Their hands raised in prayer, the women of the Sri Bagwan Bhajan Ashram for Widows share a moment of spiritual reverie. The social and economic misfortune faced by many of India’s widows is imposed on them, not because of any one doctrine of Hinduism, but because of prevalent cultural tradition.
India – Long Read

Looking after India’s widows, and more

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

India – Long Read Looking after India’s widows, and more

Hello India, where the position of widows is disgraceful. When they lose their husbands, they lose all status and it is even considered bad luck to touch one or have one attend your wedding. Fortunately, the small holy town of Vrindavan, childhood home of Lord Krisha, provides food, shelter and sisterhood for these outcast women. However, the widows are not the only women welcomed here.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

“I was 13 when I got married,” says Sangeeta (35), a young widow from Calcutta. She tends the gardens of the Ma-Dham ashram in Vrindavan and speaks to me while sowing vegetable seeds. “My father left us when I was a baby and my mother worked as a housekeeper. Although I told my mother I didn’t want to marry, I knew marriage would benefit our family and make our lives easier, so I agreed.

“My husband was 35 when we met and when I first laid eyes on him I thought he was so old he could die any second. We were soon married and shared a small apartment with his two brothers. They needed someone to cook and manage the household and these chores ended up being my responsibility. The four of us lived happily together for many years. I was still a child then and felt very fortunate to be treated like a little sister. I was 25 when the brothers passed away. My husband and I were suddenly alone. We didn’t have any children so I started working as a nurse in a retirement home. This work suited me perfectly and brought me many years of happiness until misfortune struck.

“I developed a disease that left my hand and foot severely disfigured. We didn’t have money for surgery and in the end it cost me my job. After losing both of his brothers, my husband was diagnosed with a tumor. When he passed away I was all alone and unable to pay rent. My landlord eventually kicked me out of the apartment. Left with nothing, I started searching for my relatives. I have an older brother and sister, but neither would take me in, not even for one night! I roamed the streets day and night and after several days with no food or money, I visited my brother again and begged him for enough money to buy a train ticket. He made me promise never to return. That’s how I ended up in Vrindavan.”

I have a soft spot for widows

“Sangeeta’s story is typical of the Vrindavan widows,” says Mrs Mohini Giri, the authority on widow affairs and chairperson of the Guild of Service, an organization dedicated to the empowerment and protection of widows. We are talking at her office in New Delhi.

“I have a soft spot for widows,” she says. “My mother was a widow and I witnessed firsthand how bad society treated her. For me it all really started in 1971 during the India-Bangladesh war. As the president’s daughter-in- law I visited 180 hospitals. The war took the lives of 20,000 young soldiers, and on many of my visits their last request was that I look after the ones they would leave behind. That’s how I got started.”

The Ma-Dham ashram opened in 2008 and is an example of the excellent work the Guild of Service successfully provides. Here, in this clean, safe environment, the widows receive education and rehabilitation so they can reenter society if and when they wish.

“Don’t under-estimate the stigma against widows in Indian society,” says Dr Giri. “The first time I visited Vrindavan I saw the corpse of a widow being eaten by dogs and vultures. Nobody dared touch the body; it is considered very bad luck. I had to pick up the remains of this poor woman and arrange for her cremation. I myself am a widow and even though I am still highly regarded in society, I lost status after my husband died. On formal occasions such as weddings I am often asked to leave the room when the bride and groom are due to arrive. They would say to me, ‘Auntie, shall we go to the other room now?’ And I would say, ‘But why? You invited me to this wedding, no?’ They still seem to think my presence will cause harm or be a bad omen for the married couple. Even the educated people in my own social circles cannot distance themselves from these superstitious beliefs.”

They are deemed bad luck and financially burdensome

In India, when husbands die their wives lose status and are viewed by the remaining family members as burdens. The mere fact that they outlived their husbands is considered shameful and they are deemed bad luck and financially burdensome.

In most households widows are forced into the role of maid, spending their days cooking, cleaning and washing. In return they are given two small meals a day and an endless barrage of complaints. There are no thank-yous, no affection, no respect and they are forbidden to leave the house without permission. If they happen to have a pension, the small amount they receive is given to the family. They are, in essence, little more than slaves.

