The tribulations of a child-widow

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In ?Chandra? (Oxford University Press, Oxford, Oxford, 2004), Frances Mary Hendry, a Scottish writer who won two Awards for this novel, depicts the plight of an 11-year-old girl who is married, after having to stop her education despite topping her class, to a boy in Jaisalmer in the desert of Rajasthan. The father believes in marrying her before she starts getting ?flighty like Western girls?. This is an arranged marriage. The girl has not even seen the boy, except in a photo. After the fairy-tale wedding, she is sent off alone on a journey from Delhi to Jaisalmer. It is only on reaching the remote farm that she learns that Roop, her husband, is no more. In spite of knowing this, her parents have sent her here. Tradition demands that the bride stays with the in-laws. She hears women shrieking and wailing. The father-in-law refuses to answer her touching his feet as a sign of respect. The blame for her husband?s death is squarely placed on her. The mother-in-law is clear about it when she moans ?Why did you have to marry such a snake? My son!? Chandra is cursed, struck and spat on by everyone. She is beaten up with sticks and thorny branches, her hair is pulled out, she is ridiculed. When she says she wants to return home, she is treated as insolent . Secluded, she is condemned to live like a pariah, and serve the family. She is smeared with ashes. For her mother-in-law, she is unclean; her sight carries misfortune. She must therefore keep her distance from everyone. But Chandra will not take it lying down. Drawing inspiration from goddess Durga and from what her teacher used to say about not being silly and about justice for all, and with the help of an older widow in the family, she will escape to her grandmother?s place ? not without difficulties. People will follow her, watch her, and try to abduct her during a visit to a market. But a low-caste man she met on her journey back will protect her. Her grandmother will arrange for her to be adopted by a relative in Scotland. ?Chandra? takes a swipe at blind faith and rigid adherence to tradition: the tradition, in certain parts of India, that dictates that widows are accursed and may have to beg for a living, and be forever servile to the husband?s family. However, if we have here a conservative family which believes in child-marriage, which is illegal by the way, and which tenaciously holds that a son is a blessing, a daughter a curse, we also have Chandra?s doting grandmother and the Mukherjees who shelter her. We have the low-caste unemployed man who fights tooth and nail to give Chandra her freedom. And we have the relatives who adopt her and love her. As long as there are such understanding and open-minded people around, there is hope for all those in the situation of Chandra. Lack of education Ignorance is due to a lack of education. It breeds all sorts of misconceptions, which cause people to behave irrationally, to the point of embittering the innocent lives of others. When one is blind, one fails to see the consequences of one?s actions. Believing in tradition is one thing. Going to extremes is another. The book dramatises the conflict between rigid belief and liberal attitudes. If the father-in-law quips that ?No woman in my family will ever shame me by going outside to be stared at by every man in town, or working as if her men folk can?t afford to keep her,? there are people around Chandra to stand up for her rights. The archaic views and intolerable attitudes of Chandra?s father and her father-in-law make you feel sick and indignant. The author, unfortunately, tends to be too descriptive and does not explore enough the psychology of the protagonist. It must be said though that she has the right word in the right place, which makes reading enjoyable. Certain unusual combinations are remarkable: ?she must be guarded-warded; Don?t look so white-fright; When I am not aching-creaking from the beatings; ; Such a fright-sight; I shiver-quiver at the sound; England is chilling-freezing all the time.? The book, in spite of a contrived ending, is interesting for the issues it raises: child-marriage, widow-slavery, the power of tradition, the necessity to combat ignorance through education, the respect owed to the rights of children and male dominance. Suresh RAMPHUL
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