Varanasi: In all of the desolate, dreary corners of Varanasi, of which there are many, the worst are occupied by a community of women who everyone seems to have forgotten about. The widows of Varanasi may be 38,000 in number but they seem to have all got lost in the narrow lanes of the city, in hidden ashrams, far away from the minds of the policymakers. So when NDTV set out to look for them in the Prime Minister's constituency amidst talk that PM Narendra Modi may come up with a plan to have skill development among the younger widows, we discovered the state of neglect that they have been left to wither in. The local administration, instructed by the Prime Minister's Office, has identified a small group of about 5,000 of them that are under 40 who may get training from the UK based Loomba foundation.
We visited four of the many ashrams that house these groups of women - the Mother Teresa Ashram in Shivala Ghat was the first among them. Run by the Missionaries of Charity, we saw several young women at the ashram when we went in. But a spokesperson said that we couldn't speak to these women because they were all mentally disturbed. "We take care of them because they have nowhere else to go," said the sister-in-charge, "But they will not be able to answer any of your questions." Some of them crossed our path while we were looking for answers to what they needed from the authorities, but they only responded with vacant glances.
The Nepali Ashram on Lalita Ghat was the next stop for the NDTV crew, which was on the premises of well-known Nepalese temple. The attendants led us to two floors above the temple grounds which housed 16 inmates, the youngest being 60-years-old. When we arrived, Savitri Khandel was busy making diyas by preparing wicks. "I just make these because sometimes I cannot sleep," she told NDTV. The government proposes to enable them to earn a living when they have such skills. At the moment, Savitri Khandel earns only Rs 40 for selling 1000 such diyas. When we ask her for a reaction to the government's proposal, she says, "As long as I get a place to stay and food, it is all good."
She told us about the other women who are inmates of the ashram with her. One whose mother had spent closed to half a century, while she looked after her, and then she came back as a widow herself and was living her. Another woman who was napping when we went, had been at the ashram for four decades. How do you spend the time, we asked one. "We wake up at 3, we go to the ghat and pray for some time, then we come back and eat and then read the Bhagwad Gita," she said. And that is the only routine that keeps the women going, day in and day out, month after month, year after another year, till the day they die.
"We come here to die, what else," said Punyakala, who seemed contemptuous and suspicious of any government scheme to make her work.
Maybe, it's the belief that dying in Varanasi frees one from the cycle of birth, but it seemed that these women had just been left, waiting for them to exhale their very last breath. The Birla Ashram provided them only rooms and not boarding like the Nepali ashram, and there was no help at all for some of the very old women. When NDTV entered the Birla Ashram, we saw one elderly widow struggle to put her clothes back on after a bath by a bucket along the corridors. Another woman lay there next to a pile of rubbish and utensils, speaking to us in English but refusing to share her story.
Maybe, it's because the story is too tragic to bear retelling like that of 70-year-old Krishna Devi who has again been here for decades. "I was married to a 35-year-old when I was nine, and by the time I was 11, he got a 'sauth' (another woman). I didn't go to my in-laws but I was widowed at 18. I spent some time on my own but a few years later, I came here," she said. Now she uses a stick to go down and shop for herself, and then cook. The Birla house charges no rent, but also has just one sweeper who comes in once daily, leaving the women to fend for themselves.
It's perhaps this dark corner, of need and desperation that 35-year-old Annapurna Sharma wants to escape. Widowed three years ago, she doesn't sport the short hair of the others, nor the plain white garb. She also doesn't want to live on at an ashram, even though she covets the laptop she got from the Sulabh group. When we tell her about a proposal to help younger widows, she said, "It would be the best thing and if I had money, I'd do that too."
Annapurna Sharma is now pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Sanskrit from Patna University and hopes that it leads to some kind of employment which will free her from the widows' ashram trap. "I really want to be a professor," she told NDTV. Will the authorities wake up to her and her communities' needs?