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.

(*not word-for-word)


Anonymous said...

The Real Bhopal Tragedy - 15,000 people had to die to let us know that MNC's had bought over the judiciary too, after our neta's, babu's and the media.

Arjun Singh treated Warren Anderson as a 'state guest', kept him in Carbide Guest House for 6 hours, and then put him on Govt plane!

I go to bed tonight with a bitter taste of Ammonium Nitrate on my tongue and a dark guilt of 15,000 murders on my conscience. gt (from my good friend sp)

Musings of a wanderer said...

There are a series of photographs by Claude Renault on Vrindavan on flickr. Very poignant. I can't help but imagine these very old Radhas waiting for the death. The unison with the God. Very sad.

marginalien said...

Thank you, both gt and 'wanderer. I've not wanted to shift this post about Moksha away from the top of the blog (yes, I know I can format the page to ensure that it remains there, but that's not what I mean or what I intend to do). The fate of these ladies is beyond sad: it really is criminal. I don't how society can be made to account for this type of cruelty.

marginalien said...

Here is a link to Claude Renault's flickr stream -- this link is to one particular image (of a widow waiting in queue to receive her meagre allowance of food), but there are more there. Thank you for referring to the pictures, wanderer.

Hemamalini said...

I had attended a wedding recently and my wind wandered to this article. Somehow wanted to come back here and say that.

nish said...

The only thing i have learnt to do is turn my mind away coz the thought of that life is unbearable, but then maybe my heart still lives coz it whispers to me to read again for such sadness should never be forgotten

Musings of a wanderer said...


Thanks for the thanks!

You are right, this is nothing less than human rights violation. The only reason for this not making so much news, which it should, is that people do not find the necessary TRP for this.Somehow we have accepted this reality. And acceptance could take a dangerous thing sometimes.