suttee goddess


Ash had not seen her at first.

His gaze had been fixed on the shrunken thing that had once been his enemy.

A movement near him made him turn his head and he saw that Anjuli had come to stand beside him.

She was staring through the chik with an expression of shrinking horror, as though she could not bear to look, yet could not keep herself from looking.

Following the direction of that agonized gaze, he saw Shushila.

Not the Shushila he had expected to see bowed, weeping and half-crazed by terror, but a queen. . . a Rani of Bhithor.

Had he been asked, Ash would have insisted that Shu-shu would never be able to walk to the burning ground unassisted, and that if she walked at all and did not have to be brought in a litter, it would only be because she had been stupefied by drugs and then half dragged and half carried there.

The small, brilliant figure walking behind the Rana's bier was not only alone, but walking upright and unfaltering.

There was pride and dignity in every line of her slender body.

Her small head was erect and the little unshod feet that had never before stepped on anything harsher than Persian carpets and cool polished marble trod slowly and steadily, marking the burning dust with small neat footprints that the adoring crowds behind her pressed forward to obliterate with kisses.

She was dressed as Ash had seen her at the marriage ceremony, in the scarlet and gold wedding dress, and decked with the same jewels as she had worn that day.

Pigeon's-blood rubies circled her throat and wrists, glowed on her forehead and her fingers, and swung from her ears.

There were rubies too on the chinking golden anklets, and the hard sunlight glittered on the gold embroidery of the full-skirted Rajputani dress and flashed on the little jewelled bodice.

She wore no sari, her long hair was unbound as though for her bridal night.

It rippled about her in a silky red curtain.

Ash could not drag his gaze from her, though his body cringed.

She seemed wholly unconscious of the jostling crowds who applauded her, calling on her to bless them and struggling to touch the hem of her skirt as she passed, or of the sea of eyes that stared avidly at her unveiled face.

Ash saw that her lips were moving in the age-old invocation that accompanies the last journey of the dead: Ram, Ram . . . Ram, Ram . . .

He said aloud and incredulously: 'You were wrong. She is not afraid.'

The clamour from below almost drowned his words, but Anjuli heard them, imagining that they had been addressed to her instead of to himself, she said:

'Not yet. It is still only a game to her. No, not a game - I don't mean that. But something that is only happening in her mind. A role she is playing.'

'You mean she is drugged? I don't believe it.'

'Not in the way you mean, but with emotion - and desperation and shock.
And - and perhaps. . . triumph. . .'

'Triumph!' thought Ash.


The whole parade smacked more of a triumphal parade than a funeral.


A procession in honour of a goddess who deigned to show herself, only once, to accept the homage of her shouting, exultant and adoring worshippers.

He remembered then that Shushila's mother, in the days before her beauty captured the heart of a Rajah, had been one of a troupe of entertainers: men and women whose livelihood depended upon their ability to capture the attention and applause of an audience - as her daughter was doing now.

Shushila, Goddess of Bhithor, beautiful as the dawn and glittering with gold.

Yes, it was a triumph.

And even if she was only playing a part, at least she was playing it superbly.

'Well done!' whispered Ash, in a heart felt endorsement of all those outside who were hailing her with the same words. 'Oh, well done - !'

Beside him, Anjuli too was murmuring to herself, repeating the same invocation as Shushila: 'Ram, Ram …Ram, Ram…'

It was only a breath of sound and barely audible in that tumult,
but it distracted Ash's attention, and though he knew that the prayer was not for the dead man but for her sister, he told her sharply to be quiet.

His mind was once again in a turmoil and torn with doubts.

For watching the unfaltering advance of that graceful scarlet and gold figure, it seemed to him that he had no right to play providence.

The cortege had reached the pyre and the bier was placed on it.

Shushila began to divest herself of her jewels, taking them off one by one and handling them to the child, who gave them in turn to the Diwan.

She stripped them off quickly, almost gaily, as though they were no more than withered flowers or trinkets of no value which she had tired and was impatient to be rid of.

The silence was so complete that all could hear the clink of them as the new Rana received them and the late Rana's Prime Minister stowed them away in an embroidered bag.

Even Ash in the curtained enclosure heard it, and wondered incuriously if the Diwan would ever relinquish them.

