In India's town of widows, a home for the forgotten

A haven for Indian women lets them escape the stigma of widowhood.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Krishna Das is an attractive 25-year-old with a special talent for creating fragrant curries and supple roti breads, and for coaxing smiles from her baby boy, Gopal.

But to her family and friends in India's West Bengal region, she might as well not even exist.

After her husband died a year ago, Ms. Das's status suddenly plummeted. Now, she is a bad omen at social gatherings. She must never remarry, wear colored saris, or eat anything but the blandest food donated to her just once a day after hours spent strictly in prayer. Some old friends even shun her as a witch, believing she caused her husband's demise.

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In a country infamous for caste discrimination, few fates are worse than losing a husband. Hindu widows in many parts of the country, like the so-called "untouchable" Dalits, are relegated to the lowest rungs of society. Although there is no religious scripture to justify this treatment, it has become part of the patriarchal culture. In traditional Hindu families, women have only two key roles – to bear sons and to partner a husband in rituals necessary for his salvation. Only widows with wealth of their own or a more enlightened family may escape this persecution; a fortunate few may even remarry.

But for many of the country's estimated 33 million widows, half of whom are older than 50, a husband's death means their own living death. Widows at all levels of society face some degree of persecution. While not all are forced to leave their home, they are still stigmatized.

Das could easily have ended up like an estimated 10,000 widows who, thrown out by their families, now swarm the pilgrimage cities of Mathura and neighboring Vrindavan, praying at the temples, or begging on the streets.

Instead, Das found Aamar Bari, a home- and life-skills training center for widows in Vrindavan that offers hope. Opened in 1998 by a prominent Indian woman who understood the humiliation of widowhood, Aamar Bari or "My Home," in the Bengali dialect, gave Das back her dignity.

"I would have nowhere to go without this place. I can't go home. But here they are good to me and Gopal. I can work and be happy," Das says.

Although she still chooses to wear the white lines of widowhood on her forehead that signify mourning, she no longer hesitates to wear her vibrant red and green sari. Mohini Giri, the founder of Aamar Bari, says her principal goal has always been to inject color and meaning back into the lives of the women at her shelter.

"I get so worried if I see too much white here," says Ms. Giri. "I certainly make a point of wearing lots of color, and a big red bindi on my forehead, which is really the sign of a married woman, but I don't care."

Giri was widowed at 55 after a 37-year marriage that had elevated her to the highest ranks of Indian society. Married at 18 to the son of the governor of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, she moved into a palace with 800 servants. Later, when her father-in-law, V.V. Giri, was elected president of India, she moved to the palace in Delhi, where she met others with power and influence.

When Giri was herself widowed, even with her social standing, she still experienced the humiliation of being asked to leave a relative's wedding during a key part of the ceremony.

Then almost 10 years ago, Giri was appointed head of the National Commission for Women, a quasijudicial body charged with improving women's status in India. She ordered a survey done in the district in 1995 and discovered some 10,000 widows living there. Many were being charged exorbitant rents for vermin-infested rooms.

Widows flocked to Vrindavan and Mathura because Hindus have long believed that people who die here are freed from the cycle of birth and death, and can immediately obtain moksha, or emancipation. It's a common sight to see hundreds of widows wearing a single piece of coarse white cloth, with shaven heads, emaciated bodies, and the long sandalwood-paste stripes or tilak extending from their foreheads to their noses.

Giri helped to create Aamar Bari, marshaling her contacts as chair of The Guild of Service, a national social-services group of volunteers dedicated to aiding women and children.

Now about 100 women, most of whom are elderly, live in the large housing complex that was donated by a local philanthropist. They worship together, receive medical help at a small clinic, and eat regular nourishing meals cooked with care by Das, while her son is doted on by the others.

The Indian government gives the project about 750 rupees (about $15) a month per woman. The government also offers less fortunate widows a pension, but few manage to cut through the red tape to collect it. One study done in seven states revealed that 28 percent of widows were eligible for pensions, but only 11 percent actually received them.

Octogenarian Lokhi Saha was one of the first to move there. Married at nine years old to a 26-year-old man, Ms. Saha was widowed young and lived in Vrindavan for almost 25 years. Her family used up all her funds, took her home, and encouraged her to follow a holy man and stay at his ashram, or religious community.

"But four years ago, I met Mrs. Giri, and she said that I should come to her place for good food and good care, and then others would see me and follow. Now we are happy here," says Saha.

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