I am writing this letter in response to the article Forgotten Widows by Subhash Sharma in your November 2010 issue. On seeing the capturing title, I had prepared myself for an interesting read as I could imagine that it would be about widows in India and I was curious to find out what the journalist had to say. The article effectively pinpointed the problems that Indian widows face: isolation, sacrifice, sufferance and intolerable pain. It is dreadful to learn that even in the twenty-first century; such Indian communities prevail, whereby the widows are treated as social outcasts.
Being an Indian citizen myself, born and brought up outside India, I have neither seen nor experienced much about my country. Whatsoever, from my observations, I believed that India had long passed the stage of following practices based on ‘illiteracy, superstition and age-old beliefs’. However, I learnt with shock that the article proves otherwise. In fact, this article points an accusing finger at India’s appalling attitude towards widows.
Furthermore, this article gives me the implication that widows are being held responsible for the death of their husbands; hence, they are ill-treated in their respective families and societies.
However, no one stops to reason out that this is a false, prejudiced accusation on the helpless widows. Which woman prefers to be a widow? Which woman desires to live a dejected life after losing her husband? Certainly, no woman would wish to be in such a situation, and yet they are considered the sole reason for their husband’s death.
Clearly, the society has lost its moral compass. Discrimination and pain, both mentally and physically are inflicted on the widows due to their altered marital status; and no action is taken to improve this disapproving attitude.
My eyes welled with tears as I saw the pictures of the widows – frail, feeble and tremendously fragile. They lead wasteful lives; if not devoting their time to God, they are gallivanting in the streets; pain inked in their eyes and with grimy broken bowls, they beg for alms. The widows are in such a piteous state that it truly evokes my sympathy for them. The statistical figures mentioned in the article further emphasises the deteriorated situation of widows in India: ‘of the 35 million widows, 20 000 of them have sought refuge in Vrindavan alone’.
The sacred town of Vrindavan appears to be a refugee camp. It is the only source of shelter for all the widows who are victims to the orthodox and illiterate mindset of fellow Indians in the rural areas – either they are deserted by their families because they are considered to be a burden; or they leave their families to abscond the sorrows of being treated as a social outcast. Disappointingly they have to face more difficulties in Vrindavan – since the town is swamped with widows; many of them are compelled to live on the streets.
What did the widows do to deserve this? Is it their fault that fate chose them to be widows? It is irrational that widows should suffer like this but it continues until this day. At this point, I must mention that there was another article that I read – The Living Dead in the FRONTLINE magazine, which stated that ‘Street widows who cannot afford lodging, often spend their last days on the roadsides. ‘ Unnervingly, widows are reduced to living on streets and cannot even die with dignity; people are stonehearted and refuse to accept and respect them.
I believe it is time that people try putting themselves in the widows’ shoes; perhaps then, they will understand their grief. Subhash Sharma’s article further suggests that the widows are unbelievably vulnerable and prove to be a temptation to many men. As an unfortunate consequence, the widows are victims to sexual abuse – they are physically and psychologically challenged. Being a budding woman myself, I can understand the trauma that the widows are going through and it is unimaginable to me, how they continue to live in this fouled world.
The article points out that a great population of widows in Vrindavan huddle together in the poorly maintained bhajanashrams which are ‘places of prayer’. They lack proper toilets and are deprived of medical attention; subsequently, they have been infected with various diseases. Disappointingly, they do not have any ‘proper schemes for old age and widow pensions’. This indicates that they have no money to live in a world, which revolves under the influence of cash. Outrageously, widows are classified as part of the lowest level in the social hierarchy.
It appears to me that the rural Indian citizens are ridiculing them; the widows are treated like dogs and it is entirely unjust. This poses a significant question: Why are widows enslaved to traditional beliefs, illiteracy and the ignorance of rural Indians? Horrendously, even amongst these vast numbers of widows in Vrindavan, they consider class, beauty and age. Widows from the upper class do not associate with those from a lower class; widows who are young and charming have the upper hand in the ashrams.
