People who extol culture and tradition have not looked at them from a woman’s point of view.  Culture and tradition, like all man-made constructs, are karmic – ambiguous, being both good and evil at the same time.  Human beings, however, tend to focus only on the bright side and ignore the dark.  They see the norms and values, the rituals, the festivals, the dancing and singing that give a sense of community and believe that through them they have conquered base instincts that threaten to destabilise society.  However, when norms and values, which are established at a particular time for a particular time, become habituated and fixed, they do not allow for growth in knowledge and change of circumstance and are difficult to change.  People who cling to old norms out of a superstitious fear of change, turn culture and tradition into tyranny and abuse.

And women are the usual victims.  Because it is the woman who gives birth, communities, from time immemorial, have placed all kinds of restrictions on her to ensure the continuation of the species.  As women had to be protected for this function, it came to be accepted that they were the weaker sex, not equal to men and, therefore, not entitled to the same privileges.  And when women became the property of men, they were subjected to many constraints, most having to do with procreation – sex and marriage. And men made rules about ownership of women, their behaviour, dress, conduct in public and their place in the home.  Women were recognised mainly for their primary function of reproduction; those who did not reproduce were marginalised because they were regarded as having no function in society.  In many communities they were called witches.  And in the India of the film, when a little girl of seven, who is married off without understanding what is happening to her, becomes a widow, she is condemned to a meaningless existence in a tiny prison for widows.


Deepa Mehta’s film, Water, deals with widows, most of whom were child brides whose husbands died in the first years of marriage when they were still children, seven, eight, nine years old, and too young for intercourse. As widows they become outcasts, are no longer considered marriageable and are not allowed to mix with the rest of society.  They are impounded in a little barracks on the bank of the Ganges. Their heads are shaved and they have to wear white saris so that they can be easily distinguished and people will know not to associate with them.  Though the widows come and go quite freely, their lives are severely circumscribed because they have been ostracised.  They are reduced to very basic activities: bathing in the Ganges, cooking and eating and attending the service that a swami holds for them on the ghat nearest their commune. They do, however, occasionally celebrate festivals such as the colour festival in their little courtyard – an indication of their respect for tradition, the very tradition that has condemned them to empty lives.


For men, this enclave of women presents a tantalising opportunity.  As the women have no means of support, their commune becomes a kind of brothel.  The woman who has assumed leadership of the commune sends off a young and beautiful widow, the only one allowed to keep her long hair, to earn money as a prostitute.  When she gets older, a younger widow will replace her, a child widow if there is no other young woman.  The other widows look down on the woman who earns a living for them and she lives separate from them in a kind of loft.  This prejudice is another indication of the widows’ adherence to traditional values.

A young man, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, is introduced into the film to expose the inhumanity of the widows’ situation.  Through him we are made of the new order that Mahatma Gandhi represents, a more humane order, one in which women have rights. It is an order that challenges blind adherence to old, restrictive traditions that may have had a time and place, though it is difficult to imagine how and where such treatment of widows could have originated. Inspired by the Mahatma, one of the widows breaks with tradition and rescues a child widow from a life of abuse by sending her off to become a follower of Gandhi.


To break with tradition is difficult because women so often collude with their oppression; they accept the stereotypes that society presents of them. Even today many women feel they have failed in life if they do not conform to the roles prescribed for them, if they do not have a traditional wedding and are not given away by one male, their father, to another male, their husband, to become his property.  If they remain single or do not procreate, they see themselves as deficient.  Water is a plea to women to understand that they have a wide range of choices not just the traditional choices that they have been programmed to accept. 


I am not sure why the film is called Water, it must have more significance than the fact that is part of Mehta’s trilogy, Fire, Earth, Water.   I see the title as reference to the river Ganges, a river that  stands for religious tradition. The film is set on the banks of the Ganges and shows people bathing in the holy river to wash away their sins.  Though the widows bathe in the holy water, their sin of being widows cannot be washed away.  And the holy river is the conduit that carries a woman, who has been turned into a prostitute, to an abuser of women and a child molester.  Water, even the holy water of the Ganges, is not an unequivocal symbol of purity. We live in a karmic world.