I have been having recurrent nightmares about a woman. A woman’s plight has petrified me and made deep inroads into my psyche. I feel helpless – not because I cannot protect myself from the nightmares, but because I cannot do anything for her. This woman revealed to me a fold of our tattering social fabric, well-concealed in layers of our middle-class joint family framework, in prosperous cities in India. I have tried to ignore the strange feelings that the very thought of this woman invokes in me, but this woman continues to haunt me!
Let’s give this woman a name – an identity – at least in this blog-space, for otherwise she is nameless, faceless and as people tend to believe emotionless. Let me call her Aparajita – the unvanquished – for that is what I want her to be one day. I met Aparajita in a very ironic situation. She was recently-widowed; I was newly-married. She was eager to meet me, the new bride; I wasn’t even aware of her existence. She burst into tears as she hugged me and I was taken aback. I wanted to know this woman better and soon enough I did.
Aparajita was a few years older to me, but she looked haggard and downtrodden. She hadn’t been keeping good health after her husband’s demise. She had suddenly aged far beyond her years and she was hopeless, for she was childless too! To add to her misery were personal, familial and social constraints. She needed a purpose to live. She wanted to adopt a child. She needed money to adopt and bring up a child.
I asked her, “So, why don’t you look for some work! Start teaching in a school or working in some good organization.”
“I have only basic schooling.” She whimpered. I was rendered speechless.
“You can start doing some small business from home. Start cookery classes, or a home-tiffin system, or indulge in some art and crafts.” I cleared my throat as I tried to come up with encouraging ideas.
She looked at me pitifully, “I don’t want to sit in the house; in this room! I am suffocated.”
Another revelation. I realized Aparajita’s predicament was more intense than I had anticipated. I treaded “danger-zone” and softly asked her, “Are you not taken good care of?”
“No, it’s not that. The in-laws give me a thousand rupees a month for personal expenses.” She informed me.
“That’s nice.” I spoke unconvincingly. I was thinking about days when I would spend more than a thousand rupees at the nearest beauty parlor, or a dinner for two cost a thousand bucks at a fancy restaurant. She started crying again.
“I have never lived like this before. All my needs and wishes were fulfilled by my husband. I never knew want. I never knew desperation. I never knew such loneliness.”
“Have you spoken to your in-laws about the possibility of participating in the family joint business? Your husband was a key-player in the business, after all.”
“Yes, he was very dynamic and the business did well because of his marketing skills. But now they won’t involve me. Women of the house don’t go out to do business. They will never allow me to venture into this area!” I realized that the family wouldn’t let her work as it would it allow society to raise fingers at them and gossip that they can’t feed and clothe a young widow and have left her to fend for herself.
Social dogmas were hindering her claim to be independent and to attach and associate herself with people and activities, and speed up the healing process. Her grief was stifling more because of the environment she was forced to live in. Her situation was pathetic. Aparajita was virtually imprisoned. I didn’t have any more ideas to offer. I could only offer her a shoulder to cry upon. She cried her heart out because this city-bred girl also didn’t have any more words of consolation or hope.
I was still determined that I would find some thing productive for her. I managed to bring up the question of her future with some one who was well-aware of her situation. What I heard disgusted me all the more.
“What can her in-laws do? Her parents should think about her now. Maybe they should find another groom for her. Such a long life, and she is young; her parents cannot leave her like this!” The words were an eccentric mix of sympathetic callousness for Aparajita’s plight.
Her parents! How did they come into the picture? Hadn’t they married their girl into a family that had sworn to take care of her as a daughter! Now in times of utter crisis and chaos, why was everyone just paying lip-service (and a thousand rupees a month) and hoping that the parents take their daughter in to their fold again! It was ridiculous, no, it was horrendous…
… And scary too! How could any one be sure that being married again was the solution to her problems? Her lack of education and independence had put her in a no-win situation and there was possibility of falling down a greater hell-hole. Matrimonial prospects for middle-aged widows in India are well fraught with difficulties and hidden issues. I was convinced that re-marriage was not the answer to her problems. The family may think they are modern in advocating widow-remarriage, but the fact was they were conservatively ruthless and detached.
I am no social-activist and I have not been able to do anything for this woman. I have not given her any solutions for her problems, or taken a stand for her with her family. I have oft thought of bringing her to my home, but it’s a plan that is wrought with the danger of earning the wrath and discomfit of near and dear ones. I haven’t spoken to her about this possibility because I don’t want to give her undue hope. I still believe that someday I will be able to unfetter her. Till then Aparajita lives on shackled with fear, despair and dejection and I live with my nightmares.