This story is about a man who is almost forgotten in today’s abundance of freedom. The man, who laid the foundation of this freedom in modern India.
It was a long dark era of Indian history when society was in the trough of decline. Britishers were gaining a foot in India, where the differences between the cast, sex, religion, economic status were very high. People were floundering tied in old, meaningless, timeworn traditions. The Indian woman was choking. She had no voice of her own. Expectations were very high from her. She had to oblate herself to the right or wrong social rules and practices. Status of being virtuous was awarded if she followed everything quietly, smilingly, suppressing all her pain. And had she protested, she was labelled ‘dayan or kulakshini’ (a witch or characterless) and then was forced to follow everything. In both the situations, she was made an example for other women, who could choose, whichever example they liked out of these two.
Childhood memories were flashing in front of his eyes. He could hear the melodious loving voice of ‘bhabhi ma’ ringing in his ears.
Radha Nagar, a small village of West Bengal….
“Mohan! Kemon acha?…………. Kothaya tumi?……….
Ami sondesh ebam mishti doi niye eshechi. Dekha…
Mohan! O Mohana!…….”.
(Mohan! How are you? Where are you hiding? I have brought sweets for you. Come and see….).
The sound from the anklets was coming nearer. He jumped out of his bed. The sudden spark of shine on his face, his childish grin, his agility, all showed his eagerness to meet the person who was arriving.
After being publicly scolded by his orthodox and strict father, on a small mistake, angry Mohan kept himself locked in his room and ignored all calls to come out and have lunch, except this sugary voice.
‘Ma (mother) must have told her about my anger.’
She was the only person who could calm him down. With her serene, loving eyes, beautiful, and innocent smile, whenever she stroked his hair gently, eight-year-old Mohan used to forget all his anger and frustration.
Four years before, at the age of fourteen, she entered in the house of Mohan’s ‘bado ma’ (aunt) as her daughter in law and became Mohan’s playmate, teacher, philosopher, and a lot more. Two and three years old daughters (Gunja and Lakshmi) from the first wife of her husband and four years old Mohan from the neighbouring house became the apples of her eyes.
Beautifully dressed, joyful, childish yet responsible Bhabhi ma was like a cool breeze in the ruined life and household of his cousin, Sadananda bhaiya, after the death of his first wife. During Durga pooja, neatly draped Bengali saree, big red bindi, full hand red and white bangles, anklets, long-curly-thick hair gave her the looks just like the ‘Devi ma’ (Goddess) Herself. Busy in preparing tasty prasad (sweet offerings to Goddess), helping in all pooja arrangements, spreading the magic of sweet, innocent voice and giggle, that ‘bal vadhu’ (bride of an immature age) had become the favourite of all the elderly people.
She had never been to school. She didn’t know reading and writing but could beautifully recite the verses from Ramayana, many devotional songs and chants with correct pronunciation and explanation of their meaning. She used to tell many stories from ancient sacred texts. She could pacify the curious and rebellious mind of Mohan by logically justifying every social and religious practice and restriction.
Today morning, one incident took place in the gathering of panchayat members. Mohan and some of his friends were playing nearby and Mohan was very curious to watch.
An ‘ojha’ (exorcist) was called to cure Harkhu’s 10-year-old son, who complained of a pain in stomach third time this month.
He gave some liquid to drink to the boy.
‘What is this? Yuck!! It smells like urine”, the horrified boy shouted.
‘Drink it.’ The clumsy, scary man, dressed in a black gown, black headband, ordered in a heavy threatening voice. Smoky environment, many staring eyes were enough to scare the small boy, this heavy voice caused more cramps in his stomach. He gulped that liquid immediately. After a few moments, his personality started changing. Eyes became red, body started sweating, he felt dizzy. He could not understand any of the questions asked afterwards and murmured some unclear words in reply.
The Ojha said, “he is possessed “.
To make him free from the clutches of the evil spirit, he beat him with a broom and compelled him to inhale the smoke from burning chillies. The poor lad collapsed. But soon he was all right though a little tired.
Everybody present there praised the ‘ojha’ and looked immensely impressed by his ability to identify the cause of illness and to cure the boy. But Mohan didn’t like this cruelty. When Mohan tried to protest, baba (father) scolded him in front of everybody. Humiliated and angry Mohan locked himself in his room until Bhabhi ma was summoned to come and calm him down. She arrived with his favourite sweets and empathetic ears to lend. He told all this to Bhabhi ma and she said,
“tumi kichhu jani na Mohana! (you don’t know anything Mohan). That Hariya is naughty and lazy. He doesn’t want to go for work with his baba that’s why he is making all these excuses. Now, you will see, after this episode, the ghost of his laziness will run away. And above all, Mohan, we should not argue with our elders. They have read Shastras (ancient sacred texts). They are learned. Age-old practices are tried and tested and are not to be questioned.”
