“As long as a woman has a husband, she has esteem in the village”: An Excerpt from "The Lost Generation"

06 March, 2016

Kolkata-based journalist and writer Nidhi Dugar Kundalia has written for various publications, often on society and subcultures. In her book, The Lost Generation, Kundalia chronicles twelve dying professions across the nation. Many of these professions, such as the letter writers of Bombay or the nomadic storytellers of Andhra Pradesh, Kundalia notes in her introduction to the book, are rendered obsolete due to technological advances, becoming “the debris left behind by the globalisation that is rapidly transforming the originally diverse and syncretic Indian society.” Some, such as the Urdu scribes and the kabootarbaaz of old Delhi, have lost their patrons—the kings, the nobles and the landlords. Kundalia also notes how these professions were almost always caste-coded, and passed on from one generation to the next. One such profession, of which she writes in the following excerpt, is that of the rudaalis of Rajasthan—helpless, impoverished lower-caste women that were hired as professional mourners for deaths in high-caste households. Although, Kundalia writes, “the changing times, enculturation and automation are all slowly eliminating these mourning practices, consigning them as some sort of an anthropological curiosity,” these women, whose lives are largely dictated by the upper-caste men of the village, remain “caught in the web of caste hierarchy.”

The Thakur sits on a charpoy outside his whitewashed haveli, wearing a stark white dhoti-kurta; a thick gold chain with a Hanuman pendant disappears between the buffalo humps around his neck. I scan the haveli behind him. A veiled woman peeps out from a jharokha on the upper floor of the building. She quickly disappears when she catches me looking.

The feudal lord’s progeny still carries his weight in the environs of the village. Eight or nine men called chelas, or followers, surround him—two attending to his horse cart, others sitting like hens on their eggs, by his feet, and the rest standing with their hands behind their backs, trotting around him in circles. In reality as well as in the pages of history these sidekick roles are demarcated as efficiently and clearly as that of a ship steward’s. These chelas are actually darogas, the hereditary servants who are the illegitimate offspring of a thakur with a daori, or female servant. The girls who were born to daoris were mostly killed at birth; the rest were either given away as dowry during the weddings of their legitimate daughters to chiefs and nobles, or married to other chelas.

The nobles, chiefs and thakurs housed the daoris in separate accommodations, often on the fringes of the havelis. Apart from serving as concubines for these thakurs, the daoris also doubled as rudaalis, or mourners, for the family in times of death and sickness.

“Do you know His Highness of Jodhpur? Yes, the maharaja and I are descendants of the same family,” the Thakur announces proudly. “I also recently attended a wedding in the Jaisalmer maharaja’s family. Madam, we are warm and hospitable to our worst enemies too, unlike people in your cities, hai na, Satar?” he said, turning to look at my driver, who is squatting with the Thakur’s other servants. “I have seen you around. Wasn’t your father a khaas [special] chela of my father . . . Ah, anyway, we’ll talk later,” he tells Satar, as his other servants move their head in accord. By now, Satar has folded both his hands and is nodding fervently. The Thakur would be able to peddle him for a few bags of grain, for nothing.

“So what is it that you want to know, madam?”

“Do you have rudaalis here?”

“Yes, they live here. They rise early in the morning, finish their work and help around the village. This village mostly has my family members. Like branches of this big khejri tree . . . spread all over. So if someone dies, she visits them and shares their sorrows with them.” His thick features are at once simple and extravagant. His eyes are small, so small and deep that it’s tough to look into them directly.

“Someone has to cry when the members of our royal families die, right?” he says, the tone calculating, controlled and formal; his eyes never sit on one person but glide through his audience listening to the monologue; he asks questions but does not wait for replies.

“Women’s brains are hardwired to feel loss and grief. They have a weak heart,” the Thakur says, patting his chest under his kurta. “We don’t allow the women in our families to make a sight of themselves outside our homes. High-caste woman do not cry in front of commoners. Even if their husbands die, they need to preserve their dignity. These low-caste women, rudaalis, do the job for them. The whole village feels the loss . . . She represents their sadness,” he says, concluding his speech, and the chelas furiously nod their heads, as if mentally applauding him.

