Wedded to Enterprise
BY: USHA RAI
Food for independence: The members of the Aamar Bari guild making wadis.
May 13, INDIA (TRIBUNE) The bleak picture of the widows of Vrindavan is changing slowly.
Usha Rai reports on the economic independence and the life of dignity which is slowly replacing the old attitude of helplessness and living off charity.
April and May are blistering hot
months in Vrindavan but the tide of pilgrims to this birthplace of
Lord Krishna has not abated. Nor has the population of widows. It
ranges from 12,000 to 15,000 and despite all the efforts of the
Department of Women at the Centre and the West Bengal government,
their numbers continue to grow. While many of them have been abandoned
by their families in this city of Gods, others come on their own
seeking moksha (eternal bliss) after death.
Efforts to move the
simians, all worthy descendants of Hanuman, have failed and those who
have to brave the heat for visiting the temples or for other work,
hide their spectacles and packets of food, particularly the prasad,
as they negotiate the open gutters, the endless flow of garbage and
the potted and pitted streets.
As frail widows, many of
them walking with the support of sticks, scurry to and from the Bhajan
ashrams, the monkeys can be seen scampering down temple spires,
lurking at the sharp turns of the narrow bylanes or swinging from tree
tops waiting to grab a tasty morsel from unsuspecting victims.
Spectacles and dark glasses grabbed are not returned till their grubby
hands are greased with a fruit or some food. Despite the congestion
and squalor of Vrindavan, more and more temples as well as guest
houses and apartment blocks are coming up.
Vrindavan, despite all
the charity pouring into the city and the endless rhythm of chanting,
conch shells and temple bells, seems to be caught in a time warp. Only
the discerning will get a whiff of the slow change taking place in the
lives of widows and the destitute in the city. Many widows are not
wearing the stark white clothes of widowhood-in fact they have opted
for pastel and printed saris- but those living in the Guild of
Service’s Aamar Bari have stopped going to the bhajan ashrams to
chant and accept in charity small sums of money and uncooked rice and dal.
At the forefront of the
movement to give vocational training and economic dignity to widows
and other destitute women is Guild of Service which runs Aamar Bari
for 103 widows. Unfortunately, a majority of the residents of Aamar
Bari are too old to work. Pramoda is 90 to 95 years and Satyavati is
said to be 112. Many of those bent double with age cannot obviously go
out and work but within the confines of the home they wash their own
clothes, plates, glasses and other utensils after having the meal
prepared by the younger inmates.
Trained nursing aides administer medicine
But the younger ones in
their 40s, 50s and even early 60s are eager to supplement their
income. From 10.30 a.m. till about 5 pm, with a break for lunch, is
work time. Shefali Chakravarty, a skilled craftsperson for leather
goods and for tailoring the poshak of Lord Krishna and his
companion, Radha, arrives with a few women trained by her, bundles of
leather, bolts of brightly coloured cloth for the deities’ dresses
and the gold piping and ribbons. All those interested in improving
their economic status learn to cut and stitch the leather pieces into
functional leather pouches, bags to carry loose coins, credit cards
etc. While the bags to keep the mobile are Rs 80 a piece, the smaller
money bags etc cost Rs 60 to 40 a piece. In a day, a trained woman can
make three to five pouches. The older women make cotton wicks for the
lamps and the younger ones learn to stitch pretty clothes for the gods
and goddesses of Vrindavan. Shefali markets the goods herself to
traders in Agra, Jaipur, Mathura and Nainital.
A lot of the bags and namkeens
come to the Guild of Service office and are marketed by the staff. The
wicks for the lamps, the poshak of Radha and Krishna, the beads
for chanting and the neatly stitched cotton bags to hold the beads are
marketed to traders in the vicinity. Some women even make petticoats
and blouses. Drying in the sun at Aamar Bari are the wadis.
When it is not wadis the women are busy rolling out papads.
Threading bead chains to be worn with specs
The women, sitting in
the comfort of the home and working at their own pace, earn anything
from Rs 300 to Rs 800 a month. Some excellent namkeens are also
made by the women but only in season, says Bhagwati, the culinary
expert of the home. A Marwari from Calcutta, 60-year-old Bhagwati came
to Vrindavan two years ago after the death of her husband and
father-in-law. While her father-in-law was a manager of a mill, her
husband looked after a petrol pump. "I left my son to look after
my mother-in-law and came to Vrindavan for peace and solace," she
says. Bhagwati is the official chappati-maker of the home. The
dough is kneaded by someone else but chappati-making is her
responsibility and she takes pride in the softness of her chappatis.
Every day a mountain of chappatis are made. Bhagwati earns Rs
500 a month for making chappatis and for the namkeens of
the season another couple of hundred rupees. Her son had just sent her
four saris and she twirled and proudly showed the one she was wearing.
Bhagwati’s only weakness is tobacco and she makes frequent visits to
the shop around the corner for the pudiya. In Kolkata her
children would indulge her with a whole box of paan bahar, she
recalls. But Bhagwati has no complaints. She is happy to be in Aamar
Vocational training is
given not only to the widows but to other poor women who want to
supplement the family income. Shyama Giri who lives in Durgapura
colony of Vrindavan learnt how to make Thakur’s dresses at
Kishorpura six months ago. For making a set of 12 dresses for the Lord
she gets Rs 36. She and her 14-year old daughter Uma Giri, who does
the tailoring, work as a team. If I could get a loan and buy the cloth
and other trinkets for decorating the Gods, I could earn up to Rs 100
a day, she says. Since Shyama’s husband is a mahant, wearing
saffron robes and wandering off on a spiritual trip when he wishes,
the income earned by the two women gets food on the table for the
In 2004, when the
Akshaya Patra (midday meals) scheme was started by Krishna Heritage
(the Bangalore based ISKCON group), a small batch of widows from Aamar
bari went there to make chappatis, clean the rice and chop vegetables.
They were paid Rs 1,400 to Rs 1,500 a month. When Akshaya Patra went
into mechanised chappati-making, the work stopped for a lot of the
women. Chabbi, a widow from Bengal, who was with Aamar Bari for seven
years, left the ashram two years ago to stay in a rented room and work
for Akshaya Patra. She cleans rice and chops vegetables from 9.30 am
to 5 pm and earns Rs 1,500 a month. She gets her lunch at her work
place and has only to cook one meal a day. Occasionally, she goes to
the Bhajan ashrams to sing and earn a little extra. She does not find
it demeaning. In her mid-50s, Chabbi has walked out of the shelter of
the home and is an independent member of society. She pays a nominal
rent of Rs 400 a month and has a bank account. A lot of widows have
bank accounts and their deposits are growing slowly but steadily.
Some 200 widows and
young, unemployed women have done a three-month-course as nursing
aides and most of them are employed in the hospitals and nursing homes
of Vrindavan, Mathura and Agra. Chabbi’s daughter, 30 years old
Lalitha, came to Vrindavan six years ago not in search of her mother
but to improve her own life. Her husband, a house painter, was finding
it difficult to get work in Bengal and Vrindavan seemed a good option.
So husband in tow, she landed at Vrindavan and sought the help of
Aamar Bari and Guild of Service, where her mother was staying. Lalitha
was in one of the first batches to do the nursing aide’s course. She
works at Aamar Bari and helps look after the old and infirm. She gives
injections, drips, bedpan and sponges and changes the clothes of the
Dei is her patient at Aamar Bari. When Usha came to Aamar Bari two
years ago she could walk and do her work with some difficulty. But a
spine injury that occurred after an accident some 15 years ago has
resurfaced and today she is confined to her bed and is not