Sati: Aneesha Capur

Shakuntala's day began at the household shrine where every morning each woman in the family made a quick offering to the gods. Her mornings were spent fetching water, cooking the meal for the day and looking after her young daughter, Sita. In the afternoons she worked with the men in the fields. Shakuntala lived in a dhaani - a hamlet in the heart of the desert that was several miles away from a source of water.

In the marriage 'mela' of the desert region of Rajasthan, an area riddled with drought, a prospective groom's worth was not weighed by his wealth as was the usual custom but by the distance of his dwelling unit from the nearest source of water. Shakuntala was married into a family that lived in a village which did not have its own well. For Shakuntala, this marriage meant a lifetime of severe physical hardship. The girls who were married into the families residing in the 'dhaanis' led a difficult life and few parents were at ease when they sent their daughters there. The drought in Rajasthan had, in a cruel way, lessened the burden of raising a daughter. It enabled Shakuntala's parents to curtail an excessive dowry demand from her future in-laws because of the scarcity of water in the village. After their marriage, Shakuntala's husband, Raj had procured a truck and a few camel carts to fetch water from a source village (where water was stored and supplied to other villages), which made life a little easier for her. But still, the only supply of water came from the tankers commissioned by the British rulers who delivered water to the source village every fifteen days.

If Shakuntala's parents could have afforded a decent dowry for her, Raj wouldn't have stood a chance. He presented a dismal future for any prospective bride: not only did he hail from a far-flung hamlet without independent means of water supply, he was also the sole provider for his family, a family that consisted of two unmarried sisters (with no hope of ever becoming brides since there were no dowries set aside for their marriages) and a half-witted brother, Ashok, who was widely regarded as the village idiot.

* * *

After saying her morning prayers, Shakuntala picked up the empty pitcher, careful not to place it on her head. She had unwittingly committed that crime when she was pregnant with Sita- she had carried the empty earthenware vessel, balanced on top of her head, and walked across the courtyard outside her mud hut towards the village in search of water when one of her sisters-in-law had had noticed, "Wretched girl,"- the woman had snarled as she struck Shakuntala across her face. The clay pitcher had fallen onto the dry earth and smashed into a million pieces."Have you no sense? You have angered the water gods and now a bad omen will fall on our household."

"A bad omen?" Shakuntala had cried indignantly, for she was only seventeen and still hadn't learned that life would be a lot easier if she kept her mouth shut.

"How can I bring any more ill fortune to this miserable house?"

"Now you will surely bring a daughter into this house, you ungrateful hussy," spat out the sister-in-law, as her eyes glittered triumphantly.

"Just wait till I tell my brother what you've done and then see what he does to you."

That evening when Raj staggered home, after his usual bout of drinking with the other men in the village, he was met by his sister in the middle of the courtyard. As Raj listened to her agitated complaints, his idiot brother, Ashok, started jumping up and down about him as if he were an excited monkey. Ashok followed Raj as he strode into his quarters, panting around his older brother's knees. He clapped his hands and hooted in joy as he watched his brother beat Shakuntala.

"Fool of a woman, daughter of filth," Raj bellowed as he kicked her cowering body in the corner of her small room. "What use are you if you don't bear me sons?"

Shakuntala lay whimpering on the earthen floor while Raj stumbled towards his adjoining room and fell head first on his 'charpai', the only rope bed in the house. They stayed this way every night until Sita was born, and for most nights afterwards, unless Raj fell on Shakuntala in a drunken mess, wriggling and squirming on top of her during his occasional and futile attempts to produce a boy.

* * *

Before Shakuntala embarked on her daily search for water so she could bathe herself and her child, she went to check on Sita. The water, Raj brought home was severely rationed. Its main uses were for cooking and for him and his siblings. There was never any amount allocated for Shakuntala's personal use. Even during Sita's birth, they hadn't allowed Shakuntala to use any water. As Shakuntala writhed and screamed on the bare floor of her mud hut, the village midwife wordlessly cut the umbilical cord and placed the baby on Shakuntala's abdomen. The old woman then left hastily as she knew she would be neither venerated nor remunerated well for the delivery of a daughter into the household.

