Studies from an eastern home
The Hindu widow and the Zenana
THE great distinction of Hindu life in English eyes is its vast antiquity. Even its trifles are hoary with age. In the glimpses we catch of the heroic lovers, Sita and Rama, wandering the forest, Sita wears the sari, and follows behind her husband, as she might to-day. No one, I suppose, can tell how old the sari may be. We see it in Egyptian pictures of the goddesses, and if we remember that it is essentially a strip of cloth, unsewn, we shall find it also, I think, in Greek sculpture.
The notion, current for centuries amongst the orthodox, that to wear anything stitched was utterly unholy, has kept this garment in its primitive simplicity. Like many perfect things, it withholds its complete loveliness at first from even the most enthusiastic eye. It takes months of familiarity to enable the ordinary observer to appreciate to the full the long curves of the veil, the dainty poses of the head, and the exquisite adjustment of every movement to the drapery,
At first, perhaps, we feel that the sari is narrow at the ankles, and that the ovoid form, therefore, verges on the bundle." Then it dawns on us that even this is beautiful, and that there is, moreover, a variety that at first escaped us. It is not drawn so tight, except for some special emergency or effort, and in times of leisure it gives to the feet all the freedom of the skirt. Now and then a breeze catches the veil, and we get--down here in common human life--a moment's glimpse of the Sistine Madonna.
Aubrey Beardsley and Phil May, and the delightful artists of the French poster, have not been wrong in their rapturous interpretation of tennis-blouses and picture-hats and the modiste's fashion-plate. But if we want some soul to gain the vision of the spiritual depths of mere living, to know how one life is tense with agony and another light with the ease of a summer day, to realise for himself the hair's-breadth difference that puts eternal separation between the curves of the Mother of Sorrows and the Mother Crowned,--if we desire this revelation, we may find it in the Hindu zenana. For there we come upon a dignity and grace, with a superb indifference to great or little, that lifts the meanest drudgery, and puts it in the matter of beautiful doing on a level with the harvesting of corn or the facing of death. Only Millet in modern Europe has known this
potentiality of common things. He stands alone, for that brooding presence of the Eternal with which The Angelus is charged is as different from our nineteenth-century realism as the stories of Nausicaa and Penelope from A Window in Thrums. But Millet never came to India, and even if he had come, he alas, would have found himself mere man.
And then the colour of the sari! My own experience has been that when a thing was just right I have often failed at first to recognise it. I have had to grow to it. I used to long for saris without borders. That little line, meandering up and down the figure, seemed a useless interruption of the composition, a jarring element in the picture; to-day it is like the brush-line of a great master, defining and emphasizing the whole.
But it is not the border only. Whoever knew a Hindu make a mistake in colour? Dark blue is never blue, but purple. Green is like grass lying in sunlight, or shot with rose. Grey is not altogether silver; there is a suggestion of the blue rock-pigeon in it too. A check, or a dazzling combination of black and white, is an outrage impossible to perpetrate.
And yet, and yet, is there anything like the radiant purity of the widow's plain white cloth? Silk for worship, cotton for daily service--but always white, without a touch of colour. Perhaps
its charm lies in its associations. The austere simplicity speaks of the highest only. A heart free to embrace the world, a life all consecrated, a past whose sorrow makes the present full of giving--these are the secrets that the widow's sari tells.
For it must be understood that this bereavement is regarded in India as a direct call to the religious life. It is the only way in which what is known in Catholic countries as "a vocation" can come to the Hindu woman. Her life henceforth is to be given to God, not to man; and this idea, coupled with an exaggerated respect for celibacy, gives to the widow, and especially to her who has been a child-widow, a unique position of influence in the household. This feeling of reverence persists long after the sentiments of orthodoxy--admiration for long hours spent in worship and for severe asceticism--have disappeared. Hence it was a modern Hindu, of the school calling itself Reformed, who said to me, "The most stately garment in India is the white sari of the widow."
Of coin-se all ordeals are hard on some members of the community, and there is little to choose between the injustice of one set of institutions and another. I do not know that the Indian woman of the upper classes, doomed to live from childhood without the closest companionship, is
more than conventionally conscious of special hardship. Her vocation is none of her own choosing, but she often throws her whole heart into it for all that, and that wealth of devotion, amounting to absorption, which she would have bestowed upon her husband, goes into the discipline of her own character. And what a character that often is! The most ideal woman I have ever known is the orthodox Brahmin widow. And she does not stand alone. In her I have learned to understand the feeling of the Hindu who, having been received in distinguished society in England, turns from all the elegance and high breeding of European womanhood to find something that surpasses these in that simple unlettered dignity and sweetness of her who was his mother.
The feeling of the Indian family for the little sister who comes home to it a nun is often very tender. Just that grieved acquiescence in a higher consecration than common, which we might show to one dear to ourselves, is theirs. In the past it was no unusual thing for the parents and brothers and sisters, under these circumstances, to take up all her obligations and share them with her. I know one man in whose childhood this went on until the young widow noticed that only vegetable food was being eaten around her, and herself bought fish and cooked it, thus
insisting on freeing the others from their self-imposed privation.
