The first time I met Raj Kumari, she had walked over a kilometer just to meet me. This fragile-looking lady showed no signs of exhaustion, which is remarkable, given that she is 72 years old. Raj Kumari’s tale is extraordinary — she straddles multiple roles and identities, and has lived through all kinds of adversity.
Every day, after she wakes up at the crack of dawn, Raj Kumari prays and begins to clean her home. When her sons wake up, she helps her daughters-in-law prepare breakfast. When her sons set out to go to work, Raj cleans the street outside the family home, and then sets off to the market to get food for the household — she won’t allow her daughters-in-law to do the work, so she does it herself. Raj herself doesn’t eat meat or chicken, she wouldn’t even if she could afford it. She remembers times when things were much harder for her — it all began when she was married off when she was 12 years old, to a man who was over 50.
Raj says she left her house for the first time ever when she got married. An orthodox Hindu with a traditional mindset, her father didn’t believe in educating women, allowing his daughter to make friends or even letting the little girl interact with children her own age. She was told that making friends would corrupt her mind and, because of her extremely sheltered upbringing, Raj says she cried like a baby when she got married and left her house. Raj’s father was a famous musician, as were her brothers, and she too had wanted learn. But decent girls didn’t do that…according to her father.
Raj soon had to contend with family pressure to have a baby. She didn’t conceive until she was 16, so for the four years she spent childless after her marriage, her in-laws used to try to convince her husband to divorce her. They would also hit her — Raj recalls how she was beaten with a wooden stick for not cutting vegetables properly.
Raj’s husband died when he was 62, leaving Raj alone to fend for her children, two boys and a girl. She managed to get a job at a Christian missionary school, where she worked for 35 years. At the time, Hindus mixed freely with Christians. Coming from an orthodox background, Raj couldn’t repudiate her Hindu traditions but she didn’t have an issue with picking up Christian practices. So along with Diwali and Holi, she started celebrating Easter and Christmas. She had never read the Gita, nor had she learned the hymns of the Veda. But at the school where she worked she memorised verses from the Bible and Christian prayers. Every morning she would stand in front of a picture of Durga Mata, and pray to her Christian god. She also taught her children to pray according to Christian tradition.
Raj promised herself that she would not be the sort of mother-in-law her own mother-in-law was. Both her sons married girls from devout Hindu families in Bahawalnagar. She remembers how, when she was performing the arti of her eldest daughter-in-law, people from the neighborhood shouted, “Where have these Hindus come from!” She had been living in the neighbourhood for five years prior to that, in a house that was gifted to her by her school, and this issue had never come up in all of that time. Since she had been in the Christian section of the area, the surrounding families had just assumed they too were Christian. “I was scared,” Raj says. “I have been calling myself a Christian ever since.” Now, when Christmas rolls around they decorate their house just like their neighbours, but they celebrate Diwali and Holi in a more low-key manner. In the past they used to light lamps on the walls of their houses, but not anymore.
For Diwali, Raj draws a colorful rangoli in the courtyard. She only knows one style, a box with diagonal crosses. At the center she places a lump of flour; she doesn’t know the significance but she has seen her mother and mother-in-law do it and knows that it is essential. On Holi the rest of the Hindu/Christian family gets together at her place, and they have a family dinner. They don’t throw colours on each anymore neither do they visit any of the Hindu temples: “Because it is too dangerous,” according to Raj. “There was a time when Muslims considered us untouchables; they wouldn’t eat from our plates or glasses, but not so much anymore,” she says.
By virtue of her religion, Raj belongs to one of societies most oppressed and ostracised groups. Being a Hindu, she, by default, receives fewer privileges, and fewer opportunities for social and economic empowerment. Being a woman she is subjected to further discrimination and oppression within an already oppressed minority. Yet she is a survivor, battling against the odds. She has a house of her own now, and her two sons, who live in her house, earn enough money to provide for the family. Despite her obstacles, Raj has steered her life into a positive direction. At the end of our meeting she tells me that she has never made any friends and feels lonely now, as she is growing old, as there is no one to share her memories with.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2011.
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