When I was expecting my first child, my parents decided they wanted to do a Valaikaapu ceremony to protect me from the evil eye and to ensure the birth of a healthy child. Though I do not believe in rituals, I agreed to let them go ahead with it, because I knew it meant a lot to them, and who doesn’t want to do all they can to ensure a safe pregnancy and a healthy delivery?
The only thing I was worried about was with the glass bangles breaking, but after someone assured me that broken bangles don’t bring bad luck, I even started looking forward to it.
“How can a widow participate?”
The night before, I casually told my mother that I would like our neighbour to be the first to put the bangles on my wrist. I was totally unprepared for the outburst- she was a widow; while she could be on the fringes, she couldn’t participate in the ceremony.
I made it clear that it was not acceptable to me- since the ceremony was to prepare the way for an uneventful childbirth, who better to bless me than a lady who had given birth to three children, and had six grandchildren?
My mother tried hard to dissuade me, but I refused to relent. Our neighbour was then called in, and she appeared even more shocked at the prospect of participating in my Valaikaapu than my mother had been.
I stood firm. If she was not going to put bangles on my wrist and bless the child, I would not go through with the ceremony. She tried telling me that her participation is ‘inauspicious’, but I informed her since she had my good at heart, there was no way she could be anything except a blessing.
After a lot of arguments, when they realised that I was not going to budge, our neighbour finally relented.
On the day of the Valaikaapu, she wasn’t the first to put the bangles on my wrist- that honour went to an older lady who had not just grandchildren but also a great grandchild- but she did slip a pair of bangles on my wrist and bless me. A couple of months later, when my baby was born, she was one of the first to know, and she celebrated the hardest.
I just wanted to include someone dear to me
I had not set out to bring about social change- all I wanted was that someone very dear to me be a part of a day celebrating me. But that brief rebellion clearly got people thinking.
During Navratri that year, a few people invited the women who had lost their husbands to view the golu and participate in the celebrations. Though they were not given manjal kungumam, they got to wear their pattu sarees and sit and chit-chat with the other women.
Over time, in the apartment complex where my mother lived, the participation of widows in social and religious ceremonies got normalised. Nobody batted an eyelid when the groom’s mother draped a bright silk saree and did the aarti to welcome the new bride into her marital home. It was no longer perceived as an act of rebellion when a mother put marutāṇi on her palms and gave her daughter away.
This one step went far in making change
For centuries, women have been conditioned to withdrawing from social life after losing their husband. That attitude has now changed, at least in that small apartment complex, and women continue leading the same life as they did before their official status change from ‘wife’ to ‘widow’.
When I reflect, I realise that had I not thrown my little tantrum when I did, this mainstreaming may not have happened, or may have been delayed.
No, I did not set out to change society, or even a part of it. All I wanted was that someone I cared about be a part of what was an important day for me.
No, she was just not happy when I forced her to participate in the ceremony. Had something gone wrong, I know she would have blamed herself, though in reality it was I who had taken away her choice.
But what did happen was that the traditional way of doing things was questioned, and people gradually decided they wanted to do away with it. That is really the only way to bring about social change- not by forcing big changes, but by gradually chipping away till one day you realise that without you being aware of it, change has come about.
Image source: a still from Bangla film Mukherjee Dar Bou