Women in the village of Bandilanka, a fictional village in South India, lose their voices along with their identities when they outlive their husbands. Listen to one of those suppressed voices!:
“It is time, husband.”
He looked into her eyes, pleading for a few more minutes of life. His frail hand pressed hers. She bent over him as he gasped:
“Not … not yet!”
His body shuddered, the final breath left his body. The silence in the room was deafening.
Her brother-in-law chanted the mantra “Aum Namo Narayana” in her husband’s ear. Another relative applied holy ash on his forehead. She watched as one of her sons poured a few drops of Ganga water into his father’s mouth. All four sons placed the body on the ground at the home’s entryway, with the head facing south. Her eldest daughter-in-law lit a lamp and placed it near the head, along with burning incense.
She stared as a cloth was tied under her husband’s chin and over the top of his head. She stared as they tied his thumbs together, then the big toes. She remembered soft hands lovingly tracing the contour of her face on their nuptial night.
Her husband of sixty-five years. The cremation grounds – it was time for her eldest son to light the funeral pyre. He stood solemnly in the midday sun, the hot rays mercilessly bouncing off his shaven head. Her three other sons stood behind him, the youngest nervously scratching the unaccustomed stubble on his chin. Only her eldest daughter-in-law, the one who would take over the household from her, had accompanied them to the cremation grounds. The two women had sat in the privacy of the single hut on the grounds, waiting for the priest to complete the holy words.
She knew that the priest would make every attempt to stretch the proceedings as far as he possibly could – shorter prayers would earn him less money and food. Fatigue finally overcame her. Her eyes closed. The last few months had been one long nightmare. He had wanted her by his side every minute of the day and night. “Sita! Where are you? Sita! Where are you? Sita! I need you.” She couldn’t escape the cry. It haunted her everywhere, it pursued her into the fields, it dragged her away from the well, it burnt her hands in the kitchen. “Sita! Massage my head!” “Sita! Massage my legs – they are cramping!” The nights were the worst. “Sita! Lie down beside me!” The rancid breath, the bed sores all over his back and buttocks, the greasy hair – when would this torture end? What sins had she committed in previous lives to deserve this?
“Atha!” She felt her daughter-in-law shake her. “The barber.”
She wound her long grey hair into a tight bun, felt its weight on the nape of her neck for the last time, and got up. An older female relative, also a widow, came up to her.
“Come, sister. Let us go.”
She had already given away all her worldly possessions – saris and jewelry – to the married and unmarried women in the household, even before her husband had expelled a final breath from his tortured body. The barber took out razor and comb. She had no tears left as her long salt-and-pepper hair fell to the earthen floor.