Year of the Woman

A woman who terrified patriarchy: on how much it takes to push the envelope for women

Amrita Sher-Gil’s oil ‘Bride’s Toilet’, 1937.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

This has been a year of revelations for me but it was probably for you as well. If you think it wasn’t, you aren’t looking closely enough; or you’re thinking of revelation as something large and earth-shaking, which involves an epiphany or an apple falling on your head. I’m defining revelation in a personal manner, shifts of perspective that one makes or that one is forced to make. Each shift teaches you something about how you were and forces you to be someone else.

One of the latest to occur is when I was reading Malavika Rajkotia’s fine book, Intimacy Undone: Marriage, Divorce and Family Law in India. One of the many stories she tells, which helps establish the processes of the patriarchy, is the plight of Rukhmabai whose widowed mother remarried. (She was a Sutar, a caste that allowed widow remarriage.) Her new husband married his step-daughter off to his cousin, Dadaji Bhikaji, when she was still a minor but did not send her to the conjugal abode. Rukhmabai grew up to be an educated and intelligent woman and found herself married to a man who was in many ways her inferior.

‘A revolting thing’

When she came of age, Bhikaji sent her a lawyer’s notice asking for restitution of conjugal rights. Rukhmabai went to court in 1884. The British judge was most impressed by her demeanour; he said it would be “a barbarous, cruel, revolting thing” to compel a young lady under those circumstances to go to a man she did not like. Dadaji Bhikaji appealed and the higher courts overturned the judgement. Finally, Rukhmabai bought her way out of this terrible situation.

Suddenly I understood where the terrible fear of the educated wife came from in Hindi cinema. It is generally understood that an educated wife in Bollywood is a terrible thing; she will ruin the home and must be tamed. Rukhmabai’s raging against the dying of the light of freedom and everything she held dear must have been terrifying to the patriarchy. Imagine a woman buying her way out of a terrible situation. Men did that all the time, settling money on illegitimate children, but a woman doing it?

Later, I came upon a slim book, published in 1890, in Bombay. It is called Story of a Widow Remarriage; Being the Experiences of Madhowdas Rugnathdas; it was for private circulation only. Madhowdas was widowed three times over and was left with a daughter. When he recovered from his grief, he put an anonymous advertisement in the progressive Gujarati newspaper Rast Goftar saying that he, a Kapole Baniya, was willing to marry a respectable widow. There is plenty of opposition that Madhowdas hires four Cabulee Pathans to protect the house in which he is getting married and asks for police protection. Fortunately for him, a Justice Mahadeo Ranade is willing to provide it. Was he over-reacting?

An unexpected end

Rugnathdas describes the case of Rao Bahadoor Moroba Kanoba “the first among the Prabhus to marry a widow. A short time after their marriage, the corpses of both husband and wife were found floating in a well. None could tell whether the ill-fated pair had fallen into the well themselves or had been thrown into it by some villains. However, such was the end of the poor man and his wife. Rao Bahadoor Moroba was a high Government official no less than a Judge of the Bombay Small Causes Court; and if he, a man of position had met with such a fate, how could Madhowdas escape it — a humble individual of modest means?”

But Dhankorbai, a widow, sends him a note that she is willing, and they run away together and are married under police protection. They have a reception for a social worker committed to the uplift of women in India, Miss Manning, and guess who turns up? Dr. (Miss) Edith Peechy, the Hon. K.T. Telang, the Rev. Dr. Mackichan and, I almost missed the name, Rukhmabai. Madhowdas is quoting from a newspaper cutting which may be why he does not give her her title, for Rukhmabai went on to become a doctor, one of the first women physicians of India.

The revelations

I enjoyed reading both books and as for Madhowdas Rugnathdas, I should have liked to hear more from Dhankorbai, the brave woman who stepped out of her mother’s home, knowing that when her mother was no more, her brother and his wife would have very little time or space for her.

We have a letter from her and then nothing much else. She must have gone through her own kind of hell; Madhowdas notes that every evening, people would gather around their home for weeks; they wanted only to see this couple, this man and the widow he had taken as wife. Once their curiosity was satisfied they would go away again.

Madhowdas was subjected to excommunication from his caste. No one was allowed to eat with him. Rumours were spread that he was going bankrupt so that his clients would go away. When a friend invited him and his wife to a wedding, the other Kapole Baniyas threatened him with excommunication too.

The revelations? How much it takes to push the envelope for women. But also how important it is. The patriarchy savages women, but it disfigures men as well. I do not claim to be a feminist; I don’t know if men should claim that title but they should always be delighted if someone says it of them. I know that I struggle with my inner patriarch on a daily basis, but when I defeat him, the sense of liberation is wonderful.

We can be free together. We’re just going to have to keep at it.

Jerry Pinto tries to think and write and translate in the cacophony of Mumbai.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 9:53:20 AM |

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