29 April | by Shruti Kohli | VARANASI
Those who go away from India, come back more often for nothing else but to cosy up in the warmth of a family. But in the holy land of Shiva, this trademark of India stands faded in the saffron glitter. Here is a set of women who have been forced to leave the warmth of a family and live at the mercy of cold shoulders. The widows of Varanasi say they came here to attain salvation. Some say it’s their devotion for Lord Shiva that brought them here. Some others admit they came over simply looking for a home.
“I am with my parents (Kashi Vishawanath) here,” says 83-year-old Krishna Devi who was married off when she was nine years old. “That was the tradition back then. My husband was a 35 year old widower when we got married,” she tells The Petticoat Journal. She never thought of remarrying because it just didn’t work like that! Her husband died when Krishna Devi was eighteen years old and could now understand the meaning of marriage. She was abandoned by his family and came to Varanasi all the way from Nepal after her parents passed away 25 years ago.
Saraswati Jaiswal, 80, is hard of hearing. Her right ear was rendered useless due to burns she incurred when a lantern fell on her while she was asleep. When you ask her a question, she laughs and tells you, “I can’t hear.” However, you can communicate with her by writing your questions in Hindi. She studied up to class 4 and reads and writes on the basis of that little schooling she managed to receive in her life. About two years back, her employer admitted her at the Durgakund ashram as she was ageing and frequently complained of weakness. “I was married on 30 January, 1948, the day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated,” she smiles as she tells The Petticoat Journal that it is a memorable day. She started working as a domestic help after her husband passed away a few years back. Her daughter had died earlier.
A striking dissimilarity from tradition that could be noticed at this ashram was that some women wore coloured clothes as against white. In that case, a government run ashram in Sarnath, completely broke away from the age old tradition. The hall room where the residents of this ashram had gathered, looked colourful as women in multi-coloured sarees gathered to sing folk songs. Anita Pal, warden of this ashram, says, “We are living in different times now. People don’t bother much about these issues.”
More is expected to change as Sulabh International adopted about 150 widows of Varanasi. They will be getting a pension of Rs 2,000 per month beginning April 2013. Jaikant Tiwary, Head, Sociology, Varanasi Hindu University (BHU) tells The Petticoat Journal, “It is a relief for these women although small. But a lot more will have to be done. For instance, among other things, there have been cases of sexual exploitation of these widows. They have been pushed into prostitution. Some of these cases have been brought to the notice of the administration. But mostly they go unreported.” The condition and lives of the widows of Varanasi has been an important topic of research at BHU for a very long time.
These things can be changed only through structural and cultural change which, then, is a long drawn process. It involves the role of society, awareness, attitude of the administrating authorities at the ashram and outside, he says. For this, the non-profit organisations and the government will have to work in collaboration.
Pranjal Yadav, District Magistrate, Varanasi, told The Petticoat Journal, “The government will stand by any work that is done to uplift living standards of the widows here.”
Besides this, the process of improving the lives of these widows will have to be streamlined. There are cases like of Nandini Desai who was a professor in California before she decided to leave her rich husband and well-settled children in the USA and spend the rest of her life in this ashram in Varanasi. Her husband sends her money regularly and she has the habit of feeding dogs every day. Her “lavish” lifestyle does not go down well with the other residents of the Birla ashram. Now, being the resident of the ashram, she is also entitled to the Rs 2,000 per month pension started by Sulabh.
“This is what happens when you give away money for free,” says Mohini Giri in a conversation with The Petticoat Journal. “I am against doling out money like this. These women should instead be taught some skill and made self-sufficient. Giving away money for nothing is like turning them into beggars. Now, women are coming to these ashrams just for the money.” At Maa Dham, an ashram run by her NGO, Guild of Service, the resident women make biscuits, jams, pakoras, papads etc. The earnings from the sale of these products serve as their incomes.
However, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of Sulabh International told this reporter, “I have seen a life of deprivation and my idea is to ensure that these women don’t go to bed hungry and that they don’t have to accept exploitation in order to fulfil their basic needs.”
Meanwhile, the women are busy blessing their new guardian. After all, it’s money that matters!
all photos by: Shruti Kohli
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