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Widows in India, especially in the urban areas, may no longer be facing the damning fate of previous generations of widows, but there are still many subtle prejudices that exist against them.
This morning on my call with my parents living back home, they told me that they would soon be going to Puri. Now that the holy month of ‘Kartika’ is here (as per the Hindu Calendar), they must offer the customary visit, for the darshan of Lord Jagannath. Puri, in Odisha, as most of you might know, is one of the ‘Chaar Dham’ (the four holy shrines) for Hindus and every Odiya, like me, has a deep-rooted connection with the place. Now living in a faraway foreign land, the very mention of Puri brings back to me, a thousand memories. But in this part of the year, it reminds me of our widows.
To observe the month-long Kartika ‘Brata’ (Vrat), thousands of ‘Habishyalis’ (widows) throng this pilgrim town. During my visits as a child, watching the flocks of women in white sarees, I would ask my mom many questions, out of curiosity. She would tell me that they were there to offer some ‘special’ puja during the month and would somehow cleverly manage to skip the ‘why’ part of my questions by distracting me; because the answers would have been too complex for the innocent mind of a little girl.
As I grew up, I found the answers myself.
I also learnt that Vrindavan, another city in North India, considered holy by Hindus is also known as the ‘City of Widows’. Over the years, many shelters for widows run by the government, private enterprises and NGOs have mushroomed in the city. I had a few glimpses during my visit in 2007. The women there often live in severe poverty and are detested by society due to various superstitions. With no education and no source of income, they are forced to beg on the streets. Many young widows turn to prostitution for survival, even though the subject is taboo enough to receive a prompt brush-off, if brought to the notice of the authorities. The older women go to bhajanashrams where they sit in shifts to chant prayers that helps them to get some food, grains or a few coins.
Widows, especially the elderly and in the rural areas, are often seen giving up non-vegetarian food and in many situations, they are expected to eat food that doesn’t have spice, onion and garlic. The reason behind this belief is that non-vegetarian food or spices act as an aphrodisiac and since a widow must lead a life of abstinence, she must refrain from eating such food. White is associated with mourning and therefore red and other bright colours which are associated with happiness and celebration are supposed to be shunned by the widows. A widow is usually expected to seek salvation by renouncing all earthly pleasures, foregoing cosmetics, bangles, nose and toe rings, flowers, kumkum and jewellery.
Another shocking custom that many widows in orthodox societies are seen to be following is to shave off their head. A widow is expected to look unattractive and any article or clothing that makes her look otherwise has no place in her life. These customs have been brought to light by several Bollywood movies, in different times, like Mother India, Kati Patang, Prem Rog, Choker Bali, Dor and Baabul, which have attempted at highlighting the problems that widows face in our society. Sadly, such customs are still observed and widows, especially the older generation, are seen following them religiously. I have been witnessing my grandmother follow most of these.
And I always wondered why only the women should seek such salvation. The grief and pain a person goes through when he or she loses a life partner cannot be expressed through words and when they are subjected to such harsh rituals and customs, it could be extremely daunting. Why are men who lose their wives not subjected to such restrictions? Obviously, like most of our other social issues, this too has its roots in patriarchy. Men & Women: Different Rules. To hell with equality.
The ‘inauspiciousness’ of the Hindu widow is well-known. In some situations, even the shadow of a widow is considered a bad omen that can bring bad luck. In traditional societies, caste plays a major role. Higher the caste, the more difficult is the life of a widow, since more such ‘purity’ restrictions come into play. She is stigmatised as a woman who has failed to safeguard her husband’s life. Traditional beliefs hold that her husband is God and when he dies, she is expected to be grief-stricken, everlastingly, for the rest of her life. The extreme manifestation of this belief was ‘Sati’ – where a wife was forced to immolate herself on the pyre of her deceased husband.
From abolition of Sati to matrimonial sites for widows, Indian society has come a long way but there still are thousands of widows who live a life of deprivation, destitution, belittlement, begging and suffering. A widow from a financially well-off family might not suffer the same way as one from a poor family. In urban societies, widows may escape following the customs when it comes to food and clothing, but the taboo still affects them in various ways.
I remember the story of a woman from Delhi whom I met in a subway train in New York City. In over an hour-long journey together, she told me that she became a widow at the age of 35. Soon after, she packed up her belongings and left India for a job in Manhattan, along with her two children. 30 years later, her family still hasn’t really recovered from losing them, and she thought she has never stopped feeling guilty for leaving them. When I asked her why she made such a drastic move, she simply replied that she didn’t want to be a widow in India. I thought it was very bold of her to take such a step in those times. After a little online research and a quick glance at the statistics, I could very well understand what she meant by that statement. I read several accounts of women who are educated, affluent, are supported by a loving and close-knit family and even then, found the social restrictions unbearable.
There are several NGOs working on bringing laws and regulations that would allow a monthly pension for abandoned and impoverished widows and to make their eviction from either their parental or husband’s house a punishable crime. There is the 2007 ‘Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act’ that makes it an offence for children to abandon their parents, but many of India’s millions of widows are not aware of their rights under it, and the act provides for only relatively mild penalties on violation. Also, many women fear to exercise their rights because they do not want to be labelled as a bad woman or a bad mother.
One might think that times have changed now for the better. The reality however seems to be different. Six years ago, my ex-coworker in Bangalore, only 28, lost her husband in an accident. She tells me that she is hardly treated normally or as an equal with other women, especially in social gatherings and family functions. The modern Indian society still finds it hard to accept a widow as a bride. The result is that she is still single.
The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, as the name suggests, had legalised the remarriage of Hindu widows. Yet, marrying a widow is considered a sin in Indian society. The higher the caste, the more likely it is that widow remarriage is forbidden. The second husband is usually found to be an elderly widower, a divorcee, or someone who is ill. The majority of widows, those have children at the time of death of the husband, do not want to remarry. They fear the ill treatment in a new family, especially, abuse of their children. If a widow has adult sons, she could still be fine it but if she is childless or has only daughters, she faces bigger problems. Although the ‘Hindu succession Act’ 1969 made women eligible to inherit equally with men, widows are mostly deprived of their legal rights. To exercise full ownership rights by inheritance, a widow must be literate and courageous. She would need to be able to assert her claim dealing with the officials and lawyers. For a rural widow, this becomes nearly impossible. She is unequipped to confront strangers and in seeking outside help, she makes herself prone to verbal abuse, gossip and sometimes even violence.
I can recollect another example I know of. Sulochana Didi, a maid working in a friend’s place in Mumbai, who comes from a poor village in West Bengal, was married off in her late teens to a man already diagnosed with cancer. Her parents couldn’t afford any dowry, so they settled for giving her away to a man who already had one leg in the grave. Her husband died a year later, leaving her a mother and a widow at the age of 20. Today she supports herself and her young daughter by working in people’s houses.
The above examples, seemingly, don’t reflect the conditions for all widows in the country and the educated middle-class widows are generally exempt from the situations described above. India is changing, undoubtedly, but even in today’s India, the India of the silicon revolution, there still are millions of widows who are left without the opportunities available to the privileged classes.
Top image is a screen grab from the episode Chokher Bali, based on a short story by Rabindranath, where Radhika Apte plays a young widow
A full time professional based in Toronto, Canada. Takes keen interest in women issues. Bibliophile,
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