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Ostracised and abandoned because they lost their husbands, India and Nepal’s child widows were resigned to an ignominious life and death in four pilgrim centres where they were dumped by their heartless families. But now, after decades of neglect, a caring hand is seeking to reintegrate them into the society that cast them off. SUDESHNA SARKAR travels to Varanasi to meet the man who’s working the miracle and the women who now have a new lease of life

THEIR STORIES WILL BREAK your heart.” That’s what everyone who’s been to the steep, gloomy house at the end of the dark tunnel-like passage crossing the once-famous Lalita Ghat in Varanasi says.

And yet, for decades Indian society and governments remained oblivious to the plight of its inmates and hundreds of others like them, after sending them into exile, penniless, pitiably young and carrying a crushing burden of guilt.

These are the “child widows” of India and neighbouring Nepal, 20th century girls who were married off before they reached puberty, some as young as six years old, lost their husbands early and were branded accursed by their families and society.

Their hair was shaved off, food reduced to one meal a day, and clothes replaced by stark white. Even then they were regarded as burdens and taken to four cities regarded as holy in India and dumped there to die.

“Five of my aunts died in Varanasi,” says a stoical Shakuntala Dhakal, kneading dough that will be used to make little fried ball offerings for the shelter’s deities during an elaborate religious rite in the evening.

“My mother is here, I will die here too.”

The 61-year-old’s mother, Mahamaya Bhattarai, is 98. Mother and daughter have been spending their life in a dank, cramped room with a third widow at the shelter known as Nepali Ashram. They are from Nepal, once the only Hindu kingdom in the world and sharing the same religious culture as India, especially where the treatment of widows is concerned.

Eighteen Nepalese women live in the shelter, finally finding some stability in a life marked by poverty, uncertainty and deprivation after being abandoned by their families for having committed the “sin” of becoming a widow.

Savitri Sharma’s parental home is in Gorkha, the district in western Nepal that has given the world the Gurkha soldiers famed for their valour. Married and widowed at 15, she was regarded as unlucky and a burden, and was packed off to Varanasi, the city where, it was believed, if you were lucky enough to die, you attained instant salvation, released from the cycle of rebirth and suffering.

Abandoned in a strange city where she had neither money nor friends, nor knew the local language, Sharma spent the first few months hanging around the rivers where temple goers came to bathe and lived on alms begged from them.

Then she came to know about the small Nepalese community living in Varanasi, especially young students who were sent for higher or religious education.

“I cooked and cleaned for them to survive,” says Sharma, now 80. “When Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India, she authorised a monthly dole for destitute widows.”

Three years ago, the sum, then worth about $10, was stopped due to a bureaucratic hitch and it was back to begging for the women.

Tulsi Poudel, another inmate at the shelter, was married when she was 10. She’s a grass widow, abandoned by her husband because she was uneducated.

“I stayed with my in-laws for nine years,” Poudel, now 70, says impassively. “They tortured me into returning to my parents. Then my mother died and my father remarried. The new stepmother began to torture me again.”

An aunt lived in Varanasi and the roofless Poudel came to stay with her. After the former’s death, she found herself on the streets till fate guided her to the shelter.

“There are 120 million widows in India living in abject misery and hardship,” says Bindeshwar Pathak, father of the affordable sanitation movement in India whose non-profit social enterprise Sulabh International has begun to adopt the dying and destitute widows.

“In India, the behaviour towards widows is the same in all states. The moment a girl becomes a widow, she has no place in society. She is barred from festivals and celebrations and subjected to the harshest deprivation and humiliation.

“It was partly due to the fact that in the 20th century, there was very little women’s education and women had no means of earning their livelihood. Besides, men married several times and the young widows were got rid of for fear that there could be claims on the dead men’s property.”

Bengal, the former capital of India and renowned for its culture and erudition, was surprisingly the state that led in the inhuman treatment of widows.

“It’s difficult to explain how this happened,” Pathak says.

Till the 19th century, widows were burned alive on the pyres of their husbands. After the then British government banned the practice — known as sati — in 1839, the survivors were meted out a treatment worse than death.

In the 16th century, a social reformer from Bengal, Chaitanya, brought a group of widows to Vrindavan, another pilgrim centre, so that they could be away from their oppressive families and lead a life of dignity, dedicating themselves to prayers and worship.

However, in the course of time the initiative degenerated into a trend of dumping unsuspecting young widows in the four pilgrim centres of Vrindavan, Varanasi, Hardwar and Mathura.

“There are instances of relatives helping a widow alight from the train at the railway station and asking her to wait, saying they would be back after finishing some urgent work,” says Vinita Varma, vice-president of Sulabh’s project for the widows.

“They never came back.”

When she alighted at the station in Vrindavan almost seven decades ago, Manu Ghosh, then a young widow from Bengal, possessed only the white dhoti she wore.

“For two days she lived on the station platform, without food or water, wondering what to do,” says Pathak.

“On the third day, a passenger took pity on her and bought her a cup of tea and two biscuits.

“That meager food tasted like nectar to her, Ghosh told us later.”

While some of the abandoned widows became beggars and menial workers, some were forced into prostitution. The tragedies have been depicted in Indian fiction and films, like Sunil Gangopadhyay’s epic novel “Shei Shomoy” and Deepa Mehta’s film “Water”.

Another author Indira Goswami, lived in Vrindavan for two years after becoming a widow herself. She drew upon her experience there to write her debut novel “Neel Kanthi Braja”  which won acclaim for its in-depth exploration of the physical and mental conditions of the hapless women.

Pathak’s Sulabh has adopted nearly 1,000 widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi, providing a monthly living expense of Rs 2,000 (about $31) to each, medical assistance and vocational training. Septuagenarians and octogenarians are also being taught to read and write.

The initiative started last year after India’s Supreme Court sought action following a spate of media reports on the plight of the abandoned women. Some of these reports said when the widows died, their bodies were being cut up into pieces and scattered in rivers as there was no money for their last rites.

The apex court directed its legal division, the National Legal Service Authority (NALSA), to look into the matter and NLASA asked Sulabh and ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a religious organisation), if they would provide two meals a day to the widows.

“Had we decided to simply provide the food and go away, the women would not have had any sense of being loved and wanted,” says Pathak. “We wanted to make them feel there was somebody to take care of them.”

In addition to the monthly dole, Sulabh is also trying to bring the widows out of their decades of isolation and reunite them with the society that once rejected them.

They were coaxed to take part in two festivals, Holi, the festival of colours, and Rakshabandhan, Brother’s Day.

In October, when India celebrates one of its biggest festivals, Dussehra or Durga Puja, a group of widows will trace their way back to Bengal to take part in the festivities they had never thought they would enjoy again.

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