|Subject:||Once Widowed in India, Twice Scorned|
|Author:||Bahadur Singh Nagina|
|Date:||Friday, 7/24/98 12:55 PM MDT|
Once Widowed in India, Twice Scorned
By JOHN F. BURNS: March 29, 1998: New York Times:
VRINDAVAN, India -- Govind Dasi has only a vague sense of the passing
years, but this much she knows: She was married at 12 in her native village
outside Calcutta, widowed at 14 when her teen-age husband died of
tuberculosis, then forced to work as an unpaid servant for her
mother-in-law for about 30 years.
About 15 years ago, penniless and despairing, she boarded a train for
the 1,000-mile journey west to Vrindavan, the holy city that has been a
point of convergence for Indian widows for at least 500 years.
If Govind does not remember exactly how long she has been here, it is
partly because she is illiterate, and partly because of the seamlessness
of time. Like the other widows who migrate to this city in central India,
she makes her way before dawn each day to one of 4,000 Hindu temples, where
she joins in chants to the deity Krishna. Her surname, Dasi, "servant" in
Hindi, is adopted by all the widows here to show their religious devotion.
Along with poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition, many Indians regard
the plight of the 33 million Hindu widows as one of the darkest blots on
the nation's conscience -- one that 200 years of social activism and
legislation has only partly erased. To be a Hindu widow in the 1990s, at
least a poor one, according to Uma Chakravarty, a sociologist at Delhi
University, is still to suffer "social death."
The core of the problem lies in what Indian sociologists call patrilocal
residence -- the custom of Hindu brides marrying into their husbands' families,
largely severing ties with their own. In many cases, especially when widowhood
comes early, this leaves a woman dependent on in-laws whose main interest
after her husband's death is to rid the family of the burden of supporting her.
But like many of Vrindavan's widows, Govind has little inclination to
bewail her fate.
"Whatever happens to us happens; it is our karma," she said, referring
the Hindu belief that life's fortunes are dictated by good or evil deeds in
former lives. "In any case, if we say we are suffering, who is going to bother?
We will still be alone, and we will still be left with only one solution, to
pray to God. It is our life, and we must live it, and hope for better in
When they are not chanting in the temples, most of the 5,000 widows
spend that life alone, without family, often without proper shelter, and
with no savings beyond the few rupees they tuck into their saris. Many came
here voluntarily to escape the miseries of life as outcasts in their native
villages, as Govind did. Others were brought by their families on the
pretext of making pilgrimages, then abandoned.
For most, survival is assured by meager handouts of rice and lentils
the temples, coupled with a stipend of 2 rupees -- about 5 cents -- if they
chant for four hours in the evening, on top of the four morning hours of holy
choruses. Some live beneath stairwells, on verandas, or in makeshift shelters,
using old jute matting or discarded clothing for bedcovers.
But even those who can afford rooms live in fear of eviction. Their
landlords are eager to join a housing boom that has been driven partly by
the young Westerners who come in the thousands as Krishna devotees.
For the younger widows -- some barely teen-agers despite laws that forbid
child marriages -- there is the additional threat of being forced into sex
with landlords, rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, policemen, even Hindu holy men.
This, too, has historically been part of the widows' lot. The tradition
widows being forced to have sex with other men in their husbands' families, or
to sell sex, was once so widespread that the Hindi word "randi," or widow,
became a synonym for prostitute.
Govind's life is better than many. Along with her chanting, she works
seamstress in a garment factory, earning 500 rupees a month to supplement the
125 rupees she gets as a widow's pension.
This is enough to pay for a room on the edge of the city, and a few
comforts, like a spare sari in the white muslin that is the traditional
widow's garb, and a pair of sandals, since she would otherwise go barefoot.
Still, she worries about what will happen when she grows too old to work
or walk to the temples anymore.
