“When I escaped from the Legion, bahanji, I returned to Khusuma Bharadji. After all I knew no other home. I found my village destroyed, but we, the untouchable, never had too many possessions and we’re good in arising when trampled. Father had died and so my younger brothers, but my mother and an elder brother had survived. I was the only daughter left so I became, as later learned, a living problem to my family.
We wept for the dead, but it was actually a relief. There was very little food and too many mouths to feed. We cried more for men than for women and more for adults than for children, but all came to pass in the opinion of the gods.
I never saw my sister Sita again. I still weep for her at night for I had no right to mourn her in public, not even to ask for her. My sister was already long dead before then, due to the ritual curses of my people, but until then she’d looked alive to me.
Forgive me, bahanji, for my tears. Sita was dearer to me than everyone else. I’d rather hear her voice again before any sound in this world. I would happily turn blind and deaf to have her back. I don’t even know if she’s dead or alive, but she never came back. I was the only one who considered her still a human being, I was the one who brought food to her! She must be dead. I hope she’s found the path of light to her next life and is reborn as something happy and beautiful.
When I returned to my village, I had to face reality. Mother was a widow and she had no body to incinerate and be burned alive next to it, as is required of worthy wives. She covered herself in white clothes and abandoned herself to mourning. So it was my elder brother who decided I should marry, so annoying I had become to the survival of our family.
They chose for me Rahula Ramaswami, who was a good option in his seventieth year. Don’t look at me like that, bahanji, our people often trust young wives to mature and experienced husbands. The elder Rahula had had eight wives and fifteen children, between living and dead, and I was twelve years old when I married him.
My mother didn’t attend my wedding - for a widow is banned from social life - nor did my dead father and brothers, nor my elder brother who sold me as if I was a piece of cattle. I remember the overwhelming weight of the fabrics and jewels of my trousseau, my wrinkled and hunchback husband awaiting me, but overall, I’m unable to forget a pair of black eyes in particular. His black eyes.
His name was Taresh Ramaswami, and was one of the youngest children of Rahula. He was eighteen and gorgeous like a god. All the girls of the village longed to marry him, but he still had no wife. It was rumored that he was violent, lazy and quarrelsome, but that fateful day I felt trapped in his black eyes and his charming smile which followed me when my husband lifted the veil so everyone could see me. Until then I’d been Radha the little girl, but from that moment I became Radha the woman, the wife of Rahula. Comments were made about my beauty, exaggerated of course, since the only one worthy to be called a beauty had been my sister Sita, until her husband – may Durga punish him with a grim reincarnation - disfigured her.
I wanted to die, but I was now a wife. I moved to my husband’s home and there I joined his family. I was lucky: none of the eight wives was still alive, so I became the favorite and had no elder wife to command me, but my marriage was like hell. I think you can imagine, bahanji, how was my wedding night – oh, don’t look at me with such compassion. It’s certainly disgusting to think of a sickly old man doing that to who, for you, Westerners, was still a child, but in fact Rahula was impotent because of his old age – he’d lost all his male strength. Actually that was much worse, how could I give him a child? I just had my period for the first time a few months before, but nothing could be done - and my people always blame the woman. I was terrified, and in that dreadful night Taresh’ smile hovered over me – for he knew his father was no longer able to breed children!
I cursed my brother for having doomed me to such a marriage, which would be my death, just because he wanted to get rid of me. I won’t even utter his name; I hope the gods curse him and his wife will remain barren forever.
For weeks I devoted myself to women’s work in home and in the fields- no one would complain about me, for I was meek as expected. There was only one drawback, the people murmuring, What? Still not pregnant? If people spread the rumor that I was barren, I will be as doomed as my disfigured sister.
All this time I’d lived under the dark shadow of Taresh’s glance, who lounged around me. He was handsome and strong, and so moody that even his old father couldn’t control him. It was hard to admit it, but I couldn’t stop dreaming of his eyes and his smile, his dark skin and curly hair. I used to think I was haunted, now I know I was in love. I didn’t pay much attention to the rumors concerning him - in addition to drinking and fooling around, he liked to stalk the girls, corner them in remote places and rape them. But when I looked at him, I’d see only his piercing eyes and his seductive smile, and I felt totally haunted, like so many others. So attractive!
One day I was busy in preparing the chapatis which are the basis of our diet, and I noticed a dark shadow covering the sun. Looking up, I saw him, smiling mischievously and so close to me that I could feel the smell of his sweat. I withdrew annoyed, since it’s not lawful for a man to approach the wife of another, and I was the wife of his father! Moreover, I was his mother in the practical sense of the word!
“Radha.” His warm voice whispered. “Still not pregnant?”
I blushed to the roots of my hair – it was utterly inappropriate to talk directly to me, and much less about that!
