Monday, May 31, 2010
An article I read about the widows of Vrindavan many years ago made such a deep impression on me that forever afterward, I could not hear the word "widow" without thinking of that article. There was a single photograph, showing tiny bowed figures dressed in greyish white, sitting by the steps of a temple.
Then on NDTV, recently, I happened to catch a glimpse of a documentary feature called MOKSHA, by filmmaker and friend Pankaj Butalia. The five minutes I watched were enough to make me want to see the whole thing, so with a few shakes of the e-mail tree and a month's delay because of my travel sched, the DVD was in my hands. Magic Lantern Foundation, the distributors of the film, were exactly as prompt and courteous as their name suggests they might be.
The film is quiet, powerful and very beautiful. I could say "sad" but the nakedness of what it shows us cannot possibly be covered by any mere words like "sad" or "tragic". At one end of the spectacle of Indian life there's the gaudy frenzy of weddings but at the other end ... these bowed figures, with their shaven heads, little cloth bags, scrawny hands and their bare bodies, blouseless, swaddled in thin cotton the colour of ash and bones.
The fragment I saw on NDTV quoted a nineteenth century account of a nine-year-old girl's death: she is a child-widow still living in her father's house. She falls ills and is burning with fever, but because it is a day of fasting she is forbidden water by a senior widow in the clan. She dies of thirst, having "licked the whole floor of the room (she was locked into) in search of a little moisture".*
What does one do with such stories, such images? One click away, on TV, there are girls striding about like gender empowerment shock troops, grinding their hips and sticking their glistening lips out at the world in quest of a better shampoo or a more meaningful potato crisp. Meanwhile, in Vrindavan, today, right now, even as you read this, there are thousands of these other women, unrecognizable as the same species so bent and shrunken are they, as they wait for death while eking out a living by singing bhajans to Krishna.
One of the achievements of this film, it seems to me, is that it manages to slide in between that moment when you want to turn your face away and that other moment, when you want to stare, to reveal the femininity of even these women who have been stripped of that very thing. There are the faint echoes of beauty that still cling to the shape of the nose, the calm straight lines of the brow, the ritual of applying white ash on the forehead, the bridge of the nose, some with dots on either side, some without. And there is that heart-breakingly steady gaze, without self-pity, as the life is described: yes, I am alone, yes, I have nothing, yes, my husband died in my arms, and then yes, my children threw me out.