Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 32, July 2013

Vasanth Kannabiran

A Grief to Bury:
Memories of Love, Work & Loss

Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan Private Limited, 2011
ISBN 9788125043058 (pbk); 370 pp.

reviewed by Krishna Menon

  1. Widowhood is a spectre that haunts Hindu women in India. It haunts upper caste Hindu women much more than it does other women. Culturally, the widow has been seen as inauspicious and malevolent. She is seen as someone who could not through her chastity uphold the life of her husband.
  2. One of the most celebrated stories that are representative of Indian womanhood is that of Savitri—so deep was her love for her husband Satyavan, that, upon his death she followed the God of death Yama and tricked him into returning her husband's life because of her chastity. Sati, Sita, Savitri, Damayanti and Arundhati are the five virtuous and chaste women that upper caste Hindu women are urged to meditate on in order to avert the calamity of widowhood.
  3. It is no wonder that in this cultural context, women whose husbands are alive are accorded a special place of honour and dignity and are described as 'Sumangali.' In fact, the devadasi women in southern India who were attached to the temples were much valued at auspicious occasions such as birth and marriage; their peculiar 'marriage' to the deity eliminated the possibility of widowhood.[1]
  4. Widowed women in upper caste Hindu society did not have too many options. In some parts of the sub-continent the practice of sati (ritual burning of the widow on the husband's funeral pyre) eliminated the widow and thereby quashed any claims on the property and holdings of the husband. It is no wonder that women spent most of their 'free' time praying for the long life of their husbands.
  5. In most upper caste communities the widow was ritually disfigured—her head would be shaved, she would wear dull, coarse garments, jewellery would be ceremoniously destroyed and a strict, Spartan diet along with endless labour and care-giving activities filled the widow's days. The night brought the horror of rape by the men in the husband's family.
  6. The widow was allowed to live a life akin to death. She was not acknowledged at family functions; in fact she had to take great care to make herself invisible at such times. Her sexuality was always a matter of concern; an unattractive appearance and simple food that would supposedly tame her sexual urges were prescribed.
  7. It is not surprising that one of earliest 'social reform' movements in India in the nineteenth century was situated around the question of widowhood. Faced with the challenge from the coloniser, the upper caste English-educated Indian men sought to re-define India. The re-construction and re-presentation of Indian womanhood became one of the sites of this enterprise. The coloniser had to be shown that Indian men respected 'their' women and could resolve the 'woman question' honourably as argued by Partha Chatterjee.[2]
  8. The 'woman question' was sought to be resolved by well-meaning Hindu upper caste English-educated men in dialogue with the colonial state. Conspicuous in all these campaigns by its absence were the voices and aspirations of women. Thereby hangs a tale, the resonances of which can be felt by Indian women even today, but that is another story.
  9. The book under review A Grief to Bury: Memories of Love, Work & Loss by Vasanth Kannabiran is an unusual book. It is unusual on many counts. A very common response that young, privileged women in urban India have to any discussion of feminism is that feminists are incapable of love and relationships. This book records the very beautiful and dare one say romantic tales of love, marriage and finally separation of some of the leading feminist writers, academics-scholars, performing artists and activists from India.
  10. Marriage, family and motherhood, as conventionally understood and constructed by patriarchy, do pose the most serious set of challenges to the feminist woman in India. This book records the marriages and lives of some leading Indian feminists—women born before India became independent. They worked, loved, married and struggled to translate their feminist beliefs into reality, both in their professional spheres and in their private lives. The book is a remarkable record of the negotiations, compromises and challenges faced by this generation of women who tried to live their personal lives based on feminist convictions, and impacted the public sphere by the same ideals by which they tried to live their personal lives.
  11. Neera Desai who is a doyenne of feminist scholarship and her writing reveals an altogether different and indeed vulnerable facet of her life. She is in a manner of speaking inseparable from the women's movement in India. And yet, her early years in her husband's—the great sociologist A.R. Desai—house was like the life of any new Indian bride in her father-in-law's house. Neera Desai talks of how she had to keep her head covered at all times to show respect to all the elders, and more importantly, how she had to remain silent and not express her opinions or ideas. She could not, like most women in India, read the newspaper till all the men in the family had finished with it! Her account fills the reader strangely not with despair but with hope, for the rest of the interview is about how she negotiated this tricky terrain and in the process how her husband also warmed up to feminist ideas.
  12. Saradamoni, a leading feminist scholar and economist shares her memories of a marriage and family life that to most women would seem perfect and idyllic. However, she herself never thought this unusual. She acknowledges in hindsight that in most marriages, if both the husband and the wife are working, it is the wife who is expected to step back in her career and take charge of the family responsibilities so that the husband's career could zoom forward. However, in her case there was no such expectation and that was perhaps one of the reasons for her astounding academic career. An astute observer of life and society, she notes rather ruefully that the closeness, intimacy and bonding in woman-man relations and generally within the institution of marriage have diminished over time.
