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wov-2Durga Puja festival marks the victory of Goddess Durga over the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura. The festival begins with ceremonial descent of the Goddess from high heavens to Her jubilant devotees. One can see everywhere beautifully decorated images of Goddess Durga in Pandals where the devotees do pujas and hold cultural events. The largest number of such pandals are seen in Kolkata, which literally becomes the World Capital of Durga Puja for nine days after which the Goddess returns to her consort, Lord Shiva.

As the sun was about to set sending its spectacular orange and yellow rays across the western skyline, an Air India plane, carrying 50 Vrindavan widows, accompanied by the Sulabh Founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh workers and journalists took off from Delhi airport for Kolkata on October 6 to make their presence at the Durga Puja festival after a lapse of several decades. There was much excitement on every widow’s face because for each of them it was a rare and unique experience to fly high in the air and to watch the black and white clouds enwrapping and penetrating from all sides.

When the Sulabh Founder told the widows earlier that all of them would go to Kolkata by plane to witness the Durga Puja festival, most of them could not believe him. All sorts of fantasies crept over them as they had never imagined in their wildest dream that they would travel by plane which looked very small at a distance. Many of these widows of Vrindavan have already forgotten about their first train journey from Kolkata to Vrindavan several years ago.

wov-3Early in the morning at Vrindavan they were given a hearty send-off by their companions to Delhi. “Take good care of yourself, don’t move out alone; be always in company, and give us a phone call after reaching there”. These were some of the kind words and advices that moved their hearts. Most of the Vrindavan widows originally belong to West Bengal and the current visit for Puja festival has been their long-cherished desire. 107-year-old Lalita Adhikari belongs to Kolkata, but she does not remember as to when she left that city. She has some hazy memories of the place and things like packed trams etc. of Howrah and Kali Bari.  On their arrival at Sulabh Gram in New Delhi from Vrindavan the widows were greeted by Dr. Pathak and Sulabh workers amidst chanting of ‘Radhey-Radhey’ which reverberated in the air at regular intervals. Such scenes are usually noticed in Sulabh when there is some celebrity around.

wov-4In the evening all of us were brought to the Delhi airport. Each one of us in the Sulabh team rendered all assistance to the Vrindavan guests to see to it that they boarded the plane safely. They anxiously waited for the plane which they had perhaps never seen in close quarters. Their simplicity and the excellent initiative taken by Sulabh were subjects for talks in the media which had assigned their reporters to cover the event extensively. The air hostesses of Air India welcomed the widows with folded hands and ushered them into their respective seats. After two hours’ thrilling journey we reached Kolkata airport where we were welcomed by different organisations, including the Youth Lovers Association, with flowers and garlands.

Dr. Pathak got the eldest lady Lalita Adhikari seated on a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the news of the arrival of the widows spread like wild fire in the entire city of Kolkata, with the result the media kept them engaged for an hour. They were later taken to Barasat village in an air-conditioned bus where a big crowd waited to receive them and get their blessings. They witnessed a cultural programme for an hour before being taken to Sunrise Hotel on CIT Road around 8 p.m. for dinner and rest.

wov-5The next day, after the breakfast, they were taken to Kumhar Toli on Baramali Street, where most of the Durga idols are made. It was the third day of Navratri. The artists were giving finishing touches to the idols and were ready to transport them to various Pandals. The elderly ladies stood in prayers before Mother Durga’s idols.

Street Begging

Meanwhile, on the footpath of Kumhar Toli, when they halted to have tea, they met a 85-yearold widow named Ashalata Das. She said she has four sons and all of them are useless, not doing anything. Ashalata herself resorted to begging on the street to feed herself. Manu Ghosh of the widows’ group said, “If someone brings her to Vrindavan, we will take care of her”.