“Looks like my father has failed again, right?” He hissed, and without waiting for an answer, he threw his head back and laughed. I wish the avenging Durga took me at that moment, but I had to suffer the humiliation. “That old crook is a fool to believe he can still fuck a woman.” You can’t imagine the horror I felt when I heard him talking like that, bahanji. Speaking evil of a father is like spitting on the altar of the gods - but also his language was so foul to make the god mourn. “Such a waste, a woman delivered to an useless oldster. I bet you’re longing for a good upright cock.”
So saying, oh gods, he bent over and squeezed my breast through the sari. I screamed and jumped back, and he laughed. I barely had breasts then but he’d found them easily through the thick. I was trembling all over, but still, how powerful was my fascination for him! How charmed was I by his beauty!
“You need a man to make you feel like a woman.” He said mockingly. “If my father doesn’t fulfil his role... who wants a woman who can’t bear children?” He touched my breasts again, and suddenly I arose and receded quickly. He laughed sarcastically, amused with my outrage. “Don’t play with me! There’s plenty of whores in your family, isn’t there? Your mother, a whore, your sisters, whores and the worst of them all, that hooker with the burned face, the whore of all those white soldiers!”
I couldn’t believe that gods didn’t punish him for those atrocities. I thought the sky was blackened, but the darkness was inside me, burning me with his words.
“How do you dare to insult my sister Sita!”
“She was the whore of the Legion. She used to crawl into the camp of those butchers and let them fuck her. One after another! What I say! Sometimes two and three at a time!” I covered my ears. “She had her veil put on, so they didn’t have to see her ugly face! They wouldn’t have not wanted her! But this way, all were willing to.”
“That’s not true!”
“Am I lying? Is that you’re saying? I’ve seen it myself! And you must be just like her. Or you’re not longing for a real man?”
I stepped back a little more. I wanted to ask for help, but it wasn’t allowed. If I was seen alone with a man, it will be his word against mine, and his will prevail, for he was male. He’d accuse me. I’d never been so scared in my life. That fear reduced my will to nothing.
Taresh came smiling, his black eyes filled with the fire of lust. “You’re pretty... quite pretty. Come, let me do it. I’ll show what a real man can do.”
I let out a scream when he grabbed me, but I immediately silenced. I shouldn’t alert anyone, my reputation was at stake - and if I’d fought for my honor, I’d lose the battle. Part of me still felt terribly attracted towards him, and therefore I almost didn’t resist, I let myself be dragged to a nearby shed. There he lay me down and opened my sari, and then fell on me, ignoring my pleas. I felt pain and bled, but I feared more being discovered. I don’t know how long he panted over me, then collapsed on me without letting me get up. I was terrified - a part of me knew what had just happened, but it seemed not so bad compared with those brutal legionnaires. I wondered if that was rape or simply love making. Such was my blindness - I was only twelve years!
I cried quietly for a while. He then moved and turned away from me, rolling to one side, and looked satisfied at his work. I guess a man like him must have enjoyed seeing a woman so weak, scared, with torn clothes, naked and showing crudely her bloodstained thighs and sex- but I wasn’t crying for what he’d just done. I cried for what he’d said about Sita. Was it true that, beset by hunger and despair, my sister had delivered herself to those soldiers? Was it the reasons for those absences, the sadness in her voice, the depletion of her body? That doubt was destroying me.
Taresh’s hand went through my body again, shamelessly exploring my sex and my thighs. His mocking voice whispered in my ear: “Seems you liked it. You see? You’re just like the others. But I like riding horses in several ways - and since you enjoyed it and you’re not a righteous wife...” Holding me tight by the arms, he turned me towards the ground, crushing my face on the straw. Seeing me so crudely exposed excited him even more brutally than before, panting and moaning hard while I was praying for anyone not to hear us. Then, he got up and left, leaving me there.
You’re staring at me with horror, bahanji. Now I’ve learned a lot from you, but at that time I still thought as my people does, so I felt guilty: I’d been tempting Taresh with my beauty and my youth, powerless against my wicked nets. What if I got pregnant? Rahula would know it could not be his son! Just when I began to think I would have to find a solution, the old man managed to do it - and just thinking about it makes me feel sick, but nothing terrified me more than knowing Taresh could get back to me! I still felt haunted by him. I was horrified at myself and my head was a mass of contradictory thoughts.
As I feared, Taresh came back to me. He didn’t waste time: I got caught by him anywhere, in our cabin, out on the field or at the edge of town. He seized me and dragged me to a discreet place, and there he did as he pleased, several times, in all ways and soon he began to demand my participation. Woe to me! I was expecting the punishment of the gods on my impure soul. Soon my body was no longer mine to become a temple in which he vented all his cravings. He even stopped pestering other girls, the gods know what he’d seen in me! And I was always meek and pleasant, partly because I was afraid, partly because he fascinated me. Even I admit that after a while I stopped feeling pain, as if my body had finally accepted my situation.
