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They’re all Malalas

December 13, 2014

I met Radha Bhai the first time the day before I wed. She was already 80+, a grand old lady, and looked every bit the most important person she was rumoured to be in my husband’s family. In my brief engagement period of 3 months, I had had enough on her from my (then) future husband. My folks who visited my In-laws home a couple of times before the D-Day mentioned to me this elderly matron to be the woman to watch out for – the queen bee. Like kind of old witch to borrow the term we normally use to refer to cruel old people.

Radha Bhai looked tall, very fair and frail with a slight stoop, nothing like I had imagined about her from hearsays. Her silvery hair and wrinkled hands could not hide the shrewd woman she once was, the striking beauty she must have been in her heydays. She looked regal outright, that comes to one by birth (even if this could bring a frown to secularists and communists) and good upbringing alone. She had sparkling eyes that lit up with real joy as she welcomed me into their home with such a warmth that I felt relaxed and reassured in the new world into which I was thrust into by way of (arranged) marriage. The 3 month acquaintance with my fiance’ hardly put me at ease, it was like I was routed out completely from my native grounds and transplanted elsewhere…  but the kind words of this older wiser woman made a big difference when I was struggling to settle down in my new home. She was a surprise package to me after all that came to my ears – she would squeeze my hands and tell a bewildered me, everything would be alright.  Coming from a small and simple family, the sheer size of the new one and their daily domestic schedules were disturbingly unfamiliar to me. Even though we spoke the same language, were of the same community and were from the same city, my husband was still a total stranger and my new home a foreign place I found difficult to fit in.

With Radha Bhai I struck an unusual friendship. She was my MIL’s aunt (not very own but second circle) – the widowed aunt who had always been in the family. Although i was aware of her tragic life story, as a new bride every morning I was reminded of how sad her life was by her constant presence in the kitchen.  Here were I turning a new leaf in my life, starting as a fresh shy bride – and every morning I came down to be greeted cheerily by a woman who was widowed at a tender age of 12 when she had not even blossomed into a woman. Radha Bhai was less intimidating to me than my MIL(!) She was much more approachable. I found myself unwinding in her presence, gently relaxing. My morning duties included handing her the first hot and steaming stainless steel tumbler of filter coffee of the day, her favourite. I would get the coffee decoction going before anything because I hated keeping the old woman waiting… It was nice to have elders around you – I longed for such a company unlike some of my friends who wanted a nuclear family from day 1. In those days, women especially newly married, could not enter kitchen before showering. And you had to step into the cooking quarters before 5 am. Only then you could touch the fridge. The rules in my in-laws home were unwritten. We are very conservative people even today and very orthodox. We have changed a lot now but my MIL followed all the age old customs that we DILs had to strictly adhere to. Before 6, I also had to light the small diya in our Pooja.

As a new bride, my day dawned with starting the cooking fires (to speak of), preparing the breakfast, packing lunch for the men (we were a joint family then) and giving Radha Bhai her tiffin and coffee. By 9 am I had to dash to my office but I was kept busy downstairs upto 8.30. There wouldn’t be a moment to spare – and I thought ‘is this all married life about?!’ Dizzy days!

I had an interesting companion in those still morning hours in Radha Bhai. She slept in a room downstairs. She would be already awake when I would pound on the verandah doors. She would be waiting for me to make her the coffee, often impatient, attributable to her age. She would then unlock the grill gates, check the bikes and cars to see if anything had flat tyre, to collect the newspaper and the milk sachets and put the milk packets into the freezer. Her non-stop chatter would remind me of the Mylapore i was missing… I was married into a rigid, elite, less and demurely speaking, so-called cultured, upper middle-class family (where i am still trying to fit in)…. Whereas I came from a brash lower middle-class working family where we were used to laughing loud and banging pans and kettles! The new sophistication upset me – like I felt I did not belong with them in their world…

Radha paati eased a lot of my kitchen duties by chopping vegetables – it was a relief to me at that time. Because the family I was wedded into was also a big one. More members, so bulk quantities.  Women ate generally after the men finished. If I chopped a vegetable of a certain size like a 1 inch cube, my MIL or my co-sister would frown and say it was not correct. Even the size of the cut vegetables had to be dainty! Petty issues but there was never a mother around to reprimand me or teach me these things. My aunt was also a working woman. So even little chides would bring instant tears to my eyes. The other ladies would rise one by one by 7 am when most of the morning work would be already done by me. I was the 4th and the last daughter-in-law and nobody’s pet and pampered daughter. I took my role as the new bahu rather seriously.

