Manu Ghosh has told her story many times and now she is exhausted. “You will write and go away, but for me, nothing changes,” she says, sitting on her hard wooden bed at the Meera Sahbhagini Mahila Ashray Sadan in Vrindavan.
Forty years ago the newly widowed Manu Ghosh, now 92, came here from her village in West Bengal, living in a rented room, begging and singing bhajans. In 1999 when the ashram opened, she moved in but still depends on the charity of strangers. “I am here because of my devotion to Radha-Krishna,” she says. “This is where I will die and attain moksha.”
‘This’ is the city of widows where custom seems frozen in time despite its proximity to such symbols of resurgent India as a six-lane expressway. ‘This’ is an ashram of broken rooms and shattered hopes, where white-shrouded widows sleep in a covered courtyard open on all sides. ‘This’ is where life is reduced to a hope for death because only death brings salvation.
But it’s not death as much as devotion that guides this morning’s activities at the ashram, a dilapidated two-storey building with many rooms and nearly all toilets broken and unusable. Singing and chanting in the late morning light, the 135 women are gathered around Bindeshwar Pathak, the man behind Sulabh Shauchalaya and a person whose life’s mission has been to improve the lives of manual scavengers.
Pathak is here in response to a Supreme Court request to find out if he can ‘ameliorate the pitiable conditions’ of the widows. “This is not my field,” he admits. “But when I saw these women, it was heart-breaking and I could not deny the request.”
Already Pathak has opened an office in Vrindavan, earmarked Rs. 20 lakh from Sulabh’s funds for the widows, ordered four ambulances and distributed a one-time allowance of R1,000 each to women who live in the four government-run ashrams. But, he says, he is here to learn.
Learn, for instance, about how nobody was prepared to cremate the widow who died in January and how, according to a report filed by the District Legal Services Authority, a sweeper had to be paid R 200 to take her body, cut it into pieces, stuff these in a sack and dump them in the river.
Depending on who you speak to, the number of widows who live in Vrindavan and its adjoining towns vary from 3,000 to 21,000. But widows are not the only abandoned women. Kamala from Orissa moved to Vrindavan after her husband left her because she couldn’t have children; 19-year-old Anamika came here after her in-laws threw her out for bringing insufficient dowry.
The women are entitled to a monthly pension of Rs. 300 a month. They also sing at the various bhajan ashrams for which they get Rs. 10 a day plus a handful of uncooked rice and dal.
“We have been recommending investment in skill training so that at least the younger women can find dignified work,” says V Mohini Giri who heads the Guild of Service that works to improve the lives of widows. The 80 women at Ma-Dham, run by the Guild, can choose from courses from computers to beauty culture. Food is provided free.
Nobody goes hungry in Vrindavan, found a report filed by journalist Usha Rai for the Guild of Service. Twenty million pilgrims come here every year, many are eager to give to charity. It’s this generosity that has, tragically, led to an increase in the influx of widows and abandoned women, says the report.
Nearly 90 per cent of the widows surveyed said they didn’t want to go back. ‘Back’ is their parental home or with their husbands’ families where they are derided, ill-treated, often starved.
More than food or clothing or shelter what these forgotten women need is assimilation and inclusion. Mohini Giri, a widow, recalls being invited to a family wedding but when the time came for the bridegroom to tie the mangalsutra on the bride, she was asked to leave because ‘even my shadow could not fall on the ceremony’.
It’s this stigmatisation that must change before anything else does. The widows of Vrindavan who lead tragic, neglected lives have become a cliché. In any modern country, they would be considered productive citizens, capable of contributing to society. “A widow wants society’s acceptance more than its charity,” says Giri. Agrees Pathak: “At Sulabh, we work to restore dignity. But when you place a begging bowl in the hands of a woman, you steal her soul.”
Getting more money, building ashrams, funding kitchens is the easy part. Reclaiming the dignity of women caught in a time warp and granting them their rightful place within families and communities is the far greater challenge. For Manu Ghosh and thousands of others in Vrindavan it may already be too late.