The ghosts of their husbands will remain by their side for the rest of their lives
There are many areas in which sexism can intrude on a woman’s life and, surprising as it may sound, food is one of them. Take the paradigmatic case of Bengal, where widows were once forced to follow a series of culinary limitations for the rest of their lives out of respect for their husband’s soul.
20 years ago, Chitrita Banereji wrote an article about this practice for Granta. This month, Mayukh Sen published a blog post about how it affected his great-grandmother. She had been wed at the age of 11 in an arranged marriage, and was just 37 in 1924 when her husband fell victim to a stroke and died. However, their marriage wasn’t over: cultural expectations forced her to visibly maintain respect for her husband and prove her commitment to him for the rest of her life. Otherwise, according to superstition, mythological creatures would eat her husband’s spirit.
‘From then on, she would eliminate onion and garlic, alliums thought to conjure sexual energy, from her diet. She would stop eating red lentils for the same reason – these were, apparently, edible pulses as potent as aphrodisiacs. She would stamp out meat and fish, staples of cooking in Paschim Dinajpur, and stick to a rigorously strict vegetarian diet.’
‘She would be restricted to one meal a day, mid-day. At night, she would have puffed rice, khoi, with milk.’
All of this was expected of Hindu widows from the highest castes in Bengal: the Brahmin and Kaystha. They also had to scrub their hair clean of sindoor, the red pigment applied in the parting of the hair of married Hindu women, and wear a white sari for the rest of their lives.
‘She’d been told that her husband was as an appendage of her, that his ghost would trail for as long as she was alive. That life without her husband was no life at all.’
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Sen explains, even when widows followed the rules, rumours would continue to hound them: ‘Villagers, mostly men, would spread lies that these women hid meat carcasses in their houses, or that their kitchens were secret lairs of fish bones.’
Sen’s great-grandmother missed preparing and eating rui maach: carp stew. But, convinced that her people’s tradition must be adhered to, she learned how to make the most of the meager selection of ingredients she was allowed to use. The resourcefulness of widows like Sen’s great-grandmother resulted in the invention of vegetarian dishes such as mochar ghonto, a dry curry made with banana flower, or echorer torkari, a gravy prepared with jackfruit. As Sen remarks, ‘these culinary limitations inadvertently contributed to what is now a rich vegetarian cuisine, built around dishes made from scraps of produce. These women are this cuisine’s unsung architects, recognising a spectrum of possibilities within their loss.’
However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this form of dietary repression was meant to act as a hormone suppressant, a way to stifle a widow’s sex drive. The traditional belief was that widowhood made a woman’s libido volatile and meant that the woman couldn’t be trusted to control her urges. Dietary constrictions were believed to be a way for women to govern their unruly sex drives. Or even, in some cases, a way to curtail sexual impulses completely. Sen says: ‘In some cases, it was even thought to induce malnutrition, prescribing an early death sentence.’ Fortunately, very few women abide by this practice today.