Later, all of us came to Oberoi Hotel where a Press conference was organized by the Sulabh Hope Foundation. The Sulabh Founder, Dr. Pathak spoke to journalists on various humanitarian activities of Sulabh, which included adoption of widows not only of Vrindavan but also of Varanasi as well as of Deoli of Uttarakhand. He said, the Supreme Court had enquired from the National Legal Service Authority if Sulabh could help the widows of Vrindavan. He said his mission was to restore their honour and dignity and fight the existing social prejudices against them. “They are kept away from religious functions. Even a dress code was prescribed for them. Breaking all those prejudices, these women have now come to witness the Durga Puja at Kolkata. We are happy to see that Kolkattans have welcomed them so heartily. We have been receiving phone calls from Puja Samitis and other voluntary organisations who all want to invite these mothers to their Pandals and have dialogue with them”. Dr. Pathak told the journalists, that the press and the media have a powerful role to play in projecting such issues and bring about a change in society.

wov-6Sitting on the dais with Dr. Pathak was Ms. Manu Ghosh who had impressed the journalists right from the airport. She saluted the land of Kolkata and spoke about all the good works being done by Dr. Pathak Baba. “I had never thought even in my dreams that I would one day sit in a plane and reach Kolkata. 50 widows have come here and the credit goes to Sulabh for it; we are all happy over the kind of love you are showering on us”, she said. Asked by a journalist how she would celebrate the Dussehra, she said: “I will celebrate Dussehra in the same way you people do it”.

Not Willing to Return

A lady journalist asked Dr. Pathak, whether some ladies from among the widows would return to their homes in Kolkata. Instead of giving the reply himself Dr. Pathak gave the mike to Manu Ghosh. Manu Ghosh declined to return to Kolkata, and asked the other ladies whether they would like to return to their homes. All the ladies said, ‘No’ in one voice. When asked about some lasting memories about Kolkata, Manu Ghosh became emotional all of a sudden and said, “I have come to Kolkata only to see things around; I have to do nothing with my memories of this place, memories are there, but they only pinch and hurt”. Commenting on the statement, Dr. Pathak said, “One can never forget his mother’s food, his mother land and his mother tongue”.

After the Press conference, the ladies and Dr. Pathak took their lunch at the hotel. Everyone enjoyed the Bengali sweets and ice cream. The sky was overcast and the weather turned pleasant. Due to a few sharp showers, all had to stay at the hotel for quite some time.

In the morning of October 8, all the widows came to the Millennium Park on their way to Rama Krishna Mission Ashram at Belur Math. ‘Matsyagandha’ Captain Ganesh Sarkar and the crew started the steamer, amidst chanting of ‘Radhey-Radhey’. The steamer was air-conditioned. We all came to the upper deck where all of us continued to recite Bhajans and songs. Dr. Pathak also participated in the programme. The widows sang some film songs along with Bhajans. We were going against the current of the river. Some journalists from another steamer were taking our photos. While we were passing from under the Howrah Bridge, a big crowd gathered there enjoying the echo of ‘Radhey-Radhey’.

Ashoka Dasi (70) from the widows’ group was in a pensive mood watching the waves. To know what exactly was going on in her mind, I went to her. She said: “In this very Kolkata, my son and his wife live. The family has grandchildren as well”. When asked if she would like to meet them, she said her mind was still sticking there, although she tried hard to forget them. “It is seven years now since I started living in Vrindavan. I came to Kolkata thrice to meet them. But their behaviour forced me to go back to Vrindavan again and again. Last time when I asked for his phone number, my son declined. If I had the number I would have called him and showed him, how we are living and how Dr. Pathak Baba is supporting us like a real Bhagwan”, she said.

Arrangement for breakfast was made on the steamer itself. After reaching Belur Math, we went around Rama Krishna Ashram and returned by the same steamer.

wov-7In the evening the widows were invited to Kolkata Lake View, Kali Bari Pandal. It was organized by the Times of India. The Chief Minister, Hon’ble Ms. Mamta Banerjee,   as also invited there. Ms. Banerjee knew that the widows of Vrindavan were waiting for her at the Pandal. Despite heavy rains she came there. She asked the ladies about their welfare. As a gift, she gave them sarees and congratulated Dr. Pathak for his good work. From there we went to a Puja Pandal situated at Singhi Park. The evening was around, and the Durga Puja crowd had surged over the streets. We all were stuck up badly in the traffic. After two hours we reached Singhi Park. The President of the Puja Samiti, Mr. Ashish Chandra and its Chairman, Mr. Durga Prasad Mukherjee, welcomed the widows and Dr. Pathak. The Pandal here was constructed in the style of Vrindavan’s temples.

