Author’s Note : Before I start telling you this story, I feel obliged to inform you that it was never my intention to write about this. The man that I want to tell you about, Retd Col S. Newaskar, died peacefully in his sleep on the night of July 23rd 2012 and I never expected to write about him on my blog. It so happened that the website I often write for, came up with a competition about men who have stood up for women. I must have mentioned this topic to my close friend Shreya at some point of time, because she was the one who reminded me about a relevant incident on her wedding day, involving her grandfather that had left a deep impact on the both of us. Me, more so, because I happened to be the bride’s friend, unrelated to her grandfather or her family but a witness nevertheless to this particular incident. Because the theme of the competition, Shreya’s grandfather and my blog somehow crossed paths, I sought the family’s permission to write about this story. After due consideration, the names and details have been changed- the only objective is to write about Col Sai Newaskar and what he did on the day of his granddaughter’s wedding.
A few years ago, in the summer of February 2009, my best friend Shreya was preparing to get married to her high-school sweetheart. Being very close to the bride, I spent the entire morning running around the spacious wedding hall, setting up the reception area, checking the guest list, overseeing the seating arrangement and acting as liaison between the bride and groom. I was quite young and extremely thrilled to be watching my older friend get married. In the evening, I stood along with Shreya’s family by the ornate gate through which the guests were streaming in. Among them was also her grandfather Retd Col S. Newaskar, a burly man who walked and talked military, had the bushiest handlebar mustache I had ever seen and a very piercing gaze that left me flustered. Along with him was his wife, a docile and simple woman who from what I had gathered, had been widowed early in her life. A few years after her first husband’s unfortunate death, she had met Col Newaskar who had lost his wife many years back and they had married each other soon after. Shreya had confided once, that although she hadn’t been very close to her step-grandmother she seemed like a sweet woman. Once I had greeted the guests, I, along with all the family members became engrossed in participating in all the traditional events.
Maybe because I was young and didn’t know that much about Indian weddings in general, I happened to notice a tiny detail which all the adults seemed quite accustomed to. Although Shreya’s step-grandmother Mrs Newaskar, was required to be a part of all the ceremonies there was always this moment when with a sort of understated skill, she would be shuttled to the fringe of the group, seeming to grow smaller while the rest of the family vigorously indulged in the wedding ceremony. In fact, whenever there was a pooja or a ritual involving the bride or the groom, Mrs. Newaskar would come forward traditionally being required to perform many of those rituals but in a practiced move the rest of the family, sometimes the bride’s mother or some aunt or some relative, would sideline. Following this, Mrs Niwaskar would stand at the edge as far away from the happy couple as possible till the ritual had been concluded.
This inexplicable event happened so many times that I started to wonder if there was something wrong with Mrs. Newaskar. Like I said, I was very new to the traditions, customs and most importantly- the superstitions of a large Indian family. I assumed maybe the family was keeping their distance from her because she hadn’t been with them for that long, or maybe she didn’t get along with her husband’s children or some other personal reason that I wasn’t privy to. Whatever this reason was, Shreya’s family and relatives for the most part were going out of their way not to let Mrs. Newaskar perform or be a part of most of the ceremonies.
It was the in the last ceremony before the reception, that my question was answered. The priest performing the pooja asked for the girl’s eldest female relative to be brought forward and conduct the Aarti. Once again, I sensed that same hushed rustling of women’s sari’s and flapping of men’s kurta’s as the group surrounding the couple drew a deep breath together and somehow Mrs. Niwaskar was hampered from getting across to the priest and accepting the proffered thali. Once again, Mrs Niwaskar’s face fell for a fraction of a second and she stepped back as demurely as possible. Fortunately I looked back to where Col Newaskar was sitting and caught the momentary look of outrage that swept across his face before it vanished behind the typical military composure that soldiers possess. Col Newaskar got up and with a kind of regal grace strode forward and stopped his daughter-in-law from starting the ceremony.
The shahnai ceased to play. The band stopped beating the drums. People, as one, looked towards the intimidating figure of the former Colonel.
“How long will you people keep doing that?” He asked his son and daughter-in-law softly in a deep, gravelly voice.
The rest of the family seemed stunned. There were muted replies from some of the other members. Col Newaskar waved his hand in a dismissive gesture and pointed to the diminutive figure of his second wife.
“She’s the eldest female relative. Did you all not hear the Priest’s request?”
His son, the other Mr. Newaskar supplied some answer in hushed tones to his father.
“In every function so far, you have gone out of your way to shun my wife. Why? Is it because she was a widow? Because Hindu superstition dictates that widows bring bad luck to auspicious functions?”
He turned to the priest and asked him “Pandit ji, has it been mentioned in any holy scripture that widows cannot be allowed to do what is their birthright?”
The priest bowed and replied that there was no such thing written in the Vedas and the Upnishads.
Col Newaskar pointed to his granddaughter Shreya, dressed in the bride’s traditional glittering red attire. “My wife is also her grandmother. The couple needs her blessings. Without the blessings and grace of her elders the wedding will not be complete. That would be inauspicious.” He looked at this granddaughter at this point and there must have been some silent communication, because Shreya quickly got up along with her husband-to-be and they both stepped forward to hand the ceremonial plate to her grandmother.
It took a few seconds for the silent crowd to process what was happening because before they knew it, the priest was chanting, the Aarti was being conducted by Mrs. Newaskar, the couple were smiling and bowing to touch her feet and Col Newaskar had silently returned to his post- a solitary plastic chair at the edge of the stage.
It was much later, that I really understood the significance of this one, small incident. You see, due to caste-ism in India, the position of women has been downgraded from what it used to be, but what is worse is the position of widows in the orthodox community. A widow is treated like an accursed person, an ill-omen or a harbinger of misery, bad-luck and death. It is believed that it is the woman’s own fate that brought on her husband’s untimely death and hence will follow her everywhere. Widows are boycotted from all festivals and happy occasions for the same reason. They are made to spend their life in the most lonely way possible- surviving on the charity of their in-laws, barred from indulging in any activities that married women are allowed to do- especially religious ceremonies and weddings. Even today, a re-married widow is still perceived as once-a-widow-always-a-widow. A widow cannot decorate her body, adorn herself with jewelry or garb herself in attractive clothes. Ideally, she must spend her life in perdition and serve a sort of purgatory sentence for the rest of her life.
Women, whether married, unmarried or widowed deserve as much respect as men do in in society. They are here to faithfully play that role in life which has been assigned to them. It may be their destiny to be a daughter, mother, sister, wife, friend or even a widow- but that does not give society any right to determine how they are supposed to play that role. Their status and position, their freedom and liberty cannot be constricted any longer by those orthodox and oppressive norms which have been prevailing in society since generations.
What Col Newaskar did on that day, was a very special, very brave act that indeed, had a huge impact on the rest of the family. It was meant to dispel the superstitious and irrational beliefs of the family and ensure equality and respect for his wife.
I never discussed the incident much with my friend after that. I remember the rest of the wedding was pretty normal and uneventful, although any observant person would notice that there was a delicate smile on Mrs. Newaskar’s face now, who seemed to have finally been accepted as an integral part of the wedding.
Retd Col Sai Newaskar may not be with his beloved and happily married granddaughter today and he will never know the effect his one humanitarian act had on my 17 year-old self. He and I didn’t have any personal interaction, nor did we have any connection aside from the fact that Shreya was and still remains to be one of my closest friends. I don’t even know what he did for our nation because what he did for one woman seems even braver to me. In my memory, what he did that day, will always be the most honorable and commendable act that a man did for his wife, for a widow and for a woman.