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Umakka was barely nineteen when Margaret first noticed her. The girl had been widowed at the age of seven, after which she was turned out of her marital home. Her parents grudgingly tolerated her presence because she had nowhere else to go. Having a widow around the house was inauspicious, especially when there were two more daughters of marriageable age. Umakka had to do all the outdoor work like drawing water from the well, tending the vegetable patch, taking the cattle out to graze and steering them home every evening. Collecting cow dung and making flat cakes and drying them in the sun to be used as fuel, was also her job. She was expected to prepare for her next life. By chanting the name of ‘Rama’ in her free time, and cooking her own frugal meal of rice congee and chutney to be eaten once a day, she believed she was working out her own salvation.
Umakka’s troubles never seemed to end. She was an attractive girl even with her ugly maroon sari and shaven head. Her younger sister’s husband thought he could have two girls for the price of one. From the very first day he set eyes on her, the man had begun to harass her.
“Come here munde,” he said, grabbing the end of her sari and yanking it to uncover her bald head, as she tried to flee. “Amma,” she screamed, “Help me, help me…… Oh my cursed lot! ….Rama, Rama save me.”
Her sister the young bride came charging out.
“You slut! Are you trying to seduce my husband? We’ve hardly been married for a week.”
Her resounding slap sent Umakka whirling. She fell to the ground with a thud.
“She’s not as saintly as she looks, dear,” said the man, “Always muttering God’s name but with so much wickedness in her mind. She’s been ogling me ever since I set foot in this house.”
With her possessions tied in a cloth bundle, Umakka had fled to the Temple Town near by. For three days, she stayed on the temple premises, and had wholesome Brahmanical food from the temple kitchen. Then trouble started again.
“A pretty young widow! Ha, Ha!”
The young priests began to proposition her. Once again, she made her escape from the temple into the outlying rural extension of the town.
“Rama, Rama….. I must find a Brahmin house. Preserving my caste purity is my only way of salvation.”
At last she came upon the hut of a poor Brahmin couple. They were both quite old and thought they could use her as a servant.
“Take some of those dry coconut fronds and plait them into mats.
If you stand them against the outer wall of our hut, it will make a nice tent-like shelter for you,” said the man. That’s how Umakka had settled in the village. On her trips into the village to visit her patients, Margaret had come upon this lone figure walking the narrow paths through the fields and muttering to herself, “Hare Rama, Hare Rama.” Whenever she saw Margaret she would jump out of her way, so as to avoid pollution.
“This white woman too is an untouchable of sorts. I can’t let her shadow fall on my path.” Umakka thought.
Whenever the people from the sweepers’ colony spotted her, they would make a wide detour.
“No matter how poorly off, she is a Brahmin. Besides, who knows how potent her curses can be?” they thought.
One day, Margaret stopped in front of Umakka. She was resting against a banyan tree and preparing a bida of betel leaves, a piece of areca nut, a twist of tobacco and a dash of lime. She was skillfully rolling it into a small packet and was about to thrust it into her mouth when she saw Margaret staring at her. She jumped up ready to flee.
“Don’t go,” Margaret said, “I just want to be your friend.”
“How can that be possible? And why should you be my friend? I have no one in this world.”
“Then isn’t it silly to spurn my hand of friendship? And why are you eating that bida? Don’t you know it’s not good for your health? You could have bought a banana or a papaya with the money.”
The girl was so young. In spite of her haggard look, there was something attractive about her eyes.
“I eat this to drive away hunger. It is important that I fast for two days in the week from sunrise to sundown. I must not even take a sip of water.”
“I’m leading a dog’s life on earth. I want my next life at least to be happy. So I fast and pray, and hope that all the Gods whose name I take, will help me find salvation.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I work for that old couple there, and sell vegetables from their garden from door to door. I get enough just to buy some rice and dhal.”
“This is not a suitable job for a young girl like you. Even this place where you stay has no protection whatsoever. Come to my hospital I will find you some work to do.”
“No, no.” Umakka looked agitated, “That place is full of low caste workers.”
“It’s strange that you talk of caste when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or what tomorrow may bring. My ‘low caste’ workers as you call them, earn a steady income, and have their own huts to live in. Their children are going to school, and a bright future awaits them. You are young and have many years ahead of you. Why are you wasting precious time hawking vegetables when you can be better employed? You might have lost your husband and family, but luckily you haven’t lost your brains. Use it for God’s sake.”
Margaret made it a point to leave fruits and vegetables outside her shed. She didn’t know whether Umakka made use of them or threw them all away. She wanted to make her feel that someone cared.
....... Continued Chapter 6
It is very sad a widow is not accepted and treated well even in her own family. It is time that her family members empathise with her and support her emotionally and financially to go through the worst period of her life. Also glad to know there are people like Margarent in this world to render help to such unlucky girls. May her tribe increase!
Thank You Vidya for your comments.
I wish the attitude to widows would really change. It has to start from grass roots. Education and gender sensitivity are the only things that will help.No amount of reservation for women in Parliament is going to make much of a difference to women in rural India.
- Eva Bell
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