Chapter 1: Your Birthright: To Take Flight
To the Western eye it looked almost like committing suicide; literally it was so. And for almost ninety-nine percent of women who became suttees it was nothing but suicide. But for one percent I cannot say it was suicide. For one percent, to live without the person whom they had loved totally and from whom they had never thought for a single moment to be separated, living was suicide.
But law is blind and cannot make such fine distinctions. What Britishers saw was certainly ugly and had to be stopped. The one percent went on the funeral pyre of their own accord. But it became such a respectable thing that any woman who was not willing to do it.and it was really a very dangerous, torturous way of dying - just entering the funeral pyre alive!
Ninety-nine percent were not willing to do it but their families, their relatives felt awkward because this meant the woman never loved the man totally. It would be a condemnation of the whole family: the honor of the family was at stake. So what these people did was they forced the woman; and a certain climate was created in which you would not be able to discover that the woman was being forced. She was of course in a terrible state, in a great shock.
She was taken to the funeral pyre and on the funeral pyre so much ghee, purified butter, was poured that there was a cloud of smoke all over the place; you could not see what is happening. Around that cloud there were hundreds of brahmins loudly chanting Sanskrit sutras, and behind the brahmins there was a big band with all kinds of instruments making as much noise as possible - so to hear the woman screaming or crying or trying to get out of the funeral pyre was impossible. Around the funeral pyre the brahmins were standing with burning torches to push the woman back in.
When Britishers saw this - this was certainly not only suicide but murder too. In fact, it was murder; the woman was not willing. The whole atmosphere was created so that you could not hear her screams, you could not see that she was trying to escape - everybody else was out of the circles of brahmins.
When Britishers found out that this was something criminal and ugly, they made it illegal: if any woman tried it and was found out and caught alive, she would be sentenced for her whole life. And anybody who persuaded her - the family, the priests, the neighbors - they were also partners in the crime and they would also be punished according to whatsoever part they had played in it.
So the institution slowly slowly disappeared; it had to disappear. But once in a while those one percent of women were always there for whom it didn’t matter, because their lives were now a sentence unto death. Why not take the chance of finishing it with your loved one?
So they all tried, everybody, to persuade my Nani not to do it, but she said, “I have nothing to live for. I cannot go back to my village because in that same house where we both lived our whole life for sixty years, I cannot live alone. He will be too much there. I have not eaten a single meal before he did; it will be impossible for me to eat. In the first place, impossible to cook because I used to cook for him; he loved delicious foods and I enjoyed cooking for him. Just to see him delighted was my delight. Now for whom am I going to cook?