I cremated my father when I was 22 years old. He was 49. He’d gone to play a round of golf with my mother on a blistering hot day in Calcutta (it wasn’t Kolkata then) and despite being fit, healthy and slim, he had a massive coronary and died on the course. He had two children. My older brother and I. My brother was doing what most good Bengali boys who get a higher education do—getting a Ph.D in English Literature in the land of milk and honey.
My father died in the afternoon and I performed his last rites in the late evening at the electric crematorium with my father’s brothers—they were his first cousins but brought up as siblings—standing behind me. The reason I am writing this is because it wasn’t questioned that I would perform the last rites. I did not bother to indulge in a discussion on the matter. And no one in my family including my father’s mother, an extremely strong and independent woman, 70 years of age, said that I should not do so. (Decades ago, she had performed her father’s last rites since she was the eldest of her siblings.) I also performed his shraddha 11 days later. Maybe I come from a more open-minded family than most, but that’s just the way it was.
In case it is not clear, I am my father’s daughter. Not my father’s son.
The reason I am writing this article is because of a video which has been doing the rounds on social media over the weekend. It has angered me greatly even though I think it was supposed to have the opposite reaction. The video is called My Daughter Will and states “Our aim is for Hindu daughters to have the same rights as a son to perform their parent’s last rites”. All good, you would think. Till you watch it.
The 2-minute and 52-second video is made up of interviews of a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter and a father. All sharing their tales of misogyny. The mother, who is flanked by her two daughters wearing Western clothes, looking like any woman you’d see shopping in a mall in Delhi, relates how when her husband died, her daughters weren’t “allowed” to perform the last rites because they were very young. (Which in all fairness, may have been a wise decision, because there are few things as horrific as watching your parent or someone you love go up in blue flames in front of your eyes.) The granddaughter narrates how her mother wasn’t “allowed” to perform her grandfather’s last rites. Another young woman narrates how she wasn’t “allowed” to perform her father’s last rites. And then the token male explains how because women are “paraaya dhan” and sons take forward the family name, it is the latter who perform the last rites, as this ensures that the father’s soul will find peace.
Why did this anger me?
Because we know what the problem is. But what’s the solution? There was not one interview with a woman who had performed her father’s last rites. Or with a man who said he wanted his daughter to perform his last rites. What we got were interviews of women who were educated, working, dressing the way they wanted to—telling us how they were not “allowed” to break taboos. This is so counter-productive. Instead of playing the victim and blaming society for being regressive in the 21st century, if you want to cremate your deceased parent, go ahead and do so. Ask for your right. If you are not being “allowed” to do so, then stand up against your family whether it be for yourself or for your daughter, and say that you will do what you feel is right. At worse what will happen? You’ll be ostracised from your family. Or blacklisted from social situations. Or denied your inheritance. Or blamed for ensuring your father is now a “bhatakti atma” (dissatisfied soul).
Whatever it be, it’s better to put your foot down and ask for what you feel is your right. Instead of bowing to social diktats—and then featuring in a video claiming that you were wronged. Be the change, really. I am tired of educated women of privilege and opportunity claiming that they have not broken norms because they are discriminated against due to their gender. Of course, we women are treated like second class citizens in comparison to how men are treated—whether it be in family structures, professionally or even by strangers on the road. But we can change it ourselves. And if we, the privileged and educated and financially solvent, aren’t going to break barriers in whatever small way we can – then who is? It most probably won’t be easy to do so. But if you want to be treated better, you need to be instrumental in that change. You can’t wait for permission to break norms and taboos.
After all, most of us are financially independent and don’t need to depend on family or generous men to survive or for social approval. If you think it was easy for the first woman to leave her husband or to refuse to have a child or to refuse to sit at home and not work—then you’re kidding yourself. Don’t whine against tradition.
If you feel strongly enough about something—including lighting your father’s pyre—do so, or ask to be allowed to do so. And if you are not “allowed” to do so, have the gumption to break ties with the people who tried to slot you into the weaker gender role. You don’t need to shout from the rooftops or burn your bra or write an article while doing so. But whatever you do, don’t play the victim. Each time you do so, you kill off at least one feminist who fought and is fighting for your right to education, to earn a living, to wear whatever you want, to marry who you want—or not marry at all. This video doesn’t break regressive taboos and social structures, it simply helps reiterate and propagate them.
You can watch the video here.