The puddle on that
January morning was cold. The skin on her leg was torn and blood oozed slowly.
Her wrinkled, baton-shaped arms failed her when she tried to get up. She called
for help. There were 50 widows within 50 metres: all busy, caught in a frenzy
to fill water from a borewell in worn-out disposable bottles abusing, pushing,
falling, and kicking each other. Five years ago, 65-year-old Chandralekha came
to Mahila Ashray Sadan in Chaitanya Vihar, Vrindavan, a house for destitute, widowed
women. Drinking water has been scare here since 2005—the region has hard water
unfit for drinking; the borewell is the only source of potable water. The guard
switches it on for an hour each day.
It marks the beginning of the drill for survival.
The yellow, dilapidated shelter home houses 171 widows—old and young; Bengalis and north Indians is how they have divided themselves. The young ones are accused of being agile, of capturing the borewell; the Bengalis of marginalisng the north Indians and cornering water and other meagre resources.
Not far from the borewell, Aarti, the assistant superintendent is scolding a woman who wants an extra kachauri. The kachauris were a gift from a real estate agent who launched a housing scheme close to this shelter. The kachauri is also a symbol of fights to come at the borewell: the real estate agent has installed several borewells in his housing project, deepening the water crisis in the area.
Two hours from
Delhi, Vrindavan is where the dark age of patriarchy is intact. The town
survives on the principle that for a woman there are two ways to exit the cycle
of suffering that mortal life entails: through service to her husband or by surrender
to god. When mortality claims the former, they’re forced to seek moksha
in the latter. There are 21,000 such women out of Vrindavan’s 57,000 residents,
women who wait in this town for their end.
Sometimes even death extracts a price. In September 2012, it was reported that the bodies of some inmates who died in this shelter were taken away by sweepers at night, cut into pieces, put into jute bags and disposed of. This too was an act of grace, done after the inmates collected money and paid the sweeper.
“There is no provision to arrange a funeral, what could have been done,” says Anju Gupta, warden, Mahila Ashray Sadan. Following these reports, the Supreme Court issued a directive to the Uttar Pradesh government to introduce provisions to take better care of the widows in Vrindavan. The court also pulled up the National Commission for Women and the Uttar Pradesh State Women’s Commission for “doing nothing” except preparing reports.
One such report from the National Commission for Women, published in 2009, copiously quotes from the Srimad Bhagwad Gita, almost accepting it as a guideline, to explain the religious significance of Vrindavan.
In September 2012, it was reported that the bodies of some inmates who died in this shelter were taken away by sweepers at night, cut into pieces, put into jute bags and disposed of. This too was an act of grace, done after the inmates collected money and paid the sweeper.
“In ancient times, as mentioned in the Srimad Bhagwad Gita and in the writings of the poet Kalidas Vrindavan, located on the banks of the river Yamuna, was a place of green woods and rolling meadows. It was home to Lord Krishna where he is said to have herded his cows, danced with the gopis, fought the evil Kansa and fallen in love with Radha.”
Parvati Devi is 70.
Thin with white hair, she wears a pale yellow saree which was once white. She
was married at 12 and widowed at 15. She came to Vrindavan 45 years ago from
Asansol, West Bengal. She repeats a story that could belong to any widow here:
rickshaw-puller father, nine siblings, seven girls and two boys. She was the
eldest, married off to a 40-year-old man. The husband died of diarrhoea. She
became an outcast overnight. In the prime of her teens, she had yet to come to
terms with puberty. “My mother-in-law blamed me. My husband died because of
sexual intercourse with me during my periods. It is a sin and his death was
God’s punishment.” Parvati says her husband was a “good man” but has only faint
memories of how he looked. “Even a pig’s life is better than a widow’s. If I
die here, maybe I will break the life and death cycle.”