Forty years ago the newly widowed Manu Ghosh, now 92, came here from her village in West Bengal, living in a rented room, begging and singing bhajans. In 1999 when the ashram opened, she moved in but still depends on the charity of strangers. “I am here because of my devotion to Radha-Krishna,” she says. “This is where I will die and attain moksha.”
‘This’ is the city of widows where custom seems frozen in time despite its proximity to such symbols of resurgent India as a six-lane expressway. ‘This’ is an ashram of broken rooms and shattered hopes, where white-shrouded widows sleep in a covered courtyard open on all sides. ‘This’ is where life is reduced to a hope for death because only death brings salvation.
But it’s not death as much as devotion that guides this morning’s activities at the ashram, a dilapidated two-storey building with many rooms and nearly all toilets broken and unusable. Singing and chanting in the late morning light, the 135 women are gathered around BindeshwarPathak, the man behind SulabhShauchalaya and a person whose life’s mission has been to improve the lives of manual scavengers.
Dr. Pathak is here in response to a Supreme Court request to find out if he can ‘ameliorate the pitiable conditions’ of the widows. “This is not my field,” he admits. “But when I saw these women, it was heart-breaking and I could not deny the request.”
Learn, for instance, about how nobody was prepared to cremate the widow who died in January and how, according to a report filed by the District Legal Services Authority, a sweeper had to be paid Rs 200 to take her body, cut it into pieces, stuff these in a sack and dump them in the river.
Manu Ghosh, has come forward to encourage the widows and fight for their rights and now along with Dr. Pathak she is taking every possible step to give a life of dignity to all the widows not just in Vrindavan but everywhere in the country.
Today, these widows are not dependent on somebody’s mercy but are ready to work and earn their living.
More than food or clothing or shelter what these forgotten women need is assimilation and inclusion.
The widows of Vrindavan who lead tragic, neglected lives have become a cliché. In any modern country, they would be considered productive citizens, capable of contributing to society. A widow wants society’s acceptance more than its charity. DrPathaksays : “At Sulabh, we work to restore dignity. But when you place a begging bowl in the hands of a woman, you steal her soul.”
Getting more money, building ashrams, funding kitchens is the easy part. Reclaiming the dignity of women caught in a time warp and granting them their rightful place within families and communities is the far greater challenge. For Manu Ghosh and thousands of others in Vrindavan it may already be too late but Manu Ghosh along with other widows is all set to change the destiny of the young abandoned widows.