Retelling of the Concept of Widowhood through the Stories of B. L. Gautam by Aditi

The present paper makes an effort to bring out the agony, pain and deep-seated desires
lurking somewhere deep in the corner of their hearts. With the beginning of twentieth century
and a rise in the social movements, the pleas of the widows were also taken into account. In the
present paper, I have taken the short stories, “Mohammed A Mechanic and Mary A Maid” and
“Easy Savitri” written by B. L. Gautam. In both the stories the women protagonists are widows
and the fate they experience are somehow the result of their state of being ‘widows’. However,
the stories I am dealing with are contrasting in social set-up where one is the story of modern day
city the other one is dealing with the rural framework. The stories are quite metaphorical as the
names of its characters are taken from mythology who were chaste and totally devoted to their
husbands. Where Mary is depicted as a maid in one story and Savitri is shown as a whore. So,
these women characters are shown in complete contrast to the images already existing in the
psyche of the human beings. The stories are a well thought out description of the lives of these
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Retelling of the Concept of Widowhood through the Stories of B. L. Gautam 2
widows in their consecutive backgrounds giving readers a peep into their psyche and their
designed lives.
Key Words: lurking, pleas, protagonists, metaphorical.
Difficult Processes of Developing an Identity
As women we have all gone through a diverse body of experiences. We have laughed and
cried together on several occasions, we have grown up hoping the world would change for the
better. If on one hand we have been thankful for the privileges life has accorded to us, we are
equally conscious of the difficulties woman undergoes in the process of forging her identity.
There is a definite bonding and empathy we share in reading, relating and interpreting women. In
the course of my study, I have come across literature that is probing the many anxieties and
frustrations in women’s lives. It is also striving to recreate and rewrite a possibly new script of
commitment and liberation, of affirmation and intervention. This paper seeks to pull those who
have been pushed away from the centre by a constant politics of power and exclusion into a
landscape of silence and seclusion. I am going to put my point forward with the analysis of two
short stories namely, “Mohammed A Mechanic and Mary A Maid” and “Easy Savitri” written by
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Retelling of the Concept of Widowhood through the Stories of B. L. Gautam 3
Unheard Voice in Past Literature
The Indian situation, as far as the question of women’s identity is concerned, presents a
very complex picture. Woman’s voice was unheard of in literature for the last few centuries but
still it has not become sweeter. No one even thought about the possibility of her voice whether
sweet or bitter. Irony is that women in this world lose out by being women. The social
inculcation is such as to incline them towards the so-called natural vocation of women, i.e., to be
a wife and a mother. Subordination or acceptance of male authority, whether of father, husband
or son, is a cherished Indian value sanctified by tradition. Their choices and potentials are so
often thwarted by the societies of which they are integral part. The enclosed space indicating a
woman’s lot in the traditional Indian set-up is in response towards the eulogized Sita/Savitri
prototype or rather the ideas and beliefs provided by Manusmriti. As Anees Jung opines, “I had
not known then that silence could be a language through which women in this land realized
themselves, I owe that legacy to my mother, a legacy which I am just beginning to unravel and
understand.” (Jung, 1987:20)
A Product of Man’s Need
The traditional woman in Hindu culture was the product of man’s need/requirement.
Woman in any position or state of mind is potentially dangerous to man, hence a man has to be
both wary of her and control her. It is this outlook, which dominates the traditional Indian male
attitude even today. However, this kind of orthodox attitude was alien to the Vedic period. The
respect she enjoyed during that time is incomparable to the present day. She was seen as the
‘Divine Shakti’ in Kena Upanishad. In the period of the Smritis, which followed the Vedic age,
Manusmriti was written by Manu, the lawgiver of Hinduism. Manu’s philosophy was:
During childhood, a female must depend upon her father, during youth,
on her husband; her husband being dead, upon her sons, if she has no sons, upon the near
kinsmen of her husband; in default, upon those of her father, if she has no parental kinsmen,
upon the sovereign, a woman must never govern herself as she likes.
