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Waiting to Die on Banks of a River of Salvation

Indian society is harsh on widows. Many come to Varanasi on the Ganges, a waterway they say has the power to end their torment forever.

November 24, 2002|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

VARANASI, India — Scissors snip, and the widow tears a strip of old dress cloth. Then she snips and rips again, repeating a tedious ritual with only one salvation in sight. Maybe this will be the day she dies. In a long lifetime of torment, each day that she stays alive allows death to punish her a little more by making her wait.

Kamala Devi Mukherjee, 70, sits barefoot in the doorway of a dark sweatshop where there is just enough room for two rickety looms and stacks of sari cloth waiting to be torn and weaved into bedcovers. The piecework pays less than a dollar a day. With the few cents she earns daily cleaning three families' homes, Mukherjee has enough to rent a room where she sleeps on the floor.

Indian society can be especially harsh on widows. Barred by their Hindu faith from remarrying, many are left with little education, few skills and no one to support them.

Although some progressive families shrug off the customary ban on remarrying, which only applies to women, the majority of Hindus still uphold it. That leaves many widows with a painful choice: suffer in silence or, like Mukherjee, strike out on your own.

Like many widows before her, Mukherjee left her village home 15 years ago to live alone here in the holy city of Varanasi. The widows believe that by dying here, on the banks of the mother Ganges River, they will be reunited with their creator and the recurring cycle of birth, death and reincarnation will cease. This moment of liberation is called moksha, and with it, an infinite pain passes.

"I now want to die quickly," Mukherjee said through an interpreter, pulling on another strip of cloth. "I've had enough suffering in my life."

She can find no comfort in childhood memories. Mukherjee's parents sold her in marriage to a farmer from Diamond Harbor, in West Bengal state, when she was 7. Her newlywed husband, Bijoy, was a widower with four children. The child bride visited his home only once, then returned to her parents after Mukherjee's father had second thoughts about the groom, she said.

Two years after they were married, Bijoy died. At 9, Mukherjee was a widow, bound by ancient tradition to remain faithful to a man she had never really known, let alone loved.

She lived with her parents in the West Bengal city of Navadwip and learned the harsh lessons of survival as a social outcast. Before long, her parents were dead too, and Mukherjee lost her last refuge.

"My brother, together with his wife, stopped giving me food and fought regularly," she said. "I tolerated it for a long time and when I could not take it any more, I came here."

A recent study by Varanasi social workers Rolee Singh and her husband, Rajeev, concluded that between 2,000 and 5,000 impoverished widows from other parts of India are in Varanasi waiting to die. There is just one government-run shelter for them. It has room for only 16 women.

Many of the city's widows have fled physical and emotional abuse, and fall victim to more in Varanasi. Rolee Singh says that mistreatment of widows is common in Indian society, especially in rural areas where most of the country's 1 billion people live.

Singh took in a widow whose son beat her so badly that she was paralyzed in one arm. It was punishment for shaming the family by working as a maid, the social worker said.

Varanasi's widows are easy prey for merchants or charlatan sadhus, or holy men, who roam the steps leading to the Ganges in search of naive pilgrims or gullible tourists.

"There are some fake sadhus who wear [holy] saffron dress but who are criminals at heart and who exploit these women sexually," Singh said. "Once it happens to them, they stay quiet because it is a big shame here in India to be raped or sexually exploited."

Widows are expected to live by often humiliating social rules. The worst rituals of the past -- such as shaving their heads or committing suicide on their husbands' funeral pyres -- are rare nowadays.

But the women still are supposed to sleep on the floor, eat a bland vegetarian diet that excludes onions or garlic, dress plainly without makeup, and stay away from public celebrations such as weddings.

The restrictions are rationalized, in part, as essential to suppressing a widow's sexual desires so that she will not be tempted to betray her late husband, said Singh, whose charity has begun aiding some of the destitute widows in Varanasi.

"As a child, a girl is taught that when she marries, her husband is God," Singh said. "She has to bow and touch her husband's feet in respect. When he dies, she is left blank and doesn't know what to do or where to go."

Even in their desperation, the widows often feel better off in Varanasi because they are free for the first time in their lives, Singh said.

"In India, the day a girl-child is born in a house she has to take orders from her father," she said. "When she gets married, she has to take orders from her husband. And in the last stage of life, she must take orders from her son.

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