The first wife of Lord Shiva, who she married against her father’s wishes. She committed self-immolation to protect her husband’s honor and is seen as a paragon of a virtuous and dutiful wife.
A ritual, now mostly historical, that gained prominence in South Asia in the late medieval period, in which a widow, dressed in her wedding gown and jewels, commits suicide by sitting atop her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. The practice was outlawed by the British Empire in 1892. The Indian Government passed the Sati (Prevention) Act in 1987, criminalizing the practice and its glorification as an act of selflessness.
Embers crackled. Ash rose and languished in the air. I slipped my shoes off and stepped onto the mandap. The stone was warm under my feet. A long, almost opaque rectangle of silk, held by my brothers, separated me from the yagna fire and from the eyes of my future husband.
My neck, wrists, waist, ears, and ankles were weighed down with gold—all gifts from my parents to take with me into married life. I sat down on my red velvet chair shaped like a throne wearing a sari of my mother’s choosing. Shackled by my grandmother’s bangles, I listened to the pandit recite the holy Sanskrit verses of matrimony.
“You look like a bride,” my mother had told me after clasping a golden choker around my neck. “This is more than you deserve.”
The veil, still in place, obscured me from my future husband’s view—though, with my rouged lips, kajal-hooded eyelids, and foundation three shades lighter creating a mask on my face, I very much doubted he would even recognize me.
Every little Indian girl dreams of their wedding day from the moment they understand what a wedding even is. From their mother’s wedding album filled with blank faces staring into the camera to the passionate wedding scenes of Bollywood blockbusters. There are fantasies about the dress, the bangles, the mendhi, the dancing, the food, and sometimes the person sitting across from them in the mandap itself. We were told that marriage is the start of a new life. Marriage is sacred. Marriage is supposed to save us.
The veil dropped. Across from me—dressed like a conquering prince—sat the man I was meant to marry. He smiled with embers in his eyes. I felt the heat roll off my skin. I shivered.
He was handsome—there was no doubt about that. I’d heard the aunties say as much after he’d compliment them on their jewels and their figure. How did I of all people manage to secure a marriage with him? How did I beguile him so? What sort of bargain did I strike? They’d hissed under their breaths from the moment the invitations went out. They would never know he’d already taken what he wanted.
Someone—my father—handed me a garland without meeting my eye and turned me towards my fiancé. The priest motioned for us to stand together.
“Place the garland around his neck,” he instructed.
The string, weighed down by red roses, dug into my palms. He bowed, eyes never moving from mine as I laid the garland over his head. My hands stung when they touched the fabric of his salwar kameez. The scent of his cologne – smoky and overwhelming – burned my nostrils like ashes. I bent down, holding back a cough, as he dropped the garland down onto my neck.
My skin prickled in pain as soon as the string touched my neck. An itching, almost burning sensation enveloped through my dupatta, heating the choker like a hand. The clamor of applause from the audience drowned out my gasp. I ran my fingers over the back of my neck, feeling nothing but the woven garland string and my own skin.
My mother, stern and unflinching, took the end of my dupatta and tied it to his with finality.
He grabbed my hand for the pheras, and I jolted back without thinking. When he touched me, a spark—hot and painful—ignited.
Each step burned through my soles as the yagna fire scorched the ground under my feet. Family members pelted us with petals, singeing my skin like coals. I could feel blisters bubbling with each hit.
After following him for the first two rounds, it was my turn to lead.
His knuckles dug into my back like a branding rod, forcing me forward. I cried out as the skin on my soles melded into the stone, tore away from me—stuck to the mandap.
“Move,” he hissed.
Red footprints trailed behind me. Fallen rose petals stuck to the blood and coated my feet but did nothing to temper the heat radiating from the fire into the floor. Each step scalded my skin, cauterizing the wounds, and ripping them open again.
He sat down before I could even comprehend that the pheras were over. The first one to sit rules the household, they said. Blood burned my ears from the hums of approval from the audience.
The pandit was speaking, but I could hardly hear him over the hissing fire. Seven betel nuts, each perched on a mound of rice, sat in a line at the front of the mandap.
“The Saptapadi unites the souls together with the seven vows,” the pandit explained. “With each step the bride takes, she must tip the betel nut with her toe to accept the vows.”
He was by my side again, pulling me forward to face the audience—witnesses to my vows.
