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Prayers in penury

THIS DAY, THIS AGE A majority of the widows living in Vrindavan are above 60 years of age, and they come from across the social spectrum photo: V. V. Krishnan  

Benefits lost

Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme is given to widows between 45 and 64 years who belong to the below poverty line category. While the Centre gives Rs.200, the States are expected to contribute an equal amount. However, illiteracy often prevents these women from claiming the benefits.

O ld and forlorn. Abandoned by their families, thousands of Hindu widows have been living lonely lives in the holy city of Vrindavan, deriving solace only from the bhakti of Lord Krishna. Living barely 150 kms from the National Capital, each of these widows — 21,000 including those living in adjoining Mathura as per the Uttar Pradesh Government website — has a story to tell, of bitterness, injustice and pathos meted out by society. The majority of them have either been abandoned there by their families or driven out of their homes. Finding those who have settled there by choice is a hard task. Take Parvati Devi, well into her 70s. Following the trajectory of most women in this country conditioned to turn their attention to ‘puja-paath' post widowhood, she too came to Vrindavan on a holy trip but never found her way back home. “I came from Almora in Uttarakhand for a festival and lost the Rs.5,000 I had, so I decided to stay back,” she says but prefers not to answer when asked if anyone in the family came looking for her. “I like it more here, in the city of Krishna,” is her guarded reply.

Talking to women living in Vrindavan's ashrams brings to the fore the wretched treatment meted out to the majority of our widows even today, as we approach the 63rd anniversary of India's independence. Some are quasi widows, in the sense they are abandoned by their husbands and subsequently by their families, often left at the mercy of unscrupulous elements who exploit them, particularly the younger ones. Despite programmes initiated by the Government and NGOs to improve the condition of widows, the numbers coming to Vrindavan and adjoining areas have only swelled. Though the flow of young widows, between 24 and 40 years, is comparatively less, the highest number is of those above 60. They come from across the social spectrum. Whether from the poorest rural background or from a well-off urban one, they share a common history — widowhood deprived of basic rights.

Many never had financial freedom. They were housewives, dependent on their husbands. Yet you find widows like the 62-year-old woman who refuses to be identified, who is left with no financial security even after working in a nationalised bank for 17 years. Her story, documented in a survey conducted a year ago by UNIFEM and Guild of Service last year, is about finding a space away from her alcoholic son who often turned violent. Because of huge advances she took in lieu of her pension, she was left with nothing for her old age. “Using my sister's computer, we went on Google to make a list of places around Delhi where widows like me could live,” she says. Within no time, she took a bus from Delhi and reached the ashram.

While not much has changed over the years in terms of their acceptability in the society, things have improved — to a certain extent — when it comes to providing the widows a modicum of a decent, respectable life. If the Central and the State Governments have taken steps to provide them a nominal pension and shelter homes, there are some NGOs that have set up ashrams (hostels) for these destitute, shrivelling women. And, there definitely is no dearth of philanthropists who have opened their purses to help these women in various ways.

One such organisation is Hare Krishna Movement (HKM), a charitable trust started by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). It feeds 140 widow “mothers” in Mahila Ashraya Sadhan and 200 more in the Mira Shivagani Ashram in Vrindavan, both run by the Delhi-based Maitri Trust. Prabhu Madhuvrat Dasa of the ISKCON unit says the meal, cooked in the kitchen of Akshaya Patra Foundation (a sister trust of HKM), consists of rotis, rice, dal and sabzi. Donations are raised from the public to meet the expenditure though Maitri Trust bears the major portion of it. Says Santosh Chaturvedi, manager of Mahila Ashray Sadan, housed in a government building, “We maintain a diary of the women who come here. We have managed to send one or two home but most of them are abandoned by their families, so they don't like the idea of going back.”

A little help

There are some who do go home on special occasions after taking “leave”. The 140-odd “mayyas” — mothers — living in the Sadan get a measly pension of Rs.125 given by the State and Central Governments under various schemes, which clearly is not enough for survival. With the ashram providing them tea and lunch coming from HKM, they still have to fend for themselves for the evening meal. Chaturvedi says, “We ensure that they do not resort to begging or take up any work because they are too old. Considering their financial needs, we are in the process of starting an agarbatti manufacturing unit.” Maitri provides a doctor, nurse and a counsellor, as health is a major issue for them, adds Chaturvedi.

A typical day for these widows starts at 4 a.m. To be able to afford dinner, they go to “bhajan ashrams”. There, they sing for a living. Three hours of singing bhajans fetches them a paltry sum of Rs.3 — on special occasions they may get Rs.10. The “bhajan ashrams” of Vrindavan have played a significant role in the survival of these hapless women. Moved by the plight of the Bengali widows in Vrindavan, Seth Jankidas Patodia, a Marwari businessman of Navalgarh in Rajasthan, started the Bhagwan Bhajan Ashram way back in 1914 to provide them food and clothing in lieu of singing bhajans. Over the years, several such ashrams came up in and around Vrindavan. In return for chanting, the widows are given some rice and money, and clothing once a year.

Though there are schemes by the Central and State Governments to better their condition, the survey conducted by Guild of Service (it also runs an old age home for widows called Ma-Dhaam) points out their lack of awareness about entitlements, mostly due to illiteracy, thus perpetuating a practice that speaks glaringly of sustained social apathy towards a large chunk of our destitute women.

Historical legacy

Most widows in Vrindavan, even today, are from West Bengal. Many locals have learnt Bangla which helps them in interacting with the widows.

There is a history behind why Bengali widows throng Vrindavan. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, said to be a reincarnation of Lord Krishna and the founder of the Vaishnavite movement, was born in Navadweep in West Bengal's Nadia District in 1486. According to the Puranas, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu discovered Vrindavan in 1515 and established a temple of Lord Krishna. Vaishnavism spread across Bengal very quickly and Navadweep and Vrindavan became spiritual centres for his followers and all Bengali Vaishnavites.

For generations, discarded by their families, widows from that State have been turning to Vrindavan for solace.