Fallen Woman – Culture in the 21st Century

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This story is about two women from different countries and cultures, two women who never met and would not share the same fate, and two women who experienced other extremes of a culture gone wrong. One of those women was hardly a woman but an eighteen-year-old girl. Her name was Roop Kanwar, and she lived in a village in Rajasthan, India.

Some seven months into her marriage, her life ended as she was burned to death-forcibly, according to witnesses-on the funeral pyre of her husband. Her death caused controversy and divided a nation steeped in religious superstition and misquoted scriptures.

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The other woman was just a year older than Roop when she first contacted the same land, the same people, the same culture. Some years later, she moved to India, living in a village on the River Ganges banks.

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That other woman is me. I will never share the same fate as Roop Kanwar because I was born and bred in Australia. Some would say my upbringing was devoid of real culture, and they may be right. Others would say I had freedom of choice and the ability to avoid the same fate as Roop, and they are also right. Whatever, the fact remains that both cultures- Eastern and Western- have something to offer, and somewhere between the supposed decadence and moral bankruptcy of the West and the pseudo-spirituality of the East lies a truth that can set anyone free. Even Roop Kanwar…

I came across the story of Roop for the first time in 1998. I was living in Jaipur, and now and then, her name would appear in newspapers and magazines. Five years later, I was given a book entitled “Death By Fire” by Mala Sen. It was the story of Roop, leaving me dissatisfied. That wasn’t the fault of the author-it was the story itself.

Most disturbing was the acceptance by a large portion of the nation that this was somehow “okay,” that the burning to death of a beautiful young girl was a result of her purity and righteousness, and that seven generations before and after her benefited by such a violent and gruesome death. I concluded that only a twisted form of a rich and philosophically powerful culture such as the one Roop came from could condone such a barbaric act.

Throughout Sen’s book were references to another, considered the definitive study on sati, the practice of widow burning outlawed by the British in the 18th century: “Sati: A Study of Widow Burning in West Bengal,” by Sakuntala Narasimhan. By this stage, I was a resident of West Bengal, so the topic was ‘local.’ I began to read Narasimhan’s book with some trepidation. My concern was twofold: an angle of vision from both sides of the fence.

Firstly, I wondered how much Narasimhan’s study was drawn from an extreme feminist viewpoint, which, as far as I could see, was not a solution to the problems for women in India, even if it is an understandable reaction.

Secondly, from the opposite end of the argument, I was concerned about how much of the book was based on a proper understanding of the scriptures quoted by those who were propagating widow burning based on some so-called “religious” standpoint and how well Narasimhan could therefore argue the point on a reasonable and logical basis without being drowned in the religious melee that surrounds such issues.

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I found Narasimhan’s book fascinating. She held a Ph.D., was a published author, and was a noted performer who toured India, impressing audiences with her beautiful singing.

She was someone with an educated concern about the topic. This beautiful and feminine woman hadn’t hardened her edges in her desire to right the wrongs of the culturally warped environment of which she was a product. Her writing was solid and based on a clear and unbiased understanding of the scriptures that those she was arguing against were quoting. Overall, the book was an appealing and refreshing approach to an old and ugly problem.

After reading Narasimhan’s book, I realized that there was one crucial point she had missed: for a culture that has its roots in the most intricate and detailed spiritual philosophy available, no one seemed to have much understanding of it, and certainly, it wasn’t being offered as a solution to the ills the country faced. It led me to question what this culture was that the entire country claimed to follow, and I soon realized that it was something way off track from what it started as. It seemed to be steering course out of control, heading with a determined foot on the accelerator towards the materialistic mecca of the west, far from the spiritual roots that had bound it so long.