Revolution #49, June 4, 2006

Reflections on Water

Still from the film Water

Still from the film Water

My mother didn’t have a name until she was five years old.

My grandmother came from China to marry my grandfather in the U.S. in an arranged marriage. One day the police raided the laundry where he worked. The workers, who were smoking opium, including my grandfather, jumped in the laundry truck to escape and when the truck stalled on the railroad tracks they were hit and killed by a train. This is how my grandmother became a widow when she was only 19 years old.

My mother was born three months later and since feudal tradition says a baby born in such circumstances is “bad luck”—she wasn't given a name. She was simply called “babee” until she registered for kindergarten and the school secretary gave her the name Mary.

As a young widow, my grandmother cried every night. Feudal tradition dictated that she was to live out the rest of her life, serving her dead husband’s family. She worked in the laundry, cooked for the workers and took care of two small babies. But one day she escaped and ran off to find another life. When she came back to get her two children, her dead husband’s family wouldn’t let her have them. So this is how my mother and her sister ended up in an orphanage.

This whole story came rushing back to me when I saw Deepa Mehta’s movie Water. It tells another tale of cruel, life-crushing feudal tradition. Of arranged marriage, widows, heartache, and rebellion.

Tradition’s Chains

It is 1938 in Varanasi, India. Chuyia becomes a child bride, and then a widow when she is only seven years old. We hear the lone sound of scissors, methodically cutting her hair. The dull scratching of a razor shaving her head. We see her sitting quietly, not understanding anything going on around her, unaware that her whole life is about to drastically change. There is a sharp echoing crack as Chuyia’s red bracelets are broken. Her colorful clothes taken away. Her father abruptly drops her off in a compound where 14 widows are living a life of deprivation and shame.

Hindu scriptures say while a woman's husband is alive she is half his body. When he dies she becomes half his corpse. So then she is half a person with only three options: She can burn on the funeral pyre with her dead husband. She can, if permitted, marry her husband's younger brother. Or she can live the rest of he life in self-denial--head shaved, clothed in a plain white cloth, eating simple food–begging by day and sleeping at night on a cold, hard floor with others of similar fate. She must atone for the sins that must surely, according to holy word, be the reason for her husband’s death.

The widows Chuyia joins are from the upper Brahman caste. But like the untouchable caste, they are treated by others as subhuman. Along the Ganges River people clean themselves with what they consider holy water. One morning, one of the widows accidentally bumps into a woman who angrily says, “You’ve polluted me, now I have to bathe again.”

But Chuyia immediately proves to be a destabilizing force in the ashram–refusing to accept the grim life dictated by tradition. She speaks heresy by asking, “Where is the house for male widows?” She breaks the rules to give a forbidden sweet to a dying widow. And she quickly befriends Kalyani, a young widow who has been allowed to keep her hair. We later learn this is because at night, she is forced into prostitution–her earnings, along with what the other widows get from begging, pay for rent and food.

When we first meet Kalyani, we see tired resignation in her eyes. But there are also hints of rebellion–like the secret she shares with Chuyia, a small forbidden puppy. And the naïve refusal of Chuyia to accept the rules of her internment spark embers in Kalyani. She falls in love with Narayan, a young enlightened intellectual from a privileged family who does not believe in traditional rules like the banning of widows from remarrying. But when Kalyani announces her plans to marry, Madhumati, the tyrannical head widow, locks her up. Madhumati says, “Nobody marries a widow. You’ll sink yourself and us. We’ll be cursed. We must live in purity to die in purity.” And then the scissors of tradition come out again. Kalyani's hair violently sheared off--her “shame” as a widow can no longer be hidden. Her fragile passage into normal society now closed.

Another widow, Shakuntula, is also shaken up by Chuyia's rebellious spirit. Readers may remember Seema Biswas, who beautifully portrays Shakuntula, from her role as Phoolan Devi in the movie Bandit Queen. Shakuntula at first tries to ease Chuyia into quiet acceptance of the rules of widowhood. But she is also struck by the little girl’s playful defiance. We see Shakuntula’s crushed spirit begin to lift and she finds herself questioning her own religious faith that has led her to tolerate the stark injustice of her life. The whole doctrine she has come to accept suddenly comes into doubt and with quiet but intense determination, Shakuntula decides to challenge tradition in a way that will change Chuyia's life.

The Suppression of Water

Deepa Mehta started filming Water in Varanasi, India in 2000. She had just started shooting the first scene when reactionary protesters attacked the main film set. They burned it and threw it into the river. They set afire an effigy of Deepa Mehta. This mob was organized by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and other extreme right-wing Hindu fundamentalist groups who claimed the movie was anti-Hindu. Over the next few weeks, Hindu fanatics unleashed a whole campaign against Water–what Mehta describes as “pre-production censorship imposed by thugs.” And mainstream journalists further inflamed reactionary sentiments against Water, spreading lies about the movie’s themes. One such writer, challenged by Water’s producer David Hamilton, responded, “This is a democracy, we have the right to lie.”