The morning chitchat with Radha paati gave me an insight into my husband’s family. She would tell me about everything and everyone, like preparing me for the family. From her I heard of the brothers’ escapades, the luxurious lifestyle of the great grandparents etc. One day she opened her huge rusted steel trunk which was her precious possession and showed me the black & white photo of her hsuband. Then she showed me a picture of herself taken at 12 years when she was widowed – she was decked up one last time as child bride. Finally everything was snatched from her in a moment and her world came crashing. Some story to hear about when as a young bride you learn you have just become pregnant. Nevertheless Radha’s sad life melted my heart… She was in love with the man she hardly knew – in love even some 70 years after she was married and widowed…

Radha Bhai was the eldest daughter of a very rich man in the community. Her native village was in the outskirts of the city. In fact this is where my BIL started his medical practice to bring health care to the backward suburb. The family wanted to give back something to where they came from. Now the city corporation has swallowed up the tiny hamlet expanding further. I am talking about times a century back. If Radha Bhai could be alive today, she would be a centurian. Plus a 10 years.

Beautiful Radha was also a single child to her parents for very many years. Her only brother was born after she was widowed. Radha was married off at a tender age of 11 to a man 19 years old, already a matriculate. A well-read guy by those days’ standards. He was also a popular cricket player in the state. It was a child marriage after which Radha was sent back to her parents to return after the day she flowered into a woman. Needless to say, the marriage was never consummated.

Barely an year into her marriage, Radha’s young husband contracted viral fever. He died after 3 days of very high temperature. Young Radha had not even seen her husband properly. Had not gazed into his face straight. Did not know she was getting married. She was playing with her friends when her mother yanked her and dressed her up to get married. Said Radha, she could not wait for the marriage ceremony to get over so she could return to her friends and resume playing! She never spoke a word to her bridegroom. What was happening around her was like a dream to her. She could not recall stepping a foot into her in-laws’ home either. But already she was widowed. Once again her mother pulled her out of the group of girls she was playing with to tell her, she could play no more. Little did Radha know that her life had already gotten over before it began. She was taken to her husband’s place for first and last time. There she was bedecked once again with all finery – the traditional wedding silks and gold and diamond ornaments.  After all her parents were so affluent… She was made to sit with her back to the dresser which mirror reflected her braided hair adorned with scented flowers for one last time.  That was the picture she showed me. An innocent, precious, cherubic girl child. Like ‘Alice in Wonderland. So beautiful like an angel. In silk half-sari. Bejewelled. Dazzling that even the glass behind her caught a twinkle of the precious stones. The black & photo itself was a big advancement for the age. It was brave of her family to click it in the first place. A proof how shattered her parents must have been they wanted to freeze the moment within a frame to gaze at it for a lifetime…

Once the last rites of her husband were over, Radha was stripped off everything. Unlike in some communities, atleast she was spared tonsuring her head and being confined to white clothes. Coming from an educated and supposedly forward family, she was permitted to wear mute colours though with stripes and dots or plains AND no floral or other designs and embellishments. Only white blouse. No jewelry except a single gold chain and 2 thin bangles and diamond earstuds (concessions unheard of until then). Hair was not to be braided but bunned at the nape of her neck (she was like that from her 12th year until she passed away in her ’80s) – she did not need to cover her head with pallu. So magnanimous of her parents and in-laws keeping with their times.

Radha received informal education in her father’s place. So what did she gain from her marriage except widowhood. Soon after, her brother was born and the family’s focus shifted to him. Radha somehow landed in our family, that of her second cousin. I shall miss the rest of the years and come straight to the point – she had hand-delivered my MIL and her brothers when she was barely in her 20s. She had metamorphosed into midwife without any formal training. The woman who never experienced the caress of a man or carried a life in her own womb, was the most sought after in our relatives circle to deliver babies. She became the lucky charm of everyone. Inspite of her widowhood at a young age, people sought her out during weddings and other ceremonies to bless young couples. My family needs a handshake here. They never kept her in closet. They made sure, we started everything with her hands. She was elevated to the post of great grandma, revered and respected the most. Because I know Indian society mostly looked at widows as symbols of inauspiciousness and banished them from celebrations. Proud of my family that stood by Radha. She was an expert in childraising, nursing young mothers back to good health with her culinary skills and a pet ‘granny’ to the dozens of children of the household. When anyone was sick, she was there waiting hand and foot – she maintained accounts, paid bills and taxes, shopped, cleaned, did everything for everyone. She ran a tight tyranny over the house servants, cooks, drivers, gardeners etc who all hated her fierce tongue! She was a woman in total control. Radha would be the first to read the newspaper ‘The Hindu’ when it got dropped into our compound. One of the smartest and most astute women I have come across in my life.