Shakuntala had called out to her sisters-in-law for water to wash herself and her newborn child but her cries were unheeded. The sisters busily continued with their daily routine; they wanted no part in easing the arrival of another girl into this house, especially as it was begotten from that impertinent wretch, Shakuntala. Their silence in response to her pleas would teach the girl a lesson; show Shakuntala her true place in their household. She could do what she pleased with herself and her baby daughter. They had more important things to do than sully themselves with the blood and muck of the girl and her offspring.

Hours later, Shakuntala, still faint after the delivery, dragged herself and her baby out of the hut and into the courtyard. There, under the blistering heat of the desert sun, Shakuntala rubbed herself and the child with sand. It was there, as she scraped off the blood and mucus covering her baby into the soil, she decided she would name the child Sita, Daughter of the Earth. For surely, Shakuntala thought, the goddess Earth would prove to be a better mother to the baby-girl than Shakuntala could ever be in her ill-fated existence in this house of bitterness.

Sita, now four years old, lay curled up in one corner of the earthen floor, fast asleep. Shrugging off the memories of her daughter's birth, Shakuntala took her 'chunni' and wrapped the veil around her daughter. She lifted the sleeping child onto her lap and hoisted the chunni around her back, tying the ends into a knot at her shoulder. Then she walked out across the courtyard towards the village center, the empty earthen pot resting on one hip and her child slung on the other side.

Across the courtyard, Ashok leaned against the gatepost gibbering away to himself.

"Oye!" he yelled out to her, his eyes bulging. Shakuntala walked past him, seeing through him as he tried to lunge at her. She had learned to ignore his presence in the house.

"Bhehenji, haven't you heard?"- He spluttered, as saliva streamed like milk out of the side of his mouth, "Raja bhaiya is no more."

Shakuntala stopped as if struck motionless by a stroke of lightning. She turned towards him and stared into his wildly oscillating eyes. "What did you just say?"- she demanded in a deadly soft voice. "He didn't come home last night, or didn't you notice?" Ashok leered. "He's dead. His truck was in an accident on the bus route and they're arranging to bring back his body."

Shakuntala's knees buckled under her for a second and as she tried to steady herself; the pot slipped from the grip of her fingers. It hit the ground and splintered into several pieces.

Oh no, now you've done it! You've really gone and ruined things,"-- Ashok started yelping, his head clutched in his hands.

"Shut up, you fool," Shakuntala whispered furiously as she quickly bent down to pick up the shards of cracked clay.

* * *

As they waited for the arrival of their brother's body, the two sisters-in-law plotted and planned, congratulating each other on their good fortune; even more so, on their own cunning and the infinite depths of their cruelty and connivance. Shakuntala, the sisters-in-law ordained, would have to commit sati. By performing the ancient practice of the self-immolation of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre, she would be perceived as having committed a divine and voluntary act of self-sacrifice, of complete sublimation. They would erect a shrine in her name; refer to her as 'Sati Mata', the 'Pure Mother'. Shakuntala would receive the power of 'sat', purity, from God, and every Hindu woman would envy her place, her status, in the universe. And they would be rid of Shakuntala forever.

Rumors of the re-enactment of the spectacle of sati spread as fast as a desert wind across the heart of the region. A practice that had been outlawed by the British administration in 1829, Sati remained a custom branded in gold letters, the metal moulded by the hot flames of the history of virtuous Rajput women devoted to their husbands.

As they waited for Raj's corpse to return to the household, the two sisters-in-law chose the site for the ceremony. Why, it made perfect sense to keep the sati 'sthal' in the very spot where Shakuntala had worshipped her husband, treated him like a God; they would burn her outside the house. In the middle of their courtyard, in front of the mud hut with the thatched roof, Shakuntala would die voluntarily, painlessly and without protest, fortified by the forces of the divine. On the grounds of her own home, Shakuntala would burn resplendently, miraculously turning myth into reality.