The ekadasi, or one day of fasting, which falls in every fifteen, is indeed a hardship, and especially so in the hot weather; for not only may no food be taken for twenty-four hours, but not even a drop of water may pass the lips. Yet even this is not a torture invented to make the wretched still more wretched. It was once binding on every good Hindu, and is still retained by astonishingly many. I know one Indian prince who keeps it to the letter; and the most conservative class of all--the high-caste widow, the very type of piety--naturally clings to it more persistently than others. I have never known a man who did not honestly try to mitigate the force of the observance; and I hear that the strictness with which it is kept in Calcutta is unknown elsewhere.
I once met a violent agnostic who was friendly to a single text in the Bible: "He that will be chief among you, let him be your servant." "That," my friend was fond of saying, "comes true every time." But since I have been in India I have seen it in a new light. It reads now like a picture from Oriental domesticity. Here, among women at least, administration is apt to pass directly into service. Of course in large community-houses, with their forty or fifty persons paying allegiance to one head of the family, the
mere giving out of stores by the mother-in-law is a serious matter, leaving little time for regular housework. But even this lady, in the course of the day, may pass into the kitchen to cook the food of her husband and herself.
We shall never understand until we realise that passionate self-abnegation is the root of most things. Custom, it is true, petrifies everything till this impulse may sometimes be hardly conscious. But it is often intensely so. I was feasting late one evening with a rich Hindu family, and noticing that even the gentlemen were waiting till I had dined, I made some playful remark to the daughter of the house--whose guest especially I was--about the hardship of her part in eating last of all. "Oh," she said, drawing back hurriedly, as if touched on a tender point, "but we like it best so." For this reason, when asked to breakfast, one should never, I think, be late. Whatever the hour of one's arrival and departure, one may be sure that the hostess will not taste food till it is past.
Old prejudices, however, are passing away, and it is now no uncommon thing for a man to begin the day with a cup of tea, while almost all the children of those who can afford it have a sweetmeat and a glass of milk on waking up. But it is rare indeed for the mother to permit herself the luxuries that she dispenses to those around
her. And even to this extent many families would refuse to go.
The first duty of the day is the cleaning of one's own room and the zenana department generally. No doubt very rich persons have this done by women servants, but in most houses it is the work of the owner of the room and of her young daughters-in-law. And almost every lady, however rich, does something, either her husband's room or the family chapel, with her own hands. This happens at somewhere near four o’clock. I have never succeeded in rising so early that the rest of the house was still uncleansed.
The next proceeding is that kind of devotion known as meditation. This lasts for at least an hour, and while it is in progress the dawn comes. Then there is the visit to the Ganges for one of the many daily baths, with perhaps the reading of some sacred book till it is time to go. Next, the worship, with all its ritual, that comes nearest to our family prayers, and after all this a meal. It may be necessary to cook this meal with one's own hands before eating. Or beggars may come at the last minute, and then the whole of the food will be given to them, and the lady of the house will go on waiting till her share is once more ready. In this way it is often two o’clock, and I have heard of its being eleven at night, before the head of a large household will
breakfast, and this would not count as an austerity.
It is after this meal, about half-past twelve or one o’clock, that the pleasures of life begin for the zenana lady. First, she has a couple of hours' sleep. She sadly needs it. Then she sits up, reads, talks, possibly sews a little (though this is rare), and enjoys life, Towards the end of the afternoon one notices that every right hand is covered with a little bag, out of which the first finger protrudes, and the ladies round one have a preoccupied air. They are telling their beads, which are covered up, inside the little bags. This habit of covering the rosary interests me much, for I am told that the Buddhists of Ceylon, who wear their beads on the right wrist, hide them under a strip of cloth, like the maniple of Christian ritual. No one appears to attach any meaning to the custom.
Some hundreds of the names of God have thus been said--or, as we should put it, the Name has been said some hundreds of times--when dusk falls, and a servant passes the door bearing a lamp. At once all rise and prostrate themselves before some sacred picture in the room, and once more the whole household passes, with various beautiful preliminaries of salutation to the Ganges, to the tulsi plant, and so on, to worship, again in the form of meditation. It
is the time called candle-light or the hour of peace.
It is quite late before the ladies eat for the second time, and in the pleasant hour or two between, friends and neighbours, attended by female servants bearing lanterns, may slip in for a chat. By half-past nine all have gone, and at ten or shortly after, bathing and supper are alike finished, and everyone retires for the night.
Such is an ideal day for a woman of the upper classes. Where there are no servants, labour has to be carried to its remotest subdivision. One daughter-in-law has charge of all the bread-making; another boils the rice and looks after the potatoes; and so on. And if, in addition to this, there are children, endless ablutions "by drowning in a tank" (to quote a friend's picturesque expression) add to their mother's cares. From early dawn till late at night there is not an idle moment. What a comfort that for us all, the world over--
At last it ringeth to evensong!''
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.