In an outrageous and insensitive incident, a 77-year-old woman in Chennai was denied her late husband’s pension by a government official, because the man believed that a widow should not wear a pottu.
It had hardly been a month since Radha* witnessed her husband's death, and she was still struggling with the grief of having lost her partner of over 40 years. But officials at the settlements wing of the Electrical and Mechanical department, where her deceased husband used to work, insisted that she complete formalities regarding the transfer of his pension immediately.
Ramesh* was 82 when he passed away in March and had worked at the Port Trust in Rajaji Salai till 1993. Radha was now eligible for upto 70% of this money, and on April 9, she went with her son and daughter-in-law to sign the requisite forms.
"When we came to the settlements wing, the officer in question who identified himself as Ravi, was actually sleeping," says 34-year-old Madhuri, Radha's daughter-in-law. "We gave them the forms that they required, my mother-in-law’s identity proof, and a photo of hers that was taken four months back. But he took one look at her and then at the photo and refused to accept it," she explains.
When asked what the problem was, the officer allegedly said that Radha should not be wearing a pottu. "In front of my mother-in-law, he insensitively told us that we should understand that a widow is not supposed to be wearing pottu or flowers. He told us we need to take another photo, where she is wearing only sacred ash on her forehead," an angry Madhuri recalls. "He asked how a widow could come to the office looking like this," she adds.
It is a practice in some Hindu communities for widows to give up the pottu, kungumam (vermillion), flowers and even colourful sarees. It signifies giving up celebratory practices or the 'colour' in life after one’s husband's death. The patriarchal practice is widely criticised by many people, and while many individuals still follow this, many others now shun these ideas.
The government official, clearly, is not one of them. "When we tried to reason with him, he told us to bring her ration card, which was initially not even a requirement. We told him that she is old and can't keep coming to the office, but he did not care. He refused to take her fingerprints or even begin to the process to transfer pension," Madhuri says.
Not wanting to prolong the insults her mother-in-law was facing, the family left the office.
"My mother-in-law was inconsolable. We took a photo of her without the pottu and it was difficult to watch the emotions she went through when removing the sticker off her forehead," says Madhuri. "What is worse is that she now believes that she is in the wrong for choosing to wear the sticker pottu when her husband died. The officer made her feel ashamed of what she did," she says.
The family returned the next day to submit the photo and ration card. The officer who harassed them was on leave and they managed to complete the process fast. When Madhuri complained to a senior accounts officer about Ravi, she was told to 'adjust'.
"They said I can file a written complaint but followed that up with, 'That is how they are. You will have to adjust.’ So I really didn't see the point," she says.
(*names changed to protect identity)