Chennai, June 25: The saddest day of Rekha Harichandran’s life was also her proudest.
By chanting a few hymns in Bhopal last week, the daughter of a social activist from Chennai has invaded one of the last male preserves ' performing the funeral rites of a parent.
Rekha had rushed to Bhopal with her father on learning that mother Viji Srinivasan had fallen ill on a train while returning to Chennai from Delhi and had been admitted to hospital in the Madhya Pradesh city.
Viji died of a lung infection on June 13. As it wasn’t possible to carry the body all the way to Chennai, Rekha made up her mind.
“Luckily, we found an Iyer (Shaivite) priest to help us perform the last rites,” said Rekha, her mother’s only child.
It would normally have fallen to her father to do that, Rekha explained, but she wanted to honour her mother’s last wish.
“In 1993, when I gave birth to my third daughter in a row, many in the family (“very conservative” Iyengar Brahmins from Mylapore) had felt disappointed. But my mother, who had fought this bias against the girl child all her life, stood up for me and my daughters and declared she wanted me to perform her last rites,” Rekha said.
After she returned to Chennai, the priests there would not stand for her completing the remaining part of the rituals, to be performed from the ninth day of the death to the 13th.
“They even threatened to excommunicate me from the Iyengar community (Iyengars are Vaishnavites) if I performed the remaining rituals, too,” Rekha said.
But she, supported by her husband and her father, was able to find a liberal priest, Govinda Sastrigal. Rekha performed the rituals with father Srinivasan by her side.
Govinda Sastrigal, according to Rekha, told her of a traditional text, Shrardha Kaandam, which allows either the son or the daughter to perform a parent’s last rites.
Viji Srinivasan ran an NGO, Aditi, which was based in Patna and worked to better the lot of rural women in Bihar.