“Do they live with their families or—”

“No, no,” interjects the Thakur before I can finish the question. “They live in their own kutiya near the haveli. These women have no family. We are their family. The whole village is their family. Once they leave their home and come as a gift to me in marriage, they never go back, even to visit. They have to live with us in the village and serve us menfolk. Achha . . . aur batao, what else do you want to talk about?” he grunts, getting restless.

“Can I meet them?”

“No, madam, our women have to preserve their lajja,” he answers immediately, as if the possibility of such a feat had never been considered before. “They can’t be out in the open. It is their duty to take care of the children and men of the households. We don’t allow them to meet strangers. After all, we have to protect their virtue. You can ask me whatever you want to know. They are delicate fragile things . . .”

He raises his hands, as if trying to catch an elusive halfmoon. “My father used to tell me that we really need to look after them. Most women in the zenana are busy right now. My newborn son keeps them occupied,” he says, laughing uproariously, taking pride in having fathered a sixth son.

Obliging my request to walk around the village, the Thakur sends one of his chelas (or the daroga) with me and Satar, instructing him to walk with a thick lathi in his hand. And when I dismiss the need for them to do so, the Thakur laughs. “Just in case you come across miscreants and stray dogs,” he offers, his paws on his paunch.

The chela walks behind us, his eyes lowered, fixed on the path ahead of us. Young boys warily trickle out of their homes and hunt for their green marbles in the hot sand. A middle-aged woman cleaning her pots with sand, covered head to toe in a black translucent odhni over a tight-fitting mirrored backless choli, runs back into her home when she sees us, peeping out of the half-closed door.

“Do you have any sisters?’ I ask the chela, a young boy with lost brown eyes.

“No, two were born to my mother, but died a few days after they were born. We don’t keep girl children, madam.”

Pushing the envelope a bit further, I ask one of the boys, “So is the Thakur your father?”

“No, madam, I only have a mother. We are not supposed to have fathers. My mother also never had a father,” he replies, in a low, even tone, his head slightly lowered.

“That’s my mother,’ he says, glancing at another veiled woman peeping through the door. She lifts a shoulder in acknowledgement. I wish I could see her eyes—to check if they tell a story.

By now, the pitiless sun is reflected off the burning sand. We approach the gentle slope of a sand hill. At its peak, a crowning silhouette appears on a far-off set of hills—the centuries-old fortress of Sonar Kila in the city of Jaisalmer, with its great walls and crenelated towers set against a vast, empty sky, a well-girded medieval town within it that is untouched by time, still retaining age-old legends, stories and, along with them, archaic rituals.

Satar informs me as we drive out of the village that the daoris are the mistresses of these Thakurs, and that if they reproduce with them, the children never have an official father. “Their ration cards, voter IDs, all have names only of the mothers, who retain their maiden name as their surname, but sometimes they don’t even have that. If a daori has to be taken to the hospital for childbirth—which rarely happens because midwives deliver the babies at home—it’s in a fully packed car. No one is allowed to see her during all of those nine months. If a girl is born, she is mostly “laid to rest” right away. The birth of a daughter, even from a legitimate wife, is not liked by the Rajputs. It is felt that the father of a girl is would automatically have to show himself as inferior at the time of her marriage,” he says.

“Inferior?” I croak.

“Do you know what the going rate for dowry is around here, madam?” he says in a mocking tone.

“It is six to eight kilos of gold at least. Plus, if you are from a rich family, you have to give them servants, cars, silver, welcome them with your heads lowered, and heed to their incessant demands. Last year, a girl’s wedding took place for the first time in this village in eighty years. She was among the few who survived. They tried to poison her but she vomited it out. So her family assumed that she was a gift from Lord Krishna and kept her.”

“Do they not protest, Satar, these biological sons of the Thakur and these rudaalis?”

“It’s rare, madam. Most villagers are not educated. They are really supressed and aren’t allowed to flourish. It’s a caste-bound community. The lower castes will always remain only lower castes. Rudaalis here belong to the Darogi community and, in a way, have better lives than the rudaalis who live in the villages independently, like those of Mirasi community, who do not serve the thakurs. At least the Thakur looks after the Darogis financially. The others have to fend for themselves.”

Satar asks me if I have heard the popular rudaali saying that goes:

Pando bhalo na kosko, beti bhali naek

Leno bhalo na baapko, sahib rakhya tek.