No matter how much you try, bahanji, you’ll never understand the shame I felt. I committed real atrocities just to avoid a major disgrace. As Rahula couldn’t beget a child and soon stopped trying, I’d to destroy a couple of times what Taresh bred in me. Ours is a culture eager to sacrifice mouths that can’t be fed, but this time was for my own survival. Something about, apparently, Taresh didn’t care. I was foolish and coward. I saw my life pass as if I’d already lived it. I was afraid to abort once more – last time I’d bled too much, although it would’ve been honorable to die, but I didn’t dare.
And suddenly, everything changed one night, when grinding the grain to Rahula’s bowl. He was sitting in front of me, withered and old, and then he said: “Look at me, Radha.” Of course, among our people is not polite for a woman to look directly at a man in the eyes, so I just look at his chin. He sighed and took my chin and turned his dark eyes on me. “You’ve been sick.” And it was a statement.
I began to tremble. Rahula was very smart, when young he’d been the doctor’s apprentice so I wasn’t surprised when I heard him saying: “You’ve been pregnant several times, but you’ve got rid of all your bastards.”
It would’ve been foolish to try to lie to him. It was, finally, my death sentence, so my eyes filled with tears and the old man’s face faded into a fuzzy cloud.
Then I saw the look of sadness on his face. “My son, right?”
What could I say? I remained silent.
“Oh, damn! How blind I’ve been!” He said no more.
I finished serving dinner and I headed to my cot, where I spent the night shaking. Women like me were stoned to death, or doused with petrol and set alight, or poured acid on to burn, as they did with my sister. I cursed the gods for having made me a woman and unable to defend myself against this accusation, because then I saw the truth. If there was any fault, that was Taresh’s, not mine. And although I still felt attracted to him.
I never expected what happened the next morning. I was washing clothes when the door opened and Taresh entered the small shed. I went back, startled, thinking he came to abuse me again, but to my surprise Rahula came behind him - and wielding a wooden stick.
Before I could say anything, Rahula grabbed his son’s shoulder and said: “Taresh, is this the woman you’ve been taking for months?”
The boy closed his eyes and murmured: “You’re rambling, Father.”
Almost instantly, Rahula raised his stick and hit Taresh with all his might. He caught him off guard and fell on his knees while uttering a cry of pain. The old man turned towards him. “Tell me, Son,” Rahula repeated, calmly, “is this the woman you impregnated many times?”
“Father, I told you...”
He struck him again. This time Taresh screamed and clutched his face - the blow had cut his eyebrow and was bleeding profusely.
“My son.” Rahula didn’t lose the serenity of his voice. “Are you sure this is not the woman you’ve been fucking for a while?”
Letting out a sigh, Taresh said: “Yes, she is, but, Father...”
“Well, guess what, my son?” Rahula said softly. “This woman is my wife.”
He raised his wand again and began to cast repeated blows on his son, strong and well-aimed, as he yelled “Father!” again and again and tried to protect himself, for it’s not allowed for a son to fight his father.
I was like stuck to the ground, motionless and speechless, horrified at what I saw. Rahula beat him mercilessly, and the soil gradually reddened with his blood while bits of flesh scalped with every blow. His face and arms were red too. His screaming became weaker and he finally collapsed on one side, powerless to defend himself.
“You’re going to kill him, husband!” I exclaimed in horror.
Rahula stopped. The rod was all red and had pieces of skin and hair attached. He took a deep breath and threw it aside – but he wasn’t over. He leaned toward his son and lifted his head grabbing him by the ear, which had fallen almost due to the blows, and twisted it, making him scream in pain. “The gods say, my son,” he whispered softly, “you shall neither covet another’s wife, nor the virgin, you shall not dishonor your father or your mother, you shall not covet the wife of your father!” He let him go and his face slammed with a snap on the ground. With this blow he passed out - then Rahula went away calmly as if nothing had happened.
It took me a moment to realize that my old husband wasn’t going to make me die, rather the opposite: he’d served justice to me.
From that moment, Taresh didn’t bother me again. I felt guilty for having expected so little from Rahula, but that was I used to see among my people. We continued to live together in peace and didn’t talk about the unfortunate incident again.
But that peace wouldn’t last long. When I was 14, my husband got deathly sick. At the end of the day, he was very old. He spent a long time dying, and I remained by his bedside, assisting him to ease his pain. I felt indebted to him, but I never found the way to express it, except for my continued attention.
Rahula’s life finally went out one night - may the gods lead him to a fortunate reincarnation. He was a righteous man and my heart is fond of remembering him. However, as you’ll probably know, bahanji, I was again terrified - and this is how women in India live in constant terror for now, if widowed, my fate was at the mercy of what my husband’s family decided.
