This Diwali, the otherwise lonely, grim lives of hundreds of widows in Vrindavan were lit up with diyas, rangolis, shopping and sparklers

Unlike for others, Diwali had no special meaning for hundreds of widows and abandoned women residing in most of the shelter homes of Vrindavan. It just meant singing bhajans in temples or among themselves, lighting a few candles individually in the room and may be waiting for some philanthropist to distribute sweets or maybe saris or shawls.

Lives were as lonely as ever with just a handful of ashram mates to share the joy of the festival of lights with. No shopping, no lights and no firecrackers. What others did on festivals was unthinkable for the inmates here.

But this Diwali was different. For 1,000 widows, most of whom are in their 70s, who were deserted by their families very many years ago, got together to celebrate the festival as a community after decades of darkness and social apathy.

Just as the sun set on Thursday last, Meera Sahabhagni Ashram, a century-old widow shelter home here, sprang to life as thousands of lights not only lit up the building, but also the drooping spirit of its residents.

They looked excited as they had been preparing for the festival for almost a week: arranging for flowers, coloured bulbs and diyas — some of them in bright colours — all over the five shelter homes. The celebrations continued till Sunday.

The initiative was taken by Sulabh International. The festivities began with making floral rangoli, then sari shopping and finally lighting fire-crackers.

It was a rare sight to see these widows play with sparklers and crackers. They not only danced but also sang a number of bhajans and golden hits from famous Bengali films of yesteryears. “We are not children that we are being given sparklers. We want noisy bombs!’’ said Manu Ghosh, a widow from West Bengal well into her 70s. While there were many others who preferred to watch the festivities from a distance, stubbornly refusing to touch diyas or crackers — whether for tradition or lack of interest, it was difficult to figure out.

Some of the shelters run by Guild of Services, however say that they have been celebrating Diwali for the past 20 years. Maa Dham, their centre for widows has been instrumental in rehabilitating around 1000 widows by imparting skills to them.

Holi and Diwali have been celebrated at our centre every year. The festivals are celebrated not only by Maas of our Ashram but from other ashrams and centres as well, said Mohini Giri of Guild for Services.

Widows often face humiliation and insult from the husband’s family, which often treated them as inauspicious. They are asked not to be present on any auspicious function; not supposed to wear coloured clothes and ornaments; stay away from garlic, onion and non-vegetarian food. In short, live a life of hardship and penury.

Many such widows can be seen begging in the streets and public places. At some places, widows are termed as witches and tortured even by their own family.

In places like Varanasi and Vrindavan, thousands of widows lead an isolated life to attain moksha or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Most of them are old, infirm, disabled and have no source of income or livelihood. Their position becomes miserable if they have dependent children to support and bring up.

Sulabh International has been providing a variety of facilities to widows in the five government-run shelter homes — giving them stipend, arranging their food and health care. The voluntary body started taking keen initiative in the welfare of widows after the Supreme Court took strong exception last year to the manner in which the bodies of widows, who lived in government shelter homes at Vrindavan, were disposed. This was following a series of news reports in The Hindu regarding the condition of these women.

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