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Not to defile, but to defy 
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Illustration by Deni lal

Mumbai has limped back to normalcy after the mammoth funeral of Balasaheb Thackeray. I watched his final journey with a great deal of interest… especially the composition of the cortege. All eyes were on the members of the Thackeray family as they clambered on to the flower bedecked truck that would carry Balasaheb to Shivaji Park for the first public cremation at the historic venue since 1920, when Bal Gangadhar Tilak was granted the same privilege. While most observers and journalists focused on the presence of the estranged cousins Raj and Uddhav, I concentrated on the women of the family… the two daughters-in-law (Rashmi and Smita), plus, Sharmila, Raj's wife. Their body language was even more fascinating to monitor. There is something about the nature of our funerals that is unambiguously macho, in that women are almost always excluded from active participation in the proceedings. That may have had relevance in another era, when the supposedly delicate, fragile nature of grieving ladies was given due consideration and their tears were shielded from public view.
The story has altered, but a little. It is still the men of the family who take full charge and conduct the all-important last rites. It is they who light the funeral pyre and ensure the ashes are strewn in a holy river. Women remain on the sidelines, holding back tears and consoling young children. It is heartbreaking to note at such times that the ‘man of the house' is an alarmingly young lad, forced to confront tragedy head on and fulfil his duties at the funeral. But there are progressive families that have boldly defied age-old traditions and literally taken matters into their own hands. I remember the spirited Mallika Sarabhai performing the last rites of her father, the legendary Dr Vikram Sarabhai, much to the astonishment of the conservative elements within Ahmedabad society.
The Thackeray ladies were discreet and dignified through the long ordeal, that saw both Raj and Uddhav breaking down and sobbing. Balasaheb's grandchildren put on a brave face and it was left to young Aditya (Uddhav's son and the leader of the youth wing of the Sena), to console his father and take charge of arrangements, even as his female cousins stayed close to their mothers, away from public glare. Apart from Sushma Swaraj, Maneka Gandhi and Supriya Sule, there were hardly any women present near the pyre, as four priests chanted the final prayers and logs of sandal wood were arranged over Balasaheb's frail body.
Weddings and funerals are excellent indicators of how women are placed in a particular society. While the modern Indian wedding has been rapidly and attractively democratised during the past two decades, with women playing dominant roles, our funerals are stuck in ancient times, still excluding women from the many rituals. Elders insist this practice has something to do with ‘impurity' (read: menstruation). This is so depressingly retrogressive! I have discussed this delicate issue with progressive priests (yes, they exist!), and they plead helplessness. We can't change the shastras, they point out. To which I argue, even the shastras are open to interpretation? Concepts of female impurity must be thrown out of the window once and for all. Especially during occasions that demand an intense emotional engagement. Like funerals.
Here's a confession: I have attended several funerals of loved ones—too many, alas. And have organised a few personally. I have broken and bent a few rules while performing the last rites. This, I have done, with full faith in my actions, knowing that my abiding love for the dearly departed would overcome whichever lapses the officiating priests would later discover. And yes, years ago, I have done this while I was menstruating. My private pact with the powers that be in heaven above, provided the required protection. Sure, I defied. But I neither defiled nor felt defiled. I did what I had to for the person I loved. So help me God.

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