Many a times when I have looked back at my wedding photos, I have felt a tinge of regret seeing the photo of my dad kind of ‘sealing the bond’ and ‘uniting us for eternity’ by putting my hand in Hari’s (I am not a fan of the term ‘kanyadaan’ for obvious reasons, whether you hate me for it or not). It was a fun moment captured perfectly, all three of us with our hands clasped together, kind of like a three-way handshake, laughing over some silly joke. The regret is that I should have called my mom to join us, she should have given her hand too to officially complete the frame. But then I know that my parents, being the hyper-tradition-driven people they are, would never have appreciated it. My mom herself would have scorned the most about how it was an unnecessary move from my side. Anyway, it has always made me wonder why it is that women never get to perform or be part of some of the most important traditions we follow. Just like a father, a mother has equal right to be part of every ritual of her child’s wedding. And just like a son, a daughter has equal right to be part of every ritual of her parents’ funeral.
This topic has been in my “To write” list for quite a while. Every time I saw or read about yet another instance related to this, I would put it off for one reason or the other – lack of conviction definitely not being one of those. But I knew I shouldn’t put it off any longer when someone I admire a lot and lost her father very recently spoke to me the other day and literally started the conversation with “Radhika, can you please write a blog about how our traditions need to change so that we don’t lose privileges that are rightfully ours, only because we are women?” I was taken aback for a moment by the kind of urgency with which she said that, only to realize just a second later the deep emotions behind that question. I knew then that this very topic that had been in my notes for so long must mean so much to not just me, but many like me.
Only a few months back, when Mandira Bedi’s husband passed away, she broke all clutches of an age-old patriarchal tradition to do his last rites herself. By doing this, she not only shielded her very young kids from the dangers of stepping out into a crowd during the peak of a pandemic, but quite possibly the emotional trauma it could bring upon them to light the funeral pyre of their father. But more than anything, she ensured that the ritual didn’t go to anyone else who would simply be a second choice. Instead, she did what she knew would give him peace wherever he was, knowing that the most important person in his life was the one who bid him an official adieu. While the news in itself was extremely tragic, I read it feeling proud of her for what she did. As expected, while a section of our society consisting of genuinely and sincerely liberal people applauded Mandira’s action, an even larger section trolled her.
I read news of Raveena Tandon performing the last rites of her father, just over a week ago, with the same sense of pride I felt for Mandira. And just as in Mandira’s case, the online trolls didn’t spare her either. Not that either of these women gave a damn.
While you think it was only the ‘guardians of tradition’ who indulged in said trolling, it wasn’t. A lot of pseudo-liberal, wannabe intellectual social media users couldn’t keep up their guise or control their toxic negativity towards anything and everything when they commented “What’s the big deal here? I performed the last rites for my parents and I don’t see it being big news”, “So many women do this without it being blown out of proportion. Celebrities use even parents’ death as a PR stunt” and the one that topped it all with its ‘reverse psychology’ logic – “Why are we making this big news instead of normalizing it or treating it as a regular thing to do? Giving special attention to these is just reinforcing patriarchal traditions.”
The ‘guardians of tradition’ were for once in agreement with the pseudo-liberals in saying that all of this was nothing but a PR stunt. They had even bigger, hard-hitting questions for us, like “If she is doing the rites, why is she not shaving off her head? If she wants to do the rites, she should do everything that goes with it.” Yes, of course! If she does the rites in a community where men shave off their head for the funeral rites, let her do that too. If she does the rites in a community where men do it completely drenched and dressed in nothing but a “thorthumundu” (a very thin bath towel), let her do that too. Because, why not?? “If you want equality, be ready to do everything exactly like the other gender does.”
What was even more surprising (or was it?) was the unity of such guardians across religions when it came to bashing this break from tradition. Obviously, they should. Because if you ask why women from another religion shouldn’t do the “karmas” and set light to the funeral pyre, you will be liable to answer why women from your own religion aren’t even allowed to go to the burial ground to be present for the funeral rites of their own immediate family. It was more like an ‘endearing give-and-take’ when it came to supporting each other.
To the ones who say that none of this should be big news because there is nothing new about it, I have just one question. Out of every 10 – no, let’s make that 100 – funerals that happen in our country, how many have daughters or any close female relatives doing the final rites? Let alone daughters getting sidelined because there is a male offspring who is “qualified” to do it, in the absence of a son, society will bring in any man from the extended family or even outside without giving a thought about the dead person’s own daughters who are right there! Before writing this blog, when I tried Googling for news results on this topic, I hardly got a few results even for such an instance involving a celebrity or a public figure. And while I found some results for commoners, even they were headliners showcased as rare events that invite applause, because… well, they are!
After all this, you think that in 2022, a woman performing the final rites for her parent or any immediate family member is no longer a big deal? I truly hope you have taken a time-machine and travelled way into the future where women are no longer second-class citizens in the bigger scheme of things, because as of today, I really don’t see much of a difference in our patriarchal setup contrary to what you believe.
And to the ‘guardians of tradition’, I just want to say…. You know what? I really don’t know what to say to you guys anymore? I mean, what more can I say that I haven’t already said in so many blogs before this? That all I am looking for, all so many other women like me are looking for, is not a pedestal above man, it is merely equality, a place right beside man, only what is rightfully ours – nothing more, nothing less. If that threatens your very existence and shakes your faith and traditions to the core, it is truly your problem.
In short, whether you choose to call it PR stunt or not, it is still a very big deal which requires as much publicity as it can get, so that someday, I have no idea when, we won’t have to stand aside watching someone else do what is, in every way, our birthright or privilege – not just at funerals and weddings, but in every aspect of our lives. All because others, who have nothing to do with it, feel that they are entitled to comment on what we should do and voice out their disapproval of our decisions and actions. In the meantime, all we can do is try to make a difference, one person at a time, starting with you and me. If your parents are not game for a change, make a difference from your generation at least, giving your daughters their due, letting them know you are as proud to have them as their brothers.
Also published on Medium.