The state government ordered Mehta and her international film crew to leave. Water looked for another location, but faced with death threats and continuing organized attacks from reactionary Hindus, Mehta decided to stop production.

This was at a time when the extreme rightwing Hindu fundamentalist party BJP was in power, and Mehta points out that the blatant censorship of her film was in the context of the general rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India. She says, “Books were being re-written, paintings were being burned, and the Hindu fundamentalists were flexing their muscles and projecting themselves as the guardians of the faith. And Water was a casualty of that.”

The very same religious and political powers that enforce the reactionary traditions so vividly depicted in Water were determined to prevent this story from coming to the screen. But Deepa Mehta was determined to finish Water. Five years later, she got the project back on track and began shooting the film, not in India, but in Sri Lanka.

Window into the State of the World

At the end of Water, before the credits roll, a stark endnote jerks us from 1938 into the disturbing reality of today: According to the 2001 census, there are 34 million widows in India–many, who, according to religious texts, are still treated like outcasts. It is hard to watch the scene where Chuyia's head is shaved, her bracelets broken, her dehumanization, without thinking about the way religious fundamentalism enforces the oppression of women all over this planet–whether it's Islamic law forcing women to wear the chador or burka, or theocrats in the U.S. preventing women from getting an abortion.

Indeed, Water is not simply a window into the past, but a comment on the urgency in today. In an interview in 2005, Deepa Mehta said, “Water is about three women trying to break that cycle and trying to find dignity, and trying to get rid of the yoke of oppression, and if it inspires people to do something in their own culture, that’s what’s important.”

I remember interviewing young widows in Nepal, Maoist guerrilla fighters whose husbands had been killed in battle. They wore bright clothes and when they posed for my camera, they held their arms out to show the bracelets they were wearing. They explained that this was a sign of rebellion against the feudal traditions of “widowhood.” They refused to mourn for the rest of their lives or spend their days in servitude to their in-laws and, instead, were determined to continue fighting.

The story of Chuyia is set in the late 1930s, in the midst of India’s struggle for independence, and Mehta draws a parallel between the widow’s ache for freedom and the struggle for India to be free from British colonialism. Narayan, the lawyer who falls in love with Kalyani, is an intellectual attracted to Gandhi. And he is against some oppressive feudal traditions like arranged marriages and the horrible treatment of widows.

At the end of the movie there is a metaphorical scene, where from Deepa Mehta's point of view, Gandhi's train represents freedom from the nightmare of the window's compound. But in historical reality, the path of Gandhi did not lead to the liberation of women in India. And during this same period in Indian history, there were much more radical and revolutionary forces, especially the communists, who targeted not just British colonialism but the whole system of imperialism that continues to dominate India today. The famous revolutionary Bhagat Singh (portrayed in the movie The Legend of Bhagat Singh) was a youth who came to see that Gandhi represented forces in society that could not and would not really challenge the whole set of economic, political and social relations that oppress the masses of people. He became an atheist and communist and was executed by the British seven years before Water takes place.

At one point Shakuntula asks Narayan, “Why are widows sent here? There must be a reason for it.” Narayan answers, “One less mouth to feed. Four saris saved. One bed. And a corner is saved in the family home. There is no other reason why you are here. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.”

Narayan’s explanation is narrowed to what it means for just an individual family. But what is involved here is a more complex relationship of economics and oppressive tradition and ideology. India became formally independent in 1947 when outright colonial rule by Britain over India came to an end. But India today is subordinate to the international relations of global capitalism -- imperialism. And capitalist economic relations in India incorporate not only exploitative feudal economic forms, but also rest on and enforce oppressive feudal traditions, culture and ideology. So in India today, you have a high-tech urban nightmare of sweatshops, child labor and shantytowns, alongside ancient strictures of the caste system, religious fundamentalism, and oppressive feudal thinking and practices.

There is a scene in Water where a religious man tells Shakuntula that a law had been passed favoring widow remarriage. When she asks, “Why don’t we know about it?” he answers, “We ignore the laws that don’t benefit us.” In fact in India today, there are laws against child marriage, the discrimination of widows, the denial of education to women, the burning of brides for dowries. But all of these things still exert themselves with a vengeance, devastating the lives of hundreds of millions of women. And women all over this planet continue to be crushed by the weight of patriarchal tradition, in the Third World and in advanced capitalist countries--including in the United States where religious fundamentalism is officially promoted from the White House on down.

Water is a searing indictment of the universal matrix of patriarchal, backward traditions, culture and ideas that legitimize and enforce the oppression of women. According to the Hindu scriptures, you can wash away your sins in the water of the Ganges river. But as Water reveals, you can also drown in this holy water.

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