Probably not; though they had come from Karidkote, and being part of Shushila's dowry should have been returned there.

He thought it unlikely that either Shu-shu's relatives or the new Rana would ever see them again once the Diwan had got his hands on them.

When all her ornaments had been removed except for a necklace of sacred tulsi seeds, Shushila held out her slender ringless hands to a priest, who poured Ganges water over them.

The water sparkled in the low sunlight as she shook the bright drops from her fingers, and the assembled priests began to intone in chorus

To the sound of that chanting, she began to walk round the pyre, circling it three times as once, on her wedding day and wearing this same dress, she had circled the sacred fire, tied by her veil to the shrunken thing that now lay waiting for her on a bridal bed of cedar-logs and spices.

The chant ended and once again the only sound in the grove was the cooing of doves: that soft monotonous sound that together with the throb of a tom-tom and the creak of a well-wheel is the Voice of India.

The silent crowds stood motionless, and none stirred as the suttee mounted the pyre and seated herself in the lotus posture.

She arranged the wide folds of her scarlet dress to show it to its best and then gently lifted the dead man's head onto her lap, settling it with infinite care, as though he were asleep and she did not wish to wake him.

'Now,' breathed Anjuli in a whisper that broke in a sob -

'Do it now … quickly, before - before she starts to be afraid.'

'Don't be a fool!'

The retort cracked like a whip in the quiet room.

'It would make as much noise as a cannon and bring them all down on us like hornets.'

He had meant to say 'I'm not going to fire', but he did not do so.

There was no point in making things worse for Juli than they were already.

The way in which Shu-shu had cradled that awful head in her lap had made up his mind for him at last, and he had no intention of firing.

Juli took too much upon herself: she forgot that her half-sister was no longer a sickly infant or a frail and highly strung little girl who must be protected and cosseted - or that she herself was no longer responsible for her.

Shu-shu was a grown woman who knew what she was doing.

She was also a queen - and proving that she could behave as one.

This time, for good or ill, she had been allowed to make her own decision.

The crowd outside was still silent, but now a priest began to swing a heavy temple bell that had been carried out from the city, harsh notes reverberated through the grove awakening echoes from walls and domes of many chattris.

A Brahmin sprinkled the dead man and his widow with water brought from the sacred river Ganges while others poured ghee and scented oil upon the logs of cedar and sandalwood and over the feet of the Rana.

Shushila did not move.

She sat composed looking down at the grey, skull-like dead face on her lap.

A goddess in scarlet and gold: remote, passionless and strangely unreal.

The Diwan took the torch again and gave it into the trembling hands of the boy - Rana, who seemed about to burst into tears.

It wavered in the child's grasp, being over heavy for such small hands to hold, and one of the Brahmin came to his assistance and helped to support it.

The brightness of that flame was a sharp reminder that evening was already drawing near.

Only a short time ago it had been almost invisible in the glaring sunlight, but now the sun was no longer fierce enough to dim that plume of light.

The shadows had begun to lengthen and a day that had seemed as though it would never end would soon be over - and with it, Shushila's short life.

She had lost father and mother, and the brother who, for his own ends had given her in marriage to a man who lived so far away that it had taken months and not weeks to reach her new home.

She had been a queen, had miscarried two children and borne a third who had lived only a few days; and now she had been widowed, and must die. . .

'She is only sixteen,' thought Ash.

'It isn't fair. It isn't fair!'

He could hear Sarji's quickened breathing and the thump of his own heart beats, and though Anjuli was not touching him he knew, without knowing how he knew, that she was shivering violently as though she was very cold or stricken with fever.

He thought suddenly that if he fired a shot she would not know if the bullet had done its work or not, and that he had only to aim over the heads of the crowd.

If it comforted Juli to think that her sister had been spared the flames, then all he needed to do was pull the trigger - ! she had thrust aside the head on her lap, and now, suddenly, she was on her feet, staring at those flames and screaming - screaming . . .

The sound of those screaming cut through the clamour as the shriek of violin strings cuts through the full tempest of drums, wind-instruments and brass.

It drew a gasping echo from Anjuli, and Ash lifted his gun and fired.

