As is the wont of political pundits, come elections and so-called gems of ancient wisdom are in order. One I heard this time, perhaps thought up on the spot by the person I was speaking to was this — he who wins Varanasi is blessed. Well, clearly the BJP’s tidal sweep of the recent elections will give credence to this.
We had an army of reporters and observers descend on the holy city before the elections to tell us of everything from its fable paan to its delectable vegetarian cuisine to how the many politicians consider themselves natives even though they were born elsewhere. Many of the visitors nipped down to the ghats to witness the eternal cycle of death and possibly though not quite visible, rebirth, others to tell us of the caste-class configurations. I wondered then and I do now, who did the over 38,000 widows of the city vote for, or did they stay out of sight as they are meant to. Why do we know so little about these women who live on the margins of our consciousness? As if they are non-people.
India has around 40 million widows, many of whom go to or are forced to go to homes or streets in holy cities to live out their lives in penance and prayer for the sin of outliving their husbands. Those who do not have to do this fare better but still live with many forms of social exclusion and needless judgment.
One of my aunts, an educated woman, was widowed early on in life. Her husband was a bit of a no-goodnik and I suspect very strongly my aunt did not mourn his passing as much as people thought she should. Being still young and attractive, she refused pleas from her parents and in-laws to “contain” herself and make herself a little less conspicuous. She refused and insisted on wearing brightly coloured clothes and make-up as she had always done only to find herself shunned by the very people she hoped would provide her moral and emotional support. She was the subject of much vicious gossip for years but today, still in her bright clothes, she has ceased to be an object of discussion as she no longer poses such a threat to societal norms on account of her age.
I have not heard of any other civilised country where widows are banished to certain areas to live lives of extreme deprivation and grief, with no possibility of a normal life again. Can they not be productive members of society with or without remarriage? Even in the more `elevated’ echelons of society, a widow is viewed with some disdain or pity, rarely as a human being who has suffered a great loss and deserving of getting on with her life in whatever way she sees fit. Remarriage is not unheard of but is difficult as a widow is considered as having too much baggage if that is how children and a past life can be described.
Widowhood seems to lead to a situation in which the woman is suddenly expected to do with less of everything, colour in her life and attire, the food she might enjoy, the freedom to go where she wants, to have sexual desires and god forbid, to not be overtly religious.
The RSS, that repository of Indian culture, has actually had chiefs who have refused to allow widows the great honour of touching their feet as this was thought to be inauspicious. I would love to see the RSS take the lead in a campaign to give widows their lives back.
The first thing the government should do, and especially the newly-minted Uttar Pradesh government, is to make widows economically independent. And I don’t mean the old sewing machine largesse. Surely they can be taught skills in IT or teaching or entrepreneurship so that they can be financially secure and hence more in control of their own lives. This would remove the stigma of being a “burden” on their families.
Sometimes widows give over their inheritance to their children or in-laws only to be thrown out now that their utility is over. This Holi, the news that some widows in Vrindavan played with colours made big news as though they had smashed through some impenetrable barrier. If only this were indicative of a change in how society views widows, as drab people, characters bowed and beaten and painted in forgotten shades of grey.
Why are successive governments overlooking this potentially productive part of the population? I had hoped that at least one political party would speak up for the widows who have been consigned in their thousands to invisibility. Well, maybe next time but I am not holding my breath.