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Trial By Fire
by Shamoli Sarkar Bookmark and Share

Once upon a time in India, long ago, there was a prince named Nala who married a princess named Damayanti following a grand swayamvara ceremony. The swayamvara was a practice during which suitors competed with each other for the rich or royal maiden's hand. At a later point in their lives, this couple ran into hard times. And in the thick of their wanderings through the woods, Nala abandoned the sleeping Damayanti one night -- he just walked away. For several months she knew not where he was, or why he had disappeared. Later still, when the couple was reunited, Damayanti was overjoyed.

Once upon another time, again long, long ago and in India, there ruled a righteous and popular king named Rama whose wife Sita was abducted by King Ravana of Lanka. In a bitter battle, Rama defeated Ravana and reclaimed his wife. However, in order to prove that she had remained virtuous and faithful to him during the term of her captivity, Sita was made to go through an agni pareeksha (trial by fire).

These two popular tales come to us from times long gone by. But it would be pertinent to ponder over another story - in our times. So, let's fast forward through a few millennia to the year 2002 and place ourselves in India yet again. The protagonist in this modern-day story is a young woman who lives and moves even as we write about her; in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. About two weeks ago, 26-year-old Sangeeta was asked to submit to an agni pareeksha to prove her fidelity to her husband. The reason? She had gone with her friends on a pilgrimage for a few days without informing husband Rajesh.

On her return from Vaishno Devi, Rajesh threw Sangeeta out of their home for the 'crime' of going away without his permission. Sangeeta had to go to her parents' home, and there, her mother decided to put her through the fiery test to prove her innocence. Eleven community leaders of the panchayat, along with several neighbors stood witness to the gruesome ritual. Sangeeta was asked to clutch a red-hot iron rod in her palms. And because no burn marks appeared on her hands, she was thereafter pronounced 'pure'.

No miracle here! The iron rod was wrapped in green peepal leaves, and she carried it for just a few steps, so the ritual was over before her hands could get scorched. Nonetheless, what emerges is the fact that 'proof' of a woman's fidelity is still expected by audacious husbands - and sanctioned by even mothers. And that fiery, nerve-wracking trials of the kind can still be practiced in India, in complete disregard of all the social, economic and cultural changes brought in by the numerous intervening centuries.

Almost everybody in our country has heard the Nala-Damayanti story; but there are no versions available in which Damayanti demands a trial by fire of Nala. It was he who disappeared without so much as informing her, abandoning her in the forest while she slept. There is no narrative, among all the variants of the Ramayana that are extant, in which Sita asks Rama to prove his 'purity' through an agni pareeksha before she takes him back. Nor is there, of course, any question of Sangeeta herself demanding proof -- through a trial by fire or other means - of her husband's faithfulness to her during the few days that she was away.

One set of rules and penalties for women, another for men. A certain kind of morality expected from females, but not from the males. Whether it is the golden era of Rama Rajya more than 3,000 years ago, or the beginnings of the third millennium AD.

This was not an aberrant, deviant test thrust on the wife by an unusually suspicious husband. A whole crowd watched, sanctioned and justified the ritual. Women of the community commented before the TV camera: "We can do nothing about it." The event was not an on-the-spur-of-the-moment, angry imposition either. It was pre-planned, with enough time for the media to cover the event.

There have been no outraged protests, no indignant uproar in the media except for the usual reportage, first as a small single column item and then a longer story with a photograph. And it wasn't as if Sangeeta had gone away for much merry-making. She had -- quite simply -- gone on a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine with friends.

But then, isn't there a popular belief, according to which a woman need not  garner merit through pilgrimages because service to her husband is sufficient to bring her like merit?

The fact that women themselves participated in and went along with Sangeeta's agni pareeksha reveals the depth of indoctrination on ideas about female subordination even today.

We may write gender equity promises into our Constitution, pass legislation for women's advancement, and set up commissions and corporations for women's welfare as proof of our intentions. But none of this makes a difference when it comes to a woman asserting her rights as an individual in the same way that a male does. He still gets away with it.  

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