The Breast-Beater

Vinod K. Puri


Born in 1941, Vinod was brought up and educated in Amritsar. He attended Government Medical College, and subsequently trained as a surgeon at PGI, Chandigarh. He left for USA in 1969, and retired in 2003 as Director of Critical Care Services at a teaching hospital in Michigan. Married with two grown sons, he continues to visit India at least once a year.

Ed. Note: This is closely linked to the author's My brother: handsome, witty, generous, tragic

I woke up and looked at the once familiar playgrounds that lay before my ancestral home in Amritsar. These grounds separated the street for a long stretch from densely situated houses around the Durgiana Temple. Instead of following the circular road around the main grounds, most people cut diagonally across to reach our street. I was nostalgic about the long past childhood, and my dead parents.

A lot of the trees around cricket grounds had been cut down as also the trees just outside the house. I had climbed many of them in my childhood.  From the open roof of the second floor, I saw a group of women in the distance. The four of them appeared to be involved in an animated conversation. They seemed to be laughing at some shared intimacy. They were wearing the white cotton saris, which were right for the late summer season.

As they came into view, I knew the reason for the lack of color in their saris. They were coming to visit our house. My older brother, Satish, had killed himself because there were some financial setbacks in the family business\; hardly a good reason for such an extreme step. This was the first night I had slept in the ancestral house after spending ten years in America.

As the women came closer to the house, one of them stood out. She was middle-aged, thin, and tall. She bent down from the waist as she talked to her companions, almost poking them in the chest.

As they neared the iron-gate to the street, a loud wail went up. In addition to crying, the tall woman was also beating her breasts. The other three women seemed to join her reluctantly.  She led them in rhythmic practiced motions, first hitting her right, and then her left breast with the opposite hand, and uttering, "Hai, hai". The expression is simultaneously descriptive of unbearable pain, and unexpected tragedy and a lament to God who has chosen to be so unkind!

This is how I remembered women used to grieve: loud and obvious. They could muster tears at will. And the wailing will be heart-rending, often interspersed with the name of the departed person. Their eyes turned to heavens, and a rhetorical question would be posed, "Why have you left us?" Often a plaintive plea would follow, usually from a near relative, "Why don't you take me with you?"

There were two big houses at the entrance to a small street\; ours was to to the left. The rest of the houses at the back were hidden behind the big houses, and were generally non-descript.  Just after crossing the black iron gate to the street, another big gate to our house led to the paved courtyard. The women of the house let out an even louder wail. Though I absolutely hated the custom, I knew that there was nothing one could do about it. My brother's young widow was in for some more breast-beating.

I recognized the tall, dark, ugly woman from her protruding teeth and face full of pockmarks. I shuddered inwardly, as I remembered her fearsome reputation. In his younger days, my father used to do business with three brothers who were also his  relatives. Chunni chachi (aunt) was the wife of Muni Lal, the middle brother. He was the hapless husband, shorter than her, and reputed to be hen-pecked, which as children we found amusing.

She was known to have a tongue which her enemies dreaded. She came from the little town of Batala, which had the reputation of producing shrews.  So much so that my father's younger sister, who lived in Batala, after her wedding, appeared to have gained that reputation amongst her rather easygoing sisters and brothers.

Chachi's appearance evoked the narrow smelly streets of the old city and of open drains. The houses were over a hundred years old, had common walls, with two or three stories. Families lived upstairs, and business was carried out in the bazaar down-stairs. The interconnected, dark lanes teemed with life, which those of us who lived outside the walled-city of Amritsar found puzzling.

In Phullanwala bazar, there were several houses where the Puri clan lived. Locally, they were known as neel-wale, indigo merchants. My grandfather's house was the first. This is  where my father had grown up. Opposite it were his uncle's sons' three houses.

The shop shared by my father and three brothers was part of my grandfather's house. The joint business was of commission agents called aarthis, which I did not understand for a long time. They stored nothing permanently in the shop. They bought whatever their customers wanted and shipped it to them. They collected a middleman's fees.

