Who By Fire?
Originally published 5/15/14
I was nine when I was betrothed to him; fifteen when we married. He was an old man to me at thirty-four; older even than my own mother. I went to live with his family – his brothers and their wives, and his proud and unkind mother. She was haughty and arrogant about being the mother to five children — all boys — who were obligated to take care of her. Their wives were just another set of servants required to cater her. She ruled the roost, not only at home, but in the village, too. She acted as if having boys was all her doing; that she was somehow responsible for this stroke of fortune.
The first time he took me, I didn’t know anything about sexual relations. It hurt. There was no pleasure in it for me…not that time, and not ever. We didn’t even sleep in the same bed. I slept with the other wives, on mats on the floor in a small bungalow off the main house.
He called for me when he wanted me and I had to go.
I liked being pregnant because then he didn’t bother me too much. His mother made him leave me alone lest he hurt the child growing inside. Although he had control over me, his mother had control over him. She could overrule any decision he made.
I was hoping for a boy, because then he could take care of me when I was old. I could make his wife a servant. But I had a girl. She was a disappointment to all.
My next child was a boy, but he was born sickly and weak and he died very young. I prayed so hard for him to get well, but when he didn’t, I just assumed it was because the gods didn’t listen to women like me. I was not important.
The next was also a girl and now my status was very low, indeed. She was a smart one, though. I could tell even when she was a tiny baby. The way she looked around and took in everything. She didn’t cry like normal babies. She just seemed to understand that nothing could be done about her discomfort. That was just the way it was.
I secretly hoped that she would break free somehow and not follow my path. One of the other wives knew how to read a little bit, and I begged her to teach my youngest the letters and words that would hopefully someday make her independent. She agreed, but as payment, I had to take her most unpleasant tasks. I didn’t mind. I was used to hard work. Every slop bucket I emptied, every floor I cleaned, gave me pleasure. I had no power in the world, but still I’d found a way to invest in my daughter’s future.
Normally, girls didn’t go to school but she was very curious. She was forever bothering her boy cousins with questions about what they’d learned in school. To their credit, they answered her, mostly because she was able to grasp it quickly and explain it back to them. She actually helped them with their schoolwork. She borrowed their books and would hide herself behind a tree or out in the field, and read them all.
When she was ten, I convinced my husband and mother-in-law to send her to school. My argument was that she was smart enough to someday get a real job, and bring money into the family. And so they did. She did well, and wanted to continue her education. There was no secondary school in our village, so she went far away and stayed there while classes were on. I missed her, but I knew she was happy. I wanted her to succeed.
Meanwhile, my oldest daughter was already married off; also sent to live with her husband’s family. Her husband was closer to her own age and he seemed to love her. Fortunately her mother-in-law was a generous and pleasant woman. Her situation was already better than mine. It was the best I could have hoped for her.
When I was forty-two, my husband died. His mother, now very old and on the verge of death, herself, wanted me to commit sati. I did not want to die. I barely knew my husband as a full person; I obeyed him as was proper, but did not love him. I certainly wasn’t going to mourn him. The old witch knew this and it made her angry. In her mind, I should suffer from his death as she was suffering.
Truly, it is a mother’s greatest sorrow to bury her child. She didn’t seem to remember I, too, had buried a son.
Sati had long been outlawed, so I refused. Legally, she could not compel me. This was the first and only time I stood up to her and I was defiant. Better she should throw herself on his funeral pyre. She couldn’t have had more than a few years left, anyway. My defiance only angered her more. Who was I, a mere nothing, to refuse her command?
She seemed to back down, and I naively thought I’d won, but do you know what she did, that evil woman? She had me drugged! While my husband’s body was burning, I was led to the fire by her other sons, where I was half- hypnotized, half shoved into the flames.
She, herself, only lived a few months more.