[Walking on foot even for a mile is not favoured, nor is the birth of a single daughter.

A debt of one’s father is not favoured, so may God protect us from these misfortunes.]

By being concubines, rudaalis from the Darogi community have access to their feudal lords and their families, and would never otherwise be acknowledged as legitimate consorts. Where women’s participation in the public realm is carefully policed, occupying the position of a concubine gives them and their children access to the homes of rich landed men. They pray—to the god Bheruji, who himself was a lusty bachelor and loved seducing young girls, especially from lower castes—for these men to live long lives. In a way, they seize these cultural and religious practices to achieve dignity, which—otherwise, being landless, impoverished women—would not be accessible to them.

The Rajputs have always been wistful of their past and keenly conscious of their genealogy, Satar explains to me. They emphasized a Rajput ethos that was martial in spirit, with a fierce pride in lineage and tradition. They claimed prerogatives and privileges over the general population and were eager to maintain them. They also devised rituals where their high status and position was preserved, which translated into elaborate death rituals. Lamenters and mourners, hence, gained precedence, and unfortunate women who were widowed, impoverished or served as servants in the royal households were turned into rudaalis, or professional mourners. “The rudaali, somewhat “chose” her future the moment she survived her birth to a lower-caste mother,” murmurs Satar.

We get back on to the roads by afternoon, crossing alternate acres of rocky and sandy ground. The delicate violet flowers of the aak tree, the yellow crispiness of the jharberis, the white whiskers of the snowbush—all the seeds of these deserts lie dormant, soundless, sightless, unawake; wait they must for the weather to change, for the old to be replaced by the new. The dunes are lit a bright orange by now, undulating ridges set by hot winds, and criss-crossed by the large tracks of desert jeeps, a few camel trails and the smaller, stranger ones of a scorpion trudging across the sand.

A young man from the Meena community is almost at his deathbed in a nearby village, the Thakurs chela had informed us. “The Meena is an upper-caste community. The rudaalis have already assembled outside his home. The village isn’t far, about six kilometres from here,” he’d said, pointing southwards. We drive into the quiet village with a few mud and straw homes in sight, all scattered across the yellowed terrain. Most of the huts face away from the blowing in from the deserts, each of them closed within a mud wall which is short and pocked with holes. Parched khejri trees and bare methi jhaar offer feeble relief from the sun with their scanty shade. Barefoot children play on the street, rolling a mud ball with a stick. They stop skipping around when they see us and watch us curiously as we come to a halt.

“Have you come for Kundan Kakosa?” inquires one of them, coming forward. “Go there.” He points his stick in the direction of a two-storeyed pukka house, but follows us nevertheless, guiding us around his village. It is the only pukka house in the village, outside which a small group of people have gathered. Among the party are several men whose white cotton dhotis are fluttering in the hot wind. There is a cripple who usually begs outside the village temple, manoeuvring himself on his hands, hoping to procure some alms from the gathering. The sarpanch is a square-shouldered man whose expression speaks of restlessness. He is inquiring into Kundan’s farmlands and asking after the deceased’s inebriated son who was being given glasses of lemon water to rid him of his hangover so as to make him able enough to perform his father’s last rites. The women squat separately on the ground.

Three rudaalis stand out among the crowd, dressed in black odhnis while the rest of the women sit with their long, colourful veils drawn down to their chins. They all look into the hut where Kundan has been placed on a bed of sacred kusa grass, on a spot circled by cow dung.

A few male relatives hover above Kundan while a pandit places a sprig of tulsi and pours a few drops of water from the Ganga river into his mouth to delay the messengers of Yama, the god of death. A cow is brought to stand next to him and then hurriedly pushed out moments later into the backyard through another door. Kundan was supposed to grasp the cow’s tail to signify his safe carriage to the other world but before he could do so, he took his last breath. A relative feels his pulse and silently declares him dead. And the rudaalis immediately break into action.

They gasp and cry loudly, tossing their heads back, and wail to the heavens, beating their chests and slapping the ground in front of them. Their veils drop every now and then, exposing their faces and long necks tattooed with traditional symbols. Soon, thick tears start flowing, staining their cheeks with black kohl in the process, falling on to their odhnis. They don’t wipe the tears away, most dry under the hot sun before fresh ones flow down.

