A Month In India
On the morning of 5th September 1987, as I was going through the card-catalogue of Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh, a friend (also a student of world religions) informed me that a young Rajasthani woman had committed Suttee in India. A day before, an eighteen-year old woman named Roop Kanwar had immolated herself on the pyre of her dead husband. The ritual was witnessed by thousands of townspeople. Stunned and speechless, my lead laden legs felt cemented to the ground. At that frozen moment the seed of a book was planted in my mind.
But the seed stayed dormant for decades.
The incident continued to sear like a wound at the back of my mind. Yet I was not emotionally ready to write about it. All these years I trawled libraries, bookstores and Internet for information about the history of suttee, and cultural and religious traditions in which it is rooted. I studied records of the shrines of the women who had committed suttee, and read history and mythology of the namesake goddess, spelled Sati. I looked at the photographs of Sati temples and studied engraving, drawings and paintings of Suttee ritual by British and European travelers and Indian artists.
The ritual of Suttee is centuries old. On rare occasions, women recently widowed voluntarily committed Suttee. It was believed that if a widow cremated her self with the dead body of her husband, the couple would live in heaven as on earth. Furthermore, such a sacrifice guaranteed a place in heaven for seven generations of the family.
The British Raj had outlawed suttee in 1829 when cases of compulsion by tying the woman to her husband’s pyre or intoxicating her with bhang or opium were reported. Cases of widows escaping and having rescued by strangers were also recorded. Still, more than a century later scattered instances of the custom were reported as of Savitri Soni’s in 1973 and Charan Shah’s in 1999. Most notorious and controversial case, however, was of Roop Kanwar. Indian people either publicly defended Roop’s action or declared that she had been murdered.
Following the outcry of the 1987 Suttee, on 1st October of the same year the Government of India enacted the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance. The law made it not only illegal to commit Suttee but also illegal to coerce or force a woman to commit Suttee, or glorify the ritual. Glorification included erection of shrine to the dead woman, encouragement of pilgrimage to her shrine or such sites where immolation took place. Derivation of any income from such activities was banned. The law made no distinction between a passive observer and an active promoter. All are held equally guilty.
In November of 2009 I was finally able to pour out my heart and mind into my second novel, The Last Suttee. I wrote how I felt about Roop Kanwar’s burning and how since then my thought process had developed. I have continued to revise and rewrite that.
But the story is still incubating. I have portrayed the characters, sketched the settings, written dialogue and narrative. But in order to birth the book, bring it to life I must first experience the environment in which Roop lived and converse with her townspeople. I want to know antagonist’s point of view as much as the protagonist’s.
Next month I will be in Rajasthan, India for doing just that. I hope my present trip will help me write the final draft. In the meantime, please enjoy reading previous posts and keep checking for the next post about my experiences in India.
Oh my goodness, Madhu, this story you are writing is going to be monumental in many ways. Your descriptions of place and time bring your characters to life and I know this story will take flight in your gentle hands and sharp mind. I can not wait to see your posts about your visit and know that you will return with all that you need to make this novel sing.
I agree that it will be one of the best books particularly due to the time lapse which has allowed you to digest the main points that you want to include. Moreover, it gives me hope. I will also condense all the materials of my draft that I wrote in 1997, after the death of my fiancee. Today I took it out in the morning and thought how I can bring back the fresh memories of our love. We had stayed together for seven years although our love was turbulent as well. So this post of what you are going to do gives me hope as well. Stay good!
Relive this woman’s life in your novel. Yes it will do lot of good here in india. Anyway suttee is no longer a phenomenon now in this new century but all the same congratulations to relive the sutte phenonmen now.