When her husband died of acute diarrhoea 21 years ago, Nanu Ghosh, now 50 years, knew her life had ended in many inexplicable ways. As expected, she was brusquely asked by relatives in Kolkata to leave for Vrindavan, the holy city near Mathura, ostensibly to live a life of peace.

The social tradition of segregating widows from the mainstream of society has for decades pushed them to the margins of life. Most of them are shunned as the family does not want to take care of them; tradition forbids them to remarry and lead normal lives once again. Another reason that many are sent off by the family in the name of tradition is that it works as a good ruse to deprive them of family property and wealth.

Thousands of widows like Nanu in West Bengal have been similarly packed off to live in Mathura, Vrindavan and Varanasi. It is not an easy or coveted life. They live in ashrams run by charitable organisations and the government, but since funds are meagre, they end up begging to meet their daily needs, which often includes even food. Most of them walk the streets begging tourists and pilgrims who visit the holy city to help them with some coins.

These widows are traditionally dressed in white cotton sarees as they are not allowed to wear colourful clothes. They are not expected to associate with anything bright or happy and are relegated to live a life of deprivation and strict penance till they die. Many even tonsure their heads to remove the last trace of beauty, discard all jewellery, eat basic food and sing bhajans through the day.

Life is lonely and colourless for the many like Nanu.

A sudden splash of colour and joy

This Holi, however, Nanu’s life sparkled with joy. “It is inexplicable. Words cannot describe it,” she said, adding, “I was so happy after such a long time. How I wish we were always allowed to live normal lives. Our routine is so boring, but this was truly wonderful.”

Added Kusum Mandoli, 70, who has been in Vrindavan for the last six years after her husband died of a heart attack: “Holi was a great experience. We were all looking forward to it. It feels so wonderful to be accepted by society. We feel so grateful for all those who organised this for us.”

Both Nanu and Kusum were echoing common sentiments upon being allowed to experience a normal situation, to play Holi and enjoy the festivities so full of happiness and colour.  Along with them, hundreds of widows danced in gay abandon, singing and showering each other with flower petals and colour.

Like most of their friends who lived in the city’s ashrams exclusively meant for widows, the ladies had not danced like this for years, or enjoyed as much in any other way. Holi this year was like a breath of fresh air that brought back memories of joyous moments spent in another lifetime, when their husbands were alive.

About 1,000 kilograms of gulal was given to them, creating a riot of colour all around. Most of it was filled in earthen pots and tied low from trees. They were then broken with sticks creating a burst of colour. At the same time, the uneasy silence that had prevailed in the ashrams was shattered, as were the stigmas that society had slapped on the inhabitants.

Among those who celebrated with the widows was Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the man at the helm of one of India’s most powerful reform movements -- a movement to build toilets under the Sulabh Mission. The widows smeared colour on Dr Pathak as they danced and sang.

Many watched him with tears of gratitude in their eyes and blessed him for having given them such an opportunity.

Legal intervention

It was, in fact, not just a charitable move, but rather an act of legal activism that helped bring about this little celebration for the widows.

In 2011, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation was approached by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), following a directive from the Supreme Court of India to explore the possibility of Sulabh’s intervention to render relief and sustenance to the widows.

This came about as NALSA filed a social justice litigation plaint before the Supreme Court, seeking protection and amelioration of the situation faced by old and destitute Vrindavan widows. The petition pointed out that the widows were forced to live in Mathura in ashrams and temples either because they had been abandoned by their families or were driven by extreme poverty.

Then, there were others who lived in government-run homes under pathetic conditions without access to adequate food, medical and hygiene facilities, it added.

Acting on the petition, the Supreme Court directed the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), Mathura, to conduct an enumeration exercise on the Vrindavan widows. The Legal Services Authority, under the chairmanship of the district judge of Mathura, told the court that there was a serious shortage of food for the widows. They somehow managed with the meagre rations that they bought with money obtained by singing bhajans outside temples.

Many of them were suffering from severe geriatric problems such as poor eyesight, broken bones and inability to walk. As the shelters had no money to cremate the dead, bodies of widows were often cut into pieces for easy disposal by sweepers.

In August 2012, the Supreme Court asked the National Legal Services Authority to find out if Sulabh International, which was involved in social service, would be willing to supply food to destitute women in government-run homes in Vrindavan. Following this, Pathak visited Vrindavan with some of his officials.

Touched by their plight and the tragic lives they led, he decided to lessen their pain and loneliness and earmarked a monthly budget of Rs 20 lakh for the purpose. Pathak affirmed, “From now on, no widow of Vrindavan will sleep without food. We will take care of all who are forced to beg on the streets of Vrindavan. Sulabh will ensure that they get food, clothing, proper health care and hygiene." 

Pathak said: “The challenge is to motivate able-bodied widows to undergo vocational training so that they can earn their basic livelihood and live with a sense of pride. It is easy to train them in crafts such as weaving and food processing.  Only then will they be able to live normal lives and be respected,” he said.

Holi is one of the most colourful and celebrated festivals of India, but orthodox traditions stop widows from taking part in it. This is what Pathak wanted to break as one of the first steps towards transforming the lives of ignominy and social ostracism that they had become used to leading.

He says, “Spring is enjoyed by all. But widows are not allowed to enjoy. They are not allowed to even attend marriages as they are seen as precursors of bad luck. We have to bring the spring back into their lives. They have a right to enjoy a good life. We have to learn how to treat them like human beings. We must empower them, help them get jobs and emotionally rehabilitate them.”

Two days after Holi, Pathak took along with him a group of 40 widows from Varanasi and 80 widows from Vrindavan to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was yet another move towards bringing a semblance of normalcy in their lives, far removed from the feeling of being shunned in public places.

Changing attitudes in a country like India is not easy. But Pathak has made a beginning. It is for the rest of the country to see how such munificence can give the widows a new dream, a new horizon.