Among the many stories that surfaced in the wake of the Pathankot terrorist attack in the first week of January was that of Madhu Radha Katal serving as one of the pallbearers of her martyred father’s body.
The 25-year-old daughter of honorary captain Fateh Singh, who was killed by militants at the Pathankot air base, was among those who brought his coffin to the cremation ground. She then placed a wreath and saluted her father with an erectness of posture strained by grief but held firmly in place by pride. Conflicting emotions that will likely torment her forever, they offered a compelling instance of changing personal rights in what was once a very conservative society. Here, I am talking of a daughter’s participation in a father’s funeral, once taboo in Indian culture.
I cottoned on to the raw strength of Madhu’s coping mechanism upon losing her brave father, who was once an international-level shooter.
NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, reporting from Pathankot, asked Madhu to relate Fateh Singh’s last moments with the family, which was visiting him at his base for a vacation; highlighting Madhu’s participation in her father’s cremation, Dutt made a poignant point about the sense of gender equality Fateh Singh had instilled in his children.
“My father never taught us to think as girls or boys. He always treated us equally,” said the traumatized Madhu, looking straight into the camera. Not once but thrice, she repeated how proud she was of the way her father had tried to fight off the militants before they executed him. Her voice trembled with emotional loss but she expressed herself clearly.
This resonance of clarity must have helped Madhu stand up to the occasion and lend her father’s coffin a shoulder. Watching a girl partake in funeral rites, a practice that was coded only and strictly for men in India not till long back, made me think about the many ways patterns start changing in a society.
That Madhu did so in the full glare of a nation touched to its core gave the act a sort of valour. That she is a school teacher by profession is reason enough to hope that with her as a role model, more girls from village families will muster the resolve to cremate their parents when it is time, instead of being asked to stand aside by a male relative.
Daughters cremating parents is no longer an exception in India even though it is not yet common practice.
In the 1970s and 1980s, when we were school students, it was forbidden—no woman could even join a funeral procession. Even in the 1990s, when “social change” began to become visible in all kinds of customs and practices, very few women went to cremation grounds, leave alone lighting funeral pyres. Now, women joining funeral services at cremation grounds is more the norm in the cities. Some families even encourage their daughters to perform the final rites if they are the eldest of surviving children.
That’s what Bharatiya Janata Party leader Gopinath Munde’s eldest daughter Pankaja Munde did in 2014—she performed her father’s last rites. I also know of—as must you—of other daughters who may not belong to well-known families but have done the same.
I did it, too. As their only daughter, I cremated both my parents in quiet cremation services. I did not have to fight patriarchal biases nor did I do so to establish my rights as a daughter versus the vague rights of some male relative. It was just the obvious thing to do as their only child. The priest at Delhi’s Lodhi crematorium looked neither surprised nor displeased when he was told I would perform the last rites.
I do remember though that the act of lighting the pyres brought me dignity as a daughter and a stoic acceptance to being orphaned even though no dignity had ever been snatched from me. Perhaps the frightening finality of death rites gives you a temporary illusion of being in control of the loss.
But when the daughters of socially or politically well-known families such as the Mundes or the daughters of parents who get catapulted into news because of circumstances like Fateh Singh do the same thing, they ring in a message. Even when none is sought. Nobody expected an equal rights message from a terrorist attack. But I admire Barkha Dutt for veering her story towards that angle, giving Madhu and many women like her a voice, an agency in grief.
The tumultuous math of women’s rights often needs occasions such as these to get a fillip. For a transformation to be profound, it doesn’t have to germinate in a conference, a protest or a literary festival. Stern agendas with explicitly spelt-out expectations sometimes don’t work as much as unexpected turns of life do. Biology is not destiny after all but we don’t really need feminism to remind us that.