Last year, Maitri found a 95-year-old widow Kanchan Das living and begging on the streets of Radhakund, a small village a few kilometres outside of Vrindavan. The organization took her under their care and she sleeps on her own bed with a roof over her head today. Petite, with absolutely no ounce of fat on her, her bones stick out of her simple, white sari, which she wears without a blouse. It’s taken innumerable conversations to deduce that she’s been living off Vrindavan’s streets for the past 14 years. Yes, at the age of 81, when her husband passed away, Kanchan Maa, as she is fondly referred to by the Maitri staff, made her way from her village in West Bengal to Vrindavan.
Several widows like Kanchan Maa find their way to Vrindavan on a daily basis. They come primarily from West Bengal and even from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. To prevent them from inheriting their deceased husbands’ property, they are disowned by their families; many a times by their own sons! Spend a day with Maitri’s founder Mrs. Singh and she’ll share with you heart-breaking stories of women at the organization’s home for poor widows, who have been tortured and embarrassed by their own sons, to the point of utter humiliation, forcing them to leave home.
Women like 67-year-old year old Shakti Dasu from Bengal. Dasu made her way to Vrindavan a year after her husband’s death. She is from a well-to-do family, which owned a shop and a three-storey house. With eyes on the property, her son literally broke bones in both of her legs and inflicted her with burns and serious injuries. After a year of torture, she could take it no more. She gave him everything she owned and found refuge at Radhakund. Earning Rs. 10 rupees a day and chanting in government ashrams is more respectable a life.
This tradition of women finding their way back to Vrindavan dates back to ancient Hindu traditions, when the caste system was very much prevalent. While widowed men could re-marry and live normal lives, customs prevented upper widows from remarrying. So many abandoned by their families on the death of their husbands, used to make their way here. They believed that the “Lord (Krishna)” would take care of them here. There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 widows living on the streets of Vrindavan even today, many of whom have spent over 30 years here!
As Vrindravan(/Mathura) lies on the banks of the Ganga, like Varanasi, many families come here to carry out the last rights of their deceased family members. This includes singing bhajans, for which widows are thus recruited. In exchange for singing bhajans/hymns for 7–8 hours in bhajan ashrams, women are given a cup of rice and a pittance of money (around Rs. 20), which they try to supplement by begging on the streets.
Vrindavan does not seem to have let go of the 19th Century and still clutches on to age-old traditions. People here still regard these women as bad omens, as achoots (untouchables) to be kept away from social gatherings and auspicious occasions. As Col. Singh shared with me, “Just as one takes two steps back if a black cat crosses one’s path, it’s the same with the widows here.” To which his wife adds, “It is for this reason that we had great difficulty finding a place to rent when we first started out. Every one refused when they learnt it was for widows.”
Renting premises will no longer be a problem as the organization is setting up its own “Maitri Ghar and Ageing Resource Center,” with the funding they received from Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate. The new building will allow them to provide a roof to over 100 widowed mothers. Their other activities will also continue from here. These include providing the women with midday meals, fruits, medicines, nutritional supplements and clothes. The organization also helps women with Aadhar and Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards to help them gain access to government benefits like medical insurance and pension. In addition, regular medical check ups are done as well as cataract and other old age surgeries, where required.
The building will also serve as an Ageing Resource Center for research and capacity building for care of the elderly. Plans are also afoot to provide vocational training to the women here. The organization is partnering with companies to teach the women skills for income generation and create employment opportunities for them. Like The Taj Hotels and Resorts, which has agreed to teach chocolate-making and packaging skills to the women.
Since 2010, the NGO has reached out to about 500 widows. Despite these efforts, it plays but a small role as the scale of widows’ issues is vast. Unofficial estimates put the number of widows in Vrindavan at around 15,000-20,000, which is way more than India’s current NGO sector can cope with.
In recent years, the Government has made a small attempt to improve the plight of these poor women by passing a legislation that will protect widows in Vrindavan and other parts of the country. This was the Maintenance of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, which was passed in 2007; making it illegal for children to abandon their parents. However, as is usually the case, the legislation exists only on paper. In most cases, widows are poorly educated and are not able to understand or even demand their rights. Moreover, as Mrs. Singh said, “Though laws are enacted, traditional values often render them impractical.” Like in the case of Shakti Dasu. Winnie Singh had offered to fight her case and get her land and property back, but Dasu declined. “She knows that if she gets back her house from her son, her community will not accept her. They will instead label her as the ‘woman who threw her own son out of the house’.” So, she’s better off at Vrindavan, believe it or not.
With beliefs like these, it’s going to be a long time till widows like Kanchan Maa and Shakti Dasu are accepted by their families. Until that time, it is only organizations like Maitri that can give these women a life of dignity and respect. Spend a day at Maitri Ghar, as I did, and you’ll realize that the women are truly cared for. As Kanchan Maa herself playfully says, “If he doesn’t press my feet every day, I throw a tantrum,” gesturing to Santosh Chaturvedi, manager of the Maitri ashram. He also lives up without fail to her demand of 3 paans a day – after lunch, evening tea, and dinner. He says, “I didn’t have much of a relationship with my own mother. But I have a strong connection with Kanchan Maa. Caring for her needs is more my dharma (life’s purpose) than my karma (duty).” Touché.