extracts from the writings by some of the more ardent social reformers, including Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, who argued for widow remarriage on the practical ground that the shastric prescription of brahmacharya was difficult to practice in the kaliyuga, and that marriage having been prescribed as a duty for women in the shastras, was after all in consonance with religion.

The extracts indicate change over the centuries from the time when levirate marriages were prescribed to a point where enforced celibacy was enjoined upon the widow. Ultimately, they aimed at controlling the sexuality of the widow and by making celibacy a condition for deriving maintenance from the dead husband’s property, the consolidation of property rights in favour of the male head of the family.

The excerpts from Tarabai Shinde’s essay "Stri Purush Tulana", written is response to an article which appeared in Pune Vaibhav pertaining to the criminal case against a Brahmin widow charged with murdering her illegitimate son, Pandita Ramabai’s book, The high caste Hindu widow, Rakhmabai’s letter, "A Hindu Lady", and especially Anandita Devi’s work, "Agomoni", bring out the intensity of feeling against the condition of widows and reformist preoccupation with their remarriage.

Anandita Devi’s writing in particular is a poignant invective against a scriptural tradition "written by men", which by eulogising the "pure and celibate widow clad in whit"’, occluded the gruesome nature of the rituals which immediately followed the death of her husband, and the "wretched" life to which she was condemned thereafter. Describing the widow as the "living dead", she questions the right of men to "destroy the precious lives of so many women, reserving at the same time the right of women to resist — no body asked for our opinion when these scriptures were written"..

Whereas the scriptures prescribe a "pure and celibate" modular form for widows, as the "renunciator" whose social existence is "transcendental", the lived experiences bring out the ambiguity of her social membership. From one moving narrative to the other, and through the fictional images deriving from social reality, one is exposed to the diversity and complexity of the experiences of widowhood.

This diversity and complexity is, however, interwoven in the common experience of loss, deprivation, helplessness and hopelessness. As the structural counterpart of the sumangali, the auspicious married woman, she was to be excluded from all occasions which celebrated life and vitality.

The sexuality of the widow was sought to be harnessed by subjecting her to a strict daily regime of prayer and household drudgery. At the same time, however, her sexuality was seen as a constant threat, and as "Shei Samay, Sunil Gangopadhyaya’s moving story of the child widow Bindubasini, she was more likely to be seen as an aggressor, tempting and "corrupting" men by her "evil arts".

Interspersed with stories of oppression and deprivation are stories and narratives of survival and resistance.

The story of Anandibai Karve’s attempts to educate herself in Bombay and her remarriage in 1893 to D.K.Karve, the struggles of a dalit widow to educate her daughter, the asceticism of the widows of Vrindavan enabling them to overcome their destitution, the story of Shanti, a widow of the 1984 riots, of Mary Kaul, whose husband was killed by militants in Srinagar, are heart rending narratives of personal loss, and overwhelming bitterness at the betrayal they suffered from their own families, from society and community.

Deep somewhere, exists, however, an indomitable urge to give it back to the oppressors in the same measure, as seen in Mahasweta Devi’s "Rudali", or withdraw from participating in her own oppression as brought out most poignantly in the refusal by Sarasu, the Brahmin widow in "Vaadmalli, who favours warmth and "satisfaction of natural instinct" to remarrying and becoming a "victim of sacrifice".

Sarasu’s condemnation of the "bloodthirstiness" of a society which "gloats over her purity" and her subsequent questioning of her status, "Does she not have any rights in society"…"What is her status? A status of a country citizen?" or a mere "Hindu woman…a dumb creature… (who) lives by trusting her parents, husband and forefathers", provides in a way a criticism of the preoccupation of the male reformers with widow remarriage and their lack of concern with the terms of women’s social and political membership.

It is towards this restoration of their subjectivities that this anthology is devoted. Every single piece in the collection is distinctive, yet knits well into the collection as a whole. Some of the excerpts in the last section, leave the reader asking for more.

The anthology as a whole is a powerful statement against patriarchy and the layers of oppressive practices, exclusions and powerlessness it creates to sustain itself.