Relative Existence
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Retelling of the Concept of Widowhood through the Stories of B. L. Gautam 4
Thus, she was denied the right of free existence. She, in order to appropriate her existence
has to be in a relation with man whether it is as a wife or as a mother. Her existence is relative,
and relational only with man. Even in present scenario, a woman is viewed only in terms of her
relation to her husband, her children, her in-laws, her family, etc. Why she just cannot be herself
having an independent identity of herself? Why she needs a relation to define herself? Why she
is denied the opportunity of exploring her individuality on her own terms? And above all, Why
she just can’t be a normal human being? Why so many questions creep in only because of her
being a woman? These are the questions which are lurking in every woman’s heart since her
birth which are rarely being answered and are ignored for their worthlessness by the patriarchal
Where tradition is still the style
This style when takes a shape
When shape comes forth in color and candour
It is the sentimental
Indian Wife.
The Role and Stability of the Family
The survival of Indian Civilization depends on the stability of the family. The backbone
of the matrimonial harmony includes the patient endurance, love, submissiveness and the forgive
and forget policy of the wife. The Woman as wife plays an important role in upholding her
position as wife and mother. The classical Hindu wife has to confirm to the concept embodied in
the famous Sloka Grahini, Sachivah, Sakhi, Mithah Priya-Shishyalalite Kala Vidhu meaning that
as a wife, woman has multiple roles to play. She has to be a counsellor, the playmate to the
Karyeshu Mantri, Karaneshu Daasi
Rupecha Lakshmi, Kshamayaa Dharitri
Bhojyeshu Mata, Shayentu Rambha
Shat Karma Yukta, Kula Dharma Patni. (Achary: 351)
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Retelling of the Concept of Widowhood through the Stories of B. L. Gautam 5
(A woman should serve her husband as minister while counseling, by her looks she should be as
Goddess Lakshmi, like the earth in forbearance, as a Mother like feeding and in bed, she must be
like the celestial beauty).
The nature of Indian wife is such that she readily accepts life with all its vagaries. The
matrimonial ties, however cherishable and strong, are always in the danger of dissolution under
the annihilating blows of various forces. As a wife and mother, service, sacrifice, submissiveness
and tolerance are her required attributes. Excessive endurance and series of adjustments she
makes in her life faithfully and obediently are her admired qualities. In the words of Mary Ann
Fergusson, “…in every age woman has been seen primarily as mother, wife, Mistress and as sex
object in their roles in relationship to man” (4-5). As a woman grows, she is inculcated with the
ideas of self-abnegation, of pride in patience, of the need to accept a lower status through the
mythical modes of Sita, Savitri, and Gandhari.
In scripture, in law, in sacred ordinances, in popular usage, a wife is declared by the wise
to be half the body of her husband, equally sharing the fruit of pure and impure acts; of him
whose wife is not deceased, half the body survives; how should another take the property while
half the body of the owner lives (The law according to the Dayabhaga School c.1200 A.D.). If a
woman is seen purely in relation to her husband then, what could be the status of those who have
lost their husbands? They are victimized for being a woman which deepens further for being a
widow. The paradox is that the women themselves are held responsible for the death of their
husbands as, “the dayan had eaten up her own suhag” (Easy Savitri).
Widows are regarded as outcasts and denied access to socio-cultural life of their own
family/community. Question of widowhood is linked with the issue of women’s subordination
and their struggle for empowerment within the patriarchy. A close look at some of the widows in
the writings of Tagore, Raja Rao and Anita Desai deals with the problems of adjustment and
belonging. Restraint, control and abstention are looked at as crucial to a widow’s life.
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Keeping in view the patriarchal obsession with woman’s “purity,” it is not surprising that
much of nineteenth century novels in India focused on this theme. Discrimination suffered by the
disadvantaged will be my aim to show in this article. It brings out women’s agonizing tales of
repression and rebellion. I will try to look at the conflicts and contradictions, the anxiety and
absences that determine the predicament of Indian widows.
