"But more than that... a father." (Part 2)
"...every time we had a good rain, someone would attribute it to her... Such a brave woman will be praised."
There’s a difference between the ethic that you claim to hold and the ethic which holds sway over choices—and the latter is reveal in the moment your convictions are truly tested.
If you have never been to my land, you may not know the funerary customs of our village. Many villages in our land have done as we do for long generations past. The traders' tales tell of villages across the great river which grow careless. And can we understand how this happens? Of course! The young people forget the old ways, and who can tell into what harm that will lead them? The traders also tell of places where a man’s widow is kept alive and a chosen animal is sacrificed as a replacement. In my fathers’ days, this was never so. But in a village like ours - where every offering is renewed day by day - the ways that were taught to us are always remembered. They are always practiced.
When a man dies in our village, we gather together all the possessions of his house. (except his children, so that his death does not disrupt the posterity of his familial line) We carry them to a plot of land beside the river and lay them upon a pyre. (Though for a poor man’s funeral, the possessions themselves must suffice for the pyre.) Among these possessions, of course, his wife2 is included. If it is not a dry day, we splash oils over this entire collection of items. Then we kindle dry leaves, twigs, and fibers right under the pyre. The whole lot of it goes up in smoke and is engulfed in flames. Later, the bones and remains of the husband and wife will be buried. Their family - the husband’s family - handles each bone as gently as if it were the wing of a moth - tender and prone to fraying. And the ashes from the other possessions - many or few - are swept clear, as if they had never been.
Last year, Nayana, the wife of Arul, submitted herself to these rites. The day she departed was exceptionally memorable because of the brave and placid face she bore through the whole experience - until the end. For months we were talking about her; every time we had a good rain, someone would attribute it to her. And who could disagree with that? Such a brave woman will be praised. None would deny that her courage and forbearance brought the strong growing season that followed. One family bore the cost, and many other families flourished because of it. So, you see, it is both the men and the women who make our land thrive.
Now you can understand that my apprentice only wanted to reassure me. He was trying to encourage me that I need not worry. “Neela will be found,” he insisted, “and brought to the place where the fire is lit. The rites will be accomplished.” He looked up at me, eager, smiling, eyes crinkling at the edges. I clasped his hand between both of mine and closed my eyes. What I spoke next must be given very careful words. All people in this village see me as a pious man—thorough in all matters of rites and ceremonies. And I am such a man. So he should think that I am. But he had forgotten that, more than that, I am a father. Or maybe they expect that a father would be even more anxious to see the rites accomplished.
What has gone before:
A respected father stands alone by the gate of his village, the place of his people, his lifelong home. He waits to see the rising of the sun, as he has for thousands upon thousands of dawns before.
But today is different. The night before, he was brought news that his son-in-law—the husband of his beloved daughter Neela—is dead. Now he wonders at the strangeness of an early death: the young man who died was deeply good. What fault could be found with him?
As he stands at the gate, regrets cycle through his mind… if his wife Deena were still alive—maybe she could have saved the son-in-law’s life with liquid from boiled chicken or boiled herbs—some sort of doctoring. But Deena is not alive: he is alone.
The weary man’s mind wanders through a memory: a different days’ morning walk, a memory of laughter, some words unspoken.
He returns to face his day; he opens up his place of work, a rug shop, and contemplates the long, dull hours ahead. His young apprentice soon arrives, full of life as ever. However, catching on to the older man’s demeanor, (and knowing of the death of the son-in-law, for word travels quickly) he attempts to reassure him. But the words out of his mouth are not “So sorry for your grief.” They are “Do not worry; we will surely find your daughter.”
“…Sati often seemed the lesser of.. two evils, the widows preferring a speedy death to the unknown horrors* of widowhood. They were deluded into thinking that by their act of self-sacrifice they would bestow a celebrity status on their family, and would take seven generations of their family, before and after them, to heaven. They were assured that the heroic act of self-immolation would deify them as sati-mata and, supremely, they would be considered “pativrata.”
[Raghunandana in] Shuddhi-tattva describes a pativrata woman:
All the actions of a woman should be the same as that of her husband. If her husband is happy, she should be happy., if he is sad, she should be sad, and if he is dead, she should also die. Such a wife is called pativrata.”
—“The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture,” by Vishal & Ruth Mangalwadi
* The lifelong hardships & indignities of a surviving widow described involved being viewed as a drain on family resources, (as she would likely live among the family of her deceased husband) being disqualified for actual remarriage, and being perceived as a bad omen who had likely brought the death of her husband.
Reader Question: What did you think of encountering the second footnote in this story? (or did you skip?)
Observations: I have a lot of fun choosing character names and researching their meanings, as I’ve babbled about before. “Nayana” was the one I took the most time with here. For awhile “Anjali,” which means “gift,” was in the running. “Nayana” means “beautiful eyes.” One of my first thoughts of what this story would have was an image of beautiful eyes filled with tears.
One of the descriptions here is definitely me “riffing off of” C.S. Lewis, from a central moment in “Till We Have Faces”!
Also, “Till We Have Faces” is my favorite book in the world, and I once joked to a friend that I fear that every story that’s “in me” will just be a re-envisioning of it. (Which is itself a re-envisioning of the Cupid/Psyche myth!)