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August 9, 1997


V Gangadhar

The pativrata shiromani

Chief Minister Rabri Devi of Bihar How I wish my grandfather, Chokknathapuram Venkataraman Venkatanarayana Iyer, B A, retired tahsildar,was alive today. He would have rejoiced at the elevation of Rabri Devi, wife of former Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, to the chair once occupied by her husband. Laloo, before surrendering himself to the Central Bureau of Investigation for his alleged involvement in the Rs 9.5 billion fodder scam, had one more trick to play on his adoring followers -- he made his semi-literate wife and mother of nine children the chief minister of Bihar.

My grandfather would have applauded this promotion, but not because he believed women should occupy high position in life. Throughout his life, he believed in the superiority of the male and that the male was born to dominate the female. He would have been happy at Rabri Devi's new position, only because she represented the only kind of women he admired -- the typical, traditional pativrata shiromani.

He was well versed in our ancient epics and, while we were young, enthralled us with stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Shrimad Bhagwat. The stories would commence with one topic, meander through another, touch upon current topics, his favourite food items and finally come back to where it started. But we did not mind. The more he digressed, the more interesting the narrative became. Many of these stories featured pativrata shiromanis,who lived, worked and died for their husbands.

In real life, his views were the same. The male was created to bear the burden of the earth, the female had only a supporting role. The duty of a girl child was to grow up, marry the person chosen by her parents, then serve him throughout her life. She had no independent existence, no individuality, and had to remain in the shadow of the husband and take care of his every need and whim. What he preached, he practised in his own life. Grandmother set an object lesson in implicitly obeying her husband.

According to grandfather, the sure way for a woman to reach Heaven was to play the role of pativrata shiromani to perfection. The husband could be a no-gooder, a rake or a lecher, but the wife had to obey him. She was not qualified to question his morals or attitude to life. The epics were full of stories of such women and grandfather narrated them to us with gusto.

Laura's illustration Sita was the obvious example. She wouldn't have fallen in grandfather's example if she had argued against her husband's implicit obedience of his father's diktat (guided by stepmother Kaikeyi) to renounce the throne and go into exile for 14 years. But Sita, without a word of protest, followed Ram into the forest. Similarly, she did not object to Ram's treatment of her following the unsavoury comments made by a citizen of Ayodhya. These, according to grandfather, constituted the ideal pativratahood!

He admired Draupadi for remaining silent while one of her husbands used her as a stake to gamble with the Kauravas. But he admired Mandodari, Ravana's wife, even more. Why? Because, Mandodari did not raise a hue and cry when her husband kidnapped Sita and held her captive in Lanka for nearly one year. Damayanti was yet another specimen of Indian pativrata; she followed her husband Nala everywhere even after he was cursed by the god Shani. Thus it went on, one story after the other on the great pativratas of India.

In real life, he wanted his wife and the other women in the household to emulate the examples of these legendary heroines. But telling stories was one thing, setting examples based on these was another. C V Venkatanarayana Iyer was a demanding and irritable husband who needed his wife at his beck and call. This was not possible, because grandmother had her own share of the housework. She tried her best to comply with her husband's demands, but occasionally failed. These led to further lectures on the declining standards of Indian pativratas!

Once, as he was sitting down for his daily puja, grandfather found out that certain items needed for the puja were missing and called out to his wife. She was busy elsewhere and could not turn up immediately. As soon as she arrived on the scene, a visibly angry grandfather asked her why she did not act in the same manner as the wife of the famous Tamil poet, Tiruvalluvar. He was referring to a story where Tiruvalluvar's wife was drawing water from a well when she heard her husband summoning her. Being a pativrata shiromani (grade I, that too), she dropped everything she was doing and rushed to obey his summons. And when she returned to the well, she found the rope and the vessel for drawing water in exactly the same position where she had left them!

"You were also drawing water from the well," thundered grandfather. "If you had also rushed here immediately to obey your lord and master, the bucket and rope would have remained intact. But then, where are the genuine pativrata shiromanis these days?"

Grandmother just shrugged her shoulders and walked away. In her own way, she spent an entire lifetime serving a hot-tempered husband whose sole priority was himself. His own interests had to come first. Even if he was hours late in returning from the office, his wife was to await him, feed him and then only eat. If the food was not warm enough, the silver dinner plate was flung against the wall! Most people of that generation did not find anything wrong in such behaviour. Women were definitely second class citizens and had to be shown their places.

These incidents took place more than 50 years ago. Has our society changed much since then? Rabri Devi says she will do anything for her husband, including functioning as the chief minister. She will administer the state under the guidance of her husband, and will continue cooking for him without fail.

Grandfather would have appreciated such gestures. From his corner in Heaven, I am sure, he smiles benignly and showers his blessings on Rabri Devi, perhaps the last of our pativrata shiromanis.

Illustration: Laura Fernandes

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V Gangadhar