As a child, I had often visited my father's shop, and observed Chachi's husband  Muni Lal, who all day sat in the back of the shop. Here he diligently filled the red cloth-covered ledgers with figures. These books used to be almost sacred to the businessmen. They would literally anoint the new books at Diwali time with Swastika (real Sanskrit type) with saffron and vermilion color.

The small slightly stooped figure in starched white kurta &amp\; dhoti with the bald pate and a hooked nose was oddly at peace in the shop, speaking to others only when spoken to and occasionally stepping into the side-street to urinate or light a cigarette. At noon, Chachi would shout from the top of the house opposite, and he would go home  for a leisurely lunch.

Some people thought that Chachi was so mean and ornery because she did not have any sons. The cardinal sin amongst Hindu women was to give birth to only girls! She did not even have a shred of sympathy, which was usual for the unfortunate women in her state. I recalled that her natural competitors, the wives of her husband's brothers blessed with sons, were always trying to put her down but in careful words that would not get back to her. That is because she was ever ready to pick a fight with anyone who even implied a slight.

In my childhood, I had heard a great deal about the custom of breast-beating from my late mother and aunts. Hindu customs demanded siapa, or grieving period of thirteen days, especially after the death of a young man such as my brother. There were stories of the older women, usually widows of long standing, who led younger women through a drill of breast-beating. The younger women would return home in the evening with black and blue chests, and always fearful of not having grieved properly.

Such was the hold of mothers-in-law! To be labeled the ingrate bahu (daughter-in-law) who had brought shame to the family, was the ultimate ignominy. Of course, the laggards would live with this shame for years to come. My mother could regale us with these stories in later years, but I can imagine the terror it must have held for her when she was younger.

And now I was sorry to see the terror revisited on my brother's widow and other women in the house because of chachi Chunni . She was of my late mother's age, from a different era. She would be like those women of old who led the younger ones through ritual of violence against themselves.

But I was an outsider! I knew that men do not interfere with the way women grieve. I had reached several days after my brother's death.  I thought I would make myself more useful, worrying about the financial matters related to education of my nephew and niece.

But, perhaps, there was a way of expressing my displeasure! The hypocrisy of customs was maddening. After all, I had seen them entering the compound laughing and joking. And, then break into loud wailing, as soon as they were within earshot of the people in the house! So, I got ready and entered the large room where mourners gathered every day. There was a hush as I entered the room. Chachi Chunni's back was turned to me, though it was clear that she held center stage. She was by now finished with breast-beating and wailing. My brother's widow sobbed softly surrounded by a group of women in a corner.

As I sat in a chair, Chachi turned and faced me. I was seeing her after probably twenty years. It appeared that now she dyed her hair with white roots.

Adjusting the corner of her sari covering her forehead with it, she said, "Beta, when did you come?" And she had a smile on her face, which lit up her pockmarked face.

"Day before yesterday." I said sheepishly, and folded my hands in obeisance, "Namaste!"

She asked me about my wife and children. I told her we had one son who had come to India with me but was with his maternal grandmother.

I tried, but I could not do it. I could not say anything rude to my older chachi.

It is ironic that as oppressive as I found the societal custom of breast-beating, my upbringing held me back. Anyhow, she was perhaps acting according to the same systems of customs that she had followed all her life. How we grieve is both personal and a cultural matter. Who was I to interfere?


© Vinod Puri 2017

Editor's note: I approve all comments, related to the story, written by people. The purpose of the approval process is to prevent unwanted comments, inserted by software robots, which have nothing to do with the story.


