If only they had learnt to forget, but they haven’t. ‘Sati Roop Kanwar’ remains etched in the collective consciousness of Deorala, the village in Rajasthan’s Sikar district that found itself an infamous place in history when a young bride burnt herself alive on her husband’s pyre before fervent crowds on September 4, 1987.
Exactly 20 years since, Deorala is a stark study of the struggle between the progress and prejudices that define life for many women in larger India. Running to keep pace with time, but held back by a tugging mingle of memory and myth about the virtues of the “adarsh naari” — the sati Deorala believes it has given the world.
Incredulous elders still can’t believe Deorala’s panchayat could have a woman ward panch. It has six now. The village has also had a woman sarpanch, Lalita Saini, who now lives with her husband in Jaipur. Nine anganwadi crèches employ 27 women, many others work in schools, and there are many self-help groups, informs panch Sarda Saini. “Earlier we were homebound, we didn’t even know our way around the village,” she says.
All six women are keen that the government allow a temple to be built at the “sati sthal”.
Where it all began
At the site where 18-year-old Roop was cremated alive, fresh chunris are tied as offerings on a rusted trident dug into a mound. Rituals and faith, however dubious, have reinforced each other over time. Like every year, this year too, Rajput homes will perform the Roop Kanwar Sati Puja according to the Hindu calendar on Gyaras, around September 11. As always, the district magistrate will send police to ensure no public worship happens at the site and at the 10 or so sati temples in Sikar.
Only this time round, for the first time, these orders will come from a woman district magistrate. Manju Rajpal, 35, is a 2000 batch IAS officer and single mother to two adopted girls. “Some districts like Sikar were traditionally considered too aggressive for women officers,” she says, “but managing law and order is easy; the challenge for the administration is to change mindsets, like on sati.” And it’s this that Rajpal insists on tackling as priority by interacting with
students in schools and colleges.
Winds of change
Deorala’s classrooms are already fermenting change. Though the 2001 census recorded only 57.9 per cent of Deorala’s women as literate against 72.7 per cent of its men, the next count for lettered heads is bound to show a much higher female literacy rate. With 400 students on its rolls, the all-girls Rajkiya Balika Varisht Upadhyaya Vidyalaya saw its first class XII batch graduate last year. “Seventeen of our 20 girls passed, and 13 got into the state’s teacher’s training programme. The three who failed haven’t dropped out either; they are repeating,” beams headmaster Jagdish Prasad Mali. Shobhana Yadav, a class XI student, wants to be a teacher too. Does she believe in sati? “Hmm… I won’t ever be a sati. But my parents say only very good women become satis. Most families believe that if you stop such women from becoming satis, they can curse you.”
Families regularly go to Triveni Dham, 12 km away, to pay obeisance to Mata Jaswant Kanwar — the local living sati. A kindly septuagenarian, she bemoans her failed attempt at sati in 1985, when cops forced her off the pyre. “People had covered me with flowers and coconuts up to the head as I sat with my husband on my lap,” she recalls. Mata Jaswant hasn’t eaten cooked food for 22 years, surviving on fruits, and living in a shrine “believers” made for her at the place where she attempted sati. The shrine has her husband’s picture — along with the gods.
“Not all women have it in them to be satis,” pronounces Sumer Singh Shekhawat, Roop’s father-in-law. This retired headmaster lost the second of his three sons, Pushpendar, in a road accident three years ago. “His wife was in the accident too and was unconscious for 10 days, that’s why thoughts of becoming sati didn’t cross her mind,” he says.
A bitter past
Shankar Singh Daroga, Deorala’s sarpanch, listens silently, even reverentially. But once out of Sumer Singh’s earshot, he says: “He’s a broken man. He has lost his wife, two sons, and something’s wrong with the third. And to have such controversy plague the family!” Roop, says Daroga, is the only good thing that happened to Sumer Singh’s family. Witnesses, he insists, swear she was as calm as a goddess as the flames consumed her.
Bina Kanwar, who was widowed 10 years ago, says her heart brims with bitterness for all such satis. This mother of two had to scrounge for a livelihood after her husband drank himself to death. Having found regular employment at the anganwadi, she now earns Rs. 1,000 a month. Death for a widow, she says, is an easier option than living. “They won’t let you eat or work or help you. But if you burn yourself with your dead husband, orphan your children, they’ll worship you.”