Vrindavan — the name evokes a beautiful green forest of the fragrant and holy Vrinda plant.
Vrindavan — the name evokes a beautiful green forest of the fragrant and holy Vrinda plant. The town by this name in Uttar Pradesh, however, is often associated with the large number of widows who have been shunted out of their homes by their families. These widows live a wretched life away from their friends and society. They are expected to erase their identities, aspirations and wants while living a life of forced piety and devotion. Recently, these women who, at best, have a shadowy presence in our lives captured our imagination by celebrating Holi with uncharacteristic abandon and joie de vivre. The contrast was stark, the image of the self-abnegating widow stood completely overturned by the pictures of widowed women laughing and submitting to pleasure.
The widow has often been seen as inauspicious and malevolent. These assumptions often result in cruel and harsh treatment of the widow. The widow’s sexuality has always been a matter of concern; an unattractive appearance and simple food that would supposedly tame her sexual urges were prescribed. Of course, India is not alone in this. In Africa for instance, among the Igbos of the south-eastern Nigeria, a widow is subjected to various degrees of dehumanising practices or rites all in the name of customs and traditions. These practices may include denial of inheritance rights, shaving of hair, drinking from the water used in bathing the deceased spouse to sitting and sleeping on the floor. Wifely devotion and chastity is supposedly the key to the husband’s longevity. The pious wife would not wish to outlive her husband, no wonder that in many parts of India, the most sought after boon for a married woman is to precede her husband in death — “sada suhaagan raho”!
Widowed women in upper-caste Hindu society did not have too many options. In some parts of the subcontinent, the practice of Sati (ritual burning of the widow on the husband’s funeral pyre) eliminated the widow and thereby quashed any claims on the property and holdings of the husband. Or else, the widow was assigned a social death. She was not acknowledged at family functions, in fact, she had to take great care to make herself invisible at such times. In a primarily agricultural society, where land ownership was the key to power, widows were seen as irritants who might claim a share.
One of the earliest “social reform” movements in India in the 19th century was situated around the question of widowhood. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was the first Indian intellectual to successfully argue against the abominable strictures against widows. A Sanskrit scholar and a passionate social reformer, Vidyasagar was a leading proponent of widow remarriage in colonial India. Vidyasagar’s rereading of Hindu scriptures was combined with an emotional plea on behalf of the widow, resulting in the possibility of a dialogue around the issue of widowhood and remarriage.
Due to the efforts of people like Vidyasagar and others, the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act was finally enacted in 1856. The fact, however, is that legal initiatives are of limited significance and worth. Laws can at best only nudge society to move in a desirable direction. The real challenge would lie in creating spaces and opportunities for women where they can be valued for who they are, be free to pursue their interests, own property and have financial autonomy and possess the confidence to make life choices that may or may not include marriage.
Widowhood becomes the haunting spectre that it does, because most women have limited and regulated access to economic, cultural and intellectual opportunities. Women thus tend to internalise messages of low self-worth and dependence. Lacking in autonomy, most women learn quickly to please and win over those who will lend dignity, meaning and charm to their lives. Of these figures, the husband is undoubtedly the most important. It is time that women and young girls are assured of their worth and potential without reference to marriage.
We cannot help notice that the centrality of the institution of marriage in a woman’s life is almost directly proportional to the fear and stigma attached to the prospects of widowhood. Any attempt to demystify widowhood should ideally be accompanied by attempts to demystify marriage as well. Life is possible despite widowhood, and marriage need not necessarily enhance the experience of life. Often times, in fact, marriage obstructs the possibility of a free and happy life for women. In a society where marriage is seen as an inevitable fact of life, an unmarried woman experiences near social erasure, a widow additionally experiences stigma and prejudice. Not for her colours and comforts, food and fragrance or music and merriment. It is in this context that the initiative taken by some groups, like the Sulabh International since 2013 to organise Holi festivities involving the widows of Varanasi, Vrindavan and Mathura acquires tremendous significance.
By now, most of us have feasted our eyes on the bright colours of the celebration by the hapless widows of Vrindavan. There is an undeniable voyeurism in the photographs, a suggestion of some forbidden pleasure and a hint of sexual transgression. Of course, it remains a bold initiative at breaking stereotypes and challenging set prejudices. It has undeniably brought some gaiety into the lives of the widows of Vrindavan. In this bleak landscape of the endless white of the widow, Holi — a festival of colours, revelry and a licence for sexualised fun is a radical new entrant. Measures like these however sidestep the more serious concern of why widowhood should be a scourge at all. A society that offers women access to property, paid employment, education and sexual autonomy would create independent women, who would know how to live their life with dignity and joy whether they be single, married or widowed.
Festive celebrations relieve the tedium of everyday, this attempt to infuse colour and joy into the barren lives of the widows of Vrindavan is surely welcome, but this should not lull us into accepting the harshness of a society that pushes these women into the vidhwa ashrams of Vrindavan in the first place. We need to remind ourselves of the need to challenge the inequalities and injustices, which create the sorry plight of the widows of Vrindavan whose grief is temporarily alleviated by the welcome colours of Holi. We wait for the day when men and women can freely choose the colours of their lives that may or may not feature marriage.
The writer is an associate professor in the department of political science, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University