This is a story about two women from different countries and different cultures: two women who never met, who would not share the same fate, and two women who experienced other extremes of a culture gone wrong. One of those women was hardly a woman but a girl of eighteen. Her name was Roop Kanwar, and she lived in a village in Rajasthan, India. Some seven months into her marriage, her life ended as she was burned to death-forcibly, according to witnesses on the funeral pyre. Her death caused controversy and divided a nation steeped in religious superstition and misquoted scriptures.


The other woman was just a year older than Roop when she first came into contact with the same land, people, and culture. Some years later, she moved to India, where she lived in a village on the banks of the River Ganges.

That other woman is me. I will never share the same fate as Roop Kanwar because I was born and bred in Australia. Some would say my upbringing was devoid of real culture, and they may be right. Others would say I had freedom of choice and the ability to avoid the same fate as Roop, and they are also right. Whatever, the fact remains that both cultures- Eastern and Western- have something to offer, and somewhere between the supposed decadence and moral bankruptcy of the West and the pseudo-spirituality of the East- lies a truth that can set anyone apart free. Even Roop Kanwar…

I came across the story of Roop for the first time in 1998. I lived in Jaipur, and now and then, her name would appear in newspapers and magazines. Five years later, I was given a book entitled “Death By Fire” by Mala Sen. It was the story of Roop, leaving me dissatisfied. That wasn’t the fault of the author-it was the story itself. Most disturbing was the acceptance by a large portion of the nation that this was somehow “okay,” that the burning to death of a beautiful young girl was a result of her purity and righteousness, and that seven generations before and after her were benefited by such a violent and gruesome death. I concluded that only a twisted form of a rich and philosophically powerful culture such as the one Roop came from could condone such a barbaric act.

Throughout Sen’s book were references to another, considered the definitive study on sati, the practice of widow burning outlawed by the British in the 18th century: “Sati: A Study of Widow Burning in West Bengal,” by Sakuntala Narasimhan. By this stage, I was a resident of West Bengal, so the topic was ‘local’. I began to read Narasimhan’s book with some trepidation.

My concern was twofold: an angle of vision from both sides of the fence. Firstly, I wondered how much Narasimhan’s study was drawn from an extreme feminist viewpoint, which was, as far as I could see, no solution to the problems that exist for women in India if it is an understandable reaction. Secondly, from the opposite end of the argument, I was concerned about how much of the book was based on a proper understanding of the scriptures quoted by those who were propagating widow burning based on some so-called “religious” standpoint and how well Narasimhan could therefore argue the point on a reasonable and logical basis without being drowned in the religious melee that surrounds such issues.