They could let me live, which would turn me into a vague shadow, rejected by all and condemned to exile, as they did with my sister, or they could burn me alive on my husband’s pyre, as it happens with all righteous wives. Moreover, if it was myself who cast on the fire willingly, I’d not only honor my husband’s family, but my own family and myself.
Your butler told me, bahanji, that the practice of the funeral ritual, the suttee, was banned many centuries ago by the British when they were in India. The reality is that wives are still being burned.
So the family of my husband decided to burn me - and I had survived so many things to end like this. I didn’t care anymore about my honor, having been repeatedly dishonored, nor the honor of my family who’d sold me like a piece of cattle, nor Rahula’s family’s honor, who were ruthless and stone-hearted. So I did everything possible to survive, even without honor.
My despair led me to look at Taresh. I found him near the hut where he used to rape me. He was shocked to see me.
“Taresh Ramaswami!” I cried.
He turned his face and pretended not to see me, as a widow is the accumulation of all impurities and filth in our religion.
“You won’t ignore me, damn lazy ass!” I cried again. You see, bahanji, I had lost all fear of him. “I have a proposal for you!”
He continued without looking at me, but I noticed he was listening.
“Your father’s dead, and I’m intended to his pyre!” I continued. “But I offer you the chance to marry me.”
This time he could not ignore me. He turned and looked at me aghast, despite all the restrictions of the taboo. “You’re mad!” He shouted. “I won’t marry an impure widow! The gods will curse me!”
I tilted my head back and laughed out loud. The fascination for him had disappeared. I felt only a deep scorn. “The gods have already cursed you, Taresh! You took the wife of your father and dishonored her! The only way to atone the stain you spread is marrying me. I’m rich and I’ll give you children, as you already know, you idiot!”
It may seem, bahanji, I was offering myself to the fangs of the tiger, but it certainly was my only way of escaping the suttee. If he married me he’ll purify my spot and I shall not die.
But he still hesitated, so I pointed him with a finger, which should not be done among honest people, and shouted: “If you reject me, Taresh Ramaswami, and you send me to the fire, I’ll curse you before dying! Durga is the goddess who protects me and she shows no mercy to those who harm her beloved ones. And once cursed I’ll reincarnate in an evil spirit that will haunt you every day of your life! I’ll rot your member, your crops will die, your future wife will be barren, your children will die of the plague, you...”
“Enough! I agree!”
I had won. You can’t imagine how powerful I felt at that time. No more, I turned my back with all my contempt and walked away.
I heard the song soar through my deep widow’s veil. Over the bonfire was burning the body of Rahula, my husband, and as I watched him burn, I apologized for not contributing to his funeral. “You were a good husband.” I mumbled to him. “More than I can expect from your son.”
At that time, a daughter of my husband walked up to me and whispered, without looking at me: “Will you cast into the fire to burn with your beloved, or will we have to force you?”
I turned and looked at Taresh, who advanced. He was supposed to announce he’d take me as a wife to honor the memory of his father, but, oh horror! What he did was grabbing my wrist and announce: “I’ll deliver this widow to the flames together with her beloved”.
“So be it!” All the crowd answered, satisfied.
The honorable thing would’ve been bowing my head and let myself be dragged into the flames, but instead I let out a horrible scream and I twisted so tightly that Taresh let me go. That was enough for me to run down the pyre’s platform. I saw hundreds of hands trying to catch me, but I tore my veil and shouted: “Back off! I curse you! Whoever touches my body will be unclean!”
My people are very superstitious and that was enough for many to step back, disgusted and horrified by being the target of a widow’s filth. I passed between them like a shot and headed towards the first place my eyes had seen: the jungle.
“Radha!” I heard Taresh howling behind me. His hands grabbed me and I felt his arms surrounding my neck and waist. I started kicking like crazy - fighting for my life! And spat and bit all I could. At one point I turned around, I dug my nails into his face and tore his skin, yelling: “I curse you, traitor! You’ll die of slow and painful death, may Durga give you no rest, may She reserve for you the most atrocious of reincarnations!”
He winced when he heard me and I sank my teeth in his hand. He let me go and slipped. My sari broke because of his hand pulls and snags with vegetation. I heard voices in the distance. They came after me. If I didn’t manage to escape, they would burn me at the stake.
A hand grabbed my ankle. I stumbled and fell. Writhing, I saw his face contorted with hate, I kicked him with all my might. I felt the bone crack and a few drops of blood spattered my ankle. He screamed in pain.
I rose. By not seeing him get up, I suddenly realized I was free. I ran fast into the jungle without looking back, and a last cry, a cry that I’ve never forgotten, rang in my ears: “Radha! Come here, you hussy!”
And the rest of the tale, bahanji, is well known by you.