Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT
Review

MARTHA ALTER CHEN, Perpetual Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India; Widows in India: Social Neglect and Public Action DEEPA MEHTA, Water (Film); BAPSI SIDHWA, Water: A Novel; DEVYANI SALTZMAN, Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family, and Filmmaking


I

“I may die,” says Metha Bai, “but still I cannot go out. If there is something in the house, we eat. Otherwise, we go to sleep.” A poor but upper-caste widow from rural Rajasthan (a state in northwest India), Metha Bai was widowed at the age of twenty-eight, when her husband succumbed to internal injuries caused by electrocution, as he rescued one of his sons, who had fallen against a live wire. Left with the care of two young boys, one of whom is mentally disabled as a result of the electric shock, Metha Bai is unable to go out of the house to look for work, because her in-laws insist on upholding caste norms of proper widow behavior. She does not want to move back to her parents’ home, because this would mean abandoning any claim to her husband’s share of the family land, the only asset her sons have. But she cannot cultivate the land herself, since she lacks the skills and the strength, and the in-laws throw stones at her if she ventures outside. Her sons are too young to help. For now, her father travels a considerable distance to till the field. “When my father dies,” she says, “I will die.”

The death of a spouse is likely to be a stressful event whenever and wherever it occurs. Whether the surviving partner loved the deceased partner or not, such a death, early or late in life, is likely, at the very least, to cause a stressful jolt, as familiar life patterns are turned inside out. When the surviving partner is less well off than the dead partner—with fewer assets, fewer employment-related skills, and/or insecure inheritance rights—the event may also cause acute economic stringency for the survivor and any

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