Sunday, December 3, 2023

Just color my world

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Singer Petula Clark’s song by this name seems apt for the widows of Vrindavan, who, on Holi, saw their world suffused with sunshine yellow, grassy green and blue from the sky up above. It was happiness all the way as they forgot their colorless, drab lives for once

By Ramesh Menon

Photos by Anil Shakya

It is not often that they see so much joy sparkle in their lives. But this year during Holi, hundreds of widows in Vrindavan danced with gay abandon without a care in the world. Many had not danced in years. Or even celebrated for any occasion. Birthdays, for instance, meant nothing to them. Many had faint memories of their last birthday celebrations when their husbands were alive. Ever since they were widowed, they were discarded by their families who didn’t want to take on the burden of looking after them. They have lived in utter loneliness and penury and depended on dozens of ashrams in the holy city of Vrindavan for their daily meals. Most begged as they trudged in white cotton sarees to meet their daily needs. Colorful clothes was a no-no as they were not expected to associate with anything bright or happy. Many tonsured their heads to remove the last traces of beauty, discarded jewelry, ate just basic food and sang bhajans all through the day. They denied themselves the songs of life.







But this year, Holi was full of joy. About 1,000 kg of gulal was given to them, creating a riot of color. Suddenly, the uneasy silence of the ashrams was shattered, there was music, there was joy, there was a new energy as they sang and danced without inhibitions. Some cried. The stigmas slapped on them by society were finally broken. It felt beautiful to be normal. Fifty year old widow Nanu Ghosh from Kolkata, who has been in Vrindavan for 21 years, said: “I was so happy. We all were surrounded by joy. I have no apt words to describe the feeling. How I wish we were allowed to live normal lives. Our life is so routinely boring, but this was truly wonderful.” Added Kusum Mandoli, 70, who has been in Vrindavan for the last six years after her husband died of a heart attack: “Holi was a great experience. We were all looking forward to it. It feels so wonderful to be accepted by society. We feel so grateful for all those who organized this for us.”

Among those who celebrated with them was Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, who for years has been heralding a movement in India to build toilets with his Sulabh Sauchalayas.







(Above) For the last three years, activist Bindeshwar Pathak has been ensuring that the widows of Vrindavan enjoy Holi like any one of us. Legal activism helped him to do this


The widows smeared color on him as they abandoned themselves to the sheer joy of the moment. Many watched him with tears in their eyes and blessed him for having given them a new lease of life. He said he wanted them to break from the tradition of not celebrating Holi (see box).
Though India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, even today, many Hindu families shun widows, blame them for the death of their husbands and see them as bad omens. As they often don’t want to take on the financial burden of looking after them, many widows leave their homes and head for Vrindavan, hoping to live with dignity. But it hardly turns out like that as they have to fend for themselves by begging and get only meager amounts as there are many like them roaming the streets for sustenance.

And it is during Holi, one of the most joyous festivals in India, that the drab lives of these widows is reinforced as orthodox traditions prevent them from taking part in it. This is what Pathak wants to break. He told India Legal: “Spring is enjoyed by all. But widows are not allowed to enjoy. They are not even allowed to attend marriages as they as seen as precursors of bad luck. We have to bring the spring back into their lives. They have a right to enjoy a good life. We have to learn how to treat them like human beings. We must empower them, help them get jobs and emotionally rehabilitate them.”






Two days after Holi, Pathak took a group of 40 widows from Varanasi and 80 widows from Vrindavan to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was one more move to make them feel normal and be a part of the mainstream. For most of them, it was like another breath of fresh air. Ghosh who saw the monument for the first time, said: “The Taj was so beautiful. We kept looking at it. My feet are hurting walking so much, but it was worth it.”
Changing attitudes in a country like India is not easy. But Pathak has made a beginning. And it is for the rest of the country to give these widows a new dream, a new horizon. Their smiles will be rewarding enough.








Over a hundred widows enjoyed their trip to Agra for seeing the Taj Mahal. It was a memory they would always cherish 

Supreme Court push

In 2011, Sulabh International Social Service Organization was approached by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) following a directive IMG_0340from the Supreme Court to explore whether it could render relief and sustenance to Vrindavan widows. NALSA had earlier filed a social justice litigation plaint before the Supreme Court, seeking protection and amelioration of the situations faced by old and destitute Vrindavan widows. The petition said the widows lived in Mathura in ashrams and temples as they were abandoned by their families or because of extreme poverty. There were others who lived in homes run by government in pathetic conditions without proper food, medical and hygiene facilities, it added.

Acting on the petition, the Supreme Court directed District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), Mathura, to conduct an enumeration of these widows. After doing this, DLSA, under the chairmanship of the district judge of Mathura, told the court that there was a  serious shortage of food for the widows. They managed with the meager rations bought from money they got by singing bhajans outside temples.

Many were suffering from severe geriatric problems like poor eyesight and broken bones. As the shelters had no money to cremate the dead, the bodies of many widows were often cut into pieces for easy disposal by sweepers.

In August 2012, the Supreme Court asked NALSA to find out if Sulabh International, which was involved in social service, was willing to supply food to destitute women in government-run homes in Vrindavan. Pathak visited Vrindavan with some of his officials. Moved by their tragic lives, he decided to lessen their pain and loneliness by earmarking a monthly budget of `20 lakh for the purpose. He told NALSA: “From now on, no widow of Vrindavan will sleep without food. We will take care of those who are forced to beg on the streets here. Sulabh will ensure that they get food, clothing and proper healthcare.”

Pathak said able-bodied widows would be motivated to undergo vocational training so that they could earn their livelihood and live with pride. “It is easy to train them in areas like weaving and food processing. Only then, can they live normal lives and be respected,” the Sulabh mentor said.

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