Radha also inherited vast wealth. One more evidence of equal rights to estate when it came to women, a healthy scene we had in the state before legal enforcements in the ’60s. (It amazes me to note what kind of a strange culture and society we were back then. Legally we reinforced women’s rights but seemed to fail miserably when it came to addressing emotional and social issues pertaining to women). Radha, instead of living her life sulking about her misfortunes, chose to make her living meaningful.

Radha paati hand-delivered my husband and his 4 siblings herself in their home. After raising my MIL and her 2 brothers, it was her turn now to raise the 5 offsprings of my in-laws. My MIL who delivered a child every alternate year confesses, without Radha, she can’t imagine how she could have managed with her brood.

It was time then for the next generation to settle down. My son is the 6th born grand child in the family in this generation. The moment I returned to my in-laws home with my newborn, Radha took over from me, taking my boy in her lap. She consoled me a lot when I cried out my heart when I had to report back to bank after a 4 month leave. Evenings when I came home, she would be having him still in her lap. She fed him, bathed him – took total care of him over my MIL.

She showed me once the certificate award her husband had posthumously received. It was before India’s independence. He had won a cricket match for his team and was the man of the match. A British man wanted to present her husband with the award, a gold medal that weighed 16 sovereigns. Radha was asked by the British govt to receive the prize on stage on her husband’s behalf. But the family refused to permit her to attend the ceremony. The Englishman came home anyway to give her the award personally, The family stood firm and would not allow him present the medallion to the young widowed Indian girl who was not even 15 then. She was not even allowed into his presence. He left leaving the certificate with her parents. The family refused to touch the embossed medal and returned it. That certificate browned with age and in tatters, along with Radha’s photo as a bedecked child bride for one last time and a small pp size b & w photo of the husband with whom she never lived a single day – were her few precious earthly possessions.

Today I may not need Radha, none of us might, but the amount of spadework she did for raising the children of our family cannot be measured in words.  For 3 generations, she tirelessly rendered her service in anticipation of nothing in return.  She was a giver all her life although destiny took everything away from her. The DILs who came into the family were put at ease with her soothing voice and welcoming hands. The old lady quickly became a confidante of any new bride entering the family. Her age gave her an aura of compassion and she was not our MIL – that made us want to confide in her our anxieties, if any. She advised us and gently corrected us so we could get along well with the folks and become one among them in due course of time. Yet she was dreaded most for the strong and bold woman she was. She wielded such a power and control. Appeasing her and winning her approval took time.

She often would tell me how she must be given farewell. She wanted to be draped in her wedding silks and garlanded with a Tulsi (basil) mala. She passed away so suddenly within days after my husband had left for his Malaysian job for the first time.

By the time my son was 3 years old and I was ready to give up my work. The unpaid nanny Radha had become in those crucial 3 years is something that will stay with me forever. I married with not many people by my side to give me away. Radha came 2 days early to my sister’s wedding so we had people.  She was such a show of strength to my beleaguered family. That is something I can never forget in my life either. She stood like a pillar of support for us in that hour of greatest need. Today we have everything in life … but not someone like Radha anymore…

She was sick for a mere 3-4 days and her heart gave out gently. In her last days she was thinking all the time of her husband she barely knew, whose face she could recall only from the faded photograph… The yearning for life never left her. Yet so far as I remember she was never bitter or grudging.

One of the saddest love stories I have ever known in my life.

I wish Radha Bhai is born a happy princess wherever.

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Radha Bhai was a lucky woman if you consider a couple of my friends’ grandmothers in Mylapore. They were widowed in teenage too and as per their family custom, they had to have their head tonsured for the rest of the lives. Confined to saffron saris, shunned by the society, considered inauspicious and kept out of family celebrations, the miserable lives they led will not be forgotten by us lifelong. Dubbed the ‘mottai paatis’ (grannies with shaven heads) they turned out to be bitter mothers-in-law of their times, sadistic to the core unlike the genial Radha paati in our own home. My friends used to hate their paternal grandmas to such an extent. Thankfully, my son’s generation have not witnessed such a cruelty in their times.