"Life is not happy, but it is not so unhappy either," she said as she
on the floor of a local schoolhouse, where she gathered with a dozen other
widows who visit to get help from the principal, Kamala Ghosh. Govind went on,
"But when I think of the future, then I get worried." Voice breaking, eyes
brimming, she paused. Then, composed again, she resumed. "It's all karma
anyway, so what's the use of thinking?"
Mrs. Ghosh, 51, is in a long line of Hindu activists going back to Ram
Mohan Roy, an early 19th-century reformer. One of Roy's goals was the banning
of the custom of suttee, the immolation of widows on their husbands' funeral
pyres. It was outlawed by a British colonial governor, Lord William
Bentinck, in 1829.
Despite the ban, the practice has survived, with occasional reports
widows dousing themselves with fuel and setting themselves alight, either
voluntarily or under duress. Murders of widows are much more common.
The cause of both is most often conflict over property, particularly
Widows are pitted against their husbands' families, or sometimes their own
sons and daughters. Much of the misery inflicted on Hindu widows through
the centuries is rooted in this issue.
Mrs. Ghosh has won the widows' loyalty by battling for them: with landlords
over rent-gouging or eviction orders; with bureaucrats who delay or deny
pensions until thick files of paperwork have accumulated or sufficient bribes
have been paid, and -- most difficult of all -- with those said to have
sexually harassed them.
Although Indian studies have shown that widows' sexual vulnerability
entrenched fact of life, most widows are reluctant to acknowledge the problem
for fear of being barred from the temples or otherwise ostracized.
"No! No! We are married to Lord Krishna," the women at Mrs. Ghosh's
schoolhouse said in chorus, after an exchange of glances, when asked
about unwanted sex.
Vrindavan's appeal to widows over the centuries has rested on the belief
that Krishna, the most human incarnation of the universal Hindu god Vishnu,
played along the banks of the Jumna River here as a boy and teased girls as
they bathed in it. Krishna's appeal to the widows is said to lie partly in
his boyhood waywardness and partly in his adult incarnation as the ideal lover.
As with the battle to uproot some of the most regressive aspects of
ancient Hindu social hierarchy known as caste, those who fight for widows'
rights must reckon with ancient scriptures. According to the Skanda Purana,
one early Hindu text, widows are to be avoided.
"The widow is more inauspicious than all other inauspicious things,"
says. "At the sight of a widow, no success can be had in any undertaking;
excepting one's mother, all widows are void of auspiciousness. A wise man
should avoid even her blessings like the poison of a snake."
Attitudes evolve at a glacial pace, especially in the 650,000 villages
where nearly three-quarters of all Indians live. The banning of suttee was
followed in the late 1800s by another British law removing the Hindu ban on
remarriage. But the taboo on second marriages has remained strong.
Another widow at the Vrindavan schoolhouse, Urmila Dasi, 35, who was
married at 11 in her village in Bangladesh and widowed at 14, said she had
longed for a second husband and children but abandoned the idea.
"I dreamed of it," she said, "but I was told that society would not
it, that if I did it anyway, I would be an outcast. But I was only a child
then. Later I came to understand that if I remarried, the honor of my family
would be lost, that it is our Hindu custom to have only one husband and that
if he died, it was only because I had bad karma. And if I had bad karma,
what was the point of remarrying?"
Since independence, Indian governments have revised inheritance laws
entrench widows' rights to a share of their husbands' property, and legislated
for pensions. But more often than not, laws are circumvented. One study found
that inheritance laws often served to entrap women. Their husbands' families,
intent on preventing division of land and homes, frequently forced them to
remarry back into the family.
The old customs mean that many Hindu girls are twice blighted. Parents
eager to unburden themselves of a daughter arrange a childhood marriage,
and widowhood leaves the woman unwanted again.
Govind still weeps when she recalls the miseries after her husband
died in the early 1950s.
"It was terrible working all those years as my mother-in-law's servant,"
she said. "But here things are much better. All around, there are cries
of 'Krishna! Krishna!' and that makes me feel as though I belong."