They sound like a gaggle of schoolgirls all dressed in white on a class trip. They giggle and point out the sights as their tramcar trundles past the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. They pass around sips of lukewarm Coca Cola in little plastic cups. They sing songs and cheer lustily anytime anyone asks them to.
“Radhey radhey,” they shout, their arms in the air.
But they are not schoolgirls. They are the widows of Vrindavan and they are in Kolkata to see something many have not seen in decades – Durga Puja. The widows stand before the image of the Durga of Baghbazar, one of the oldest community pujas in Kolkata. Before leaving they prostrate themselves on the floor. Even 85-year-old Kanaklata Adhikary confined to a wheelchair raises her gnarled fists in the air to shout Durga Mai ki jai.
She has not been back in Kolkata for 70 years. Dr Bindeshwar Pathak whose NGO Sulabh organised the trip says Adhikary was too afraid to come last year.
“She said I will die on the way. I want to die in Vrindavan not Kolkata. This time she said please take me this year. The love of the land still attracts people.”
Kanaklata Adhikary was married at 11 and widowed at 17. She moved into her sister’s home and helped raised her children by cooking and cleaning in other people’s houses. She says she moved to Vrindavan when it became too difficult to live in her sister’s tiny house.
As Dr Pathak wheels her around Kumartuli, the artisan’s colony in North Kolkata where Durga images are built, Adhikary asks everyone if they can take her to Kumartuli park. Her sister’s house is there, close to the river, she insists.
“I am at peace in Vrindavan at the feet of Radha rani. But if I could only see my nephews and nieces once. I raised them all. When someone goes to Kolkata my heart gets restless,” she says tearing up. But she does not have their phone number with her.
Dr Pathak started working with almost 1800 widows in Vrindavan at the request of the Supreme Court in 2012. Sulabh is best-known for building toilets but it also does a lot of charitable work with its proceeds from building and maintaining toilets. When Dr Pathak went to Vrindavan he was aghast. “All were crying and weeping and told me the miseries of their lives and wanted to die. Everybody.” But even in death there was no dignity. He says many of their bodies were chopped up and thrown into the Yamuna because there was no money for a proper cremation.
Sulabh provided the ashrams with ambulances. He organised stipends of Rs 2000 in the homes it runs. He employed teachers to teach them Hindi, Bengali, English and vocational training making incense sticks, garlands, and tailoring.
But he admits what he can do is a drop in the bucket. “We have a treasure trove of wisdom in Hinduism but dare I say it there are a few dark spots – one is untouchability and one is widowhood.”
Raja Rammohun Roy might have persuaded the British to end sati and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar pushed for widow remarriage but the stigma associated with widowhood is a stubborn one. “If a wife dies a husband can remarry, there is no restriction on food or clothing,” says Pathak. “In Indian society women have suffered the most.” And it’s not just poor women. He remembers a wealthy widow from a well-to-do family telling him with tears in her eyes how her niece asked her to go into her room before a family wedding was about to start because it would be “inauspicious” to have her there. “She said I have everything, I am not begging but even I have to feel this insult. So this is a bigger problem than feeding the widows of Vrindavan.”
But politicians sometimes appear not to see that. Mathura MP Hema Malini got into hot water by saying states like Bengal should take care of their own widows in their own temples instead of overcrowding Vrindavan. Manu Ghose, a feisty octogenarian widow with a shaved head says of course West Bengal should help its widows. “I see so many poor sad widows walking around the streets. Their children do not feed them. Can someone not open an ashram for them?”
Pathak says it’s hard to reconcile Bengal’s reputation of social progressiveness and intellectualism with the plight of these widows but he says in India every citizen has a right to live where they choose. Since the time of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Vrindavan has a powerful pull on the imagination of widows especially in Bengal where Chaitanya preached. They go to Vrindavan because they hope to attain salvation by dying there while reciting Lord Krishna’s name.
The widows insist they are happy in Vrindavan. But as they roam around Kolkata, looking at the Durga images, stopping to drink some young coconut water, their faces keep lighting up.
“We don’t hear so much Bengali in Vrindavan,” laughs one. There apart from talking to each other, most of the Bengali they hear is from the Star Jalsha serials they watch on the television Sulabh got them. “Last night we could not see them because we had to go meet the Governor,” chuckles one woman.
While they laugh and smile, the pain remains close to the surface. This is after all the festival of the Mother Goddess. (Hema Malini, incidentally, stars in a ballet as Durga.) Nilima Kar, 64, is a cheerful chatty woman, always ready with a song. But a shadow passes over her face when she remembers why she went to Vrindavan. Her husband had died in an accident. She tried to save the compensation money but her sons wasted it all on cars and their businesses. “Money is nothing. Children are your wealth. I don’t care about the money but when the behaviour is not good what can you do. I left it all and went away in sorrow to Vrindavan.” She has been living there for three years. Her eldest son keeps asking her to come home. “He says you should come and divide up the property, the bit of land we have,” she says with a wry smile.
But there is change as well, hesitant but real. 37-year-old Annapurna, widowed at 25, wears a sari with large blue flowers. “At my ashram there are 11 mothers. Only four wear white. The rest of us wear colours. No one minds.” She says she is learning computers in her spare time.
In the ashrams of Vrindavan, these days the widows play Holi and do rangoli for Diwali. Even the Kolkata trip was something they wanted to do. In a society where it is socially ingrained that widows should renounce and renounce, even these women who admit they are old-fashioned and not well-educated, are hesitantly coming to terms with the idea that it is okay to find pleasure in life, that life is not just about waiting for death.
“It is logistically complicated to travel with 57 mothers but we want to see their happy faces,” says Vinita Varma, who runs the widows initiative for Sulabh as she shepherds her group down narrow lanes, scolding them as they wander into the path of motorcycles and rickshaw pullers. "Today Manu Ghosh wanted a radio. One mother wanted to meet her family. We want to fulfill all their wishes."
85-year-old Kanaklata Adhikary got her wish. Her nephew happened to be in the neighbourhood where the widows were putting up and came to see if his aunt was there by chance. But as they embraced tearfully, Kanaklata heard that her younger sister had died a month ago. “I had asked God to take me first but he did not keep my request,” she wept.
Later that afternoon the other nephews and nieces showed up to meet her. “Now the same Kanaklata who never wanted to live more is saying she wants to come next year also,” says Varma.
Aashchey bochhor aabar hobey (Next year it will happen again) shout the widows of Vrindavan. It’s an old refrain at the end of Durga Puja every year to reassure each other the mother would return but when the widows of Vrindavan raise in the pandals of Kolkata it carries its own bittersweet poignancy.
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Updated Date: Oct 03, 2014 07:16:32 IST