And in this way, a small voice against widespread social evils, superstitions, injustices was silenced. Everybody was in the surrender mode, going with the flow, without any question, doubt or realization of the far-reaching impacts of this submissiveness.
Innocent Mohan forgot the bitterness of morning in this mishti doi like talks of Bhabhi ma and ran outside to play with his friends.
Four years passed after that incident. Hariya died on one fateful evening getting lean day by day and with one more complaint of severe pain in stomach. Gunja and Lakshmi wanted to study but they were forcibly taken out of the school and were being taught the household chores, as now they were married and very soon would be going to their ‘sasural’ (in-laws’ house). Mohan was growing into a handsome boy. His body was as fit as an athlete, the face had the shine of the knowledge of Bangla, Sanskrit, and of some Arabic too.
Bhabhi ma always looked gloomy those days. Prolonged illness of Sadananda bhaiya (Bhabhi ma’s husband) had gifted her a permanent sad and miserable look over the years. The health of her husband was continuously deteriorating in spite of all the prayers, fasts, medicines and best care possible provided.
The elderly, who were not tired of praising ‘Sulakshana bahu’ (daughter-in-law with good characteristics) now been heard saying,
“There must be some flaw in Sunanda’s piousness. A ‘Sati’ (who is devoted to no other man except her husband) can bring her husband’s life back even from the clutches of Yamraj (The God of death). Sadananda’s first wife died as ‘suhagin’ (married). She was the virtuous one, who could give her remaining life to her husband.” They made sure that Sunanda understands that her husband is sick due to her fault.
Mohan wasn’t too small to understand the pain of his Bhabhi ma, breaking down due to these comments and tension of her bedridden husband. He saw her crying alone many times. She didn’t open her mouth even once, as if she had accepted her fate.
The peace and beauty of her life were seized by the fear of inevitable death of her husband.
The worst was yet to arrive.
She wasn’t allowed to get any respect or sympathy after the death of her husband, let alone the question to remarry as Sadananda bhaiya did, after the death of his first wife.
A 12-year-old child was watching his ‘ma’ burning, engulfed in flames, going very far from him, never to return. He was shouting and screaming. He was desperate to run and save her, but could not get himself free from the grip of the learned and wise, elderly people, the social dictators, who could decide which woman is sinful and who is saintly. Now the same people, who were questioning the piousness of Sunanda, were putting the ashes of her pyre on their foreheads, seeking blessings of ‘Sati Mata’.
Tears and numbness of his mind blurred his vision. He could not read the expressions of his Bhabhi ma, immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Whether she was dejected like Sita mata or was a blessing as Sati Mata or was praying to God to forgive the sins of all, like Jesus Christ, while leaving this world. Everything around him whirled and blacked out.
He could not celebrate his birthday after three days, as that Mohan was no longer alive. He immolated his childhood, his ‘sanskari self’ who was not allowed to question anything. Ashes of that funeral pyre gave birth to Ram Mohan Roy who was ‘Raja’ in a true sense, a visionary, a fighter, who had the strength to pull the Indian society out from the trough of decline. He knew, ‘to build high, one needs to dig deep’. The fight, against the ignorance, cruel traditions and the injustices on women in India was going to be very long and tough. Somebody had to start it on behalf of them, who were denied of even the basic human rights after the death of their husband. A spark of determination glimmered in his eyes and matured manners.
4 December 1829.
Tears welled in the eyes of Mohan, now Raja Ram Mohan Roy, while waiting in the court. His long untiring battle of almost 45 years, was going to be rewarded.
He dared to voice against the ‘superstitious practices’ deforming the true spirit of Hindu religion like caste rigidity, child marriages, polygamy and sati. He worked a lot to educate and aware people through his college (the Hindu College, Calcutta), school (the Anglo-Hindu School) and many of his books.
But today was the day he could really breathe, he could feel his wounded and tortured soul healing slowly. Now onwards, no one would dare to force a woman to oblate herself to the old, meaningless, timeworn social tradition.
At last, after all the hearings and proceedings, the announcement was made…….
“The practice of Sati, or of burning or burying alive the widows of Hindus, is hereby declared illegal and punishable by the criminal courts.”
– Sati Regulation XVII A.D. 1829 of the Bengal Code.
Barbarism cannot be glorified.