A life of ashes - The story of India's widows

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There are more than 40 million widows in India and for the majority of them, life is what some have described as a "living sati", a reference to the now outlawed practice of widow burning.



My mother became a widow at the age of 37. Soon after, she packed up her children and her belongings and left India for a job in Australia. 40 years later, her family still hasn't really recovered from losing us, and I think she's never stopped feeling guilty for leaving them.

When I asked her why she'd made such a drastic move at a time when women just didn't do that kind of thing, she replied simply that she didn't want to be a widow in India.

And a quick glance at the statistics is enough to understand what she meant by that remark. My mother was educated, from the middle class and supported by a loving and close-knit family. She was one of a very lucky minority, and even then, she found the restrictions unbearable enough to want to leave.

Nargis' plight
Think then of the life of a woman like Nargis who lives in a poor village in West Bengal. She was married off in her teens to a man already diagnosed with TB. Her parents couldn't afford a decent dowry so they settled for the first marriage offer that came their way for their daughter. Her husband died a couple of years later, leaving her a mother and a widow in her early 20's. Today she supports herself and her young son by working in people's houses.

It was not yet 10 am but the sun and the humidity made the simple act of sitting an effort. "I just came from someone's house," she said tiredly as her silent son looked expressionlessly at us from her lap. "I roasted 12 kilos of rice and made it into puffed rice and for that work they gave me 1 kilo of uncooked rice and half a kilo of puffed rice."

When she gets work, she and her son eat one meal a day. They live with her in-laws who can offer a small room for them, but are too poor themselves to help her with anything more, so Nargis has to feed and clothe herelf and her son on her own.


Living sati
There are more than 40 million widows in India - 10 percent of the country's female population. And for the majority of these women, life is what some have described as a "living sati", a reference to the now outlawed practice of widow burning.

Only 28 percent of the widows in India are eligible for pensions, and of that number, less than 11 percent actually receive the payments to which they're entitled. If a woman is not financially independent, she's at the mercy of her in laws and her parents. And if they don't have the will or the resources to take care of her and her children, she's on her own.

Hindu widows especially are faced with a battery of societal taboos; the general rule of thumb is that the higher their caste, the more restrictions widows face. Traditionally when a man dies, his widow is expected to renounce all earthly pleasures.

Widows should no longer look attractive, and are expected to wear only simple white saris for the rest of their lives. On news of their husband's death, they break their bangles and can no longer wear jewellery or use sindhoor - the red powder women wear in their parting and on their foreheads to denote their married status.

An orthodox widow may be expected to cut her hair or even shave her head. A widow from the south of the country may not even be able to wear a blouse under her sari.

Restricted diet
Her diet is also strictly restricted - she is forbidden from eating meat, fish and eggs, as well as anything touched by Muslim hands. And as traditionally, bakeries were run by Muslims, bread, biscuits or cakes are banned. Orthodox Hindus also believe that vegetables like onions, garlic and certain pulses heat the blood and are impure foods, so they're also on the list of forbidden foods. She's expected to fast several times a month, sometimes eating nothing but fruit for days on end.

A widow is sometimes called "pram" or creature, because it was only her husband's presence that gave her human status. In some Indian languages, a widow is referred to as "it" rather than "she"; in others, the word doubles as an abuse or is barely differentiated from the word for prostitute.

A great sin
Moitri Chatterjee has been campaigning for the rights of widows for years. Coming from a traditional Bengali Hindu family, she saw close up the hardships women had to suffer once their husbands died. In the world she grew up in, she saw how a family would be ostracized if they didn't adhere to the restrictions society placed on widows. "Washer men wouldn't wash their clothes, no shopkeeper would sell things to them, they wouldn't be able to participate in any rituals, and so on, so it was considered a great sin."

In addition a widow was considered inauspicious, so she couldn't be present at the rituals and celebrations that form such an integral part of Indian life, such as marriage or birth ceremonies. In some cases even her shadow was considered polluting or offensive to "cleaner" members of society.

After Moitri Chatterjee listed all the things a widow isn't traditionally allowed to do, I only half jokingly asked her if a widow is allowed to laugh. She tartly replied: "Well, they're allowed to laugh, though in those circumstances, I don't know how many would want to."'

Nuptial traditions
Traditionally, Bengal has been particularly harsh in its treatment of widows, especially when coupled with the centuries-long tradition of child marriage in the region. Copying the myth that the god Siva took Parvati as his wife when she was only eight, girls were married off as young as eight or nine years old and as Hindu India was polygamous, a man could have several wives.

Often the girls were married off to much older men, and there was even a tradition of giving daughters in marriage to travelling Brahmin priests who would come to visit a family for a night, marry the daughter, before moving on and leaving her behind.

Girls married off as children stayed in their parents' house until puberty and only then could the husband come to claim them. Unsurprisingly, these girls were often left widowed and even if they were still barely children, the restrictions still applied.

Moitri Chatterjee remembers an aunt who had been married off at eight years old, only to find herself widowed at nine. "Imagine, without even tasting married life, she became a widow and had to undergo all that penance, fasting, not eating, cutting her hair, wearing a white sari." Such child widows usually were unwanted in their in-laws' house, so they either stayed in their parents' house as unpaid labour or were sent off to the "widow cities" such as Varanasi or Vrindavan.

Pitiful lives
These cities are still magnets for widows and today they are full of dingy guest houses and ashrams where impoverished and abandoned widows come to try to eke out an existence till the death they long for comes to claim them. It is common knowledge that younger widows are often sexually exploited in these places, though the subject is taboo enough to earn an instant brush off if brought up with the authorities. As for the older women, their only hope is to plant themselves near temples or on busy streets and beg. Some go to bhajanashrams where they sit in shifts to chant prayers - for a four hour shift they can earn a cup of rice and 7 rupees - about 12 cents.

Lakhi Pal was brought to Varanasi by a neighbour when she became too old to take care of herself. She is one of the 18 old women who live a pitiful existence in the shabby government home at Durgakund. A widow for a quarter of a century, she once made a living by making clay pots in a village in Bengal.

Today she's old, bent almost double and weak and wheezy from an untreated asthma. Despite her infirmity however, she's expected, like the others, to cook her own meal and clean her own clothes and utensils. Each ill maintained room has four hard bunks - and each bunk is the only domain of its resident who sits on it, sleeps on it, and stores her meagre possessions above or under it.

Lakhi Pal must, like the others, cook her daily dal and rice on a small primus stove near her bunk. There is no kitchen. Each woman is given Rs400 a month - about eight euros for food and medicine.

An end to all the misery

I visited many ashrams and homes in India, talked to an endless stream of women like Lakhi Pal. There was Malti Mishra who said she had burnt all her hopes on her husband's pyre, Priti Yadha Bhai who 30 years ago was married for only ten days, Margeret whose three adult daughters in Australia think she's dead, Anwara Bibi who bore nine children but still begs food to survive. They all had their different sorrows but every one of them ended with the same sentence. "I want nothing more now from life. I'm just waiting for death."

These conditions don't bespeak the conditions for all widows - and I can only be grateful that my mother, like the educated middle class she comes from, was exempt from a life spent in the kind of places described here. India is changing no doubt, but even in today's India - the India of the silicon revolution - there are still millions of women who are left without the options offered to the moneyed middle class.


Taken from The State We're In, 31 October 2009 edition

(First broadcast as part of RNW's Vox Humana series on 15 September 2006)