For most of them this was the first flight of their lives. They would be Kolkata until Wednesday.
This trip is being organised by Sulabh International Social Service Organisation headed by Bindeshwar Pathak of the Sulabh Shouchalay fame who spearheaded a sanitation movement in India. This follows his involvement with the Mahatma Gandhi Centenary Celebrations where he drew inspiration from Gandhiji’s call to liberate scavengers from the menial job of carrying human waste on their heads.
Widows were never part of the objectives of Sulabh International. It was a news report of The Hindu newspaper that highlighted the plight of the widows in Vrindavan which led to the filing of a Public Interest Litigation by the National Legal Services Authority.
Responding to the PIL, the Supreme Court of India wanted to find out if Sulabh International was in a position to take care of the needs of the widows of Vrindavan to which Bindeshwar Pathak responded positively. That is how Sulabh International got involved in providing assistance to the widows of Vrindavan.
At that time, the widows were exploited in many ways. They were found begging in the streets or singing bhajans at bhajan ashrams to earn a paltry sum of rupees eight for eight hours of singing.
The journey of these 50 widows began at 6.00 a.m. when they boarded a coach from Vrindavan to Delhi. The 50 widows come from five ashrams run by the Uttar Pradesh state government and Non-Governmental Organisations.
Ten widows have been picked up from five Ashrams adopted by Sulabh International. The widows took a round of their ashrams singing devotional songs in praise of Lord Krishna before entering the bus to Delhi.
Bijoli Dasi from Hooghly district in her mid-sixties has put in some 20 years in the Ashram.
She said,” I am happy and anxious about my trip to Kolkata. I am happy that I am flying for the first time in my life. At the same time I am nervous about boarding the airplane.”
Another widow, Angur Bala aged 79, from 24 Parganas came to Vrindavan some 20 years ago when her husband passed away.
Initially, she used to sing bhajans at Bhajan Ashrams to make both ends meet. But after two or three years, she learnt about the Widow Ashram and she registered herself there.
Her handicapped son is married.
The earnings of his wife are barely enough for a hand to mouth existence.
Angur Bala did not want to be a burden on them as they could not support her with their meagre income.
So she headed for Vrindavan. Angur Bala was very excited about this trip as she had seen airplanes only on television. She couldn’t believe that she would travel on an airplane one day.
The 52-year old Arti Rawat from Kolkata was annoyed with her family for abandoning her.
She carries an image of Lord Krisha wherever she goes as she considers him her companion for life. She also wears a necklace made of Tulsi beads.
She said, “I am happy to visit my hometown again but I would not be visiting my family as I have nothing to do with them.”
Most of the widows were dressed in white sarees and blouses. A few of them were in yellow clothes as Lord Krisha is also called Peethambar which means the one who is clothed in yellow. A few others wore saffron sarees and blouses and still others were in printed sarees.
At the Delhi airport, the widows were received by Bindeshwar Pathak who greeted them with bouquets and fruits. The widows entered the air plane chanting Radhey Radhey.
When they landed at Kolkata, they were greeted with beating of traditional drums and a shower of flower petals.
In Kolkata, they visited Kumartuli where the images of goddess durga are created for immersion after the Durga Puja. They will visit the ghats along River Ganga and visit Durga Puja pandals to get a feel of the spirit and fervour of Durga Puja after so many years.
At a press conference in Hotel Oberoi Grand, Bindeshwar Pathak explained that he brought the widows to Kolkata for three reasons.
One, he wanted to accede to their request to visit puja pandals in Kolkata. Two, he was happy that he was able to bring them to their place of birth. And, three, he wanted to stir the conscience of Bengali gentlemen who are nice by nature but were negligent towards the needs of these unfortunate widows.
Bindeshwar Pathak argued: “When a man loses his wife, he marries again and continues to enjoy his life. But, when a woman loses her husband she is despised and forced to lead the life of a widow."
He said that he was determined to work towards changing this practice.
According to Bindeshwar Pathak, “the greatest satisfaction of working with the widows of Vrindavan is that when we met the widows of Vrindavan for the first time, they were starving and they wanted to die. A few months after we started supporting them, they want to live and spend their time in the devotion of their lord. This is the change that their lives have undergone.”
With this trip, the widows of Vrindavan have flown to their roots in Bengal. No wonder, Kolkata is called the City of Joy!