The toxic desires of the sisters-in-law raced through the surrounding villages by way of the women who gathered to collect water at village wells and via the tales of bus drivers who ploughed the desert routes, pausing to gossip at the tea stalls that lined the outskirts of the hamlets along their way. They all spoke of the imminent wonder- the brave girl who intended to commit sati because of her deep love for and loyalty towards her husband; her dedication to maintain the sense of honor, Rajput women had within them; an honor so pure that it reinforced Rajput manhood. They started traveling in droves to the location of the awesome ceremony, the sati sthal, where they would herald Shakuntala, a woman who belonged to their own soil, while she performed an act so chaste that it would bring salvation to all the brides in the region.

In a mere few days, the sisters-in-law, scheming in their humble dhaani, deep in the obscurity of the Thar Desert, had created a new goddess.

* * *

Shakuntala didn't know of the subsequent events that had occurred the morning Ashok had told her about her husband's death. Her sisters-in-law had rushed back to the house bursting with uncharacteristic vigor. They had assumed especially busy and self-important airs as they hustled Shakuntala into her room and dragged in Raj's charpai for her to sleep on. They fussed over her, giving her warm milk sweetened with crushed almonds to drink. Shakuntala had fallen asleep immediately. She would wake periodically, not sure if it was day or night, only to be fed more of the delicious milk.She would then fall asleep again, smiling in her dreams as she counted her blessings; Shakuntala was not used to such extravagant indulgences.

"Ma, wake up. Come on, get up," Sita tugged at her slumbering mother. "What's the matter with you, Ma?"

Shakuntala forced open her eyelids; they felt as heavy as iron. She staggered to her feet and lurched out of the hut. The sun blinded her as she looked out onto the courtyard. She rubbed her eyes, blinking rapidly several times, not believing what she saw. Yet the image remained. Across the courtyard and beyond the gate lay a sea of heads and mountains of coconuts. Cold fear uncoiled within her, jolting her wide awake, as she processed the chanting that streamed towards her:"Sati Mata ki jai. Sati ke pati ki jai. Long live the Pure Mother. Long live the husband of Sati."

Shakuntala retreated into the shadows of the earthen house with Sita tugging at the skirt of her sari.

* * *

As the number of pilgrims flooded into their village, local businesses thrived. Makeshift stalls sprung up overnight, lining the roads the crowds took as they entered the dhaani and made their way to the sati sthal. The village center had turned into a fete; there were piles of coconuts for sale-- the customary and expensive offering on such an occasion; garlands of flowers and sticks of incense abounded; food-stalls, juice-carts and toy stalls all reaped copiously from the traffic. Artists painted gaudy pictures of the much-anticipated event. Using traditional dyes derived from iron, indigo, jasmine, pistachio and saffron, they drew figures of a virtuous bride sitting upright on the pyre, smiling beatifically with her husband's head on her lap. Brassy flames engulfed them. In the bright blue sky above, the goddess Durga threw her shaft of benevolent light upon the heroic couple. The pictures first sold for five rupees, but went up to twenty-five rupees as the demand for them increased.

The sisters-in-law took a cut from every vendor, artist and entrepreneur. They had been told that even more people were on their way to the sati sthal. The two women laid out a plan to keep the crowds pouring in. First, there would be the sati ceremony, the actual burning of the bride. Then there would be another mass ceremony in the village on the thirteenth day after Shakuntala's immolation; they would hold a Chunnari Mahotsav- The Festival of the Veil, for all those worshippers who hadn't made it in time for the sati ceremony. On that thirteenth day they would place Shakuntala's bridal veil on the pyre as a last tribute. The sisters-in-law decided to spread the word. Legend had it that the chunnari would rise and disappear into the sky for all to see. Thousands of villagers would surely come to behold such a spectacle. But why stop there? A temple would bring worshippers to them for an eternity. They would assert that all ailments could be cured by the Maha Sati, provided one had absolute faith. Shakuntala's act, it would be told, was an act of heroic courage, a sacrifice that would make her divine and give her the power to answer the prayers of her devotees. They connived to describe in detail all the powers and benefits of the sati; who would have been freed from all curses and attained moksha, perfection, silence of the gods. The prospect of endless cures, miracles and marvels burgeoned throughout the desert. The sisters-in-law started collecting funds for the construction of a temple which would be built on the sati sthal. They had already amassed over one lakh!