All Eyes on Lalita

After darshan of Durga every one attended and enjoyed the cultural programme. Here everyone was eager to see Lalita Adhikari. At the age of 107 when she was moving on the streets of Kolkata with her walking stick, all eyes were fixed on her. The Kolkatans knew from the newspapers and TV channels, that 50 ladies from Vrindavan had come to Kolkata to witness Durga Puja. People came and met them to get their Ashirwad touching their feet. They reached the hotel late in the night on that day.

On October 9, the party reached a beautiful Pandal situated at Hindustan Park by bus. The Pandal there looked like an old temple. Ronu Banerjee and other artists had laboured for two months to build it. The ladies had the darshan of mother Durga and sang some Bhajans. For them the day had special significance. Dr. Pathak thereafter took them to the most famous saree shop of Kolkata, ADI. All of them purchased sarees of their choice. From there all of us reached Gopalpur’s (Lal Kothi) Pandal.

Proper arrangement for seating the ladies was made there. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Manu Ghosh and Lalita Adhikari reached the dais and acknowledged the greetings from the crowd. Padmini Kolhapure, a popular actress of yesteryear, also came on the dais. She greeted Dr. Pathak and the widows. We all returned to the hotel quite late at night.

October 10 was a day without many activities. Everyone put on the new sarees she had and was waiting for a bus for Victoria Memorial and later for dinner in Taj Bengal Hotel. After lunch, all of them reached Victoria memorial. The journalists took photographs. The ladies enjoyed riding on horse-drawn buggies. Before going to Taj all the ladies reached a Pandal situated at Trolliganj. From there they reached the Taj Hotel by bus, where there was a programme of Bangla music for them. Chairs were reserved for them in the hall. The programme lasted for almost an hour. After that they relished the traditional Bengali food. They, however, missed the Founder who had to rush to Delhi the same evening for some important work.

On October 11 and 12, the ladies visited Dakshineshwar Kali temple, a few Pandals and met members of some voluntary organizations. The Secretary of a voluntary organization ‘Chhabi’ said, “it is our good luck that the ladies have visited our institution. Not only I, but the whole of Kolkata welcomes them with joy”. Arrangement for food for the widows was made here.

When the ladies reached Charepoli Public Puja Samiti, Mr. Tihika Mandal, a former MLA, welcomed them. He said, “Every day, I read about them in newspapers and see them in TV channels. Today, we are lucky to meet them. We never knew that some organisation is working for the welfare of widows. I appreciate the efforts made by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak”. After getting out of the Pandal, the local people assembled to meet Manu Ghosh and Lalita Adhikari. They touched their feet seeking their blessings. While coming out of the Pandal a lady requested both the mothers to visit their homes even for a few moments. Both of them went with her and played with her son for a while. It was quite late when they reached the hotel in the night. They chanted ‘Radhey-Radhey’ for some time and then went to bed.

Bidding good-bye to Kolkata on October 13, we took an Air India flight for Delhi. While coming to Kolkata, Lalita Adhikari could not properly see the plane by which she had come. Maybe, because of her eye operation. Manu Ghosh fulfilled her wish. She saw the plane parked on the runway. The mothers had learned by now, how to utilize the services of air hostesses. This time they had themselves tied the seat belt. Those who could not, took the help of air hostesses.

The ladies had moved about in Kolkata for about a week, and now they all were tired. It was two hours’ flight, some passed the time in slumber while others enjoyed films on the TV screen attached to their seat. In two hours we landed at the Delhi airport and came to the Sulabh Gram. There the ladies rested for a while before leaving for Vrindavan.

