The leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, addressing civil servants affiliated with his organization, made that declaration as part of his pre-premiership effort lift the national mood from its deepening despondency.
The sati excuse has long been used to justify our collective languor. And for good reason. What, after all, could be easier than attributing our perpetual woes to the swearword an unidentified widow of yore uttered as she perished on her husband’s funeral pyre? The search for archfiends is as intrinsic to our soul as the quest for saviors.
Comrade Oli must be commended for striking his gavel so hard. As a student and practitioner of scientific materialism, it must have taken him some courage to pull a palliative for something so rooted in the past. Oli’s real resolution lies in his preparedness to pontificate on something so shrouded in oblivion.
What we can gather from the available literature is that a sati pronounces a curse if she becomes angry while preparing to die. In so doing, she makes it known that some person or persons have behaved badly and unacceptably toward her.
The curse is said to hang over a family usually for seven generations and serves to encourage within it proper attitudes and activities. Satis may curse other related families if the cause so warrants. Regardless, her spell is considered a benevolent discouragement against future bad behavior from someone akin to a protector.
But what if she curses persons she is not related to? In that case, her punishment is said to come without guarantees of protection. In other words, she is malevolent and vengeful.
A couple of questions are then in order. Can we consider the sati as malevolent simply because she utters a curse. Or do we have to look at her intentions. To phrase it differently, do we need to see how the recipients understand the curse? In that case, the distinction between the benevolent and malevolent curse becomes sharper.
Then there’s the etymology. The sati is someone impelled by ‘sat’ (virtue) to follow her husband in death. For the curse to be deemed effective, must her motivations be certifiably pure? Can someone who, say, followed a duly convicted and executed criminal on the funeral pyre – regardless of the purity of her act – be considered an effective curser?
If, on the other hand, the pre-deceased male was pious and innocent but the woman was forced to become a sati against her volition, would her motivation in delivering a curse be deemed pure?
Or do other factors, such as bloodline in a caste-regimented society or spousal rank in a polygamous order, count. Perhaps how exactly the flames consumed her body – instantly or ungenerously – makes a difference.
In Nepal’s context, references to sati’s curse are as diverse as they are disparate. One of the earliest collective curses was said to have been uttered by a queen of King Jagatjayamalla, who announced from her pyre the end of the Malla dynasty and the coming of the Shahs.
Every violent change of regime since has had its share of widows burnt alive with their husbands. Who said what to whom? And which sati was more or less qualified than the others to do so – at least in terms of the efficacy of their utterances?
In that great unknown, we accepted a collective jinx: accursed is he who tries to do something good for the country. The first English writers of the history of Nepal perpetuated that line, which has been dutifully picked near and far ever since. Over time, variants also abounded to instill and entrench a sense of fatalism in our national character. And who benefited from our centuries-long obsession?
Oli may be on to something.