* * *

It was here, in the dark recesses of the mud hut that Shakuntala found the sisters-in-law as they squatted on low stools, hunched-backed with their heads bent over, counting out the piles of coins.

"Oh, look! Her Majesty's finally woken up," sneered one sister-in-law, as she uncoiled her back into a stretched bow.

"Just in time. Raj's body is arriving this afternoon,"simpered the other.

"I Won't Do It."-- Shakuntala screamed at them.

The sisters stood up, towering over her.

"Ungrateful wretch, look at what we're doing for you. You will be worshipped by all as the pinnacle of womanhood, of pure femininity. We've immortalised you, made you the faithful and devoted wife, the potential mother of sons, self-sacrificing to the end. None of which you remotely came near in your simple, earthly life."

"I refuse to die at your will. You'll have to take me kicking and screaming to the pyre and everyone will see that you have forced me into it."

"Shut up you idiot. What future do you have ahead of you anyway? A social outcast never to be seen in public: a widow," the sisters-in-law hurled the word at her as if it were an insult.

"My parents would kill you if they found out," Shakuntala trembled. The sisters laughed, "Your parents who sold you into this marriage of dismal servitude; do you think they care about you? They'll celebrate your death; thank us for giving them their own place in our culture and history. They'll be the parents of a new goddess, the most celebrated Sati Mata of our time." Shakuntala shrank back into her room, defenseless against the cavernous truth her sisters-in-law had spoken. She had no choice.

* * *

As the truck bearing Raj's body rumbled into the small village, raising great clouds of dust in its wake, Shakuntala reached for the milk laced with sweet opium and fell into deep unconsciousness. The night before her sati ceremony, Shakuntala dreamt of her self-immolation.

Surrounded by chanting throngs of fevered believers, Shakuntala stumbled towards her husband's funeral pyre. She had flowers and fruit tied in her 'aanchal', the end portion of her sari. Her sisters-in-law distributed these symbols of her blissful marital existence to the other women present who were fortunate enough to be married. As bare-chested Rajput youths bearing swords circled the unlit pyre, the sisters-in-law pried open Shakuntala's mouth and placed a pearl in it, bidding her to pray to 'Agni', the fire god, for a felicitous entry into the flames. The surging crowds recited mantras to the gods so that this woman who was about to embrace fire would be awarded admission into heaven via her husband's pyre. They threw handfuls of ghee, oil and butter, on top of the wood.

Shakuntala shrank at the sight of the pile of wood, but the sisters-in-law took hold of her and tied down her hands and feet as they buried her under a load of firewood. They secured the knots and tested the load to make sure that she would not be able to escape. Ashok, grinning inanely from ear to ear and sniggering things unintelligible was bid to light the fire. As the flames licked Shakuntala's flesh, she struggled to get away from the funeral pile but was prodded into submission by the circling Rajput youths and their long thin swords. The fire died out once and Shakuntala, who was partially burnt, screamed and begged for mercy as the pain of her singed flesh seared through her body. The fire was cruelly re-lit by Ashok, aided this time by the sisters-in-law who made sure it wouldn't extinguish once again. Shakuntala was burnt alive.

