Lost In a 'Secret' Town
BY: NILANJANA BHOWMICK
FOR A SONG: Widows singing bhajans, which will earn them a meal. - Courtesy WFS
Jul 7, NABADWIP, WEST BENGAL (HBL) The harsh reality facing the widows in Nabadwip, also called `Secret Vrindavan', about 100 km from Kolkata. Widowhood continues to be a stigma in rural areas. These women are almost treated as social outcasts.
Komola Dasi is 70 years old. Her body is bent from age and ailments. Yet she sings - for four hours every morning, at the Bhajana Ashram (a place where bhajans are sung) in Nabadwip, a holy Vaishnavite town just over a hundred kilometres from Kolkata. If she does not sing, she will have nothing to eat..
"I have a son who deserted me after his marriage. He does not talk to me. Neither does he provide me with food. I have been turned out of my own home and have nowhere else to go," she says, sobbing.
However, most widows in this town are so inured to the harsh reality of their lives, they speak about it matter-of-factly. "We are very poor. My sons pull rickshaws. They can hardly make ends meet. How will they look after me," asks Sitarani Devi.
Some, like Dasi and Devi, have been abandoned by their sons, others had their houses taken over by `influential' people after their husbands died. But the widows of Nabadwip - an overwhelming majority of them old - have one thing in common apart from poverty and widowhood. They have all been abandoned by their families and share a miserable existence in this temple town.
If you walk on the streets of Nabadwip, you can see these women in white sarees, some with shaved heads. They stand out... for the slowness of their gait, their apologetic presence and lost look. They have nothing to look forward to apart from singing in the ashram, a must for their sustenance.
"Widowhood continues to be a stigma in the rural areas. These women are almost treated as social outcasts and are badly treated by their family members - often punished severely for thinking about a new life. They live miserable lives in most cases, deprived of every pleasure in life," says Kolkata-based social activist Maitreyi Chatterjee.
The religious fervour one encounters in the ashram at 7 a.m. is weak. However, it rises as the time nears 11 a.m. After four hours of continuous singing, the women are served a modest lunch - rice, lentils and a vegetable curry. The scene is almost similar to that in Vrindavan. The Bhajana Ashrama in Nabadwip is, in fact, modelled on the Bhajana Ashramas of Vrindavan. Founded in 1919, the Ashrama is also known as Gupt Vrindavan - the secret Vrindavan. Their plight has indeed remained a secret. For, while the conditions in Vrindavan have changed thanks to the active intervention of activists and NGOs, the widows of Nabadwip continue to lead a life that is a throwback to another era.
"The government has done nothing to assist these widows. On our part, we do our best to assist them by providing them with necessary articles of use. One of our donors gives them cooked lunch every day," says temple manager Biswanath Chowdhury.
Chowdhury says that on an average the temple gets around 800 women every day, while on festive occasions the figure touches 1,000. "The widows of Nabadwip do not present an organised face and as such it is hard to know exactly how many of them exist. They do not even have a place to stay. Some of them live under the trees or on someone's verandah," Maitreyi says.
The day I visited the temple, the register showed around 650 entries. While I sat watching them sing, they gathered around me hoping I was a doctor and had brought medicines, hearing aids or some miracle cure for their arthritis. The Bhajana Ashrama does not provide them with any medical service unless an emergency situation comes up. The women thus wait for the occasional medical camps sponsored by donors.
Interestingly, just across the river lies Mayapur, the headquarters of the famous ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). Inside the gates of Mayapur is a picture of opulence and abundance.
Do the widows receive any help from there? Their answer is straightforward. Says Ramesh Das, who handles press enquiries at ISKCON, "The government is there to look after these people. West Bengal is filled with destitutes and we can't look after everyone. In any case, we do not go about helping people. We help those who approach us."
Maitreyi believes only a strong movement can bring about change. But who will initiate it? "The government is not interested, and NGOs are not interested in annoying the government. It's a peculiar problem," she says.
The West Bengal Government had ordered a probe in 2000 following reports that almost 16,000 widows in Vrindavan were from Bengal. "Fearing a pushback, the government had asked the State Women's Commission to draw up some proposals for return of these widows or their rehabilitation," points out Malini Bhattacharya, member of the National Commission for Women (NCW).
But have there ever been similar efforts for the Nabadwip widows? "We probed into Vrindavan because it concerned out-of-State migration. It was reported as an acute problem, which we found to have been exaggerated upon investigation. I do not think the problem of Nabadwip is an acute one. If anyone can supply us with statistical information about the nature of the problem or if there are incidents of women trafficking, then we will definitely look into it," she says. "Perhaps the solution is something like a widow pension for these women if they can prove that they really have nowhere to turn to."
Until the NCW or the West Bengal Government decides that the condition of these women is `serious' and that theirs is also an `acute' problem, the widows of Nabadwip will remain hungry, discarded... ending up with anonymous funerals.