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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2013



Fauzia Khan

Plight of Widows in Bapsi Sidhwa’s Novel “Water”

The novel is based on Deepa Mehta`s film `Water` which may or may not be screened in Indian theatres, but the story is available for public reading. It is written by Bapsi Sidhwa a Pakistan-born author with a Parsi -Zoroastrian background, who took `Water’s early edit and produced a full-fledged novel that simply brings the story of Hindu widows, set in Varanasi of 1930`s to the reader. Bapsi Sidhwa is an award-winning author who has written Cracking India (Ice- Candy Man), which was made into a film, titled ‘1947: Earth’.

It’s always the case where films based on books are made but this is a unique one because it is a book written on a film. This book was written in early 2006. Bapsi Sidhwa novelized the film `Water` since the film involved a lot of controversy with regards to Hindu extremists who did not permit Deepa Mehta to make the film and torched the sets. Members from various Hindu extremist groups did not want the film to be shown as it depicts Hindu culture in a poor light. Thus, the need for a novel arises to show the plight of Indian widows whose conditions have not changed even in modern age. In this novel, the woman is represented as ignorant, poor uneducated, silent and unaware of her own "sexualities" and "freedom". Thus, the writer has focused on the plight of the existence of women under the burden of conventions and the traditions of patriarchal society.                    

The book is set in 1938, when India was against the backdrop of Mahatma Gandhi’s rise to popularity. Child marriage was a common practice back then. Widows had a diminished position in society, and were expected to spend their lives only in poverty and worship of God. Widow re-marriages were legalized by the colonial laws, but in practice, they were largely considered taboos. The story begins with Chuyia, a 6 year old who lives with her parents in a village on the Bihar-Bengal border. Her carefree life, wandering through woods in search of gooseberries and leeches changes abruptly when she is married to Hiralal, a 44 year old widower.

The marriage ceremony takes place at a temple where only Brahmins are allowed to enter. Chuyia looks like a doll sitting in front of Hiralal. He applies the red sindoor to the parting in the Chuya's hair and to her fore- head. Chuyia's care free life does not change after marriage, she continues to live in her parental home as was the custom with wedded pre-pubescent girls. Two years passed and Somnath brings the news that Hiralal is ill, and after five days he dies. Somnath declares "your husband is dead you are a widow now".(1) Chuyia looks at him with puzzlement and asks earnestly, “For how long, Baba?”(2) but before her father could say anything, Chuyia’s mother- in-law lead her to the pyre and takes the mangalsutra off, and breaks her red bangles, because a women, once widowed, was deprived of her useful function in the society that of reproducing and fulfilling her marital duties:  

Suddenly, her mother- in- law loomed over Chuyia and, before Chuiya had time to react, she jerked the mangal- sutra off her neck and the beads scattered on the ground. She grasped Chuiya’s hand and using a brick violently smashed the red glass bangles hung from her wrist. (3)

Leaving Chuiya speechless the barber cuts her hair because, according to the Hindu tradition, every drop of water that fell upon the hair profanes the husband’s soul. “It was enforced by the belief that if the widow did not shave her head, every drop of water that fell upon the hair polluted the husband’s soul as many times as the number of hairs upon her head.”(4)          

At last, she is deposited in an ashram by her own father for Hindu widows to spend the rest of her life in renunciation. The ashram was ruled by Madhumati, a fat and pompous lady. Unmoved by Chuyia’s tears, Madhumati, a soulless, grotesque figure whose every word is law in the ashram, tells the child widow “And when our husbands die, God help us, the wives also half die. So how can a poor half-dead woman feel any pain?”(5) With tears still streaming down her face, Chuyia replies with this logic which infuriates Madhumati because she has no answer for it “Because she is half alive?”(6)

The main theme and argument about the book revolves around the atrocities that widowed-women have to face. This is the disturbing India of the Hindu widow; a woman traditionally shunned as bad luck and forced to live in destitution on the edge of society. Her husband’s death is considered her fault, and she has to shave her head, a sign of her widowhood, shun hot food and sweets, clothe themselves in a plain white saree without a benefit of blouse, her freedom is taken away in penitence for the sins and can never remarry. In the Pre Independence India of the 1930`s, this tradition was in vogue even to child brides of five and six years of age, who had been shunned by their families. They were kept away from happy occasions, such as, weddings and child-birth. These rules are intended to demonstrate that a widow is only half-human after her husband’s death and must, therefore, lead a life of penance until she can join her departed husband into the afterlife. On festival days, they get alms by temple- goers, and on regular days, they were given a cup of rice and a fistful of lentils for every eight hour of singing and dancing in the temple. For many widows, this was the only means of sustenance.  

