The sanyasin and the sanyasi

Omair Ahmad | Updated on August 22, 2014

As outcasts, shunned even by the weakest in society, renunciation was their only refuge

Mikan ki Ma became a sanyasin. She shaved off her hair, took up the mendicant’s bowl, and said she was renouncing the world. Her heart was not in it though, or at least that is what my mother tells me. Beaten by her husband, mistreated by her own sons, Mikan ki Ma found a refuge of sorts at our farm, under my mother’s care.

The farmhouse was mostly the domain of women. The men were in the towns and cities, some far away in other States, in other countries, struggling to rise beyond where they had been born. The women did not have this option, but they had each other, a sorority of sorts, and many of them gathered at our farmhouse because it had the largest area, and because in times of need, they could appeal to my mother for help.

Some of them would always be there to do the little tasks and maybe talk to my mother about their particular problems. They would squat in a circle or exchange comments as they worked, a mixture of breathless gossip, tart jibes and vociferous arguments. Mikan ki Ma took part in these. She was an intelligent woman with a great amount of life in her. Away from her men with drunken tempers and loose fists, she blossomed.

The farmhouse was not entirely without men. There was the caretaker, the man who took care of the guava trees my father was trying to raise, and there was Pandey, the tractor-driver. For such men, whose work rhythms involved long seasons of nothing, and short seasons of frenetic activity, the farmhouse was a place to meet, relax and shoot the breeze. Although stray comments were exchanged between the men and the women, such conversations were always distant, formal. The division between the two groups was as solid as a brick wall, and no one thought to breach it except Pandey and Mikan ki Ma.

Pandey was a bit of a rascal but not a bad man. He was nice to her. Who knows what that might have meant to her, she for whom every supposed guardian had been a tormentor?

I am not sure what passed between them. They were both married, and in such a society, an affectionate smile is as unforgivable as a torrid affair. After all, the argument goes, what is the difference between the two except for time and opportunity?

The refuge that Mikan ki Ma had unexpectedly found lasted then, only for a while, about a year or so, until she found this kindness. She was not allowed both.

It became a piece of gossip, a tale of transgression, a calumny inextricably tied to her name. She was shunned by the women at the farm and lost the little place she had had in society. Life itself became unbearable. For all her pain, all the cruelties and all her misfortunes, Mikan ki Ma had always had people to talk to. Now she had lost even that. Although they could not do anything for her, the other women had given her their sympathy and shared with her their own joys and sorrows. She could walk into their homes and be entitled to what little hospitality there was to be had, or at least their good wishes. Now there was nothing. She became an outcast, shunned even by the weakest in society and allowed neither forgiveness nor pity.

So she became a sanyasin, and renounced the world.

Sanyas is not a path usually given to women. Who knows what sorts of indignities may be forced upon a woman on her own with nothing to her name except a begging bowl and maybe, a walking stick? But for Mikan ki Ma nothing else was left. She renounced a life of abuse and slander, of poverty and injustice, of endless work, and the one man who showed her kindness.

My mother says her heart was not in it.

Maybe the escape to sanyas runs in the family, because Mikan, the favoured son whose birth gave Mikan ki Ma her public name, became a sanyasi too, not long after. It was not as if the spirit touched his heart. For a man who would beat his own mother, that seems a hard thing to believe. Instead rumour has it that Mikan went to the city to make money and ran up huge debts instead. In the face of destitution and threats, his wife drenched herself in kerosene and died in a blaze of flame and burnt flesh. Not content with such disaster, Mikan tried to grow crops on the small section of land that he had inherited to somehow repay his debts. The only such crops would be illegal ones, and reportedly the police soon caught on. Desperate to avoid getting jailed he shaved his head, took the mendicant’s bowl and said he was renouncing the world.

It is possible that his heart was not in it either, but he comes around to the farm now, again wearing a wide grin, and apparently carrying nothing upon his conscience.


Published on April 04, 2014

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