I had hesitated to shave off my hair for one more reason than the ones I enumerated before. For the longest time, a Hindu married woman with a shaved off head meant only one thing - a widow. It’s the worst fate that could befall a woman. While the loss of a husband is a loss in any culture at any time for any woman, for a Hindu woman, it had meant a particularly virulent form of destitution, where she was relegated to the margins of society -- stigmatized lifelong by a bewildering array of exclusionary social rituals and practices, practiced daily or during family celebrations or community festivals. Her options were either to remain somewhat of a domestic help in the extended family, often being predated upon by the men at her in-laws; or worse, being banished to Kashi (Benaras) - forced to live a life of denial
This image of the destitute widow – clad in all-white, with shaved head and sorrowful eyes – is so seared into our cultural imagination, bolstered by stories in literature and visualized in films, that it still overpowers the later 19th century narrative of widows, enabled by the life-affirming reforms of Vidyasagar, whereby she could not only re-marry, but more importantly, have a rudimentary education. The scope of that education only increased in the 20th century, and a later generation of widows could not only study but also earn and sustain their families. Of course, they could eke out only a difficult and precarious living, but it was definitely a far cry from the Kashi-bound widow of yore.
When I thought of shaving off my hair, what deterred me most was this association with widows - never mind that bald-headed widows hardly exist any more! I knew that when people would see me thus, the first thought that would mistakenly come to their minds would be of a reality that was not mine. I didn’t want them to have that thought, even for a moment. Hence I deferred.However, the reality that was mine was getting hard to bear.
After more than three years of separation, I was getting tired of being in that peculiar no-man’s-land of being neither married nor divorced. I strongly felt the need for closure. A legal closure was important, not just because we had had a registry marriage in addition to a social/religious wedding ceremony, but also because it would give finality to an arrangement we had already settled into for a fairly long time. This was however easier said than done.
I had sought informal legal advice from a college senior, a High Court advocate, during a particularly fraught period much before the pandemic; and it was understood that she would represent me when I was ready for legal proceedings. But unfortunately, she died suddenly in 2020 from cancer. And I had neither the time nor the energy to look for a new lawyer. But I also could not continue in the liminal space I found myself in.
In 2017, I had really wanted to start a new life in a new place -- one which had no association with my previous life. But that option was not a very feasible one with a small child. Her easy transition to a new school in (what was for her) a wholly new environment was the first thing that had to be addressed (and of course the admission process had to begin much before relocation). My life had to be arranged around her school routine and not the other way round. This is to state a given. But givens are never easy to deal with, however easy they may be to theorize, especially by those who don’t have to face it.
Living in the same city with her father ensured that she had weekends with him, as well as part-vacations and other festivities without any hassles. There was also better room for being flexible and dealing with emergencies, this way. For the first five years of her life in Amsterdam, she had lived with only us. And she loved/loves her father. Our separation was already a huge blow in her little life… I didn’t have the heart to make it worse for her.
She missed her life in Amsterdam terribly, but she didn’t understand the ‘blow’ till much later.
We relocated back to Kolkata in late July 2017, to start her new school. Her father returned six months later, after wrapping things up in Amsterdam. The intervening period, we would have in any case lived at my natal home with my father, who had been recently widowed. He had lived entirely alone for a year; having us with him thus gave him great joy. At 81, he was a pretty active and agile man, firm on his feet and still capable of weathering storms - as I found out. He absorbed the shock of my separation with a stoicism that still amazes me. He would pick up Srishti from school, make tea for me in the evening when I returned after teaching (I had taken a Guest position at Presidency, for the time being), potter around the house doing this and that and instruct the house staff like a true mistress. But his health started deteriorating unaccountably just two months into my return; and a week after Shekhar’s return from the Netherlands, he suffered a freak kidney failure and was hospitalized for almost five weeks, most of which was spent in the ICU. Didi happened to be here then; she managed the prolonged medical emergency almost singlehandedly, even as she was recovering from a knee surgery herself & after exhausting her extraordinary leave, went back to her work and life in the US.
In the long months at home after hospitalization, when Baba was first bed-ridden and then limped back to a fragile normality, there would have been no question of me living anywhere else but with him - even if I had not been separated. Srishti understood this; that her Mamma needed to be with her Dadu to take care of him. That became the default mode of her existence. But somewhere, there was an uneasiness in her mind about this arrangement – of her not being able to stay with her own father because her mother had to look after hers. It was not just that it was unfair, but there was something more to it that she couldn’t quite fathom.
My heart broke every time I sensed that confusion in her, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the whole truth. I couldn’t continue living the half-lie of my existence as well.
I felt caged. I had tried to break free of one but found myself in another. I was now stuck in Kolkata, for both my daughter and father, and doomed to exploitative work (with ignominious salary and designation) for as long as I could see. Worse: even my mobility within the city was restricted, given ayah/nanny timings and the vagaries of their attendance; forget travelling outside.
I felt rage, seething rage at what I perceived to be life’s continual unfairness to me – which had started far back in time than my return to Kolkata in 2017.
I also felt rage because I was trying my best to be fair to those close to me, given the circumstances, but found it difficult, nay impossible, to be fair to all at once. Fairness, I discovered, can’t be balanced out equally: to be fair to yourself, you have to be almost invariably unfair to someone else; to be fair to a dear one would most likely necessitate being unfair to another.
But I felt rage most of all because I didn’t get the chance to mourn the death of my marriage.
We mourn the death of a person through religious rituals, no matter which religion we belong to, or whether we believe in religion or not. Those rituals – whether spare or elaborate – are not just exercises in honour of the dead, but also an acknowledgement of a deep loss for the living.Widows/widowers mourn the death of their spouses. But what about the death of a marriage, the death of a relationship? How do you mourn that? How do you mourn the long arc of deterioration from “I can’t live without you” to “I can’t live with you any more”? How do you mourn the death of love, of connectedness in body and mind?
There must be as many different kinds of mourning as there are loves. But wives are not supposed to mourn when they are mothers, especially when they have themselves made the choice to break away. They are just supposed to get their act together and play the mother ever after.
In my case, there was just too much to deal with incessantly, one after the other, even apart from the child. There was no room left for mourning.
I got rid of my hair in October 2020 - above all, for convenience at the time. But also to register my rage and express my mourning to myself. There should be some outward manifestation of what I felt, I decided.
It was liberating.