Revisiting India – Mrs. Chaudhri and the India War Widows Association
I spent 10 days in October at the Indian National Library in Kolkata, researching a chapter in my new book.
In 1974, I worked for Mrs. S. A. Chaudhri, a board member of the War Widows Association in New Delhi, and the wealthy widow of the former New Delhi Chief of Police. The War Widows Association was organized in 1971 after India fought several wars with China and Pakistan. India lost most of these wars, suffered terrible casualties, and ended up with the world’s largest population of war widows – mostly young women with children.
Mrs. Chaudhri, a Hindu, was particularly concerned with Hindu widows of officers, especially those widows of non-commissioned officers from poorer and more traditional Hindu families who were educated and spoke English. She believed that these young women were in the greatest danger of suffering a widowhood of hopeless despair because they were aware of the rights and freedoms that widows in other communities and countries enjoyed – that their Muslim sisters enjoyed – and were aware of the brutally unfair way their own family and religion treated them.
At that time, the marriage laws in India had separate codes for each religious community. The codes for Muslim women followed Sharia, while those for Hindus were based on the Brahmanical tradition. Prior to the rule of the British Raj, Hindu windows were expected to commit sati, throwing themselves on the burning funeral pyres of their husbands. Even in the early 1970s it was still illegal in most Indian states for Hindu widows to remarry. The law wasn’t changed in Jammu-Kashmir until 1989. Even where the law was overturned, family and community customs made it almost impossible for a Hindu widow to remarry. Typically, a Hindu widow of a traditional family would be hidden away in her mother-in-law’s servants quarters for the rest of her life.
I met Mrs. Chaudhri when I was 26, through her friend Mrs. Colasco, a Catholic woman from Goa. I was staying at Mrs. Colasco’s guest house on Janpath Lane just off Connaught Circle in New Delhi and contracted a bloody, near-death case of amoebic dysentery, an intestinal parasite that can eventually destroy the liver. My weight had dropped from 165 lbs to 130. Concerned that I might die in one of her beds, Mrs. Colasco called her friend Mrs. Chaudhri.
Mrs. Chaudhri arrived in a long black Hindustan Ambassador Mark II sedan. Her chauffeur, Subhash, sat in the passenger’s seat next to Memsaab, in case Mrs. Chaudhri’s windshield needed cleaning, her gas tank needed filling, her shopping needed carrying, or she got a flat tire.
Mrs. Chaudhri used only two features of the Ambassador’s controls: the accelerator and the horn. She would often rush directly into oncoming traffic, horn blaring, or onto the sidewalk, scattering vendors, pedestrians and sacred cows.
Mrs. Chaudhri knew the hospital’s director and all the doctors, and had them check me into intensive care. A few days later she paid my bill, picked me up, paid for my prescribed medicine, and moved me into her servants quarters. I was hired as a handyman, secretary, gardener, and personal assistant for room, board, and a few rupees when I’d been a good boy.
Mrs.Chaudhri and I would interview the young war widows and I would draft matrimonial classified ads that she would publish in the Times of India, the nation’s leading English language daily. At the National Library in Kolkata, I was able to find many of the matrimonial ads I wrote 50 years ago. I also found several books on the subject and interviewed a scholar, Dr. Amitava Chakraborty, who has extensively researched the subject of India’s war widows.
Mrs. Chaudhri and I worked in secret, without the widows' families knowing. The interviews were held at Mrs. Chaudhri’s home in the walled and guarded New Friends Colony, never at the War Widows Association office downtown. All responses were directed to an anonymous P.O. Box and I would organize and rank the replies of the men interested in the widows I’d promoted in the ads. Several times, while reviewing my recommendations, she’d slam the folder on her desk and declare, “This girl is perfect for you! Take her and her children to America!”
Each widow looked terrified as she sat across the table next to Mrs. Chaudhri. I would sometimes tease and banter with Mrs. Chaudhri, trying to get a smile out of the young woman. Mrs. Chaudhri had a sour sense of humor and never laughed. She heard irony as mocking. Puns were a putdown. She always responded to my jokes with a frown and an aggressive, off-handed dismissal, reasserting our master-servant relationship.
A direct, no-nonsense woman, Mrs. Chaudhri insisted that our matrimonials lead with “widow” and then follow with “issues,” if any – that is, the number of children a widow might have.
“Write, ‘YOUNG WIDOW GIRL AGED 28, WELL cultured, and well placed with one issue, a boy aged six…’” Mrs. Chaudhri dictated one day.
“But aren’t all widows 'girls' and aren’t children the 'issue,' Mrs. Chaudhri?” I asked.
“Don’t be difficult!” She snapped. “Write as I tell you. You act as if you don’t know why we got rid of those bloody British!”
Mrs. Chaudhri was a notorious cheapskate. She was so cheap that she still had the fuel inlet to her fancy Ambassador sedan plugged with a rag a year after her gas cap was stolen. So I tried another tack.
“You’re paying for these ads by the word, Mrs. Chaudhri. We could eliminate 'girl' and 'one issue' and save money.”
“That’s your job,” she quipped. “You’re to put all this into best English and I don’t want to hear another word out of you.” The lovely young widow sitting next to her smiled. Not wanting to meet the fate of the “Bloody British,” I published the classified exactly as it was dictated by Mrs. Chaudhri:
Of course, looks were critical. After some time, Mrs. Chaudhri decided that we weren’t getting a good enough return on our investments and had me liberally bait and chum our ads with descriptions like, “tall, well-shaped,” “slim and accomplished” and “fair complexioned.” Indians are extremely caste and color-conscious so any woman that wasn’t jet black was described as “fair.” I was also to mention education when it was to the widow’s advantage – especially “convent educated,” which gave Indian women great status, and “English fluency.”
“Beautiful and homely,” were often added by Mrs. Chaudhri. In India, “homely” means "good housekeeper" – a woman who enjoys keeping house. I was tempted to tease Mrs. Chaudhri again but felt that my joke would be lost in translation, so I kept quiet.
Sometimes the widows requested horoscope details, and Mrs. Chaudhri always asked them to add “caste no bar” even after including information that would clearly indicate their caste. Finally, Mrs. Chaudhri encouraged the women to add “willing to relocate abroad,” as she knew that their best chance for happiness was away from their family, community, and country.