For Widows, Life After Loss
In some cultures, the death of a husband has meant exile, vulnerability, and abuse. But bereaved women are beginning to fight back.
Worth a read: National Geographic
1. RETURNING TO LIFE, Vrindavan, India
Long before sunrise the widows of Vrindavan hurried along dark, unpaved alleys, trying to sidestep mud puddles and fresh cow dung. There’s a certain broken sidewalk on which volunteers set out a big propane burner every morning and brew a bathtub-size vat of tea. The widows know they must arrive very early, taking their place on rag mats, lifting their sari hems from the dirt, resting elbows on their knees as they wait. If they come too late, the tea might be gone. Or the puffed rice might be running out at the next charity’s spot, many alleys away. “I can’t rush in the morning—I’m not well,” a widow complained. “But we have to rush. You don’t know what you will miss.”
It was 5:30 a.m., a cool dawn, a sliver moon. A few widows had wrapped themselves in colorful saris, but most wore white, in India the surest signifier of a woman whose husband has died, perhaps recently, perhaps decades ago. In the dim light they moved like schools of fish, still hurrying together, pouring around street corners, a dozen here, two dozen there.
No one has reliably counted the number of widows in Vrindavan. Some reports estimate two or three thousand, others 10,000 or more; the city and its neighboring towns are a spiritual center, crowded with temples to the Hindu god Krishna and ashrams in which bhajans—devotional songs—are chanted all day long by impoverished widows who crowd side by side on the floor. The sanctity of bhajan ashrams is sustained by steady chanting, and although this is nominally the role of pilgrims and priests, the widows earn hot meals, and perhaps nighttime sleeping mats, by singing these chants over and over, sometimes three or four hours at a time.
They live in shelters too, and in shared rental rooms, and under roadside tarps when no indoor accommodation will admit them. Vrindavan is about 100 miles south of Delhi, but the widows come here from all over India, particularly the state of West Bengal, where allegiance to Krishna is intense. Sometimes they arrive accompanied by gurus they trust. Sometimes their relatives bring them, depositing the family widow in an ashram or on a street corner and driving away.
Even relatives who don’t literally drive a widow from the family home can make it plain every day that her role among them has ended—that a widow in India, forever burdened by the misfortune of having outlived her husband, is “physically alive but socially dead,” in the words of Delhi psychologist Vasantha Patri, who has written about the plight of India’s widows. So, because Vrindavan is known as a “city of widows,” a possible source of hot meals and companionship and purpose, they also come alone, on buses or trains, as they have for generations. “None of us wants to go back to our families,” a spidery woman named Kanaklata Adhikari declared in firm Bengali from her bed in the shelter room she shares with seven other widows. “We never talk to our families. We are our family.”