Thank you Vinod Ji The memory of " koochas" and " gullees" came back to my shrivelled brain. Your mention of ' Siapa' too brought back three things- In my childhood ( pre-1947), there were three vatieties of SIAPA. One was the siapa mentioned by you, Vinod Ji. A mourning ritual after a death. Professional mourners ( always ladies long in the tooth, not very well-heeled) would beat the breats, tear their hair and wail to the heavens as they approached the house of the deceased. They were fed of course. Then there was the "mock siapa". There was, say, a particularly rapacious " Shahookar". His victims might be too shy. But their well-wishers would conduct a Siapa outside his business or even outside his house. A govt official would be threatened with a Siapa. I remember a couple of occasions when older school boys would collect in a group, go chanting , something like, " Budhoo Lal ! Hai, Hai. Budhoo Lal ! Hai Hai". The chant would be acvompanied by clapping and pretend beating of the breast. Siapa with a " placebo effect" was known in Roman times. The professional breast beaters were of course actually hired for the funeral service. Finally there was a religious self-flagellation which was conducted in piety and was not for show.

Thanks for enlightening me on the subject of 'Siapa'. Growing up in Punjab, I saw most varieties except the last. It was associated with shia Muslim custom of 'Muharam'. After 1947, Amritsar had just a migrant population of Muslims. I heard stories of professional mourners. The epic example of that is portrayed in Rajasthan-set movie 'Rudaali' starring Dimple Kapadia.

I admire your courage,that after living in USA for years ,you could still have the heart to sit down and write about"Siapa" in such details. Although I have seen these "Siapas" in my young days--almost 80 years ago in Lyallpur-I found it hard to continue to read it. But read i did. But then I remembered the happy singing of HIJRAS on the birth of a child, and on weddings by the same women who do the "Siapas" also.Well, may be it still happens in some cities and places.. Well we have even in USA where the Funeral Houses not only hire the mourners but also spends millions on their resting places. As they say "Its your fumneral" Incidently Vinod I dont know whether you know it or not, Americasn have started cremsating their deads to avoid all that expense. And let me tell you that lone of the biggest export item,now from India---MURADABAD- is the Steel "LOTAS"(used by Pundits in India) to America for cremeation ceremony. Would you believe it?

Thanks Jatinder ji. I have heard of professional mourners but never saw them in action. As I described the interaction of sas-bahu that dictated the custom of mourning for thirteen days. In recent years whenever I have been India for a death, the 4th day or chautha is the end of formal grieving. I consider that a great social improvement. Yes, funeral industry is very big and cremation is becoming a good option. Your tip about lotas is new to me!

YEs,Vinod, In big cities and homes like ours the CHAUing makes the end of formal grieving and not the "TERVEEN".But the old rituals still continue in number of places and homes.On my recent visit to HARIDWAR, The Pandas performing ceremonies. getting head clean shaved and "PAGRI" rusum still continues.I dont know about the breast beating women being hired is still prevalent or not,as we are no longer the real old fasioned Hindus.I remember that in my childhood, it used to be the FAMILY "NAIAN"(Wife the Naiee--Barber)o used to be the news announcer and collect mourners AND even find marriage partners.Joginders experience is more closely Indian than mine,I think,. But thanks anyway ,and lets carry on.

Yes, I had seen NAIN and NAIS with a distinct role to play at death. I was always amused that the NAI was not actually a barber. You are right about the customs that continue in small towns and villages of India. Haridwar is in another universe! My experience with immersion of ashes was sad and disgusting. Hindu pandas have not a shred of decency left as they try to get as much money from you as they can. The food you buy to give to the beggars is 'resold' in front of your eyes!Grief and bereavement has the trappings of cheap business enterprise.

Vinod, I did not think that any one would have noticed that"Food being RESOLD"or recycled sat Haridwar . But your comment makes me to ask you to read one of my TRAVEL blog on recent visit to Haridwarvisit to Haridwar I have mentioned the same thing with photos. Hope you like it Your rspomse to RENU JALOTA is right. D read my HARIDWAR--Here is the link .

Thanks Jatinder ji. I will check out your blog.

Hi, Nicely written; contrasting emotional response.Next of Kith & kin , shocked and coping , While another sect.comes with violent chest beating.Former dignified and later Disturbing.fortunately not a widespread practice,localized ti in-situ pattern of cultural behavior. Take care. Renu.

