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VRINDAVAN: When Air India flight AI 20 from New Delhi lands in Kolkata on Sunday afternoon, it will disgorge an unusual group of first-time fliers — women who were forced out of Bengaldecades ago under tragic circumstances. But their return, though for a week, will be a happier one. They'll be welcomed at the Kolkata airport by a group of dhakis and women blowing conch shells. 

For the group of 50 widows from Vrindavan being flown to Kolkata by an NGO to witness and participate in the Durga Puja festivities, the trip holds the promise of a lifetime. This will be the first time they're returning 'home' after being cast away by their families. This will also be the first time they'll be participating in any kind of festivity. Naturally, on the eve of their trip, they were agog with child-like excitement. 

Lalita Dasi, at 104, is the oldest in the group of white-clad women. She left home at Baidyabati in Hoohly within a year of her husband's death 35 years ago when she realised her children thought of her as a "terrible burden". But on Saturday, the frail lady was reluctant to recollect the past — the immediate future being a Godsend. 

At Pagla Baba Ashram, that has been home to Lalita and others like her for decades, the widows were huddled in groups speculating about the trip. Kanan Devi, 75, from Nadia's Shantipur, was heard telling others: "Don't pack more than one bag. If the plane gets overcrowded, you may have to stand." Manu Ghosh, 90, remembered seeing aircraft taking off and landing from Dum Dum airport close to her marital home at New Barrackpore. Told that the travel time from New Delhi to Kolkata would be two hours, she suggested everyone should fast on Saturday so they won't feel the urge to relieve themselves. She didn't believe aircraft have toilets. The women could hardly contain their excitement. "I've heard there is a train that emerges from the belly of the earth. We must see it," said Gita, referring to the Metro. 

Many of the widows had heard that lakhs of people throng the puja pandals in Kolkata. Aloka Samaddar, 70, seemed the most worried on this count. 

She's ill and won't be travelling, but roommate Monibala Haldar, 82, is part of the visiting group. Aloka was heard entreating everyone to keep an eye on Monibala who, she said, doesn't know Kolkata at all. "Is your Monibala a small girl that she'd get lost? Don't worry," Gita told her with a smile. 

The widows will inaugurate the Palli Mangal Samity puja at Jodhpur Park and will be special guests at the many community pujas, including Salt Lake's FE Block and the Singhi Park puja where the pandal is a replica of the Govindaji temple at Vrindavan. They've also been invited to pujas at Rajarhat and Barasat. They'll put up at a hotel on CIT Road. Many still can't believe they'll be flying to Kolkata and be part of the festivities. 

"A few months ago, we had approached 'Babaji' (Sulabh International Social Service Organisation founder Bindeshwar Pathak) and wondered if we would ever see Puja celebrations in Kolkata. We still can't believe that he has made it possible," says Monibala. 

Vrindavan, said to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, became home to thousands of widows, most of them from Bengal, after Sati was abolished 250 years ago. 

Exploited and living under terrible conditions, the widows' plight came to the Supreme Court's attention last year. It requested Sulabh to take care of them. "We're now taking care of 2,000 widows and giving them a monthly stipend of Rs 2000 each. We also take care of their food, clothing, health and hygiene," Pathak said. 

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