Widows had no rights and their lives were determined by “Prescriptions, Injunctions and
Laws” to regulate social behavior. They were made to follow a specific code of conduct to
restrain them from erratic, impulsive and immoral desires. And if they do not follow this, they
are taken to be immoral and unwomanly.
Mary the Maid
In the story “Mohammed A Mechanic and Mary A Maid,” Mary, the maid to Negis is the
central character and the entire story revolves around her. She is just twenty three years old and
has lost her husband who was a drunkard. But life has never stopped for anyone and it is on a
role every time. She is poor and in order to feed herself and her family she restarts her profession
of a maid now at Negis, the typical Sahabs of upper class bureaucracy in Mumbai. Physically,
she was very attractive and seems that the death of her husband had not impacted her beauty. She
soon became the topic of everybody’s discussion especially at Mohan Batteries, the hotspot of
that area and everybody wanted to have her only as a mistress not as a wife. Rajesh Bajaj, owner
of Mohan Batteries has a dig on Mr. Negi that, “Negi must be visiting heaven at least once a day
then.” Soon Mary became a part of Negis household as she was pleasant, smart and pretty good
at her work. Mrs. Negi, popularly known as Tara Madam, a senior officer of Sales Tax under the
State Government of Maharashtra and posted in Nasik. She visited her husband only at weekends
and their only son, Rohit was in hostel. Mary had her age and her looks at her favor which made
her Mr. Negi’s favorite. She was the apple-candy of every male person in the colony, which
everyone wanted to consume. She was ‘objectified’ as ‘sexy doll’ with which they all wanted to
play. She is described animatedly by Bajaj as, “Look at the breasts, tight and shapely. You think
of her hips and you will have erection. When she passes from here, all eyes escort her till the
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colony’s gate. This lame locksmith too, the bastard keeps rotating the key in the hole for nothing;
you can see a blue film in his eyes.”
She is a maid, poor, a woman, and a widow, so, she is dehumanized into a commodity by
the patriarchal society. She is seen available to them with no choices and desires of her own.
Mary knowing her limitations never tried to answer their lusty looks and always ignored
them. She was trying to trespass the boundaries imposed upon her by the system, she didn’t want
to suppress her desires and wishes. However, she was aware that her relation with Mr. Negi was
transient and had no future, but was enjoying it as much as she could.
She was a normal girl and had the same desires, aspirations and dreams as any other girl
of her age would have. She had found a companion in Mr. Negi who could satisfy her physical
desires and also made her feel like a wife. She was missing the wifely role in her life after the
untimely death of her husband. “She often hurled those wife-type angry looks if Negi crossed
three pegs or if he didn’t turn down his friends’ proposal for dinner at some oft-mentioned
restaurant, or sometimes for his over-indulgence into those man-man jokes,” Bajaj never missed
to observe these stances between them. Mr. Negi was having what he wanted and Mary got
another chance to play her role as a ‘wife,’ which she wanted to do and also got to wear the
clothes of Mrs. Negi. In the absence of Mrs. Negi, she enjoyed herself as Mrs. Negi and gave
commands accordingly.
Mohammad the Mechanic
Mohammad, the mechanic at Mohan Batteries was very much like the others at the place.
He was completely occupied with himself. He is, “oblivious of his surroundings. But no,
Mohammed has been a teetotaler all through his life. He eats also very less. Necessity quietly
and slowly becomes habit. He is fond of nothing.” Like Mary he was also very poor but unlike
her, he never tried to control his limits. He had lost all sense of change and had accepted his state
as his fate. He was an orphan and showed no sign of emotions towards his fellows throughout the
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Retelling of the Concept of Widowhood through the Stories of B. L. Gautam 8
Only with Mary, we see him come out of his cold and controlled behavior. He detested
Mary’s commands as it hurt his self-respect. He never tried to go near her and always tried to
have a control over himself, but when Mary’s pregnancy is revealed to Mrs. Negi, he starts living
with her and she also starts bringing food to him as a wife does. So, Mary as the name is
suggestive of ‘Virgin Mary’ who stayed a virgin even after giving birth to ‘Jesus Christ’
(according to Catholics’ belief), was completely in contrast to her. She has depicted the modern
day state of a widow who is dehumanized and commoditized as an “object.” She has the normal
human emotions, desires, feelings, longings and dreams as others have, but her being a widow
makes all her desires immoral and are deemed disgraceful to her. She is supposed to be bereft of
basic human emotions and sensibilities.