Meantime, Chuyia was convinced that her stay is a temporary one, and that her mother will come to take her away. With that thought firmly tucked in her mind and most other widows tolerating a certain quantity of unconventional behaviour in the young girl, she quickly adapts to her new life. Madhumati sternly initiates her into widowhood. Meanwhile, Chuyia befriends the beautiful Kalyani, a widow prostitute, because Madhumati, a tyrant personality to earn additional income to sustain the ashram, forced widows into prostitution and would sell them to the local Brahmins or high caste gentry. Widows who were prostitutes, did not shave their heads in order to be more attractive to the clients and would live in separate quarters in the institution. Kalyani falls in love with Narayan, a young and charming upper-class follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Despite her initial reluctance, Kalyani feels attracted to this young man and eventually buys into his dream of marriage and a fresh life in Calcutta. She eventually agrees to go away with him.

Her plan is disrupted when Chuyia, in her innocence, inadvertently blurts about the secret affair with Narayan while massaging Madhumati one evening, “So what? I’ll eat a hundred puris at Kalyani wedding, Chuiya defiantly boasted.”(7) Enraged at losing a source of income and afraid of the imminent social disgrace, Madhumati locks Kalyani up until she comes into her senses and shears her long black hair. The next morning, after Sadananda, a gentle looking priest has finished reciting the scriptures for the widows, Shakuntala stays back, another widow who lives in the widow asharam. Overcoming her hesitation, she asks the priest, “You have studied all the Holy Scriptures…I have great respect for your learning…Panditji, is it written that widows should be treated badly?”(8) Surprised at Shakuntala's questions, Sadananda, slowly answers her: The Brahamanical tradition in the stri-dharma says a widow has two options: She can commit sati and mount her husband pyre, or lead a life of self- denial and pray for her husband’s soul. In some cases, if the family allows it, she may marry her dead husband’s brother.(9)     

Sadananda goes on : “However,” he continued, a law has recently been passed which favours widow re-marriage. law?(10) “A law?” Shakuntala said, surprised. “Why don't we know about it?"(11) Shakuntula responds.

Sadananda’s concern deepens. “We ignore the laws that don't suit us.”(12) He declares solemnly. The next day, Shakuntala, over the protests of the other widows, unlocks the door to Kalyani's room. It's a quiet act of rebellion that leaves everyone speechless. A liberated Kalyani walks out of the house, Madhumati’s booming voice following her. “If you go to him, I won’t let you come back!”(13) she shouts. Kalyani bathes in the ghats, washing away the cruel face of her tormenter, and walks to the small deserted temple where Narayan is waiting for her. Narayan tenderly explores her shorn hair and in a whisper asks her once again if she will marry him. She leans down and brushes his feet with her fingertips.

That evening they take a boat across the river to meet Narayan’s parents. The journey however, does not culminate in the happy ending that Kalyani has hoped for, as she recognizes Narayan's bungalow as that of one of her former clients, and it turns out that Narayan is the son of one of the men she had slept with. In the shock of realization, she demands that he turn around the boat and take her back. A confrontation with his father reveals to Narayan the reason of Kalyani's sudden change of heart: “Our Holy Texts say Brahmins can sleep with whomever they want, and the women they sleep with are blessed.”(14) Disgusted to know the truth, he decides to walk out on the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi. He arrives at the ashram to take Kalyani with him, but found out that Kalyani had drowned herself in grief.

Meanwhile, Madhumati sends Chuyia away with Gulabi, as a replacement for Kalyani for a waiting client. Shakuntala cannot tolerate it and shouts to rescue her. In the last scene, Sidhwa seeks the salvation in Gandhian ideology , Shakuntala finds the new way in a new awakening and new ideas; she runs after the train looks at Narayan and finally hand over Chuyia to him to save her from the horrors of Ashram and widowhood.

Thus this novel depicts the condition of widow’s in India where they are treated like animals in other words we can say that Bapsi Sidhwa was successful in depicting the double standard of the Indian society.


1. Sidhwa, Bapsi. Water. (US: Milkweed Editions, 2006) 13. Print.   

2. Ibid. , p. 14.     

3. Ibid.                      

4. Ibid. , p. 15.             

5. Ibid.  

6. Jain, S. Status and Role Perceptive of Middle Class Women. (New Delhi: Puja Publishers, 1998) 11. Print.

7. Sidhwa, Bapsi. Water. (US: Milkweed Editions, 2006) 40. Print.   

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid. , p.41.                       

10. Ibid. , p.44.    

11. Ibid. , p.53.                   

12. Ibid.                      

13. Ibid. , p. 97.      

14. Ibid. , p. 166.