A keen observer, Sujana Upadhyay carries around many stories and anecdotes in her mind, and can often be found telling a few out loud to no one in particular. She considers herself a storyteller, and theatre and poetry are her chosen medium. Sujana was mainly raised in Nepal and currently lives in the UK.
The day she got married, along with a husband she acquired an official right to the colour Red. Red would mark her new status as a married woman, and represent her vitality, fertility and sexuality. Red gave her power and a place at the centre of social life within her community in Nepal. Her family hoped, as they bid her farewell, that she would never be without Red in the forms of sindoor on her hair parting, tika on her forehead, glass beads around her neck, glass bangles around her wrists and sari around her body.
The day she lost her husband three decades and three children later, she lost her right to Red also. For, like everything else in her life – her name, her nationality, her home – it was never truly hers to begin with. Within hours of her husband dying, her neighbours and relatives gathered to ritualistically wash off every trace of Red off her. With this it was expected that she let go off every earthly pleasures she might have learnt to take comfort in, and begin her journey as a widow. In the absence of a husband to give meaning to her existence, the society dictated, that her life no longer served any real purpose and therefore held no value. From now on she was meant to be in a state of mourning that was to last the rest of her life. To represent this state, she was to limit herself to wearing the plainest of colours, and avoid any make up or jewellery. She also no longer had the right to actively participate in any of the social and religious events either. She was to live in the fringes and blend into thin air as much as possible. By stripping her off Red, she was reduced to a living corpse, both in the eyes of the society and her own.
Fading away isn’t simple though. Just as Red speaks volumes through it’s vibrancy, in its absence too it screams for attention. Where it comes with prestige and power, when evicted it leaves behind stigma and unwanted attention. During festivals, in a sea of bright colours, often one or two unsmiling, unadorned faces stick out, their sadness, and perhaps resentment, obvious. It is always these faces that stuck to one’s mind, and she was now expected to be one of them.
Growing up there were other women around us, who like her had lost their husbands, and had quietly accepted life in the fringes. It was simply accepted as the way of life, a part of our culture, and nobody ever seemed to give it much thought or attention. When I realised we only ever bought plain saris for my two aunts, both widowed, I simply assumed that was what they liked. I thought they were antisocial when they didn’t actively seek to bless new brides or asked my mother to take their offerings to the temple during religious ceremonies. So natural and trivial it all seemed that my young mind never made the connection between their behaviour and them having lost their husbands. It was never mentioned, never discussed, never questioned. It was simply accepted. I wouldn’t be surprise if my aunts had long forgotten the connection themselves.
Once after noticing how unkind my married cousin’s husband was to her, in my naivety, I commented to my mother that my cousin would be a lot happier if he (her husband) were to die. At the time I thought the severe scolding I got from my mother was melodramatic but warranted given the meanness of my remark. The possible repercussions for my beloved cousin were my curse to come true were not explained to me, then or later. They are the kind of things you are meant to pick up and understand along the way. Besides, where would one start, so many are the rituals girls and women are meant to observe! Many years later, I would read that one of the few things widows are not forbidden to do is laugh, but given the many restrictions and bias they face, not many would want to. And that little exchange with my mother would come rushing back, and I would finally understand: life with an abusive husband was a million times better than life in the shadows of a dead one.
For two years, buried under the cloud of grief, she quietly accepted the life that was offered, discarding everything she was expected to. She was now to live for her children, people often said. There was to be no more living for herself. This life was what God had planned for her and she had to accept it, she was told. A subtle reference to the belief that she must have harboured some bad karma to have been unable to ward off her husband’s death before her own. In other words, a better woman would have died before her husband. Once she began to see past the grief, however, she started becoming aware of the resentment that was beginning to replace the joy and love she held in her heart. Living in the fringes as an outcast was not how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. For the first time she found herself paying attention to the unfairness behind the customs she felt obliged to observe. She was expected to give up so much in return of so little. While this had been true most of her life, this was the first time she felt she was expected to feel grateful just for being allowed to remain alive. Not long ago, women in her position would have been reduced to ashes in their dead husbands’ pyres. Reclaiming Red was not a decision she took lightly, nor could she afford to. In reclaiming Red, on one hand she would be breaking every social decorum expected of her, while on another, she would be reclaiming herself. And the later was the only way she could be true to her children and her work, but most important of all, true to herself. But it wouldn’t be easy.
When she started dressing as she pleased, in colourful saris and red lipstick, she was one step closer to being her true self. But at every step she pretended not to notice the shaking heads and gossiping lips. In breaking the rules, she was challenging the practices held dear for hundreds of years. The balance was delicate, and by being obstinate people thought (and it’s always about what other people think) she was risking toppling the entire society. Despite the subtle and not so subtle social shunning, she persevered. She continued to wear the colours she had loved since a little girl, but had been snatched away since her husband’s death. She began to actively participate in social and religious functions. She missed her husband, but she knew that she was never just an extension of him. Nor was she now a mere shadow of one long gone.
It was never just about reclaiming Red, for one colour could have never fully represented her at any stage. It was about having the right to choose and own from a colourful palette, instead of being symbolised by the presence or absence of one. It was about refusing to be defined or reduced for the convenience of the society. It was reclaiming herself, and living as a whole – a feeling, thinking, seeing – human being. She understood that now, and it was time the wider society did as well. Over time, her choices forced more and more people to rethink current norms. Her actions insisted on change, and while change is never comfortable it is something we all need to learn to embrace.
It’s been five years since she reclaimed herself. She no longer quickens her steps when she notices a disapproving glare thrown her way, nor does she look away. It’s still not easy, but she is no longer embarrassed or ashamed. She full-heartedly blesses new brides and dances when her favourite music comes on. Newly retired, she travels between continents to visit her children whom she loves fiercely but isn’t a burden to. To me she personifies strength, to others she is an inspiration. And for being all of these things and for various other reasons, she is also a dangerous woman to many.