Letter from a young widow to a widower

The following short essay, written in the form of a letter, appeared in a Gujarati journal in November 1864. Although anonymously published, the author was known to be Narmad (Narmadashankar Lalshankar 1833-1855), a versatile figure - poet, essayist and historian of 19th Century Gujarat. Written in the assumed persona of a 16-year-old widow and addressed to a "sheth who has recently lost his wife", the letter highlights in a provocative manner some of the contentious issues in the reform movement. Dandiyo, the journal which carried this piece was edited by Narmad.Translated and introduced by TRIDIP SUHRUD, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

What is to be done with this letter which was found on the street? The sender has not given her name, and hence it cannot be returned to her. We do not know of anyone called Jivan Sheth, so it cannot be reached to the addressee. Oh, it looks like a love letter. The norm is that one should not read love letters meant for others. But this is an open letter. Such ungracious love of the uncultured should be condemned. No, no, friends - wait: this says something good. There may be a possibility here to rectify an injustice. Let us read it aloud (Dandiyo reads it):

"My Jivan Sheth,

You, the high and mighty do not know me, a pitiful creature, but I know you well. I know it is not seemly that I, a poor woman should take the initiative and write to you as if I have known you all your life. Also it is not proper that in the very first letter I should spout wise words as if I am a member of your household. But to tell you the truth, just as the selfish are blind, the lustful are eager and the proud keen, I have become like this.

My Jivan Sheth, what has happened is very sad indeed. Your deceased wife, the Shethani was a good human being. She was not proud of her wealth and position. Although she was not literate or smart, she did understand the duties of a woman. It was not time for her to die - so many women go through pregnancies safely and give birth. But thank god she was already the mother of four or five children. There could not be a greater good fortune for her than to have you light her pyre.

Those who are left behind have to bear the sorrow. Is it not sad to see four or five young children pining for their mother? And you loved her so much that despite all your wealth, her absence makes you poor and humble. I am younger to you and hence it is not right for me to console you, but I look at you differently. Such things go on in the world. May I request you not to be overwhelmed by grief and urge you to do something soon for yourself and your children.

My Jivan Sheth, you are not old - you must be barely 32. To my eyes you appear even younger. You might hesitate now to get emotionally involved with someone again, but for the sake of your children and for your own morals, do you have any option? If not immediately, in a month or two you will take a step in that direction.

Jivan Sheth, do not get angry. I am a woman and I am proposing to you a marriage alliance. You will probably doubt my morals. But I do this as an expression of true love, and freedom that comes with education, combined with the fear that someone else might get you. I make this request to you my Krishna, like Rukmini.

My Sheth, I am a beautiful woman of 16 and I believe in the reformers. You might give up your reformist practice out of fear, but I will never give it up. When the Shethani died, apprehensive of social criticism you gave many gifts to the temples. You even allowed women to gather in your house to weep and beat their chests to express their grief. I would never have done that. If we allow these things how can we count ourselves among the reformers? Anyway, let that pass. What do you think of my proposal?

Jivan Sheth, I am not after your money. But I am eager and hopeful that I can make you and your children happy. I also hope others follow your example and give new life to women like me.

When women like me get the opportunity to start anew, much of the misfortunes of our society will disappear. Noble acts require great and courageous people to perform them. Only the great have both money and influence. Others emulate their example. Therefore do not be afraid of what people might say at this point of time. Consider the immortality you will achieve by giving a new lease of life to a widow.

My Jivan Sheth what more can I say to the wise? Losing an opportunity is like suffering a loss.

I do not consider it wise to reveal my name at this stage. But if your heart also surges with similar feelings, and you want to perform this good deed, write a letter to Dandiyo. I shall eagerly await your response."

Salutations from a beautiful, virtuous, but a widowed woman.

This series is co-ordinated by Meenakshi Mukherjee.

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