Even as personnel and passengers wondered who these women — most of them dressed in crisp white cotton sarees, wearing garlands and carrying a flower bouquet — were, a policewoman at security check enquired in Hindi, “Where have you come from? Where are you going?” Getting an unintelligible response in rustic Bangla, she had to make do with looking at the passengers’ boarding card (ration card for these passengers). These were Vrindavan widows flying back to Kolkata for the first time since they left home.
Years of neglect, tears of joy
These aged widows, who were abandoned by their family or had fled their inhospitable homes back when the city was known as Calcutta, were returning to celebrate Durga Puja in their hometown. They were accompanied by a reporter from The Hindu.
Courtesy NGO Sulabh International, the women have been invited by several puja samitis to inaugurate puja pandals in their home State. The sojourn is aimed at helping the women break free of the stigma attached to widowhood — in rural West Bengal, widows are kept away from auspicious ceremonies. In the light of The Hindu’s report on their plight in Mathura’s shelter homes, the Supreme Court had asked SI to look after the welfare of the widows.
Ashokasundari has been in Vrindavan for six years but hesitates to share her story. “One day, several old women in the village decided to go to Vrindavan, so I tagged along and never looked back,” is all she lets on. Each one of them has a different story to tell, but on Sunday there was a common expression on their faces — of joy and happiness — and an excitement that they found difficult to suppress. “Bahut maza aaya [We enjoyed a lot],” they said when asked about their experience on board.
The flight arrived in Kolkata in no time and though the security procedures left them baffled, they conducted themselves with discipline. At the airport, they were welcomed to drumbeats and showered with flowers, bringing traffic to a virtual standstill. As they entered the ‘City of Joy’, they danced with gay abandon and posed readily for the media.
The widows will inaugurate the Palli Mangal Samity puja at Jodhpur Park and will be special guests at the many community pujas, including Salt Lake's FE Block and the Singhi Park puja where the pandal is a replica of the Govindaji temple at Vrindavan. They have also been invited to pujas at Rajarhat and Barasat. Lodging arrangements have been made for them at a hotel on CIT Road.
Even as the invitations keep pouring in, they are just about soaking in the fact that they have actually returned to their beloved Kolkata to be a special part of the season's festivities.
Sulabh and the puja pandals involved in giving these widows a slice of happiness during this Durga Puja must be congratulated. I fells this effort should be replicated every year, as these widows live an almost condemned life, sent away to Vrindavan for the rest of their lives.
It's a life of suffering for the Vrindavan widows. This initiative by Sulabh Int'l and the various puja pandals is indeed welcome.
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