Hundreds of white cotton sari clad women, mostly aged, with red, blue, pink, violet, magenta border stripes, some wearing different shades of white and gray, some wearing dull colors, and rarely someone wearing flamboyant colors, were sitting all together in an atrium-turned-hall with a colorful ceiling, covered with grille, like other houses in Vrindavan, to stop monkeys to come in but let the sun rays light the complex.
As I entered the Bhagwan Bhajan Ashram in Vrindavan on India’s 69th Independence Day, with the purpose to sense, feel, understand, and empathize the life of a widow in Vrindavan, I met an old woman, wearing a white sari with a faded blue border strip, sitting at one corner of the hall, chanting prayers to Krishna, and waiting for something.
She told me that approximately 2000 woman live in Bhagwan Bhajan ashrams, a big complex at whose centre we were sitting and talking. She told me many more, thousands of widows, live in other Bhajan ashrams all over Vrindavan. She told me about her native place, Asansol, Bengal, near darjeeling, where she used to live before coming to Vrindavan an year ago.
Though she was speaking in Bengali, I managed to comprehend some phrases of her long sentences, but with much difficulty. I tried talking to the supervisor of the ashram, but he said this place is only for widows and I must leave, since according to him, people like me only come here to click photos and create nuisance. He seemed to dislike me for some unknown reasons. I ignored him and kept talking to other widows, surprisingly all of them spoke in Bengali. Quoting one of them, almost 90 percent of widows in Vrindavan are from Bengal, and most of them from Asansol.
Soon, morning bhajans had stopped and the manager along with a few helpers came out of his room to distribute tokens to the widows. Each widow was given a token. Intrigued, I asked one of the widows about these tokens. She told me, “Tokens are very important. If we lose our token, they won’t give us daily supplies (rashan).” She spoke in bengali, but I understood some words, like rashan, token, and her reaction on losing the token made me understood the meaning of her sentence. It was this thing she seemed to be waiting for a long time.
I sat there for some time, beside the widow I was conversing with, clicked a few photos, and looked out to know more about the place, and its residents. I observed all the faces and amazingly found all of them beautiful, and happy. Their faith in God seemed stronger than ever. There were smiles all over the place. Some of them were sitting alone, murmuring prayers to God. Some were talking to other widows, smiling, and laughing consistently. Some were singing loudly along with other women. Some were simply waiting for their daily supplies. There was a wave of indomitable spirit in the air, and not an ounce of self pity could be seen on any face. Many among the widows were older than 70 years old, suffering from diseases, handicapped, but not one of them seemed shattered; there was a deep rooted will to embrace life as it was coming to them. It appeared as if they fear no death, rather they came Vrindavan to embrace it, peacefully, while serving the almighty.
Just when the tokens were getting distributed, I entered the premises behind the front hall to check on the daily supplies which were about to be distributed to the widows having tokens. There were hundreds packets containing rice, sugar, some money, and other packaged food. Everything was going well until the supervisor saw me going there and came after me. He stopped me, and made me leave that place. He said photography is not allowed and I must leave now. Oh, it hurt me, but I had no choice than to leave the place. This was the third time he asked me to leave, first time in a shrilling voice, making all the widows notice what he was saying. But when I was leaving, I resolved to come back in an hour. I came back, but until then, they had all gone. There were just a few widows sitting in the main hall, and even they were about to leave.
I didn’t lose hope. I went back to the Ashram in the evening and talked to more widows. The widow I had met in the morning, smiled at me, and blabbered something in bengali, which I obviously couldn’t comprehend, but her smile made my day. I attended the evening bhajan for some time, and clicked more photographs, encasing their life and spirit.
I found out, not all women known as “widows of Vrindavan” are really widows. Some of them are divorced, some of them married destitute, and some of them are left alone by their families in the old age.
Some of these widows live in government run ashrams, some live in privately run ashrams, yet most of them have to live in rented rooms with fellow widows, and depend on begging to make ends meet. The same widows who come to Bhajan ashrams (I went to just one – there are many) in the morning and evening to do bhajans and to get daily supplies, do begging in the afternoon and at night in front of the hundreds of temples across Vrindavan. Oh, they are everywhere, Vrindavan is full of them!
When I left the Bhagwan Bhajan Ashram with all the other widows after evening prayers, my pity towards them had faded away and it was replaced by a certain regard for each one of destitute, including widows, old men and women.
Their insurmountable spirit to live life with much happiness and love had a big impact on me. No more did I want to show regret at their beggarly condition; I didn’t want to feel miserable because they were living life with just enough to survive. It was because I knew now that they were happy with whatever they had. Even when they were begging, I saw them happy, and they were helpful when I asked something. I saw them gossiping, having chuckles with their aged friends. Even when they couldn’t walk properly because of a medical condition, I saw a determination on their face, an independent attitude to make sure they won’t have to depend on someone for their lives again. They are a true inspiration to live life the way it comes to you.
Happiness can only be your sleeping partner when you embrace life with no regrets. Money and not-being-a-cripple is never a necessity to a happy life!
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