The first time Xavier Zimbardo, one of the world’s top photographers, met a widow was many years ago on the ghats of the holy Varanasi city.
He did not know her by name, a frail figure, ashen mark on her forehead looking like a stigma of lifetime. She seemed to have abandoned hope, her routine seemed horrible and the horrible seemed routine.
Zimbardo gathered courage to seek more details of the woman, probably in her seventies. A researcher helped. Basanti Debi, who once lived with her family in Murshidabad, a border town in Bengal known for its mango orchards and ancient temples and mosques, talked non-stop for almost an hour.
“A new world opened up to me, a life of pain and sorrow was unfolding,” says Zimbardo.
For over a decade, the celebrated French photographer — who first came to India in 1982 as a student — regularly visited India, meeting widows in Varanasi, and also in Vrindavan, to chronicle their tales of woes. He is the only foreigner into this documentation process.
Once, Zimbardo would see how thousands of widows, cast out of their families to be simply alone in the world, travelling for long hours to reach Varanasi and Vrindavan, the holy cities on the banks of two most important rivers. “I would often wonder why they would travel hundreds of miles to get there, I learnt the cities offered hope.”
Varanasi, known for its iconic Shiva temple, bathing ghats and the open air crematorium on the banks of the Ganga, opened its doors to the widows from the early 18th century, and temple-crammed Vrinvadan, on the banks of the Yamuna, witnessed the deluge of widows in the mid 19th century.
Zimbardo found it interesting how hopes of these hapless women revolved around two central figures of Hindu mythology — Lord Shiva (in Varanasi) and Lord Krishna (in Vrindavan) — and how they reached these cities without bothering to find a home in advance.
What was also interesting to him was the way the widows were slowly finding their feet in those two cities, raising their hopes. “Life for them was hard but they were much more hopeful. They once lived on doles, chanted holy songs for over six hours and earned a pittance. But now, it's changing for good, thanks to the commitment of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak and the dedicated social workers of the NGO Sulabh International. Many have moved to new homes, new ashrams, doing odd jobs like stitching and knitting,” says Zimbardo.
Varanasi has an estimated 4,000 widows, while Vrindavan has a little over 7,000. A few members in these holy cities — mostly the upper caste — consider the women inauspicious but the rest do not have any problem with the women begging, chanting Holy scriptures and living in ashrams. “They are a part of the society, unlike their village homes where they have been ostracised by their husbands' families who did not want them to inherit money or property. They left behind friends and grandchildren,” adds Zimbardo.
He found some as genuine pilgrims keen to devote their remaining years to the service of Gods, but many confessed to him how they escaped from brutal family homes where their sons and daughters-in-law saw them as unwanted baggage. “They knew they were on their own in a new city, they struggled to survive,” says Zimbardo.
The current lot of widows in these two cities are a much transformed lot, they are empowered women. Zimbardo says he find very few in a state of distress. “Three years ago it was difficult to find a face among those women that was not marked by anxiety, melancholy or sadness. Today there are still difficulties to be overcome but smiles abound, eyes are twinkling and souls are filled with hope.”
Zimbardo is currently in Vrindavan, witnessing the riot of colours at some of the ashrams — a form of spiritual commune — where the widows are housed. For more than two years, the widows have now started participating in festivals like Diwali and Holi, enjoying their time with lights and colours.
“Now, they are happy to win their spiritual merit by becoming a part of the mainstream. The wind of change that is beginning to blow may signal a new dawn for all people and surely sets an example for humanity to follow,” adds Zimbardo.
On the streets of Vrindavan, which Zimbardo describes as a romance-drenched town, the new transformation in the lives of the widows will eventually help quell injustices and age-old superstitions in India. “The times are changing. Widows are emerging out of their shadows where they were not expected to look attractive.”
India has more than 40 million widows, 10 percent of the country’s female population. Zimbardo feels the transformation is happening, in the homes of Vrindavan, on the ghats of Varanasi. For him, this is the start of what he calls a journey of happiness. "Their lives had colours, then came white, and now again there is colour. This is the greatest transformation for these women."
No one disputes him.