Heads turned at Terminal 3 in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport as a group of 50-odd elderly women entered the lobby to board a flight to Kolkata.
Even as personnel and passengers wondered who these women — most of them dressed in crisp white cotton sarees, wearing garlands and carrying a flower bouquet — were, a policewoman at security check enquired in Hindi, “Where have you come from? Where are you going?” Getting an unintelligible response in rustic Bangla, she had to make do with looking at the passenger’s boarding card (ration card for these passengers). These were Vrindavan widows flying back to Kolkata for the first time since they left home.
These aged widows, who were abandoned by their family or had fled their inhospitable homes back when the city was known as Calcutta, were going back to celebrate Durga Puja in their hometown. They were accompanied by this reporter from The Hindu.
Courtesy NGO Sulabh International, the women have been invited by several puja samitis to inaugurate puja pandals in their home State. The sojourn is aimed at helping the women break free of the stigma attached to widowhood — in rural West Bengal, widows are kept away from auspicious ceremonies. In the light of The Hindu’s report on their plight in Mathura’s shelter homes, the Supreme Court had asked SI to look after the welfare of the widows.
“I have been living at Vrindavan for the past 16 years after my three sons found it difficult to fend for me in our house at Medinipur. They are daily-wagers and have children to look after, so I decided to take shelter at Vrindavan,” says Bijoli Devi, reluctant to share the real circumstances that forced her to leave her house after she was widowed. She does add, however, that she doesn’t wish to visit her family this time. “You know, I have a sister-in-law in Kolkata but they are so rich that I am scared to enter her house. I visited her house 10 years ago but never after that.”
Ashokasundari has been in Vrindavan for six years but hesitates to share her story. “One day, several old women in the village decided to go to Vrindavan, so I tagged along and never looked back,” is all she lets on. Each one of them has a different story to tell, but on Sunday there was a common expression on their faces — of joy and happiness — and an excitement that they found difficult to suppress. “Bahut maza aaya [We enjoyed a lot],” they said when asked about their experience on board. The flight arrived in Kolkata in no time and though the security procedures left them baffled, they conducted themselves with discipline. At the airport, they were welcomed to drumbeats and showered with flowers, bringing traffic to a virtual standstill. As they entered the ‘City of Joy’, they danced with gay abandon and posed readily for the media.