NAGPUR, India–Hindu priests chanted mantras to invite the spirits of my father, grandfather and great grandfather to a feast served on dried palash leaves. A murmur passed through the crowd as the Sadhu invited only married women to gather around the altar.
I had ignored my brother’s pleas to stay home in California. Now, as a divorced woman, I was not sure if I was eligible to participate.
Thirteen days earlier, my father had passed away in his sleep. This is the day the ritual must be held.
“Come, you are a putravati — a mother of sons,” my Aunt Shobha beckoned. But the priest scrutinized the absence of a red dot on my forehead and the missing black beads around my neck.
I knew my father would have wanted me present at this “shraddha” ritual. “Do we consider a man impure because he is widowed or divorced?” my father used to say to relatives gathered at weddings. “You offer 10 brides to a widower, but a woman is supposed to be responsible for her husband’s death? What kind of a religion is this?”
He was the only Hindu man I knew who lived on the margins of society by choice.
In a land where men are worshipped as gods and where fathers wish only for sons to avoid giving away their life savings as dowry, I had a unique relationship with my father. He gave me the birth name Aruna, after the famous Indian freedom fighter Aruna Asaf Ali, and he celebrated my birthday every year on Indian Republic Day. In a letter written at my birth, he said I represented to him the very soul of young India, born after independence.
My father had come of age with India’s movement against British colonial rule. Like his hero, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of free India, my father was an atheist, an anglophile and a proponent of the emancipation of women.
My father met my mother in Bombay. Refusing to accept a dowry, he arranged a simple ceremony on the terrace of a friend’s flat.
He encouraged me to excel in my studies and to participate in school debates. He took me, not my brother, to cricket matches because I was the one who listened to the commentary on All India Radio. As a young girl, I would sit on my father’s lap every evening and listen to stories from the Arabian Nights, the Bronte Sisters, Charles Dickens and Nehru’s “Glimpses of World History.”
Later, when we kids were asleep, he would help my mother with her English essays. She was studying for her bachelor’s degree.
Tragically, my father never realized the brutality Hindu society could inflict on women who stepped out of prescribed roles.
He failed to support my mother when his relatives scorned her because of her refusal to follow Hindu rituals such as the annual worship of the banyan tree to grant you the same husband for the next seven incarnations.
After my mother suffered a nervous breakdown, my father would rise before dawn to light a kerosene stove and make me a hot cup of tea before school.
I was the only girl in town who learned cooking from her father.
But the most important gift my father gave me was not in something he did, but rather in something he did not do. He never told me that because I would someday marry, I should not worry about furthering my education.
Yet, he also wanted me to fit into Hindu society. So he pressured me into a disastrous arranged marriage with a stranger after he discovered my love for a fellow student who could not marry me because he was poor. My eventual divorce and fall from local grace broke my father’s heart.
As I watched the “shraddha” ritual, therefore, I wondered if I had failed him.
I wondered, too, if like his hero Nehru, whose wishes for doing away with Hindu rites had been ignored by the masses, my father was receiving last rites he would have scoffed at.
And in that moment, I was glad of my presence, so I could silently critique the ceremony along with him.
My brother made an offering of rice at my father’s cremation site. According to Hindu scriptures, if a bird eats the rice, you know that the soul of the departed is not present, and has no desires left from this world.
Out of nowhere, a crow came and ate the offering.
I don’t believe in superstition. But in that moment I knew my father’s spirit was proud of my life as an “impure” Hindu woman, proud of what I had done with the education and view of the world he allowed me to have.
“My father myself,” I thought, as my brother and I immersed his ashes in the confluence of five rivers and headed home.
Sarvate (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a physicist and a writer for India Currents and other publications.