Nagpur - When Prabhakar Digambar Mohadkar, 55, hung himself from a tree to take his own life, which was steeped in unfathomable debt in September 1998, his widow Mangalabai stared at a long and treacherous journey, full of hurdles and thorns.

But the resilient woman did not blink. What if her man had forsaken the world, she still had a role to play – a role that was far bigger and far more important.

"I still had three daughters to marry, after we performed weddings of our five elder ones," recounts Mangalabai, who, post the suicide by her farmer-husband, single-handedly managed her seven-acre farm in Rampur village in Yavatmal. "I had no time to mourn his death," she remembers wryly. Big loans had to be repaid; three daughters had to be seen off; and then there was the farm.

Mangalabai is the super-mom of the suicide country Vidarbha, where an average one cotton farmer ends his life every six hours, even as the agrarian distress turns worse. These are mothers, who singularly stand out and raise their family in the face of a crisis and loss of their men. Vidarbha's farm widows are also mothers, who, very often, get junked in the debate over farm suicides and biting distress.

"Time passed so quickly," says Mangalabai, now in her late sixties, nonchalantly. It's hard to be alone, she adds. "Now when I look back, I wonder how I managed my responsibilities!" But, she adds, there was no time for her to live for herself!

"Many of them are illiterate; had no idea of accounts or banks; but after the death of their husbands, they learned every thing, when our agricultural systems are not women-friendly."

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"Many of them are illiterate; had no idea of accounts or banks; but after the death of their husbands, they learned every thing, when our agricultural systems are not women-friendly. Rural tragedy is still unfolding. There is no health care; there is no support system; and, there is no money. Even then these rural mothers fight their way out, even while some of their own people mock at them," says Tiwari.

Tiwari's organisation, the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, felicitated Mangalabai and 20-odd farm widows like her, in March 2007, for their astonishing struggle.

Mangalabai repaid all her loans by saving every single penny and cleared her burden. She married her three younger daughters and refused to pay any dowry to the grooms. "To my luck, all my sons-in-law are very good," she says. And she saw to it that all her daughters came to her for their first deliveries – a custom, she followed very religiously, notwithstanding her fragile financial condition.

Saraswati Amberwar, about 50, is still waging the battle that began some 10 years ago, when her husband Ramdas ended his life in Telang Takli village, in Yavatmal's Kelapur block. It was the first suicide case to have been widely reported by the media in 1998 – and the only outcome of it was that she got a lakh rupees in compensation. "The cash of Rs.30,000 was exhausted long ago, and the monthly interest that I get on the remaining RS.70,000 is abysmal to run my household," she says. Saraswati now tills her ten acres alone.

The banks and her creditors troubled her, year after year, for the recovery of the loans that her husband had taken from them. But the woman did not budge. Last year, she lost her eldest daughter to brain tumour; and the youngest is diagnosed with clinical depression ever since the death of Ramdas Amberwar. Saraswati says this girl needs medicine worth Rs.200-400 every month. Treatment is costly but inescapable.

In 2005, when the creditors did not stop chasing her, Kishor Tiwari shot a letter to the cooperative bank officials in Marathi. Loosely translated, it read: "Last night Ramdas Amberwar came into my dreams. He told me that he is waiting with the money in heaven and has asked you (bank officials) to go there to fetch it."

The banks have stopped troubling her since, says Saraswati. That has eased the pressure. But the pressure of farming clearly shows on her face. But there are two daughters to be married off still, she notes, and piled up debts to be cleared. "These women are the face of the Vidarbha's agrarian tragedy, but they also portray a resilient face," says Tiwari, whose organisation has singularly focused on the plight of the region's cotton farmers.

Added to the problems of debt and distress are the in-built social pressures on women – the land laws that weigh inherently against them, the pressures from in-laws, the rigid caste and class structures which turn these women even more voiceless and much more. Their struggle in the face of such odds remains unheeded and unnoticed, points out Tiwari.

Cut in to Jalka, a village about half an hour's drive away from Rampur, where Kamalabai Bandurkar is about to wed her fifth daughter. "Three more to go now!" she tells us, smilingly.

Kamalabai's husband consumed Endosulphane in January 2006, with mounting debts finally becoming a fatal burden. Shattered, she hooked on to an unforeseen hope that life would change for better. While her income rests fragilely on the only buffalo she has, a 50-something Kamalabai is not giving up. The mother in her stands up, every time the untidy yet playful if somewhat noisy house, sinks in money and food crunch. A family of ten, minus her husband, is now swelling; she's now a grandmother of four. "Life has to go on," says this mother of nine, "crisis or no crisis". If only the path was a trifle easier, she'd have been relaxed.

But Kamalabai, who also tills a nine-acre barren farm-plot, knows she's not alone in the cotton country waging the great agrarian crisis today. There are hundreds of moms striving to lift their families out of the plight alone. There are hundreds of them holding out the promise across the suicide-ravaged region.

As Robert Frost wrote: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep; but I've promises to keep, and miles to go, before I sleep…"