* * *

Shakuntala woke, drenched in the sweat of her fear. Her head pulsed in starbursts of sharp pain. She thought rapidly, quicker and keener than she ever had in her entire life. She would escape-walk, run, hitch rides to the city. She had heard they had factories there, shops where they paid women money for their 'bandhani' work. Like every other villager woman, Shakuntala knew the skill of tying knots and dying material; that infinitely intricate skill of tie and dye with pinhead wisps of material tightly bound and re-bound to create complex patterns of dots, circles, squares and stripes. Or she would work as a cook, cleaner or sweeper in one of the stone houses there. Shakuntala would do anything, as long as she could escape the occurrence of her death, contrived for the following morning.

And what of Sita? Shakuntala could not think of any means to help her daughter. Either way, Sita would be left without her. Shakuntala knew she was of no use to the girl anyway. Sita would have to live out her own life, another puppet in the hands of fate. Shakuntala crawled out of the charpai and onto the mud floor. She crouched low and began to dress. She packed nothing, desiring no memories of this life. She moved quietly to the entrance of the house. She could hear Ashok gurgle in his sleep and the sisters-in-law snore, as she padded silently past them. Shakuntala stopped for a moment and quickly returned to her room. There, she pulled out the chunnari. She tore the bridal veil, ripping the bright red material with its gaudy gold zardozi embroidery to shreds.

The courtyard was quiet. The sky was absolutely clear, frighteningly open for all the gods to observe Shakuntala commit her crime. The silhouette of her figure, as it slid across the courtyard, threw divergent shadows on the ground. Shakuntala felt as if a dark army was following her, tracking every move. The gate was bolted. She could see rows of coconuts and bodies stretched across the narrow winding lanes of the village. They slept there, waiting to partake in her murder at the first light of day. She could not escape through the village. She was trapped. Shakuntala turned back and rushed through the courtyard to the house. The shadows chased her back to her hut. She stopped at the entrance and flattened herself against the mud wall. She clutched her way around the side of the house, sliding by the slumbering grunts and murmurs of her in-laws. At the back of the hut, Shakuntala got down on all fours. She crawled through the vegetable patch, wriggling on her stomach under the bushes of chillies. Finally, Shakuntala reached the wall surrounding the village. As she prepared to hoist herself over the boundary, something grabbed her left leg. It was Sita.

"Take me with you," her daughter whispered.

"No, Sita," Shakuntala's voice was harsh, urgent. "Go back to the house and sleep."

"No," Sita was obstinate. "You're not going anywhere without me."

Shakuntala looked around desperately, trying to think of what she should do next. Clouds had started to gather in the sky. The heavens rumbled, heavy with threat. Shakuntala stopped thinking and raised her daughter onto her hip. They both tumbled over the wall and fell into the fields.

* * *

Shakuntala ran with Sita clutching onto her body. Her daughter gripped her with every one of her fingers and toes. Shakuntala could not see but a few paces ahead of her. The air was quite suddenly thick with dust. She ran madly, blindly, through the fields of millet and maize. She could hear angry roars behind her, above her. She could not make out if they originated from man or God.

As Shakuntala neared the edge of the cultivation, she could not see anything but sand and dust. The sound raged around her like fury. The howling wind strangled the cries of fear inside her, inside Sita. The figures were closing in on them. Shakuntala turned back and saw their outlines in the cascades of dust and mud behind them. A sharp object struck the middle of her back. Shakuntala could feel hot puddles of blood bubble out of her skin and seep down the back of her legs. Another object hit her on the side, winding her. Her arms around Sita were wrenched away as Shakuntala breathed in a mouthful of sand and grit. She could feel her daughter whimper as Sita's small body dangled at her own side. Sita's grip around her mother's neck was cast in iron as she swung off Shakuntala. Mother and daughter ran into the sea of desert in that state, their eyes wide open, their teeth bared. The red rain of sand and dust beat down on them as they surged forward. Shakuntala felt dizzy. She could see nothing but blood. She was defeated as the storm raged around her. She tore Sita off herself and flung her wide. She could hear her daughter scream as the earth closed in over her.










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