This leads me to wonder how they still think of caste in a situation such as theirs; it is inexplicable to me. Another distressing matter is that widows of different religions give up their religious identity to become Hindus – in order to attain shelter in Vrindavan. According to the journalist Usha Rai, she believes that widows take this step, as they are oblivious to government and charity groups that can assist them in living a reasonable life. In this regard, I completely agree with Ms. Rai as there are plenty of organisations who are willing to fund poor, underprivileged widows.
However, awareness has to be increased and Indian women in the rural areas need to be educated on how they can live dignified lives as widows. They need to learn how to stop being shunted away by their society and family. They hold as much importance in the world as any other individual has. They have the right to live a dignified and respected life and they should be given this right whatsoever. Notably, in the box, on the right hand side, it has been stated that ‘life on the streets of Vrindavan, though distressing holds more of a sense of dignity and freedom to widows than their inhuman and marginalised existence back home’.
This is perhaps debatable, but in my perspective, I believe that it remains true to some extent. Human beings can be atrocious and widows can be fatally ill-treated, abused and neglected. In that sense, being on the streets of Vrindavan holds more dignity. However, it has its disadvantages too, such as being vulnerable to sexual abuse and poor shelter conditions; but the sense of having freedom and the hope of finding some sort of happiness is nearly enthralling for any widow in comparison to their miserable homes.
A disturbing yet striking fact that the journalist ought to have included was the practice of ‘sati’ in which the widows would be burned to death on their husbands’ funeral pyre. Even though this custom has been banned in India, pockets of rural communities often force or drag helpless widows to the lighted pyre where they die tragically. This heart-rending act proves that widows have no voice; they are over-ruled by their society and are completely powerless. If this is how the community treats widows, then how do they treat widowers?
Do they have to suffer the same anguish that widows have to endure? Contrarily, widowers luckily do not have to put up with all the pain that widows go through, proving that they hold a higher position in the Indian society. Widowers are not treated as outcasts and they are not forsaken by their families. The reason to this discriminatory contrast between widows and widowers is unknown to me. On a different note, what I appreciated the most in this article was the satisfying example of Ms.
Shakuntla Dasi – a widow who found ‘peace, familiarity and acceptance’ in her friend Bhagmati’s company whom she met at the bhajanashrams. Intriguingly, Ms. Dasi still manages to be content in an unfriendly environment and by doing so; she crushes the selfishness of all the Indian citizens who thwarted her twenty years back when she, to her misfortune became a widow. I have to admit that, Ms. Dasi will never cease to be my inspiration. ‘They always say time changes things, but you always have to change them yourself’ (Andy Warhol).
It has been proven that the widows’ situation has not improved in the rural areas throughout these years. This enforces that an attitudinal change is necessary. Once we as individuals change our mindset towards widows, the rest of the Indian community is sure to follow suit. Slowly, but steadily, widows can hold a significant position in the society. In essence, I believe that a start should be made today; so that if not the present widows, at least the future ones will benefit from it. This article though it discusses negatively about my homeland, was true to its facts and was appealing.
I specially appreciated the way the journalist included the well known chant ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare’ making the article ethnic and also enlightening for the readers. Nevertheless, there was one subheading that I disagreed on: the ‘City of Widows’ in reference to the divine town Vrindavan. This is where Indians consider that Lord Krishna (a Hindu God) spent his childhood, leaving behind myths and legends of love and friendship; thus, it is more known for its sacredness and its piety rather than the population of widows that reside there.
Therefore, the subheading ‘City of Widows’ can mislead readers and thus they will always link Vrindavan to widows when in actual fact it is better known for Lord Krishna. However, in conclusion, the article was extremely informative. Kudos to Subhash Sharma whom despite being an Indian presented all the raw facts in an unbiased manner. I certainly look forward to many such articles written by Subhash Sharma.
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