Seven years a widow, yet only eleven years old! The shadow—nay, the curse—of widowhood had hung over little Sita ever since she remembered anything. The little brown girl often wondered why other little girls living near her had such happy, merry times while she knew only drudgery and ill treatment from morning until night. One day when six of the weary years had passed, and she was ten years old, Sita found out what widow meant. Then, to the cruelties she had already endured, was added the terrors of the woe to come. She had gone, as usual, in her tattered garments, with three large brass water-pots on her head, to the great open well from which she drew the daily supply of water for a family of nine. She was so tired, and her frail little back ached so pitifully, that she sat down on a huge stone to rest a minute. Resting her weary head on one thin little hand, she was a picture of childish woe. Many deep sorrows had fallen on her young heart, but she was still a child in mind and years, yearning for companionship and love.
Many Brahman servants were drawing water near her, and looked bright and happy in their gay-colored cotton saris. A woman so poor that she must draw her own drinking-water, but still a Brahman, came near, and to her Sita appealed for help.
“Will you not draw a little water for me? I am ill and tired, and the well is very deep.”
The woman turned angrily, and uttered, in a scathing tone, the one word, “Widow!” then she burst out: “Curse you! How dare you come between me and the glorious sun! Your shadow has fallen upon me, and I’ll have to take the bath of purification before I can eat food! Curse you! Stand aside!”
Poor Sita stood bewildered. She made no answer, but the tears coursed down her cheeks. Something akin to pity made the woman pause. Halting at a safe distance from the shadow of the child, she talked to her in a milder tone. She was thinking, perhaps, of her two soft-eyed daughters, very dear to her proud heart, though she mourned bitterly when they were born, because the gods had denied her sons.
“Why should I help you,” she said, “when the gods have cursed you? See, you are a widow!”
Then, in answer to the child’s vacant gaze, she continued: “Don’t you understand? Didn’t you have a husband once?”
“Yes, I think so,” Sita answered; “an old, bad man who used to shake me, and tell me to grow up quickly to work for him; perhaps he was my husband. When he died, they said I killed him, but I did not.”
“So you call him bad?” the woman cried. “Ah, no wonder the gods hate you! No doubt you were very wicked ages and ages ago, and so now you are made a widow. By and by you will be born a snake or a toad.” And, gathering up her water-pots, she went away.
The slender, ill-fed child hurriedly filled the brass vessels, knowing that abuse awaited her late return. Raising the huge jars to her head, she hastened to her house—a home she never knew. The sister-in-law met the little thing with violent abuse, and bade her prepare the morning meal. The child was ill, and nearly fell with fatigue.
“I’ll show you how to wake up!” the woman cried, and, seizing a hot poker, she laid it on the arms and hands of the child.
Screaming with pain, the poor little creature worked on, trembling if the sister-in-law even looked her way. This was one day. Each of the seven long years contained three hundred and sixty-five such days, and now they were growing worse. The last year, in token of the deep disgrace of widowhood, the child’s soft dark tresses had been shaved off, and her head left bare. When that has been done, but one meal a day is permitted a widow, no matter how she works.
Most of the little girls who saw Sita ran from her, fearing pollution. But there was one who shone on her like a gleam of sunshine whenever she saw her. One day after the woman had abused her at the well, Sita found a chance to tell Tungi about it.
“There is a better God than that,” Tungi said. “Our people do not know him, and that is why I am not allowed to talk with you. I am married, and my husband lives in a distant city. If I speak to you, they believe that he will die. But in the school I attend, many do not believe these things.”
“How can you go to school?” Sita asked. “My sister-in-law says that only bad people learn to read.”
“So my mother used to think,” said Tungi; “but my husband is in school, and he has sent word that I must go until he calls for me to come to his home. Then he can have a wife who can understand when he talks about his books. He says the English have happy families, and it is this that makes them so. The wives know books, and how to sing, and how to make home pleasant. My mother says it is all very bad, but he is my husband, and I must do as he says. I am very glad; for it is very pleasant there.”
Thus the bright-eyed little Brahman wife chatted away, as gay as a bird. The fount of knowledge was opened to her—the beaming eye, the elastic figure, and the individuality of her Western sisters were becoming hers. But none of these things seemed for Sita.
For nine weary months after Tungi went to school, the shaven-headed child, living on one meal a day, went about sad and lonely. When she again saw her bright-faced little friend, her condition had grown worse. Her neck and arms were full of scars where bits of flesh had been pinched out in vindictive rage by her husband’s relatives, who believed her guilty of his death. Brutality, growing stronger with use, made them callous to the sufferings of the little being in their power. No one who cared knew of the pangs of hunger, the violent words, and the threats of future punishment. Once or twice she had looked down into the cool depths of the well, and wondered how quickly she could die. Only the terror of punishment after death kept this baby widow from suicide.
One day as she was weeping by the gateway of Tungi’s house, the little child wife told the little child widow of a safe refuge for such as she, where neither poverty nor ignorance could exclude her—a home under the loving care of one who knew the widow’s curse. After many difficulties, Sita found this shelter. Here she forgot her widowhood, and found her childhood. Here, in the beautiful garden, or at her lessons, helping with cooking, or leaning lovingly on the arms of Ramabai’s chair, she passed many sweet and useful years. By and by she found the greatest joy in love, higher and better than human love can ever be. Later, when a beautiful young womanhood had crowned her, she was sought by an earnest young Christian as his wife.
Many of the millions of the child widows in India never find release from the bonds of cruel custom and false religion. In Hinduism there is no hope for such accursed ones.
—“Mosaics From India,” published by Fleming H. Revell Company.