National Geographic : 2017 Feb
life after loss 87 take the hand of a living man, and start life anew.” We planned our visits to Vrindavan, and Vara- nasi, a city northwest of Kolkata that also draws thousands of widows, to coincide with a simple campaign: making it possible, during celebratory festivals, for widowed women to join in. This is more subversive than it might seem. All over In- dia the holidays of Diwali and Holi are occasions of public joy and merriment. Diwali includes gifts, bright lights, and fireworks; Holi is car- ried into the streets so people can “play Holi,” as Indians say, flinging brilliant powders and water at each other. For a woman expected to live out her remain- ing years in muffled dignity, nothing about this kind of exuberance used to be considered acceptable. “Once you become widowed, they say you are not allowed to do any festivals,” a chari- ty worker named Vinita Verma told me. “But we want these ladies to be a part of society. They have a full right to live their lives.” Verma is vice president of Sulabh Internation- al, an Indian organization that provides support services and small monthly stipends to widows in shelters in Vrindavan and Varanasi. A few years ago—tentatively at first and then on a bold- er scale—Sulabh began arranging Diwali and Holi events for widows in the two cities. Even in private, indoors, some of the women needed time to learn to relax among holiday flowers and Holi powders, Verma said. “ They felt, ‘If I touch this red color, some bad thing will happen to me.’ ” But by 2015 the holiday festivities in the “cit- ies of widows,” as Vrindavan and Varanasi are sometimes labeled in the media, were mov- ing purposefully outdoors. No denunciations appeared in the Indian media, and when Toensing and I were in India, the only complaint we heard about plans for the widows’ festivities was that they made for photogenic show with little substance—that what the widows really need are more comfortable lodgings, meals they don’t have to sing for, families that will take them home, communities that won’t label widowed women useless and inauspicious. “ The real change has to come from the societ- ies that produced them,” said Gautam, the social worker who would like to strike “widow” from the dictionary. Gautam’s home usually houses a few widows unable to find lodging, and when I asked what labels might suit these women better, it was obvious she’d considered this before too. “Mother,” she said. “If she’s not a mother, she’s a daughter, perhaps a sister. She’s also a wife. It’s just that her husband is not alive.” It seems important to remember too: The Vrindavan widows can be fierce. It takes stamina to chant for three hours without break, to squat on a hard temple floor, to bustle through unlit muddy streets in search of the next meal and hot tea. When I arrived, in November 2015, Diwali was about to begin, and one afternoon I followed Verma as she prepared for the Sulabh events, which would include a boisterous outdoor pro- cession, fireworks on the river, and a thousand new saris for the widows to wear and keep as their own—in any colors they might fancy. The saris were a gift from Sulabh, and a Vrindavan store had them stacked on display; widows in the charity’s stipend program were to arrive in groups over the course of a few hours, examining and choosing as skillful Indian sari-shoppers do. Inside the sari store my interpreter and I watched the first widows push their way toward the stack, study the saris, and summon the shop- keeper. “I like those on that other rack better,” a woman said. “Can’t we choose from those?” No, the shopkeeper explained, those were for sale. “Humph,” a widow said. She fingered the cloth of a charity sari. “Not especially good In many cultures widows are vulnerable to abusive traditions, to poverty, to the aftermath of wars that killed their hus- bands, making widow- hood itself a potential human rights calamity.