She was known simply as Sister - conjecturally owing to a cute remark made long ago by her kid sister, my grandmother - to multitudes of women who had had unbelievably unfortunate lives until they had the good fortune of coming across her.
She lived in a house right opposite the house where we lived when I was a little boy. I only remember her as a petite sweet old lady with a head of silvery hair, always dressed in impeccable white saris and forever fussing with a hearing aid which would periodically make cooing noises, much to her annoyance. I was 17 when she died. Her body had been laid out in the front sit-out of her house. And from the wee hours of the morning, there was a seemingly unending stream of women who kept coming, with tears streaming down their cheeks as they walked around the body of this silvery woman and paid their last respects to this great lady. It was a revelation to me, who had had no clue till then of what a fantastic life she had led. The haunting memory of that day is of the woman who came running to the old style cremation ground just as many of us were returning after having completed the last rites and consigned the great lady's mortal remains to the flames. This woman just kept sobbing inconsolably. As soon as she had heard (somewhere in Andhra where she was living then) of Sister's passing away, she had taken whatever buses and trains she had had to take in order to try, in vain as it eventually turned out, to pay her final respects to the physical frame that had once housed the person who had given her a new life when any hope of a normal one had appeared to have ended.
Now let me divulge the secret of her greatness. She had been `married', when she herself was just eleven years old, to a boy just a few years older, and who died not much later. This was around 1900, and what the Brahmin community did in those days to a child widow belonged to a master-class in sadism. The little girl would be dressed up in all her bridal finery, jewelry (and the more the better), silk sari, etc., etc. And some duly authorised dignitary would proceed to successively remove all this finery from the poor child, and the piece de resistance was when she was tonsured, and the bald girl was made to change from her silk sari to a `sari' of coarse white cotton, without even the customary blouse to cover the upper body. At the end of all this, the girl was banished to some unseen inner corner of the house, to lead the rest of her life in this attire and form, essentially as a servant/cook/odd-job-person, one never to be seen by outsiders or to participate in any `auspicious' event!
|Sarada Illam at Ice House|
Ever since I started writing this column, I have been periodically receiving mails requesting advice or assistance on a variety of issues. I have even gone so far as to say, during a public talk I gave, that if you have been so fortunate as to touch one or two lives, yours would have been a life well-lived. This kind of complacent observation, when viewed against a life such as Sister's, reminds me of Newton's oft-quoted saying: If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.