Close to the holy River Ganga, an ancient tree provides shelter and comfort to Uma, a mute, orphan, Brahmin girl. Treated like a drudge by her cruel aunt, Uma is also cursed by a horoscope that portends widowhood. This might not be such a bad thing as this is 1828 and it will be next year before the British outlaw the religiously enforced burning of widows on their husbands' funeral pyres ("sati/suttee"). However, the priest thinks it a sin that a girl over the age of puberty is not married and tradition has it that a younger member of the family cannot marry before an older one. A solution is found: Uma is married to the tree. When she becomes pregnant (the victim of an assault by the local schoolteacher) not even the superstitious villagers believe that the tree is the father and Uma is ostracised for having been unfaithful to her "husband". Sent to live in the cowshed, Uma is forced to shelter in her tree when the cowshed is blown away during a violent storm. Lightning blasts the tree and in the morning Uma is found dead amongst the shattered branches and stumps. To the wonderment and consternation of all the onlookers, this most despised member of society has blood on her forehead resembling the vermillion that a groom puts on his bride whilst the manner of her death resembles that of an exulted sati.
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