Saturday, February 4, 2012

Suttee: A Historical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow-Burning by Edward Thompson.

Suttee: A Historical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow-Burning by Edward Thompson.  Hardcover book published by George Allen & Unwin 1928.

“Phileas Fogg had heard what Sir Francis said, and, as soon as the procession had disappeared, asked: "What is a suttee?"
"A suttee," returned the general, "is a human sacrifice, but a voluntary one. The woman you have just seen will be burned to-morrow at the dawn of day."
"Oh, the scoundrels!" cried Passepartout, who could not repress his indignation.
"And the corpse?" asked Mr. Fogg.
"Is that of the prince, her husband," said the guide; "an independent rajah of Bundelcund."
"Is it possible," resumed Phileas Fogg, his voice betraying not the least emotion, "that these barbarous customs still exist in India, and that the English have been unable to put a stop to them?"
"These sacrifices do not occur in the larger portion of India," replied Sir Francis; "but we have no power over these savage territories, and especially here in Bundelcund. The whole district north of the Vindhias is the theatre of incessant murders and pillage."”

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, first published 1873.

It was Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne that first introduced me to the barbarous custom known as Suttee.  Who can forget the shock at realising that this woman (Aouda) was going to be burned alive and all because her husband had died.  As the indignant Passepartout exclaimed, "oh, the scoundrels!"  Like many other young boys around the world, I was fascinated by all of Jules Verne’s stories and this scene in Around the World in Eighty Days is one that has stuck firmly in my memories. 

Jules was very clever in using Suttee in his novel.  In 1873 it had been outlawed in India for 44 years and was not a common occurrence.  Yet here we have a scene depicting it in all its gory detail… well maybe not ALL of its gory detail, but it is implied… well maybe not.  She does live… but just the thought of suttee… “oh, the scoundrels” for even thinking of doing this to the lovely Aouda.  After 139 years this book still evokes images of barbarity and even shocks us into not forgetting that this sort of thing has happened.  Jules Verne has successfully imprinted on out minds something that was a rare and shocking occurrence and made sure that his book has not been forgotten.

Suttee: A Historical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow-Burning is a later book written on the subject and unlike Jules’s book, this one is non-fiction.  The book mainly looks at the history of Suttee but does bring the whole issue up to 1928.  Flicking through the book, I find this interesting question on page 139.  Would Suttee revive if the British left India?  I’d like to think it wouldn’t/didn’t but occasionally there are contemporary reports of Hindu nationalists/fundamentalists coercing/forcing newly widowed wives into partaking in the practice (“Oh, the scoundrels”).  Besides visiting India and reading about this subject in the Indian (and other) press, Jules Verne was my reference point when I found this book.  I see the word “Suttee” and I think of Around the World in 80 Days.  What I seriously wonder is whether the author wrote the book with that as the intention.  It is possible… or am I just being a bit cynical once again. 

There are a number of black and white photographs throughout the book. These are mostly of stone carvings and fortunately the author has avoided using any photographs of flaming pyres.  The photos in this book don’t really capture the whole thing so I’ve dug up this historical photo of me at Jodhpur Fort in Rajastan early 1990s.  I’m on the left without the beard, the other two were North Americans.  Each hand print on the wall represents a wife that was burnt.  I mightn’t look indignant but I was certainly thinking “oh, the scoundrels”.

No comments:

Post a Comment