The Breast-Beater

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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 & 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?

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© Vinod Puri 2017

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