Don’t defame Vrindavan on the issue of widows.
Very little has changed in the five years since the Supreme Court directed the authorities to boost facilities in homes for them in the holy town. The Hindu takes a look at the conditions in which these women are living. Sitting in a dingy hall with plaster peeling off the walls, 94-year-old Kanaklata talks about the day she decided to leave her family in West Bengal and come to Vrindavan following her husband’s death. “My husband was a mason. We could not have children. Maybe if I had children, I would not be here,” she says as a lone tear trickles down her sunken cheek.It has been 25 years since Kanaklata left her home. Initially, she used to spend her time in temples, singing bhajans in kirtans and relying on bhandaras for a meal.
When making ends meet became difficult, she resorted to begging outside temples. That’s how she remembers the names of all 84 temples in the area. “I would sit outside a different temple each day so that people wouldn’t recognise me. We were always poor but I had never asked for help before. I came here from Bengal so that I did not have to beg my family for help but life had other plans,” she says. Just like Kanaklata, the holy town of Vrindavan is home to thousands of widows who have either been cast away by their families or are just alone in the world. The city where Lord Krishna grew up has a darker side — a side where widows, cast in whites, struggle for survival every day.
Supreme Court order
The Supreme Court took note of the plight of these women in 2012 and ordered that a special committee be constituted to identify the widows in Vrindavan — “those having shelter and those wandering in the streets without shelter”. The court also ordered that complete data be collected on the families of these women, including their reasons for leaving home and their source of income. This tedious process, however, is still not complete. In a status report submitted by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in September 2015, the government had said the process was ongoing. A detailed Agreed Action Plan formulated by the Ministry and the National Commission for Women was submitted before the court as a follow-up this year.
This plan detailed the need for improvement of infrastructure, a database of widows by linking them with their Aadhaar cards and counselling the families to take these women back home. According to the order, the women should be entitled to free legal and medical aid along with basic living conditions. It was after staying for nearly 33 years in one of the government-run ashrams in the city that 104-year-old Lalita Adhikari, fondly known as thakuma (grandmother) in the ashram, was taken home by her sons in 2015. She was found waiting all alone outside the gates of the ashram one midnight last year.
A mountain of problems
Wearing a white paan -stained saree, Lalita looks blankly at the walls when asked about the details of her stay at home and what prompted her return. At that moment, a monkey walks in and runs away with her steel tumbler. It is not until her housemates start screaming to stop the monkey that her reverie is broken. “Dogs and monkeys enter from the back door,” she remarks with an absent-minded giggle. “Make sure you remove your spectacles or the monkeys will snatch them off your face and run away,” she continues. Bharti Das, the caretaker of the old age home, says no one knows why or how Lalita came back to Vrindavan. Bharti says the one year that thakuma was away seems to have been erased from her memory.
“She doesn’t like answering questions about why she came back, that too unassisted at such an odd hour. I have been working here for almost five years now and I know that all of them have some story of grief bottled up inside them. But for the world, they are always smiling,” she says while helping Lalita take her medicine. Life has become much better after the Supreme Court intervention, feel the widows, but a lot still needs to be done. One problem these women face concerns the monthly allowance they receive in their bank account. Since most of them are old and unable to walk around much, going to a bank each month to withdraw the money becomes difficult. Many are uneducated and find it difficult to operate their account. Most of the women who come to this part of Uttar Pradesh are either from West Bengal or Odisha. In the Hindi heartland, these women have created their own world where everyone speaks Bengali.
Their day starts at 4 a.m., after which they get ready to go to the temples. Temple prayers wind up by 10 a.m. and the women return to the ashrams. After a few hours of rest, they start preparing lunch, and later spend some personal time either watching TV or talking to each other. Prayers and sleep follow. After the first court order in 2012, social service organisation Sulabh International became actively involved in providing facilities in and around homes for widow across Vrindavan. Apart from providing facilities including refrigerators and television sets, the organisation is working on rehabilitating the women by providing vocational training in sewing, and making garlands, agarbattis and diyas . In an attempt to add some colour to their otherwise routine lives, the organisation has also started organising Holi festivities for them. Since orthodoxy prohibits widows from using colour in any form, Sulabh-organised festivities involve the women playing Holi with flower petals. “The National Legal Services Authority [NALSA] had in 2012 asked us to provide food for widows. However, I was moved by their plight and stories when I visited Vrindavan to take stock of the situation. We initially provided a stipend of ₹1,000 but have increased the amount to ₹2,000 now. We are still working towards making their lives better,” says Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International. Ninety-two-year-old Manu Ghosh recalls the days when they received just ₹18 for singing bhajans at the temple all day. The amount was barely enough to buy food. “I came here 30 years ago. I lost five of my siblings since but could not go back for their last rites. It was impossible to go back to Kolkata with such little money,” she states in a quivering voice. “So I spent those days praying for their soul and telling myself that I will be able to go back home one day,” she adds.
In 2015, Manu was among the first widows to visit New Delhi in their group and tie rakhi to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A small stopover at Kolkata airport on the way back allowed her to meet her relatives.n “When I came here [Vrindavan], I had decided that Lord Krishna would be my family, my all. But I broke down when I saw my brother. This place has given me a lot of love and these people are like family now. Some days, however, I still wonder what life would be like back home,” she says.