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No requiem for Rajkumari
Mari Marcel Thekaekara commemorates the life of
a woman in India who lived and died without recognition.

I heard about Rajkumari’s death the day after Princess Diana’s. The coincidences were so remarkable. Rajkumari was about the same age as the Princess. She was married in the same year; her two sons were similar ages.

But she was not born into a noble family. She fell in love at 18 and ran away from her average working-class Hindu family to marry a Christian motor mechanic. Her family disowned her. She was inordinately proud, so she didn’t go back to them to beg pardon or to ask permission to return to the family fold. Later, after the children were born, they relented and relations improved.

When I met Rajkumari her arm was in a sling. I gathered – although she was too proud ever to admit it – that her husband, in a drunken temper, had shoved her and she had fallen down and broken her arm. Although he was a wonderful mechanic, they had been cheated by a friend with whom they had planned to start a business. They left Bangalore to escape their creditors and we found them living in a corner of someone else’s one-room tenement, homeless and totally down and out.

They joined our team. He fixed the Jeeps. She cooked for our meetings and training programs. There were days when she started preparing for 150 people and 250 showed up. We’d creep into her kitchen and ask, embarrassed: ‘Should we send them to the corner café to eat?’ She’d grunt and reply: ‘No. It’s OK. I’ll manage.’ I never once heard her complain about the numbers. She had one person to help her cut and chop the mountains of vegetables. She could be rude, overbearing and insulting. But she managed, always guarding her family fiercely and protectively.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN

She was making money, cooking for our sessions. She became bloated and took on the look of an Amazon queen. He started drinking.

Our team was launching an anti-liquor campaign, so alcohol was strictly prohibited. We told Rajkumari and her husband, and she turned on us ferociously, determined to defend her husband. ‘He works all day, doesn’t he? Fixes your Jeeps at any time of the day or night, doesn’t he? So what’s your problem? You don’t own him body and soul. If he wants a drink in the evenings it’s his business, not yours.’

We were taken aback – given their past history, her defence of his drinking seemed bizarre. Yet that was typical of Rajkumari.

They went rapidly downhill after they left us. He looked dissolute and decrepit, in an alcoholic haze often, even in the daytime. He started beating her again.

She became half the size and it suited her. I’d always thought her beautiful – she had the looks of an ancient, classical, Indian idol. Taller than average, when I first saw her she was slim and graceful, always with flowers in her hair, a brilliant smile and the dark, flashing eyes of a dancer. Yet she was dark-skinned, not fair. So her beauty was discounted, debatable.

For a long time she stuck it out. Sometimes he would send the kids to ask us for money. ‘There’s no food,’ they’d say. It was difficult to refuse them. She looked slimmer and younger, but her spirit was taking a beating. Begging was not her way. She started a tea shop, but it failed – the location was not right.

Finally, a couple of years ago, she left him. He’d humiliated her, beating her in broad daylight, in the centre of town, tearing her sari, leaving her in rags. In a small town the news spread rapidly. People loved gossip. ‘She’s left him finally,’ they’d whisper. ‘Run off with another driver. Abandoned her two boys.’ That, to the Indian ethos, was unforgivable.

No-one gave her credit for the fact that she’d always been a wonderful mother, slaved to feed her family; worked incredibly hard, always; kept an array of gleaming pots and pans in really difficult circumstances; carried water up the hill to scrub them and wash the clothes; put up with drunkenness and debt for 14 years. She was condemned. No-one looked at it as a last-ditch attempt to find happiness and love.

The details of her death were fuzzy. A telegram arrived telling her former husband that she had died in Bangalore, six hours away. He had a new wife and didn’t really care what happened to her. They didn’t know where to go, anyway – there was no proper address. There was speculation. She was young, so it must have been suicide. Was she pregnant, perhaps? Was she with the other man, or had he abandoned her too?

She might have got a pauper’s funeral, unclaimed in the large city. No-one was sure. No-one really cared. There was no requiem for Rajkumari.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara works for ACCORD in the Nilgiris, southern India.

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New Internationalist issue 296 magazine cover This article is from the November 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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