Easy Savitri
Likewise, in another story entitled, “Easy Savitri”, set in rural India, we are shown the
predicament of Savitri, the protagonist and the disgrace she suffered for being a widow. Her
husband Prabhati was a lanky young man and an asthma patient. On the wedding night, when
Savitri took the lead, she was kicked off and called a ‘whore’ by him. From then onwards, the
word ‘whore’ got attached to her and never left her. Soon she became a ‘game’ for him; she was
dehumanized as an animal. When she was beaten up by Prabhati during her pregnancy, he
avoided hitting her on the stomach. “It reminded Savitri of her mother’s advice, “Aye chhori, be
careful, don’t lash the buffalo now. And not at all on the belly. She is carrying now. Her signs
are as a female calf this time; one more buffalo in next three years, God willing.” She suffered
silently without ever questioning his authority; she would hush her inner bird every time it came
to squeak. One winter night, he suffered an asthma attack and died, for which Savitri was held
responsible. She and her daughter were treated as sinful creatures who brought disgrace to their
family. When her husband died, he left huge debts on the family and Savitri being the head of the
household had to pay for that. She recalled the train journey and felt the same for herself at this
decisive moment, “A new world comes to you at a fast speed and goes past without staying for a
moment. Watch it, feel it. Good , bad or ugly. But quickly.”
She knew mathematics well and readily accepted that only working as a labor cannot sort
out her monetary problems. So she used her body to earn money for her family and to pay back
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Retelling of the Concept of Widowhood through the Stories of B. L. Gautam 9
the debts and to have her land back from Gurdaram. The word “whore” attached to her by her
husband was now given to her by the society also. She is a widow but she broke the restrictions
imposed upon her by society. In fact the journalist who is writing her story also did the same to
her daughter, Pankhuri. He made her pregnant and then left her but Savitri got her quickly
married off, to save her daughter face the fate which she had undergone. In order to survive and
earn money, she suppressed the voice of her conscience and did that which she felt was
appropriate. She made money out of her body which is a commodity for the persons consuming
it. She is looked down upon for her characterless immoral behavior.
Hence whether it is a city, a village, a rich society or a common society, the condition of
widows is the same. They are victimized and made to suffer for their loneliness. They are
mistreated and are taken as ‘things’ which are on display. The predicament of women is the same
in the Indian society, where they are deprived of essential human emotions and desires and are
marginalized for being ‘widows.’ Deepa Mehta’s “Water” takes up this issue as a significant
challenge and seeks to highlight the vituperative measures adopted by orthodox Hindu Brahmins
to suppress and segregate women from the mainstream. Any attempt to walk out is treated with
disdain. As a critique of social reality, it brings out tales of women’s agonies of repression and
rebuke and their undying spirit to come out of the stereotypical images and to celebrate the
liveliness of life.
Works Cited
Acharya, Narayana Ram, ed. Subhashitaratnabhandagara. Bombay: Nirnaya Sagar
Press, 1952. Print.
Fergusson, Mary Ann.Images of Women in Literature. Houghton: Miffin Co-Boston,
1973. Print.
Gautam, B.L. “Mohammed A Mechanic and Mary A Maid.” The New Asian Writing,11
Nov.2012. Web.4Jan.2014.
“Easy Savitri.”, Dec.2013. Web.4Jan.2014.
Jung, Anees. Unveiling India .New Delhi: Penguin Books India.1987. Print.


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