Muffled Woes of India’s Widows

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“Shiny dots in the sky, that stare at me,
In the dark hours of the night.
Which one, Oh! Which one is you?
Lift me up, into the sparkling blue”
I love to gaze at the stars, in the muffled darkness of the night sky. Soft and mellow twinkles have reminded me of the woes of the windows, which are never openly discussed. The above lines express my sorrows for the brave women, who continue to live in India’s fog of grief. They bear testimony to their distant cry, and their an ongoing lament. Or, perhaps, a call for mercy.
A tragedy, a twist of fate, a husband’s demise, in all complacency, may have compromised the dignity of the grieving woman. She is likely to survive her lifetime, as a stoned non-entity, and a living casualty….left, simply to mourn. Like all the widows of this land, she will fade away one day, to break her status quo. Shining and secular India likes to identify her as a ‘pariah’, a martyr, an exile or even a nuisance; or perhaps, someone who is stoical, weak and vulnerable.
The vast subcontinent of India is clustered with shrines, temples, holy sites, and religious destinations. Only a few are so lovingly attached with their god, Krishna. Vrindavan is one such revered city of devotees, located south of Delhi; on the banks of river Jamuna. Remarkably, this sanctuary has sheltered nearly 10,000 widows from the length and breadth of India.
Every corner here boasts of a unique holy site and a temple of worship. Each lip in the vicinity loves to chant the hymns of Lord Krishna and the childhood sweetheart Radha. In the Hindu religion, both names are deeply revered and shall remain bound together, till eternity.
Vrindavan is one cherished, staunchly numinous pilgrim city, that depicts the colors of this vast country. There is, however, a paradox. This affable destination of this mourning town also reflects a very grim, and dark side of a beautiful picture. Sadly so, it is referred to as India’s ‘widow city’.
Once you step in these dusty streets, you may observe the rueful devotees, coming in and out of the temples. You may shock yourself as well, into seeing their partially veiled faces. Life has jump-started for them again, but with a stigma. By a stroke of fate, they were ushered into a permanent phase of mourning…..that shall stay around, for the remainder of life.
Some ‘mourners’ in this city, are very young faces, who walk nonchalantly, with off-white saris draped around their bodies. And, the incoming crowd may also include the feeble and the elderly, holding a bowl in hand, asking for loose change from kind-hearted visitors.
Since ancient times, serious challenges have continued to haunt India’s widows. Only till the nineteenth century, were the newly widowed women required, to perform a divine Hindu ritual of ‘satee’…their brave act of throwing themselves on the funeral pyre; in a desperate bid to join the late husband in the afterlife.
A 2000-year-old, Manu’s sacred text, reads that “A virtuous wife is one, who after the death of her husband, constantly remains chaste, to reach heaven, as though she had no son.”
In the fast-changing, social customs of the diverse subcontinent, it is no longer deemed mandatory for a woman to sacrifice her own precious life, or simply give it up, to confer respects to their ancient traditions. A newly acquired freedom, granted by the hurriedly changing culture, has prolonged the widow’s misery, to a lifetime of grief. Finally, she has learned to reconcile with a world, in which the man’s ego and his sense of superiority, has dominated over the weaker gender. And shall continue so, regardless of other, soft considerations.
Considered inauspicious, many victims soon find that, in the death of their spouses, they had lost income, goodwill and also their faces. All of which have triggered for the Indian widows, a need to be banished from their home villages. Most had been driven away, because the late husband’s survivors want the miserable relict, out of any equation of family’s inheritance.
It is really difficult to ascertain why such a large number of India’s dowagers were attracted to the temple town of Vrindavan. A maze of new settlers in the holy city, constitute the widows from both sides of Bengal. Some of the devotees though are genuine pilgrims who desire to give up the glitter of our world, and genuinely serve their gods, Krishna and Radha.
However, there are many women who escape to Vrindavan owing to brutalities committed on them, at their own homes. Or because of obvious reasons, they had been asked to leave home, by their own sons and daughter in laws. In the extended family’s equations, these ‘pariahs’ had undoubtedly been considered as unwanted baggage.
For the unfortunate Bengali widows here, who are prone to be surrounded by Hindi speakers, the feeling is like being trapped in a foreign land. Some are obviously feisty and bellicose. Others are just heartbroken and scared.
Life in the ashram in Vrindavan an unending tale of woes and challenges. This is where the outcast widows are housed. A social commune, that is managed by local authorities, where the shelter is available at a cost. Widows are constrained to beg on streets, to cope up with their costs of rent. Locals bestow little recognition to miseries of the destitute. Again, it is the pilgrims who come to their rescue, with whatever little they can offer, out of their coffers.
A widow is but likely, to get paid a few coins or trinkets, for singing devotional songs in Vrindavan temples. In her journey to this unknown city, the brave woman had literally opted to renounce the charms of her world and follow a disciplined life of spirituality. Many of these servants of Lord Krishna, seem to have lived their tragic lives in this city, by choice. There is really, no light at the end of the tunnel.