…and Manu Maa became a Celebrity

Manu Ghosh appeared in newspapers as well as news channels of Kolkata for her frank talk and laughter. Whether it was Press Conference or celebration of Puja, Manu Maa was the star attraction, clad in white saree her personality was no less attractive. She hails from Kolkata and she does not want anyone to ask about her past days in Kolkata.

wov-8“Let me enjoy my trip; I did not come here to recall my bad days. Yes, Kolkata looks excellent and more beautiful. We are now travelling with pomp and show. I never thought or even imagined we would do so”, said Manu.

Sometimes Manu took the camera from newsmen and took the pictures of Kolkata streets. Photographers were told to click her pictures while having cold-drinks. “Don’t I look like a model”, she said laughingly.

Manu can talk on any subject and answer correctly. Journalists frequented Room No. 103 of Hotel Sunrise where Manu and Lalita Maa were staying. Sometimes her answers were both bitter as well as soft. The answer to a question was, Not only you, many people, even the Chief Minister, Hon’ble Ms. Mamta Banerjee, asked us if we were happy in Vrindavan, You never came there to have a look in which conditions we were living, that’s why you don’t have any right to ask how we live there.

wov-9When many sons and daughters expressed their willingness to take their mothers with them. Lalita Maa retorted: “We left our homes in helplessness; at that time no one was there to help us. Now when we have happy days, all are remembering us. I hate such things”. At Kolkata airport she had even refused to meet her son. ‘Where do you live? Have you got married? How many members are there in your family’? How is your wife?’ She asked reporters during conversation. She frequently asked for tea. She talked of spirituality and sometimes, philosophy, ‘you can’t find God in the temples or books. God lives among us, someone who stands by in one’s grief and pain, Pathak baba is god for us. He is doing a lot for us. Before he came to us, not a single woman of ashram was spiritual. We all were concerned for only one thing, our bread. Today, we have overcome this problem. Now, we are enjoying our lives by singing Radhey-Radhey Bhajans in the ashrams’.

‘Don’t worry, Sulabh is taking good care of me’

“Forgive me, Maa… I am here to take you home. Please come with me”, Sushant pleaded with his mother on her arrival at Kolkata airport from Vrindavan. “What! Where were you all these years? Have you ever cared to find out whether I am dead or alive? Get out from here. I do not want to see your face”. And the angry mother broke down. But the mother’s snub did not deter remorseful Sushant from his decision to bring her home. He traced her room No. 104 at Sunrise Hotel where she was to be lodged for the night only to appear again with his wife Rinku before the mother the next day morning for a fresh attempt to persuade her to come back home.

By this time, the mother had cooled down. Then followed a long chat with the son and daughter-in-law, but she refused to budge from her stand. “Don’t worry about me.

I am happy and fully protected by Sulabh and Krishna Bhagwan”, said the mother. And when they departed, the mother gave the couple a few currency notes as a token of love and blessings.

Right from the moment of landing of the Air India plane at Kolkata airport there was a stream of visitors to accord a hearty welcome to Vrindavan widows. There were umpteen phone calls from relatives and friends asking them to visit their homes. Most of the people had known about their home-coming from the media.

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Sapna Saha and Sunita Saha are sisters. They came all the way from Nutan Bazar in the hope that their mother Prachi Saha might also be one among the visiting widows from Vrindavan and they were pleasantly surprised to see the beaming mother clad in shining white saree coming and greeting them. It was a chance meeting. They were in tears when Sunita narrated how her mother ran away from the house following cruel treatment meted out to her by her son who was a drunkard.

Both the ladies requested their mother to come back and permanently stay with them, but she refused to do so and said, “I am perfectly happy under the care of Sulabh International at Vrindavan”.

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After a gap of several years, 75-year-old Jyoti came to Dakshineshwar Kali Mandir where she met her granddaughter Gautami and her children. The mother had a brief outing with the children by bus. Jyoti told them about her travel by plane for the first time and her enjoyable 5-star stay at Taj Hotel. The children had meal with their Nani and later went round the Dussehra fair.

Some relatives wanted Jyoti to come back and spend the rest of her life with them. But she flatly refused and said Sulabh is taking care of her very well.

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