“In the last decade alone, the share of the world population living in autocracies has shot up from 49 percent in 2011 to 70 percent in 2021.”—Michael Hirsh, “The Month That Changed a Century.” Foreign Policy. April 10, 2022.
“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.” Longreads.com. 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.
A classic Bengali song.
- 8 cups of puffed rice (or Rice Krispies)
- 4 radishes, sliced
- 1 radish, diced
- 1/4 red onion
- 1/2 cup of cauliflower
- 1/4 cup of coriander (cilantro) leaves
- 2 tbsp. of ginger, minced
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 2 small potatoes, boiled
- hot peppers (usually Thai, but any will do), to taste
- 16 oz package of fresh snow peas
- 2 tbsp. of mustard oil
- 1 small package of Indian snacks (optional)
- salt & pepper, to taste
Mouli means puffed rice. Maka means mix. All you need to do is put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix them together. Best had with hot tea in the afternoon.
“‘You need to call the Green Gang.’ The Green Gang. It was a strange, frightening phrase. Rajput had never heard of the group before. When she began asking about it in local villages, the details seemed too fantastical to be true. It was a gang of hundreds — no, thousands — of women, almost all of them poor and low-caste. It was said that they took on anyone who dared to hurt a woman, including violent in-laws, philandering husbands, domestic abusers, land-grabbers, bootleggers, molesters, and rapists. Sometimes, they beat sense into aggressors, and other times, they scared them into submission.”
—Elizabeth Flock, “The Green Gang.” California Sunday. August 1, 2019.
“The daughters are to stay at home. The wife, more so. The dead are never accompanied to the cremation grounds by women. We aren’t allowed. Not in our custom.
And so, we went to the cremation grounds — Ma and her daughters, to cremate our father, her husband. I took Ma’s hand and guided her from our house. The priest shook his head in disapproval. The cousins, the men, looked on, grief-stricken, but now in shock that their aunt and their cousins, women all, were headed to the shamshan ghat, to give mukhagni, lighting the fire to the mouth of the deceased.”-Madhushree Ghosh, “At the Maacher Bazaar, Fish For Life.” Longreads.com. April 2019
There was a lot I recognized in this story. The elder daughter who would not eat fish because her parents ate so much of it in her childhood. Daughters breaking tradition and performing funeral rites. The love of Bengalis for bargaining.
But, otherwise, a piece that was বাংলা জীবন সত্য, true to Bengali life.
“It’s in a way right because Hinduism is a tailor-made religion. As one anthropologist said, it’s mysticism, but basically it’s a system to prop up caste system. It tells you the rules for untouchables and for women. That is all Hinduism is about. Shorn of mysticism, it’s a prop for caste system.
Caste system is a social issue, but the religion coincides with the social. That’s why it looks like it’s a religious issue. It’s not actually a religious issue. Therefore, when people convert to other religions, hoping that they will not be untouchables anymore, they will be disappointed because there is casteism in Christians and Dalits and Sikhs and any other religion in India. It’s a social issue.”
—Sujatha Gilda. “Ep. 30: Sujatha Gidla on being an Ant amongst the Elephants.” Conversations with Tyler. November 15, 2017.