Those were the days when the ongoing war of Kargil was the crux of our nation’s soul. Ishwar brother, my neighbour, was in the army.
That particular evening while I was returning from school, I found a huge crowd, marching ahead of me, shouting patriotic slogans like “Jab tak suraj chand rahega, Ishwar tera naam rahega” (As long as the sun and moon exist, people will remember you Ishwar). I was barely eight years old then. Driven by childish curiosity, I rushed towards the crowd. The funeral procession of Ishwar Bhaiya was grand. I rejoiced mingling with the multitude.
It was an hour later when I reached home that the sight of ladies assembled in the alley, wailing and beating their chest, jolted my childish fascination. Surbhi bhabhi sitting on the bare floor was surrounded by people. Some were consoling her while some were silenced by the tragic gravity of the event. I saw Savitri kaki wiping off the vermilion settled deep within the partings of Surbhi bhabhi’s hair. Later, by employing calculated force, she broke the bangles which adored bhabhi’s hand. The vision lingered in my mind, unsettled, triggering clueless thoughts.
I remember that once during the Kargil war, Surbhi Bhabhi had urged me to visit her home every evening and get along with me the portable Murphy Radio. She used to listen to the news with rapt attention as if to connect herself with her husband fighting on the border. Her facial expressions oscillated with the flow of the news. She would not be concerned with the entirety of the battle other than being eagerly apprehensive about the well-being of her husband. Perhaps, she was informed by one of Ishwar Bhaiya’s comrade about his martyrdom.
For some days, Surbhi bhabhi remained reserved within the confines of her home. However, she compromised with the fact that she had to live the rest of her life in delight and dismay at her husband’s memory.
Managing agricultural land was a difficult task; the government compensation had vanished in the dark well of embezzlement. So she commenced stitching and mending clothes on her sewing machine that was bequeathed to her during her marriage. This newfound work kept her engaged and also brought in the required income for sustaining her life.
It was the occasion of her nephew’s marriage when she first faced the prevailing fact that her widowhood was considered inauspicious for festive occasions. In a particular wedding ritual, paddy grains smeared with turmeric paste is showered on the married couple. A handful of grain was distributed among all present for the occasion. However, Pandit Sitaram ignored her extended hand which was ready to accept the grain. The people around them, including the bride and the groom, watched the avoidance quite voicelessly. Some considered it a discriminatory act while others adhered to it as a compliance of customary tradition. Savitri kaki too had remained silent. Her mind, however, rebelled at this. She had vowed to eradicate this mistaken notion and was waiting for the right time to initiate her move.
Surbhi bhabhi distanced from the site and stood in a corner, still watching and relishing the ongoing beauty of the ceremony. It was a matter of contradiction that the attires sewed by her were being used and accepted in every custom and more so, were considered holy, but her presence in the same customs was unwelcomed to the extent that her mere glimpse would bring misfortune for such ceremonies. The realization of her inauspiciousness in conceptually sacred events, however, did not discourage her. From then onwards, she remained cautious while satisfying her sociable quest by maintaining a desired distance.
It was two years later that Savitri kaki found the right time in her granddaughter’s wedding. The fire burning inside her heart surfaced. She urged Surbhi bhabhi to grace each and every ritual of the marriage. Surbhi bhabhi was surprised at this unexpected invitation. Right from the beginning, Savitri kaki moved like a shadow to Surbhi bhabhi. The spectators were puzzled. When the newly married couple was departing, clay lamps and fresh beetle leaves placed on a brass plate were handed over to Surbhi bhabhi. She acknowledged the honour bestowed on her by blessing the couple by affectionately touching their cheeks with beetle leaves absorbed with the mild warmness of the burning clay lamps.
It was in that moment that Surbhi bhabhi felt that her pride was restored. She forgot all trials and tribulations that she had experienced after the loss of her husband fighting on the border. Her face bubbled with happiness and satisfaction, perhaps at the fact that now she had mixed up with the society as a normal denizen; no longer chastised and looked down upon with disparaging eyes. It was a victory of righteousness over an evil practice of stigmatizing widowhood. The advocators of widowhood as a sign of stigma stood ashamed.