This upper-caste funeral procession is a performance—with the village as its audience—of pomp and pageantry. Once the villagers have all assembled, they trudge up to the widow sitting behind a veil, her shoulders shaking with silent sobs, to break her glass bangles by banging them together and remove the red kumkum in her maang, thus solemnizing her move into widowhood.

Arrey, tharo toh suhag giyore [Oh, your husband is now dead],” they cry, holding the widow’s hands. “Arrey ab tharo ei duniya mein kain wajood re [What is the reason for your existence in this world now],” they beat their chests. The pandit starts his chants along with two of his assistants. He usually sends a subordinate to perform the rites, but Kundan was a known landlord and fed the Brahmins every Saturday, and that demanded the pandit’s presence.

Aum Namo Narayana, Aum Nama Sivaya,” they chant. The pandit pulls out a small jar with sandalwood paste and applies it on the dead man’s forehead. A lamp is lit near his head and incense is burned while the pandit reads out more chants from his booklet. Every time a visitor enters, the rudaalis wail louder in a show of irreplaceable grief and loss. Then, in one of the most striking features of their enactment, the women move their torsos together in circles, beating their chests in a cadence.

Hey ram, hey ram,” they chant. But the audience watches them, falling into the trance weaved by them, giving into their grief, letting their eyes well up looking at the sight.

Some touch the feet of the deceased Kundan, some hover about for a few minutes and, having seen to the formalities and having asked the polite questions, settle into a silence and eventually leave. The rest sing praises in his memory.

“Yes, yes, he liked his moustache trimmed downwards,” says his barber.

“He helped me get my daughter married to his munshi’s son. What a great man!” whispers another.

“He did that without any commission?” asks another. “Just two kilos of gold and my three goats.”

Intervals between the crying and mourning sessions only come when the rudaalis break for lunch, provided by the relatives of the deceased—some leftover rotis from the morning and raw onions. The role of the aristocratic women, meanwhile, is restricted to within the grieving house, where, after the body leaves the home, private rituals continue. But this is only the first session: the performance goes on for twelve days after a death. A longer mourning period better explains the family’s class denomination, and the more theatrical the act, the more it is spoken about in the neighbours’ homes.

“As long as a woman has a husband, she has esteem in the village,” says Feroja, one of the three rudaalis at the mourning. “With him gone, she has to cover her face from strangers, keep away from pujas and be the unlucky one who caused her husband’s death.”

We saunter back to the home of Feroja and Madami— her husband’s brother’s wife. They live together with Feroja’s thirteen-year-old son, Bakoo. Both Feroja’s and Madami’s spouses died young in the same year due to an unexplained disease. Feroja lifts her veil as we walk an isolated path to her home. She looks to be in her early thirties—a worn woman, her fingers like twines, her feet cracked and hard—feet that have walked hundreds of miles through the desert to visit nearby villages for funerals. I suppose the old refugees travelling through borders must have looked much like Feroja. These women took to becoming rudaalis about twelve years ago. Before that they travelled with their husbands, singing around the region for alms.

“We sang our way all over the desert. We sang about the river, the trees and sand dunes. We hunted in the desert, ate what we hunted and went from village to village. Wherever we went, we left a trail of music in our wake,” Feroja says wistfully, spinning her fingers around her head, virtually wrapping the whole world in a web of songs. “And at last I think they felt exhausted. Both were young but they died the same year. We became signs of ill omen everywhere we went after that. Two widows whose ill luck killed their husbands. So we finally came back to our village and Bharauni bai introduced us to this work. She gave us her old black odhnis. Black symbolizes death. The favourite colour of the god of death, Yama,” she adds, tucking her odhni between her teeth to stop it from sliding off her head. “Even Bharauni bai is dead now. Everyone dies. We knew we’d always get work in this profession.” The rest of the time, they live more or less conventional lives: help the villagers with odd chores such as making cow-dung cakes for lighting kitchen fires, chopping wood and cleaning homes. The chorus of peacocks that had earlier filled the village had ceased and been replaced by the sound of the night insects, a steady humming background. A breeze is coming up. All the dogs in the village bark and then fall silent.

Excerpted from Nidhi Dugar Kundalia's The Lost Generation: Chronicling India's Dying Professions, published by Random House India in 2015.