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20 c h a p t e r 2 Desire, Death, and the Discourse of Sati Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Krishnakanter Uil and Rabindranath Tagore’s Chokher Bali In 1829 the British government passed a law banning the practice of sati, the self-­ immolation of widows at the funeral pyre of their husbands. This move was greatly debated by the indigenous elite, who broadly fell into two camps: traditionalists and social reformers. The traditionalists sought to persuade the British government that it was denying chaste Hindu women the right to express devotion to their husband by self-­ immolation, citing Hindu scripture to support their argument.1 These thinkers lauded the widow who committed sati and considered the practice a sign of the superiority of Indian culture. Social reformers who opposed the practice of sati and were instrumental in having it banned, most notably Rajaramohun Roy, insisted that sati was a cruel, immoral act that subjected the widow to a terrifying death and that its continuance reflected poorly on Indian society. The reformists saw the widow as a victim of caste Hindu society who needed to be saved by the enlightened Hindu male.2 The British were finally convinced by the reformists that the widow was a victim, but they considered her a victim of the barbaric brown man, who needed to be saved by the benevolent and just white man. And thus, as Lata Mani argues, the widow’s benighted life came to be used as the justification for empire.3 In the legal debates of the time these differing ideological perspectives resulted in the creation of the “good” sati, a sati undertaken voluntarily by a woman, which would be condoned by the law, and the “bad” sati, in which the widow who was forced by her husband’s Desire, Death, and the Discourse of Sati ❘ 21 family to mount the funeral pyre would be rescued by a colonial official and then punished by the law. Thus the widow—­ whether she was being thrown on the funeral pyre or being saved from it—­ was co-­ opted by the nationalist, reformist, and imperialist projects for their own respective agendas. Each side used the widow to put forth its own visions of Indian culture, whether traditional and Hindu (traditionalist nationalists ), barbaric or uncivilized (imperialist), or newly coming into a specifically Hindu modernity (reformist nationalists). With the passing of the law banning sati, a large number of widows were left to the mercies of Bengali bhadralok (upper-­caste, middle-­class) patriarchal family structures. While the conjugal bond tied widows to their marital home, they lost all rights within it the moment their husband died and were forced into a life of penury and hardship. Due to the practice of marrying young girls to older men, a large number of widows were young women in their reproductive prime who lived in their deceased husband’s home, often within an extended family, where they looked upon marital relationships but could not enter into any themselves. An increasingly large number of child widows spent their lives in utter misery. In addition Bengali bhadralok society exacted a price for the widow ’s life: her complete submission to Hindu norms of ascetic widowhood . As feminist historian Tanika Sarkar explains, the widow’s life was circumscribed by Hindu ritual injunctions, which insisted on the self-­ abnegation of her body and its desires, whether through ritual fasting or the shaving of hair, with the goal of attaining spiritual salvation.4 While nationalists glorified ascetic widowhood, the reality was quite different. Many widows were abandoned by their natal and marital homes and were banished to places of pilgrimage, such as Kashi, where they were expected to become Vaishnavis, or devotees of Krishna.5 However, the priests of the temple, upon whose goodwill these destitute women depended, often misused their power and compelled them to become prostitutes. Therefore the term Vaishnavi came to be synonymous with a “loose woman,” and consequently the term for “prostitute” in Bengali and Hindustani was baishya or vaishya, a modification of Vaishnavi.6 The widow’s sexuality posed a problem for reformers, who were horrified by the cruelty of ascetic widowhood but could not condone prostitution, which they considered a sign of the moral decay of Hindu society. In this scenario the widow’s sexuality could only be contained by remarriage. Thus Ishwara Chandra Vidyasagar, a fiery 22 ❘ Desire, Death, and the Discourse of Sati public speaker, social reformer, and intellectual, agitated to pass a law legalizing widow...


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