Thanks Renu. Life and death is what it is! As observers, we see things and they stick in the memory.Yes,big cities are probably not witness to the cruel rituals.

Bhaiya, this very well written have brought out beautifully the strong influence of Culture on our behaviour specially in closeknit groups like families, wherein personal preferences are often subdued by cultural norms. Also brings back my memories of witnessing a similar Siapa when I was about 8 year old in Dullo da kattra much to my mother\'s displeasure.. eventhough my aunt closed the window so that I couldn\'t see this but ofcourse I found away to peep, nonetheless!. I was fascinated with the rythmic beating and saw that one lady was the leader changing the action regularly.I remember questioning my mom and her explaining me the rationale of this custom and that it was not popular anymore as it was earlier... lt was the first time I understood a very typical Punjabi ryme ..Sundare Mundariya Kithe geyi si, Ed-wod (meaning King Edward)mar geya Siyape gai si\".

Thanks Kavita.Since you are many years younger than me, what you saw was the terror and horror visited on impressionable minds. That is what I was referring to and did not want my brother's wife to experience. In my childhood, women participating in the siapa weren't particularly close to the deceased. It was considered their duty to literally 'abuse' their bodies publicly. Grateful for enlightening me about the popular Lohri rhyme!

It is really nostalgic .even in amritsar in 1970 i lost my grandmother and i saw the same breast beating through a Mug on ist floor snd they used another way of slapping their own cheeks and shouting Bhaio bha and one old pandit lady leading i was just 5 years and we all kids copied it .

Thanks Sunil.My brother killed himself in in 1975.He was all of 36!I have described the event in another piece on Subodh's site. But this story has both tragedy and irony of Hindu customs. I am aware of a grieving friend in America who has carried on with all the rituals and customs months after losing his wife.He even insisted on carrying the can of her ashes for immersion in the Ganges on his left shoulder on to plane. So TSA has turned him around and sent him back to Indian consulate to get special permission!

all this breast beating crowd available for hire, reminds me about the book byROBIN SHRMA"WHO WILL CRY WHEN YOU DIE". So If I do not have any friends or relation ,Iwill need someone to cry at my funeral ,to do the SIAPA.Otherwise no one will notice my passing away. Breast beating women had their use. That we miss now.In america you hire Limos and mourners to follow the hearth.Isnt it?

I hope Ms Jalota will forgive me for this " defence" of religious self-flagellation. I was then about twelve, I think. I did not belong to that religion. But I accepted that my school friends were motvated purely by the religious tradition. In those days, I did not come across anyone who deprecated the particular custom. Now, an atheist, I still respect the particular custom. In those days, in some Indian cities, Hindus and Sikhs would serve water to the processionists after the procession.

Joginderji, compared to Hindu customs at bereavement, the Muharram customs of self-flagellation and cutting are downright brutal!Who condones it? Who benefits from it? Not the dead, may be the living?

Dear Kavita Ji I second your thoughts.And I am pleased you remember EdWod mar gya....,I donot remember it. Oh, but I do remember.....1942. " Punjab Police! Hai Hai". The jails were full, the Thanas were full. The police would shove demonstrators in to ther vans, drive out ten fifteen miles away from Lahore, disgorge the demonstrators, leave them to their own devices...making their way back home.....while the police vans went to collect more demonstrators. I wonder if the newspapers, eg, Punjab TRBUNE recorded it? The C and M Gazette would not have published it.

Joginder ji, Kavita comes from a distinguished family. Her father was an MLA from Amritsar. One of her lawyer uncle was involved in repatriation of abused and abducted women across the border after 1947. Another of her uncle carried messages to Pandit Nehru. But what she saw probably happened in 1960s. I doubt even Tribune published anything critical of British Govt. The Urdu vernacular dailies Milap and Partap would be newspapers reporting. What bothers me is how quickly Indians forgot the indignities heaped on them by the British during the freedom struggle?

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