The bleak picture of the widows of Vrindavan is changing slowly. Usha Rai reports on the economic independence and the life of dignity which is slowly replacing the old attitude of helplessness and living off charity. Sunday, May 14, 2006
April and May are blistering hot months in Vrindavan but the tide of pilgrims to this birthplace of Lord Krishna has not abated. Nor has the population of widows. It ranges from 12,000 to 15,000 and despite all the efforts of the Department of Women at the Center and the West Bengal government, their numbers continue to grow. While many of them have been abandoned by their families in this city of Gods, others come on their own seeking moksha (eternal bliss) after death.
Efforts to move the simians, all worthy descendants of Hanuman, have failed and those who have to brave the heat for visiting the temples or for other work, hide their spectacles and packets of food, particularly the prasad, as they negotiate the open gutters, the endless flow of garbage and the potted and pitted streets.
As frail widows, many of them walking with the support of sticks, scurry to and from the Bhajan ashrams, the monkeys can be seen scampering down temple spires, lurking at the sharp turns of the narrow bylanes or swinging from tree tops waiting to grab a tasty morsel from unsuspecting victims. Spectacles and dark glasses grabbed are not returned till their grubby hands are greased with a fruit or some food. Despite the congestion and squalor of Vrindavan, more and more temples as well as guest houses and apartment blocks are coming up.
Vrindavan, despite all the charity pouring into the city and the endless rhythm of chanting, conch shells and temple bells, seems to be caught in a time warp. Only the discerning will get a whiff of the slow change taking place in the lives of widows and the destitute in the city. Many widows are not wearing the stark white clothes of widowhood—in fact they have opted for pastel and printed saris— but those living in the Guild of Service’s Aamar Bari have stopped going to the bhajan ashrams to chant and accept in charity small sums of money and uncooked rice and dal.
At the forefront of the movement to give vocational training and economic dignity to widows and other destitute women is Guild of Service, which runs Aamar Bari for 103 widows. Unfortunately, a majority of the residents of Aamar Bari are too old to work. Pramoda is 90 to 95 years and Satyavati is said to be 112. Many of those bent double with age cannot obviously go out and work but within the confines of the home they wash their own clothes, plates, glasses and other utensils after having the meal prepared by the younger inmates.
But the younger ones in their 40s, 50s and even early 60s are eager to supplement their income. From 10.30 a.m. till about 5 pm, with a break for lunch, is work time. Shefali Chakravarty, a skilled craftsperson for leather goods and for tailoring the poshak of Lord Krishna and his companion, Radha, arrives with a few women trained by her, bundles of leather, bolts of brightly colored cloth for the deities’ dresses and the gold piping and ribbons. All those interested in improving their economic status learn to cut and stitch the leather pieces into functional leather pouches, bags to carry loose coins, credit cards etc. While the bags to keep the mobile are Rs 80 a piece, the smaller money bags etc cost Rs 60 to 40 a piece. In a day, a trained woman can make three to five pouches. The older women make cotton wicks for the lamps and the younger ones learn to stitch pretty clothes for the gods and goddesses of Vrindavan. Shefali markets the goods herself to traders in Agra, Jaipur, Mathura and Nainital.
A lot of the bags and namkeens come to the Guild
of Service office and are marketed by the staff. The wicks for the lamps,
the poshak of Radha and Krishna, the beads for chanting and the
neatly stitched cotton bags to hold the beads are marketed to traders in
the vicinity. Some women even make petticoats and blouses. Drying in the
sun at Aamar Bari are the wadis. When it is not wadis
the women are busy rolling out papads
Vocational training is given not only to the widows but to other poor women who want to supplement the family income. Shyama Giri who lives in Durgapura colony of Vrindavan learnt how to make Thakur’s dresses at Kishorpura six months ago. For making a set of 12 dresses for the Lord she gets Rs 36. She and her 14-year old daughter Uma Giri, who does the tailoring, work as a team. If I could get a loan and buy the cloth and other trinkets for decorating the Gods, I could earn up to Rs 100 a day, she says. Since Shyama’s husband is a mahant, wearing saffron robes and wandering off on a spiritual trip when he wishes, the income earned by the two women gets food on the table for the whole family.
In 2004, when the Akshaya Patra (midday meals) scheme was started by Krishna Heritage (the Bangalore based ISKCON group), a small batch of widows from Aamar bari went there to make chappatis, clean the rice and chop vegetables. They were paid Rs 1,400 to Rs 1,500 a month. When Akshaya Patra went into mechanised chappati-making, the work stopped for a lot of the women. Chabbi, a widow from Bengal, who was with Aamar Bari for seven years, left the ashram two years ago to stay in a rented room and work for Akshaya Patra. She cleans rice and chops vegetables from 9.30 am to 5 pm and earns Rs 1,500 a month. She gets her lunch at her work place and has only to cook one meal a day. Occasionally, she goes to the Bhajan ashrams to sing and earn a little extra. She does not find it demeaning. In her mid-50s, Chabbi has walked out of the shelter of the home and is an independent member of society. She pays a nominal rent of Rs 400 a month and has a bank account. A lot of widows have bank accounts and their deposits are growing slowly but steadily.
Some 200 widows and young, unemployed women have done a three-month-course as nursing aides and most of them are employed in the hospitals and nursing homes of Vrindavan, Mathura and Agra. Chabbi’s daughter, 30 years old Lalitha, came to Vrindavan six years ago not in search of her mother but to improve her own life. Her husband, a house painter, was finding it difficult to get work in Bengal and Vrindavan seemed a good option. So husband in tow, she landed at Vrindavan and sought the help of Aamar Bari and Guild of Service, where her mother was staying. Lalitha was in one of the first batches to do the nursing aide’s course. She works at Aamar Bari and helps look after the old and infirm. She gives injections, drips, bedpan and sponges and changes the clothes of the bed ridden.
Fortynine-year-old Usha Dei is her patient at Aamar Bari. When Usha came to Aamar Bari two years ago she could walk and do her work with some difficulty. But a spine injury that occurred after an accident some 15 years ago has resurfaced and today she is confined to her bed and is not even able to lift her leg. It is Lalitha who bathes and changes her clothes every day. In all there are some 30 sick and old inmates who need the assistance of Lalitha and two other nursing aides.
Banking on self
A study of the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi by Meera Khanna, Guild
of Service, in 2003 shows that 66 per cent and 73 per cent of those living
in rehabilitation homes and boarding houses in Vrindavan have bank
accounts. The corresponding figure for Varanasi is 35 per cent and 60 per
cent. This indicates some modicum of comfort. But 73 per cent of those
living on the streets have no bank account nor do they have anything to
bank on when they fall ill or meet with an accident.
• There is a great deal of arbitrariness on whether the widow is truly destitute or not. If she has a son or grandson, then the application could be rejected even if they don’t want to keep her.
Finally after all the effort, the pension obtained is grossly inadequate.