The screaming stopped short and the slender scarlet and gold figure stretched, out one hand gropingly as though searching for support, and then crumpled at the knees and pitched forward across the corpse at her feet.

As she fell the Brahma flung the torch on the pyre, and flames gushed up from the oil drenched wood and threw a shimmering veil of heat and smoke between the watchers and the recumbent figure of the girl who now wore a glittering wedding dress of fire.

The crash of the shot had sounded appallingly loud in that small confined space, and Ash thrust the revolver into the breast of his robe and turning, said savagely:

'Well, what are you waiting for? Get on - go on Sarji - you first.'

Anjuli still seemed dazed.

He pulled the cloth roughly across her nose and mouth and made sure that it was secure, and having adjusted his own, caught her by the shoulders: 'You've done all you can for Shushila. She's gone. We come first now. All of us. Do you understand?'

Anjuli nodded dumbly.

'Good. Then turn around and go with Gobind, and don't look back. I shall be behind you. Walk -!'

He turned her about and pushed her ahead of him towards the heavy purdah that Manilal was holding open for them, and she followed Sarji through it and down the marble stairway that led to the terrace and the crowds below.

Juli revisits the past.

Until recently Anjuli had been able to believe, or had made herself believe, that Shushila was innocent of much that had been imputed to her; but now she knew better - not only with her head but in her heart.

Yet she could not refuse the summons.

She had expected to find the new-made widow weeping and distraught, her hair and clothing torn and her women wailing about her.

When she entered there was only one individual there: a small erect figure that for a moment she did not even recognize. . .

'I would not have believed that she could look like that. Ugly, and evil and cruel. Cruel beyond words. Even Janoo-Rani had never looked like that, for Janoo had been beautiful and this woman was not. Nor did it appear possible that she could ever have been beautiful - or young.

She looked at me with a face of stone and asked me how I dared come into her presence showing no signs of grief.

For in this too I had sinned: it was intolerable to her that I should escape the agony of grief that was tearing at her own heart.

'She told me . . . she told me everything: how she had hated me from the moment she fell in love with her husband, because I too was his wife and she could not endure the thought of it.

She had me starved and imprisoned to make me pay for that crime, and also in order that I might look old and ugly so that if by chance the Rana should remember my existence, he would turn from me in disgust: that she had ordered the killing of my two serving-maids, and of old Geeta . . .

She threw it all in my face as though each word was a blow, and as though it eased her own pain to see me suffer - and how could I not suffer?

When - when she had finished she told me that she had resolved to become suttee, and that the last thing I would ever see would be the flames uniting her body with her husband's, because she had given orders that when I had seen it my eyes were to be put out with hot irons, and afterwards - afterwards I would be taken back to the Zenana to spend the rest of my life in darkness - as a drudge.

'I tried to reason with her. To plead with her. I went on my knees to her and begged her in the name of all that lay between us - the years … the tie of blood and the affection we had had for each other in the past - but at that she laughed, and summoning the eunuchs and had me dragged away ...

Her voice failed on the last word, and in the silence that followed Ash became aware once more of the sound of the sea and all the many small ship noises; and that the cabin smelled strongly of hot lamp oil.

M. M. Kaye, from Far Pavillions



Suttee (Sanskrit: sati = "good woman" or "chaste wife") the ancient Hindu custom of a wife immolating herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. The suttee ideal of womanly devotion was held by certain Brahma and royal castes. The Hindu goddess Sati burned herself to death in a fire that she forged through her magic Yogic powers after her father insulted her husband, the god Shiva-Nataraja.

This is a ritual reenactment of the self-sacrifice of the Hindu goddess Sati.

It is surmised the ancent Rajput women of Rajasthan, relying on the myth that the Hindu faithful feel no pain from the funeral pyre, chose this way of preserving their and their husbands' honour when their menfolk where conscripted to fight in the tyrant's war and sent to die on a suicide mission.

The self-immolation of elite Hindu wives on their husbands' funeral pyres confronted the British in India with central questions about the obligations of the colonizer to the colonized, respect for other cultures, and questions of gender that had important implications for British women.

As well as raising uncomfortable and challenging issues about the role and duties of the British in India, it called into question the sevitude expected of women in Britain itself, prompting some reflections on the very nature of service and self-sacrifice, especially in the colonial context.

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