Remembering Boro Mashi

“The neighbors want to know, “Who will give mukhagni?” — only menfolk are allowed to go with the dead to the cremation grounds. Only sons or designated male family members are allowed to light the pyre, mukhagni (adding fire to the mouth of the dead). Women are second-class, not permitted. Women are to bear children — souls may get attached to them when they return from the cremation grounds — not allowed, not allowed.

Didi tells the crowd and to no one in particular, “Ma will give mukhagni. We will be there with her.”

I hear the collective soft gasp of horror. But no one says anything. The Ghosh daughters are foreign-returned, with Western ideas. They don’t see how wrong this is. How men and women aren’t equal.

We have my father to cremate. We have no time to worry about what the neighbors think.”

-Madhushree Ghosh, “The State We Are In: Neither Here, There, nor in Heaven.” May 2021.

I was reading this, and it brought to mind Boro Mashi. Boro Mashi was not “foreign-returned, with Western ideas.” She was the eldest daughter of four surviving daughters. And, she went to the cremation ground to give mukhagni for her mother. Scandalous, but there was no one else she would send in her stead. This pretty much tells you everything you have to know about Boro Mashi’s character.

Perhaps the one favorite moment I remember about Boro Mashi is when she came to the United States to visit for a year. She was staying with us, at our house for a few weeks, and I must have said something that was a bit cheeky. I turned, and I saw this stern looking, tiny Indian lady with her hand raised looking at me angrily, although kind of overacted. I was trying to figure out what she was doing, and actually leaned in. It turns out she was threatening to smack me, which when I realized that was what she was doing, I started laughing.

And she laughed too. She had spent her whole life as the eldest sister, very tough, and all the “kids” of my generation did not take her lightly. I only knew her as a very small Indian woman, who didn’t talk much to me because her command of English was minimal. Still, it was better than my Bengali. Being afraid of her was simply inconceivable to me.

But, it endeared her to me. She was strong and willing to stand up for herself. She probably liked me partially because not only did I accept this fact about her, but I liked it. Reading this bit above, I find myself missing her.