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I learned my Sanskrit slokas from a very soft spoken, cultured and respected senior lady. She was confined to bed throughout her life. When I first went to see her, she was already in her 60s. She was married at 11, widowed at 13 with a single son. By 14 years when she was still a child, she was struck with a sudden bout of severe arthritis that crippled and immobilized her for life. Ever since she was in the same bed. Not a single hair strand of hers was grey even in her old age. She was such a pristine beauty that the years seemed to have not touched, such an irony. The kind grandmother had made it her pastime to teach sanskrit slokas to the children of the neighbourhood. Children were her only window to the outside world. Her son and family led a busy life – her DIL was a bharatnatyam dancer who never stayed home. We a dozen or so girls made the life of the woman whose universe lay within 4 walls, somewhat interesting. While I was in class 12, she passed away. Her whole life the sweet granny had dedicated to teaching us kids ‘Bhagwad Gita’ to many other slokas. She told us the Ramayan and Mahabharat stories. She also taught us the basics of Carnatic classical. From the 3-4 years I visited her, I never remember her sulking over her limitations. She was a stickler for cleanliness, and never developed a bed sore being in the bed for over half a century. One more child-bride widowed young who became a mother who could not even recall her husband’s face. Unlike Radha paatti, my Slokam maami had no photograph of her husband to memorize his details. Her memory of the man who fathered her son remained a blurr.

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When the world speaks of Modi’s wife in many tones, I am strangely reminded of these old dames whose lives criss-crossed mine in passage of time. In a way, the popular or perhaps unpopular wife is like all these women. One should keep in mind Narendra Modiji had a child marriage with Jashodaben. And then with her permission he left her, asking her to educate herself better and move on with life. Its a shame the private life of this elderly couple must be discussed today in public. First of all, the wife or ex-wife of Modi has never claimed any benefits or poured forth her grievances if any. Let the poor lady be treated with respect and left alone. They never had a  life together to begin with, for him to ditch her. Arranged forced marriages used to be the norm of the day – are even now in India in many cases. Some work out and some don”t. Are all love marriages happiest and most successful. Whether even Modi marriage is legal is debatable. The couple (both) were minor – below 18 years of age when they married. Was the marriage consummated.

In any case the couple have gone past this phase – I hope Modi bashers leave his personal life alone. Not because he is the prime minister of this nation but because as an individual, he reserves the right to his privacy. More than him, Jashodha Benji deserves it – who needs your sympathy. Keep it to yourself. She doesn’t mind – that is it. She’s estranged for too long to care.

When you read the life history of Modi, you learn how disinterested he was in his young age in domestic life. When he was pushed into one, he left it for seeking spiritual solace in Himalayas. I would blame the parents for not taking the consent of their young children before arranging the marriage. What was Radha Bhai’s fault.

Whether Radha Bhai or my Sanskrit Sloka teacher (we called her ‘maami)), why couldn’t these women remarry. What a cruel society we are. When I see pictures of the widows of Vrindavan, I think about these women. In a way,  Modi’s wife is like them. She is a sumangli, that’s the difference, and let her live a hundred years a sumangli please.

Its good she returned to college on Modi’s advice and became a teacher. Let her retired life be peaceful with no unwarranted attention.

I used to think more of Radha paati (grandma Radha) in my Malaysian days where I used to see elderly Malay women in their 60s with their heads covered in todong as per islamic custom, move on to second and third husbands even if they could be grandmothers themselves. Compared to them, the society I came from was supposedly better educated and refined in many ways. Yet there was this invisible ‘Lakshman Rekha’ keeping the women within boundaries. Modi’s wife is confined to this closed world of silent sufferance.

India has changed, reformed a lot in last 20-30 years.

I understand the measures were instituted by our forefathers to keep the single women safe from male predators. Probably they seem harshest to human eyes, but these women were protected in a strange fashion from a merciless world by rigid code of conduct put in place over centuries. Women widowed at a young age were taken into wings of joint family and their children brought up under a common social umbrella where uncles and grandfathers filled up the vacuum left by the departed father of unfortunate younger children. The white or saffron saris and head tonsuring were supposed to make the women least attractive to malevolent male eyes. Even so, I think of the women’s heart…

Every home in India had a Radha Bhai once upon a time…

Radha or Yashodha, we should not even be discussing them in the present day context. They belong in another era. They wouldn’t be willing to change even if you may want to give them a choice. Let them have their dignity and live in peace.

There SHALL NOT be Radha Bhais and Jashodha Bens hopefully in future in India.

 

 

 

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