The bitter half

The bitter half

If ‘bigger’ is greater than ‘big’, is ‘widower’ greater than ‘widow’, asked eight-year-old Arun. It was easy enough to explain the grammar involved, but the question, now grown larger, stayed in my mind. Is widower greater than widow, I asked myself.

My mind travelled across the years and the picture of Paravatham, my childhood neighbour, sprang to life. She was a slight, sad-eyed young woman, clad in a white sari, her head closely cropped. She remained closeted in the kitchen, busying herself with the numerous tasks of feeding a large joint family. She wore no jewels, her forehead was shorn of the bindi and she was barred from taking part in any joyous celebrations. Her sin? She was a child-widow.

When the pontiff of a well-known ‘math’ came visiting, she expressed a desire to meet him, hoping probably to receive some consolation and solace. However she was only allowed to look at him from a distance, hidden behind a pillar. It was believed that the sight of a widow would pollute his august person. All this struck me as preposterous nonsense, but I was well aware that as a teenager my opinions would neither be considered nor understood.

Have the passage of years erased these antediluvian notions? Only partially, for widows are still considered objects of ill-omen. At weddings and on auspicious occasions, they are still kept on the fringes of activity. Kum-kum, the traditional symbol of welcome and farewell is denied to them; so also the offering of flowers.

The widower, on the other hand, suffers no such disabilities. He is not required to sport marks that convey his status. In fact, relatives and friends busy themselves trying to find him a bride, for he is considered a lost and lonely soul in need of companionship and comfort.

It must be admitted that a change of attitude is taking place and some of the prejudices have faded. At a recent wedding, the mother of the bride noticed that after the ‘muhurtham,’ widows were being denied the gift of a blouse-piece and bangles. She immediately stepped in to do the honours. One hopes her tribe will increase, but until then a widow will remain the bitter half of a union and, as Arun innocently put it, widowers greater than widows!                         

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