The future looks grim for Indian widows. Some are old and ready to depart their earthly existence. Some are young, with a lifetime of experiences ahead of them, unwilling to play the tragic role Indian society expects of them. Some contemplate suicide. Some succeed. And others escape to places such as Vrindavan. It is one of the few places in India where widows receive a warm welcome; a safe haven from the rest of the country. This is a place where widows form the majority, where they find comfort in sisterhood, where their burdens are lifted. The childhood home of Krishna, it is a holy village tucked away on a wide bend on the Yamuna River and now a last resort for widows and many more.

When I was sitting with the widows of Vrindavan, talking to them and listening to their life stories, I discovered a significant number of the tens of thousands of women who fill the streets and ashrams every day are not widows at all. They simply disguise themselves under the cloak of widowhood. They are battered women from all over the country that come to Vrindavan seeking shelter and security. For married women fleeing abusive husbands and families, Vrindavan is one of the few towns that offers a safe haven.

I wanted to divorce my husband but he refused

I met Namita (36) in the Sri Bagwan Bhajan Ashram, which is visited by roughly 2,000 widows every day. After a pleasant conversation in which she revealed little of herself, Namita finally decided to trust me with her story, knowing it would be published. In a dark corner of the ashram we sat down to talk.

“I’m from Bihar, close to Nepal,” she whispers. “I have two children, a boy and a girl. My daughter is married and my son is studying to be an engineer. The day my son left the house was the day I took what I needed and ran off into the night. I wanted to divorce my husband but he refused, so yes, I’m officially still married. I dress as a widow in disguise – I’ve been left with no other choice. My friends and relatives don’t support my actions. They would send me back to my husband in an instant if they knew where I was.

“That’s how society works here. I’m on my own and have to fend for myself. My husband was very abusive. I’d rather not get into details; I want to forget what happened to me there. That’s why I came here. To the world he is my husband and I must serve him, but I don’t answer to society anymore. I only answer to the Lord Krishna. I come to the ashram twice a day to sing in Krishna’s name. Each time we come, we get three rupees and food. I share a room with two other widows, which is provided by the ashram for 300 rupees. It’s not much. We have to beg and are left with no dignity. All we have is each other and the closeness of Krishna. Trust me when I say this is much better than the life I left behind.”

“We don’t talk about it, but yes, we are aware that quite a number of widows aren’t actually widows. In many cases they are married women that managed to escape their husbands. Some of them are also successfully divorced,” says Dr Giri.

“In India, battered women have no place to go to,” she says, sighing. Society is unfair and much work still needs to be done. How can anyone blame these destitute women for posing as something they are not? It is a matter of survival.

Here, there is safety in numbers

“In Vrindavan they find shelter,” says Dr Giri. “Here, there is safety in numbers. They hide among the widows and I assume they are also attracted by the charity we offer. In a sense, Vrindavan is a safe house for them. Even though there’s no joy in widowhood, these women would rather live as widows than stay at home with their husbands. That tells you something about their marriages.”

After discussing the topic with Mohini Giri, Vrindavan suddenly seems like a very different place. The faceless widows that blended into the river of white saris winding through the streets and alleyways now suddenly spring into focus. Every single one of these women has a tragic story to tell. Every single one was driven here out of necessity. Every single one was trying to survive the society that had rejected them. Married or not married, it doesn’t really matter; least of all to the ashrams that provide them with shelter and charity. As Namita puts it: “Technically I’m not a widow. But as far as I’m concerned my husband is dead. That’s pretty much the same thing. The only difference is that my husband can still come looking for me and claim me. That is why I’m in hiding.”

Some life stories are more dramatic than others and simply leave me speechless. Bharti is a 26 year old woman living with the widows of Ma- Dham, the ashram founded by the Guild of Service. She stands out because she is attractive, proud and strong, with a gentle soul. She is always willing to lend a hand to the older women she shares a room with. She comes to me one day and says: “I want to tell you my story. I am a married woman, not a widow. I ran away, escaped, fled. Here, in the company of the other mothers, I feel safe and protected. Here, I simply blend in and disappear. It’s like I don’t exist. I like it that way, for now.”