“May God shower you with food and nourishment as you vow to put the wellbeing of the family and of each other before your own.”
I stumbled. His strong hands, possessive, grasped my waist, slipping in between fabric, meeting bare skin—retracing the ghosts of his bruises.
The first betel nut tipped over and burst into flames.
“May God bless you with a healthy life as you vow to support each other and protect your family.”
A ring of fire shackled my ankles as the golden anklets burned into my skin, prickling like pins, pulling my feet forward.
The second betel nut tipped over and burst into flames.
“May God bless you with sacredness and service as we vow to respect our elders, and to thank them for the support they have given us.”
The bangles—my grandmother’s—were scalding, blistering, twisting my skin into the gold. Tightening around my wrists like his hands. An imprint of his breath crackled against my skin. “I will ruin you. You are mine.”
The third betel nut tipped over and burst into flames.
“May God bless you with children, as you vow to continue our sacred traditions.”
The golden chain around my waist burned into my bare skin, bubbling over into my abdomen, slick like his tongue, lapping at the heat erupting into my core.
The fourth betel nut tipped over and burst into flames.
“May God shower you with bountiful seasons as you vow to share in each other’s joys and sorrows.”
The necklace my mother had secured around my neck melted my flesh in a chokehold until gold blended with blood, dripping, holding me in place for him to do whatever he pleased.
The fifth betel nut tipped over and burst into flames.
“May God bless you with peace and fulfillment, as you vow to remain true and faithful in love.”
The golden thread embroidered into my clothing ignited, searing the designs into my skin. Flames like his fingers split through my skin, felt up my shoulders, over my breasts, down my stomach, between my legs.
The sixth betel nut tipped over and burst into flames.
“And may God bless you with a long and lasting life as you vow to never part, in this life and the next.”
The last betel nut tipped over and burst into flames. The mandap was engulfed in fire, but no one paid any heed. Fire roared in my ears. My earrings dripped into my hair, whispering sweet nothings in his voice. “You asked for this.”
Ash filled my lungs, burned my chest. My skin scalded, sinew melting into gold. The curves of my mendhi gleamed like coals, the lines of his name hidden in the designs seared through flesh down to the bone.
My husband presented the mangalsutra—gold and black beads—the necklace of a married woman. He delicately dragged the necklace over my charred collarbones, splitting skin with fire, and secured it around my neck.
My skin, waxy and hollow, stretched against my muscles, blistering, breaking against bone. His hands were everywhere, following the flames around my throat. Holding my arms in place like he had when he spread my legs apart.
I couldn’t breathe. My nose dripped away like wax, nose ring clattering to the floor. Fire ate at my hair, licking my scalp. My lengha fused into my flesh, fabric weaving into skin. Everyone watched the ceremony; my whole body burning.
His fingers dipped into the sindoor, blood red, to mark me as his wife. He brought his hand over my head.
The burning reached my heart, and I screamed.
I could see it so clearly. The flames, eating away at me, leaving nothing but melted gold and bubbling blood behind. My bones crackled, steam hissed underneath my skin, stinking of sulfur and charcoal.
I clawed at my neck, my fingernails disappearing, breaking the mangalsutra, gold spilling over my fingers, taking the place of flesh.
He tried to touch me.
“Stay away from me!” I growled.
The wedding guests watched in horror as I tore away at my dupatta, ripping away burnt hair, splitting the cuffs on my wrists, then my waist and my ankles. Each piece ripped open blood, coating my charred muscles with red, but it was still too hot.
I ran, clothes burning behind me, eating through each seam while my hands tore away the rest.
Cool air hit bare skin as I shoved the doors open. Heaving, I struck my arms, my legs, pushing away the last of the fabric. Wind whipped around me, spinning me in flickering clouds, struggling to stamp out the flames.
The first drop of rain sizzled against my skin, caressing me. The heavens cried above me, tears mingling with my own, softly pressing away at corroded skin. My hair plastered around my head, down my shoulders, over my breasts, wet against the smooth skin of my stomach—leaving my body bare, unmutilated, untouched.
Fresh air filled my lungs, uncharred. Free.
You are pure—the fire said.
You are whole.
Rena Patel is a South Asian American writer and theatre producer based in Los Angeles. She has been a finalist in various screenwriting and playwriting competitions. She graduated from Scripps College with a degree in English and Creative Writing and is currently studying entertainment law at Loyola Law School.