  13. Saradamoni talks of Kerala's society just before and in the early years after independence.[3] She brings to life a society that was politically passionate, vibrant and progressive. The simplicity of her marriage in contrast to the gaudy, opulent celebrations that mark marriages today stand out as a reminder of what 'modernity' brings in its wake. It is interesting to hear her say that no one expected her to change her name after marriage, and she simply continued to be her own person, with her own name. Not a small feat, when contrasted with the Kerala of today, where women are expected to take on either their father's or their husband's name. All this in the name of modernity and progress!
  14. Ramesawri Varma's first marriage at the age of thirteen was even before she had come of age. We read that her parents were liberal and valued education and yet got their young daughter married. Her unhappy marriage and two pregnancies that she aborted with the help of the same mother who forced her into marriage bring out the complex nature of the love and bond shared by a mother and daughter under patriarchy, while the mother is eager for her daughter to fly, she is also keen that her daughter fit in with the rigours of patriarchy.
  15. Later in life, Rameswari found love and companionship in a happy marriage with Balagopal Varma. From a first marriage steeped in despair, she moved onto a marriage that gave her the strength and support to become a reputed scholar and activist in women's studies.
  16. Ela Bhatt's Spartan romance with Ramesh Bhatt, her firm resolve to marry him despite the class differences and finally the account of her marriage, tell us a great deal about love and longing in Nehruvian India; needless to say very different from the neo-liberal times that India is being pushed into.
  17. It is difficult to imagine that a woman like Ela Bhatt had to contend with her husband's old widowed aunt—'you know how strict Brahmin widows are'—is Ela Bhatt's characteristic no frills description of the regimen imposed on her by the aunt. Housework, cooking and childcare had to be just so. There is however no rancor directed at this old woman, on the contrary, feminist empathy leads Ela Bhatt to understand the role that the old widowed aunt was playing in securing her nephew's household along patriarchal lines.
  18. Her husband taught Ela Bhatt to cook. She talks of the importance of the family working together to complete household tasks. Her precious advice to women is that they must not do more housework than is necessary, since it is like a bottomless well, especially in the context of innumerable household gadgets and specialised cleaning agents.
  19. The women featured in this volume are extraordinary and yet many of them have very touchingly confessed to their fears and anxieties after being widowed. In a culture where widows are required to be self-abnegating, routine activities take on fierce symbolic meaning. Eating well, cooking decent meals, wearing coloured saris instead of the prescribed drab clothes, wearing a bindi and even something as innocuous as watching television were activities that some of them debated about, lest they be misunderstood as enjoying themselves![4] It is strangely reassuring to know that even women who seem so self-confident and successful have had their moments of doubt. It gives other more ordinary women the courage to express their vulnerabilities.
  20. The book ends with a moving epilogue by Vasanth Kannabiran. By the time she finished the book, she was herself widowed and found herself recalling, her marriage and relationship with her late husband, a human rights activist. For years she lived with the fear of her husband becoming a victim of a political murder. It is fascinating to read that the couple had decided to try out their marriage for a period of ten years and then move away, however they ended instead with a fifty-year-long marriage and political partnership, where Vasanth Kannabiran carved out her freedom and explored the opportunities that came by.
  21. They were not a couple in the conventional sense, they went nowhere together or had pictures taken together, in fact, after their wedding pictures the only pictures of them together is on their way to a meeting of the government with the Maoists in a remote part of Andhra Pradesh.[5] How typical of their life together!
  22. When I received this book for reviewing I was worried about its maudlin nature, after all, while the book is about long enduring marriages, the women who have been brought together are all widows, and in India the lot of the widow is never happy. However, the women featured in this book demonstrate that it is possible to go on living meaningful and fruitful lives even after the passing on of old and long bonds.
  23. Marriage as an institution has always been problematic for feminists; the interviews here give us a fair inkling of why it is so. Vasanth Kannabiran draws our attention to the irony of being a feminist who spoke on public platforms about the perils of the gendered division of work, but in her own private space had to take complete charge of the running of the home and the hearth.
  24. The marriages recorded in this volume can be characterised as warm and enriching. This book is an exclusive account of deep and loving heterosexual relationships; I think there is room for a similar book about love and loss from the vantage point of same-sex couples as well.
  25. This book will go onto becoming not only a record of the lives and marriages of some distinguished women with feminist inclinations, but it will provide insight into the nature of marriage itself.


    [1] Devadasi women were at most times only allowed to occupy the margins of upper caste society in South India, yet on auspicious occasions they were accorded a place of honour.

    [2] Partha Chatterjee, 'The nationalist resolution of the women's question,' in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds, Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 233–53.

    [3] Kerala is on the south western tip of India; Saradamoni grew up in Kerala.

    [4] The vermillion mark on the forehead that for most Hindu women is a symbol of marriage.

    [5] Andhra Pradesh in southern India, along with some other states of India, have a long history of landless and poor peasants struggles that have been channelled into broadly left extremist-inspired political outfits that are collectively referred to as the Maoists. Some of these groups subscribe to the employment of violent, political movements.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 15 July 2013 1211