Thanks to the assistance provided by the government and/or visiting devotees, they manage to keep these unfortunate widows, a hairline away from margins of starvation. Injustices had compelled them to arrive in the holy city. These matrons have seen their apathy and neglect. A painful issue simply had failed to be redressed. In a land of superstitious customs and beliefs, a widow is but a symbol of poor luck, and a bad omen, that must always be looked upon with callous disdain.
Candidly speaking, we are not sure how the Indian society prefers to describe the status of more than 40 million women, who are widows ‘in mourning’ today. When they lose their husbands, the community churns them into creatures of a lower kind or perhaps another gender; a concept that is not fully understood by everyone. They can find their space only among the worshippers of a lesser known and unresponsive deity.
Discrimination against destitute widow has gone further, with a label, such as ‘husband eater’, a pseudonym or a sobriquet they are forced to carry, etched on their foreheads. In northern India, particularly in Punjab, a widow is downgraded and referred as a ‘randi’, a local slang for prostitutes.
A change of attitudes or prevalent male chauvinism, throws a vibrant woman, suddenly out of her rhythm and her orbit, within the periphery of society’s clusters, to which she belonged. However, there do exist some eye-washes. A custom prevails in Punjab, that the immediate relatives of the survivors, endeavor to bring the widows back into the mainstream social life, by way of marriage within the family. This enables wealth and property owned or inherited by the widow, to remain within the confines of the family.
Widowhood is a state of social death, even among the higher casts. These outcasts of society are likely to carry a stigma, for the rest of their lives. That is the accusation of being responsible for the death of their husbands. At least, they are expected to have a spiritual life, with many restrictions that affect the widows, physically and morally.
Regardless of age, these estranged women are required to leave behind what they had cherished most in happier days of married life…colorful dresses, awesome jewelry, and fragrance. They even get their heads shaved to write off any possibility of a male outsider, who would want to give her face, a second glance.
The process of ‘uglification’ commences, the moment her husband’s soul departs from the mortal remains. Followed, by other symbolic acts of castration. No, she is no more eligible to place a red dot, a bindi, on her forehead! This marks the end of a woman’s passions, and desires for sexual intimacy, in her life.
Strict rules of a life-governing widowhood, require these women living in margins, to practice a time-honored tradition. Society, in general, has internalized these moral and ethical codes, for all those who are affected. Widows responsively, have resigned themselves to their fate, by practicing what other widows do, without hesitation.
Orthodox Hindus (males) and priests are prone to recommend that onions, potatoes, garlic, pickles, and fish need not be constituted as a widow’s diet, because this food brings about an imbalance in blood pressure levels, provoking sexual excitement. Something likely to stimulate them to indulge in a serious taboo.
The international NGO, Guild for Service research has established that due to the absence of protein, vitamins, and energy in their recommended diet, mortality rates are 85% higher among the widows, compared to married women in India. In much of India’s society, and across caste and religion, a widow is perceived by the family members to be a burden and sexually threatening, towards marriages.
Vrindavan is also a magnet that draws sexual predators and traffickers in extremely large numbers. They exploit the vulnerabilities of women, who are in their twenties or thirties. Social workers endeavor to rehabilitate widows, who cross the line consciously or inadvertently, to fall for some badly needed cash that may come their way, by virtue of adopting a misguided life of prostitution.
Younger widows are often forced into sex trade, to be owned by ‘pimps’ in the red light districts and hot spots that exist in the megacities of Kolkata and Mumbai.
Widows are weak and vulnerable. Therefore, they become easy targets for rape. An unfortunate episode is also an unfortunate invitation to ruin, that complicates their lives forever. In the end, they are mauled by quacks for a painfully searing abortion. If this is not done, she will have an extra mouth to feed and an extra pair of hands, to ask for alms.
The basic percepts that allow for the constant abuse of widows have also allowed their abusers to go scot-free and evade any kind of punishment. Impunity for those who commit violence against widows is as widespread as the abundant coconut palms in this land.
The National Crime Bureau of India has categorically stated that violence against women is the fastest among the crimes being committed in India. Every 34 minutes, a woman is raped. And, every 43 minutes, one woman is kidnapped. Nearly 43 million widows continue to be deprived of their basic dignity and self-respect. As though, it is a kind of a torment of sin for being born a woman.
It is even more tormenting when India’s vulnerable woman is also a widow. It is also universally acknowledged that in many cultures of the world, including India, widows are vulnerable to abusive traditions, to poverty, to the aftermath of wars that killed their husbands. This makes widowhood more dangerous, and a potential human rights calamity.
Let us not forget that these social outcasts are an integral part of rising India’s new order. Above all, they are human beings who look for help, every day of life, towards the blue skies, and beyond.
Copy Edited by  Adam Rizvi

Nazarul Islam

The author is a former Educator, based in Chicago (USA).

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