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Mémoires of widowhood and parnani


July 2018


I remember parnani [maternal great grandmother in India] as a little girl. Always draped in a beautiful, crisp, white, cotton sari, earrings following the curves of her ears, slender long brown hands full of bangles [gold most likely since Indians only wore gold], and a nose ring. But no husband ever accompanying her. In my child’s and adult mind that can only mean that she was a widow. Nani – her daughter and my grandmother – was a widow, too, but she remarried. I never met parnana or nana [my maternal great grandfather and maternal grandfather]. My mother said nana died before any of her seven children were born, and even before she was married off as a young girl pitching marbles on the dirt. I also never met aji [paternal grandmother], but I did meet aja [paternal grandfather], and he too was always clad in white – a white dhoti and a white cotton airy jersey – that covered his lanky, frail, pale body.  

I remember how easy it was easy to spot parnani coming down the gravel track to our house. We could see anyone coming down from the Beetham highway as we longed for parnani’s company, and also for the sweets she would bring us. Even a blind person could spot parnani, a slim white figure, dupatta over her head, against the green, lush, abundant mango trees on one side of the track, and the wayward overgrown bushes on the wrong side of the track. From our vantage point, only the mango trees-side mattered, since that’s where the taxis let her off, and where we picked up the neighbor’s Rose mangoes and chenneth that had fallen over their barbed wire. We would run up the road to greet her, take her hands and walk back skippingly to the house. Upon reaching home, she would take out a clean, white, cotton handkerchief full of paradise plum – hard pastel-colored candy, peppered with sugar dust. How we loved that! And her! 

Parnani didn’t speak a word – English or Hindi – but she visited often.  She had come in one of the 320 voyages the British made to the islands from India, starting in 1834. That trip uprooted everything for her since she had to leave behind her Indian-only, pre-partition Hindu and Muslim culture to live among much newness: new peoples [Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, British, Africans], new food, new herbs and spices so important to Indian women, new language and new behaviors. Perhaps she didn’t mix enough, for there was no television to help her assimilate, and would therefore only have spoken Hindi at home, and naturally would have had no opportunities to integrate. But surviving the long, three-month ship ride from India on the kala pani that claimed one third of Indian lives speaks volumes for her.  The British had inveigled, kidnapped and held women, including widows, and married men from all parts of India and placed them in coolie holding depots in Calcutta, Lucknow and Faizabad [Coolies: How Britain Reinvented Slavery, a BBC production]. They were then shipped to the islands of Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname, but also to Martinique, Jamaica and Guadeloupe to a lesser extent. The two-thirds of Indians who survived on the trip to the islands intended to go back, but India forgot about them and these newly-minted Indo-Caribbeans – Indians by way of Trinidad, or Trinidadians by way of India – turned their stranded-ness and dislocation into a life in the islands. And if Gandhi did not stop the British exploitation of Indians to the islands and the whole indentureship business in 1917, it would’ve continued, and Trinidad would have become another “little India” like in New York and New Jersey. 

They say my mother’s family comes from Bangalore, but history books differ and say Indians came from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. I don’t know if the books tell a true story. Truth is only a half told storyand it is the British who wrote notes about ‘their’ [the Indians’] arrival, and not the Indians themselves since they didn’t know how to write. Nor speak English even. I question British note-taking and history books not only because they didn’t take that three-month debilitating ride on the kala pani with parnani and the others, so how would ‘they’ or ‘their’ books know the Indians’ ‘truth’? But also because my aja was over six feet tall, thin, so light in complexion that his skin reflected the light, had greyish eyes…not Dalit traits normally as history books want us to believe. There is a lot I don’t know about my ancestors, but what I do know is that nothing stopped parnani from taking a taxi ‘alone’ as a female in a foreign place from Mon Plaisir Road, Campoo to come to our house in Curepe, to interact with her English-speaking, filmy and bhajan-singing-and-dancing great grandchildren. Were we her joy and connection to the lost motherland?

The picture I have of parnani refuses to leave my mind, because now as an adult delving into studies of veuvage, Vidhwa or widowhood, I discovered that women like parnani were a scorned lot in parts of India, and still are in some regions. Maybe the British took widows knowing fully well that no one would miss them and banished them to the islands since India sequestered widows in ashrams after breaking their bangles, taking away their earrings, shaving their heads. Women’s beauty was in their hair, so they were shorn, and made to wear plain white or navy-blue saris and definitely not red, the color of fertility. Their colorless life was intended to decrease their sexuality, and to not attract men since they weren’t allowed to remarry. Women in India in parnani’s time and even long after were ‘ashrammed’ to live out the rest of their lives doing penance for their husbands’ death, even if that husband drank himself to death (perhaps he was alcoholic or had syphilis!) or was poisoned by a jealous mistress! Widows lived a meager existence, not smiling, praying all day, singing bhajans to atone for their husbands’ self-caused, genetic, or ‘however’ death. Deepa Mehta’s film Water, the documentary The Invisible Women: Outcast widows in India, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor and Dilip Mehta’s the Forgotten Woman are just some of the movies that give us an idea of the sad, unjust, harsh treatment of widows from where parnani came. They show us that there is nothing colorful or alive from where parnani came: “everything in a place of pilgrimage is auspicious, except widows in India”, as Binodini, the widow in Anurag Basu’s Choker Bali says.

So perhaps parnani wore her white sari because she was widowed? But what of her many beautiful bangles and earrings? Why was she not separated from her bangles and earrings if she no longer had a husband? Perhaps parnani rejected to live in her Trinidadian present as an Indian vidhwa, and chose to keep some remnants of her past by wearing her bangles and earrings proudly on her ‘own’ terms, which spoke for who she was. There was no one to watch over her doing penance in Trinidad, no pundits to enforce her man-made uni-dimensional path to moksha, and no one [man or woman] to judge her as ‘inauspicious’. She lived life as she saw fit, free from the burdens heaped on women in the motherland, moving about by taxi in a new place. Perhaps India did a service to parnani in leaving her behind in Trinidad, the way Gandhi saves eight-year-old in Water – both from a wretched life of widowhood.

I would never know what parnani thought, since she came in silence and left in silence, but I am glad she refused to wear the badge of widowhood on her head and shoulders. Her widow-white attire did not define her as a vidhwa, and neither did it make her absent the way muslim women veil in white to make themselves unnoticeable or absent or like the white of a photo you can’t see.

I don’t see a veiled photo when I think of parnani. My white sari-clad parnani symbolized purity of heart and remains a strong presence in my memory, which neither time nor foreign historical accounts have managed to dim or erase after so many years. 





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