She pauses and fixes me with a hard stare. Her eyes are cold, devoid of even the smallest flicker of emotion. What is she thinking? What happened to her? She looks down and takes a deep breath. “You know, I’ve been officially declared dead. My brothers and my husband cremated me and dumped my ashes in the river. They cried over my dead body.”

At the age of 12 school ended for me

“When I was young,” she continues, “I was everybody’s favorite. My three brothers and four sisters were all older than me, so I didn’t have a care in the world. I thought the world belonged to me. I came from a middle class family with a decent house and no financial concerns. I went to school and really enjoyed it. My dream was to become a police officer and drive a motorcycle. I remember my father giving me a curious smile when I told him that. At the age of 12 school ended for me. I had to work at home, do the housekeeping. Learning was over. But, why? I asked. Because you have to become a good wife, my father replied. And that was that. Being able to support myself was not important. I was supposed to find a good man to marry. I was very frustrated and very unhappy.

“When I was 19 my father told me that he had found a suitable husband for me. I didn’t have a choice and I didn’t complain because it was my duty to marry him. The first time I saw him was on my wedding day. I was happy because he was better looking than me! And I liked his voice and the things he talked about. But I never loved him. Pretty soon I got pregnant and we had a son. He was very proud, very sweet. But after a month our son died. That’s when he started acting strange. He couldn’t handle it and started to blame me for what happened. Every second day he would cry and hit me. He would accuse me of loving another man and hit me more. This went on for years.

“One day he got so angry he told me to leave and I left. I went to the railway station and boarded the train to Delhi where my father works and lives. It’s a 20-hour train ride. When I arrived in Delhi and went to see my father he was in shock. His eyes were filled with tears and he kissed me all over my face. He thought that I was dead. My husband had called him to tell him I had jumped in front of a train.

Freedom! I couldn’t believe it!

“A young woman was found on the tracks and my brothers, who work at the railway station, assumed it was me! In our country, the dead are often cremated the next day, so by the time I met my father in Delhi my whole life was on a funeral pyre burning away. My brothers and my husband attended the ceremony, grieving my death. But you know what? I felt so relieved. Freedom! I couldn’t believe it!

“My father said to me, go on, start a new life. He knew that my husband had been treating me poorly. He gave me some money and advised me to go to Vrindavan to join the ashram and meditate for Krishna. So here I am.” A little while later I ask why she wanted to tell me her story. She shrugs. “Maybe it will do some good,” she says.

“The situation for women in general and widows in particular has slightly improved over the last few decades, although it is a minor improvement compared to what still needs to be done. Let’s be positive and say that we are moving in the right direction, albeit very slowly,” says Mohini Giri. “We at the Guild of Service are more ambitious. We encourage younger widows and married women to become financially independent – the road to regaining self-respect and improving their positions.

“Society in general is more likely to accept them and their return if they can provide for themselves. And some of them will return home. Poverty is a major part of the problem, although the stigma is cultural and no class is free from it. We do believe the hardship widows go through can be improved by first improving their economic position.

There are still so many things I can achieve

“The plan is to one day provide marriage counseling for some of the younger widows at the Ma-Dham ashram. In the future, staff will help them find a suitable partner in case they want to remarry one day.” For Bharti, the future looks bright. “I’m only 26 years old; there are still so many things I can achieve. I remembered my old dream of becoming a police officer and very slowly I’m starting to believe I could still follow that path. But I’m scared. The thought alone is overwhelming. I was trained to accept my humble faith, I was told to serve.

“Now warming up to my dream makes me feel guilty and selfish. Should I go back to my husband? Isn’t that my duty? Who do I think I am? When I close my eyes I see his face twisted in anger, spit on his lips like an angry dog with rabies, the contempt in his blood-strained eyes as he hits me.

“Then I see myself riding away from it all on a shiny bike and a uniform to match. The choice isn’t so hard to make after all.”

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