In the city of Ambayu, a progressive urban area in India, Kumud Kuthiyala is the educated and strong-willed director of the girls’ home, Save Girls Souls Orphanage. Despite her tumultuous past, Kumud is dedicated to not only caring for the orphans, but also to protect them from, and educate them about, the customs that persecute females and treat them as property of their husbands.
As a young girl, Kumud was left traumatized by her aunt’s death in a horrifying suttee, an ancient funeral ritual where a widow, supposedly willingly, sits on the funeral pyre of her recently deceased husband and burns herself alive. This outlawed practice still remains in poor, remote villages due to the elders’ and villagers’ strong beliefs that a woman dying with her husband will not only grant eternal life together for them in heaven, but the act will bring about a goddess-like status for the widow, and her family will be showered with blessings for seven generations. Kumud can’t rid herself of the harrowing image of her lovely aunt burning alive, an emotionally painful burden that she has carried since the event. As time passes, Kumud becomes a woman, marries, and is forced to flee her hometown, in hopes of restarting a new life away from its suffocating, atrocious, outdated customs and rituals.
Kumud Kuthiyala carefully reconstructed her life in her new town through years of education and dedication in her beliefs that females should be educated and treated well alongside their male counterparts. Together with the assistance of Shekhar Roy, the orphanage's doctor, Kumud diligently cares for her charges and dreams of a better world for them.
One day Kumud receives a distressed phone call from a local resident in her childhood town, imploring her to return to her hometown immediately because a young woman has declared her intentions of committing suttee upon the death of her gravely ill husband. Kumud is understandably shocked by the call, and is compelled to immediately leave Ambayu and travel back to the hometown she fled years ago in desperate hope that she can put a stop to the brutal custom. Once there, Kumud faces quite an uphill battle attempting to convince not only the townspeople and elders that this ritual must be stopped, but the soon to be widow who is pious and steadfast in her belief she must commit suttee.
Author Madhu Bazaz Wangu diligently researched, and expertly crafted, The Last Suttee, a story that is fictional but exposes readers to a real-life, antiquated Indian culture and the savage funeral ritual of suttee. Readers will first be thoroughly educated on the history of suttee, and then feel transported directly into the Indian towns as they visually feast on vivid descriptions of beautiful scenery following along with the main character’s journey from a traumatic childhood event to her present-day quest to change the treatment of all girls and women. At the core of this gripping read is the continued need for education and equality for females everywhere. Even in societies that appear modern and progressive, deep-seated beliefs and traditions continue to disempower women thus allowing rituals like suttee to still have a small place in some cultures. As the author wrote, “education is the flame that can enlighten a whole town if its inhabitants allow it,” and it is with this power that Kumud attempts to change the current beliefs of the townspeople, and that of the soon-to-be widow. The Last Suttee is a thought-provoking story that is both inspirational and thrilling for readers as they follow along the path of the strong characters in hopes of a positive outcome.
Quill says: The Last Suttee is a powerfully moving story and look into a mostly unknown culture and funeral ritual that sadly still periodically occurs in some cultures.