Nagoya Writes

January 4, 2008

Talkin’ Settee by Tom Bauerle

Filed under: Bauerle,Issue: Dec 2006,Poetry — usbengoshi @ 1:52 pm

Indian Wall Plaque

(to be sung while clapping hands)

On a wall in the fort at Johdpur, India is a plaque bearing the golden imprint of thirty-two hands. These were the hands of the wives of the Maharajah of Johdpur who, in the days before the British Raj suddenly sickened and died. At that time, the wealthy Hindus practiced a tradition called settee in which a widow was obligated to sit in the funeral pyre of her newly dead husband and burn herself alive along with the body of her spouse. All thirty-two of the Maharajah’s wives, some of them still young children, dutifully performed this act of self-immolation. But before they did, they left their handprints like golden graffiti on the wall to say, “Remember me, once I was here.” I wrote this poem imagining what the peasant farmers might have been thinking as they watched their rich overlords enact this strange custom.
When the British government outlawed this practice, the Hindu women rioted in the street, condemning the foreign government for meddling with their traditions. Besides, they argued, there was no place in Indian society for a widow. Better to burn quickly than to starve to death. The British troops had to call out the military to put down the riots and force the women to stop burning themselves alive.

Thirty-two hands
on the fortress wall
first wife, second wives
child brides, all
in the Maharajah’s harem
at the Maharajah’s call
at Johdpur palace
behind the Maharajah’s walls
And their children would be
kings and princes and queens
and palace intriguers
and libertines
but the Maharaja sickened
and the Maharaja died
and duty and honor
can’t be denied
and they all jumped in
when the Maharajah fried
and they all jumped in
when the Maharajah fried

Thirty-two hands shout
“Remember me”
and the peacocks in the garden
‘neath the Tamarind tree
and the feasts in the palace
and silk saris on the skin
and the riches and the power
and the orgies and the sin
and when the Maharajah burned
we all jumped in
when the Maharajah burned
we all jumped in”

At the funeral by the pyre
by the river at dawn
the same thoughts came
to every one:
“If I had it to do
all over again
would I choose a poor honest farmer
and work without end?
watch my children go hungry
scratch the dirt and slave?
Or is it better to be
pampered and petted and kept?”
and each one wondered
and each one wept
and the choices they made
brought them to this end
and when the Maharajah burned
they all stepped in
when the Maharajah burned
they all stepped in.

Thirty-two hands shout
“Remember me
and the peacocks in the garden
‘neath the Tamarind tree
and the feasts in the palace
and silk saris on the skin
and the riches and the power
and the orgies and the sin,
and when the Maharajah burned
we all jumped in
when the Maharajah burned
we all jumped in”

And love and duty
and money and desire
they can put you in the garden
they can set you in the fire
and thirty-two wives
went up in smoke
while the Maharajah’s ashes
made the farmers choke
as they stood by the river
with their children at their feet
while their wives brewed tea
that tasted sweet
and they munched on rice
and they dined on gruel
but they kept their feet out of the fire
they were nobody’s fools
and though they were scorned
for the things they lacked
when the Maharajah burned
they all stepped back
when the Maharajah burned
they all stepped back

Advertisements

1 Comment »

  1. That’s spelled “suttee.”

    Comment by r allen — April 11, 2009 @ 4:05 am | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: