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Sushama Kirtikar

By SUSHAMA KIRTIKAR - [email protected]

Deepa Mehta’s “Water” slid into town surreptitiously without the usual fanfare of a media blitz. The plight of widows in 1930s India is hardly the subject matter for light entertainment. Instead, it has managed to make a significant dent on the psyche of its viewers. It has left us speechless, moved, reflective and saddened. No one seems to know what to say. I could only comment on the beauty of the cinematography. The entire subject matter was far too gargantuan to wrap one’s head around.

Apparently “Water” created an uproar among Hindu fundamentalists in India. The film confronts issues of banishment from society, deprivation of food and clothing, stripping of self-identity, abandonment by parents of child widows, poverty and prostitution. Could it be that people there objected to exposing the stark reality of abuse under the aegis of religion? If that is frightening, even more disturbing is the response right here in the U.S. Dharan Mandrayar’s “White Rainbow” initially received a cold reception from Indian Americans in California. The latter addresses distinct themes: “social ostracism, abandonment by children, rape by in-laws, and financial and sexual exploitation by priests,” according to correspondent Anju Mary Paul of WeNews.

Many of us want to pretend this scourge does not exist in India. A quick glance at V. Mohini Giri’s edited work with real life cases “Living Death: Trauma of Widowhood in India” 2002, will dispel that myth swiftly. Giri is currently the leading advocate on the cause of widows. “Perpetual Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India,” 2000, by Martha Chen of Harvard is equally revealing. On Feb. 1, 2002, the first International Conference on Widows in South Asia was held in New Delhi exposing the poignant plight of widows.

Many of us firmly believe it cannot happen here, in the U.S. This is where we tread on treacherous ground. How do we guard against belief systems that have become entrenched for centuries? Just by stepping onto foreign soil, do these stringent and hardcore beliefs evaporate overnight? If the old custom of maltreatment of widows panned across socioeconomic and educational strata, what makes us think those beliefs stayed on the shores of India and have not arrived here as stowaways? It is not just the villagers or the destitute that harbored such convictions and indulged in such practices.

The well educated and the affluent also were known to blindly follow these oppressive rituals. If they did not force their own family members into such a life of squalor, they certainly availed themselves of the benefits of widows shunned by society. Fast forward eight decades later and we are told there are still some traces of the old belief systems carried on. Some folks settled here may still be mired in backwoods beliefs that arise from limited interpretations of the teachings of ancient sages and religious scriptures. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Widow abuse has been going on for the last 2,000 years. The communal issues of widows, social exile, destitution, religious doctrine and public custom are of historical proportions. They are rather complex and colossal to be addressed within the confines of a small column. We can but raise an awareness of these highly toxic customs and create a platform for dialogue, activism and positive change. True, Tampa is not liable to become a Varanasi with its ashrams for widows. We are not likely to see women with shaved heads swathed in white saris only. However, abuse takes on labile forms and guises and comes in varying degrees. Even one isolated incident of widow abuse is one too many. It becomes our moral duty to ensure it does not ever occur on our home turf. We could create our very own ‘neighborhood watch,’ so to speak.

Sushama Kirtikar, licensed mental health counselor in private practice, can be reached at (813) 264-7114, or email at [email protected]

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