The following story was narrated to me by late Dr F. Ghadially when we were colleagues at the Princess Margaret Orthopaedic Centre for two years, 1982-1984. He had already retired as Consultant in Orthopaedic and Plastic Surgery, and had been re-employed on a two-year contract. He had come to Mauritius from the UK in 1955 or so, and the incident he described took place shortly afterwards.
A notorious killer criminal had been condemned to death by hanging, which causes a fatal dislocation of the cervical spine. Fortunately or unfortunately, the complete dislocation did not occur, and instead there was a fracture, so that the guy survived and had to be treated. This consisted of an operation which was performed by Dr Ghadially, and in due course the criminal was returned to prison.
When Dr Ghadially went to visit him in his cell, he started misbehaving very badly, became threatening and refused to be examined. The guards decided to call in his wife, who had come to see him and was waiting outside. When she entered, the guard explained the situation to her and told her to request her husband to allow examination by the doctor.
Addressing her husband and looking him straight in the eyes, she ordered him very sternly: ‘Will you SHUT UP and let the doctor examine you, otherwise I am going to…’ Before she could complete her sentence, the criminal melted into a lamb and Dr Ghadially could proceed. ‘It was really comic’, he told me, ‘and I had to hold back my laughter: imagine this little woman who barely reached the chest level of her hefty man silencing with but a few words this killer who was now cowering in her presence, when but a moment earlier he was being a bully to us!’
That is one aspect of nari shakti: nari means woman, and shakti relates to power, but power that is both outer and inner strength, that draws more upon the spiritual than the material, although its expression is more visible in the realm of the latter dimension.
‘The Great Divine Mother’
Shakti, also spelt as Sakthi or Shakthi, comes from the Sanskrit shak, ‘to be able’, and in Hinduism is the primordial cosmic energy, representing the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the entire universe, creating, sustaining and destroying. It is the concept, or personification, of divine feminine creative power, sometimes referred to as ‘The Great Divine Mother’ in Hinduism. On the earthly plane, Shakti most actively manifests through female embodiment and creativity/fertility.
The Shakti goddess is also known as Amman (meaning ‘mother’) in south India, where there are many temples in the villages devoted to various incarnations of the Shakti goddess. The rural people believe that Shakti is the protector of the village, the punisher of evil people, the curer of diseases, and the one who gives welfare to the village. The concept of shakti therefore encompasses procreation, protection, punishment for wrongdoing, and well-being: eminently what the woman as mother does. And that is why the woman is the pillar of the house, the homemaker who is the ghar ki lakhsmi – not a simple lady of the house, but the light that transforms it into a home.
Unfortunately, in many cultures — including most notoriously and ironically in India where the concept originates – this fundamental comprehension of woman has been neglected, with the result that throughout history and across countries and societies, women have undergone suppression, oppression and repression accompanied by violence of all kinds and degrees. The harshest denials to women have been justified by claims of what can only be called primitive religious sanctions, as if a creator god would ordain that half his (human) creation be enslaved! It is also a truism that often women themselves have been accomplices in the cruelty to their genre.
The International Women’s Day (IWD), like similar days for other reasons, is meant to raise awareness and reflects the struggles of women to secure their economic, social, civil and political rights in modern times, a work that will not end so soon if at all. To that extent IWD is no doubt is an important annual milestone and reminder, as well as promoter of these rights. By the same token, on this occasion, some prominent women, deservedly or undeservedly, will be featured to show that women can ‘make it’ too in a male-dominated world.
The unbeknown heroines
However, my focus is on the unbeknown heroines that I have come across and who are no less exemplars of nari shakti in daily life, and when unexpected difficulties and quasi-storms erupt in their lives, draw upon this shakti to face them, cope and survive with dignity. Their tribe worldwide is in the hundreds of millions.
Like this 35-year old whose alcoholic husband, by then thrown out of his job, would steal from the little savings she had hidden under her clothes in the wardrobe, and had twice tried to burn her. He was partially successful the second time, and that’s when she made a police complaint, divorced him and went to live with her mother, a pensioner, taking her two sons with her. When I was treating her for her burns scars some years later, which is when I learnt her story, she was working as a part-time maid – but made sure that her sons got their education. With no private tuition, which she could not afford, the elder one had cleared his CPE with flying colours and was admitted to Royal College Port Louis. He was then in Form IV and doing very well in his studies.
I remember the housewife who took the news of her 8-year old daughter having a cancer of the thigh bone so stoically, not a drop formed in her eyes. Business-like and pragmatic, she asked me, what next Doctor? When I met the father, he almost collapsed at the news, and had to be brought back to reality by his strong wife, despite her shorter stature and look of frailty. I recall telling myself at some stage while I was treating her little angel – who left us a bare six months later – ‘frailty, thy name is NOT woman!’
We accommodated her in the ward for the two months that her child was admitted. She would shuttle a few times daily between home in Holyrood, Vacoas and hospital, completing her household chores, seeing off her younger daughter to school and back, tending to the husband, and spend the night with the sick child in the ward. And she nursed her single-handedly, over and above her household routine, during the several weeks that the daughter suffered from her terminal illness at home.
When I visited the family on the next day of the funeral, she was composed, serene, and told me simply, ‘Merci d’être venu, Docteur. Elle est maintenant en paix, avec la Vierge Marie.’ I had not had the courage to be present at the funeral, and to look at that sweet child’s face, after having lived through that tough time for several months.
And there was that Quality Control Manager in her mid-thirties living in Rose-Hill, who came to consult for symptoms that I thought were related to overwork, so I had to ask her – as part of what we call the medical history – about her day’s routine.
She would be up at 4.30 am, do her puja, cook dinner, prepare the children’s (two of them) and husband’s breakfast, set the table, pack their lunches, have her breakfast and get ready for the van to pick her at 7.30. The husband would wake up with the children a little later, get them ready after breakfast and take them to school. She would be back at 7 pm, bathe and feed the children whom the father would have fetched from their nani’s place, then husband and wife would have dinner. After clearing the kitchen with hubby’s help she would supervise the children’s homework, father would put them to sleep while she did her ironing, watch TV for a while, and be in bed by 10.30 pm.
Little great women
And there are many more such little great women who I know about, not to speak of my own dear ones who brought me and my siblings up, of their struggles, their determination and perseverance, their sacrifices and long hours cooking at the chula and with the phoukni among other chores.
Biologically, woman has some advantages over man in a few respects: she has a longer lifespan, she is cardio-protected till menopause because of the hormone oestrogen, and she has a greater tolerance for pain. But she is also subject to the vagaries of the pre-menstrual syndrome or PMS and the inconveniences associated with her periods, which can be troublesome in several ways, pain being an important one.
Fortunately medicine has evolved and there are appropriate remedies for such problems, and socially convenient and affordable inventions such as modern sanitary pads (which continue to be improved upon) have helped to ease matters. It is her shakti that allows her to bear with and through these as well as shoulder her other responsibilities, for which she deserves respect and love.
But this is an imperfect world, and there is a trend of perversion of that nari shakti too, in the name of modernity, in the name of misguided feminism, of blind imitation of its worse excesses. That also needs to be given some thought even as IWD is celebrated.
Like Mother’s day, Woman’s Day must be a daily affair, and here’s hoping to that…
* Published in print edition on 13 March 2015