The widows at the Rajkiya Briddha evam Ashakt Briddha Ashram (Mahilay) in Varanasi. Picture by Bitan Sikdar
Varanasi, Sept. 2: When the pain becomes excruciating, Lakhyi Pal smiles.
No, it’s not age — she is 98 — that has dulled her senses. For her, such “thorns” are the “pathway to salvation”, and Shiva. Pain-relieving gel, or no gel. Abandoned widowhood, or dextrocardia.
Prolonged complications from the congenital condition — where the heart is located on the right side of the thorax — has not dampened the spirits of this spunky old Varanasi widow, one of the 19 inmates of the only government-run old-age home in Uttar Pradesh.
“This is Varanasi. I’m sure to attain Shivalok (the abode of Shiva) when I die here,” she says.
It’s her last desire that still breathes hope into her wrinkled skin. She has been at the home for years. Nobody remembers how long.
At times, even talking is difficult. So she smiles, and reaches for her constant companion, a tube of gel.
“Mahadev is omnipresent,” she says, when the strong ointment has numbed the pain a bit. “He looks after me.”
The assistance of Rs 1,200 per person the home gets from the government tells a different story.
There’s another problem, too — of ensuring at least a dignified farewell for the inmates after death, according to their religion.
The Supreme Court had last month directed the state government to ensure proper last rites for the “Vrindavan widows” after expressing shock at the way their bodies were disposed of, cut into pieces and dumped in gunny bags.
“With such a paltry assistance, when it becomes hard to even provide nutritious food, how can one think about proper last rites?” asks Dev Sharan Singh, the superintendent of the home, Rajkiya Briddha evam Ashakt Briddha Ashram (Mahilay).
But he has found a way out. He personally takes care of the dah sanskar (last rites). “When an inmate passes away, I make arrangements to take the body to either Manikarnika Ghat or Harishchandra Ghat (both crematoriums) and ensure a proper dah sanskar. If no one approaches us with the money required to cremate a body, I give it myself. It requires around Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000.”
District probationary officer .P. Saini, however, claimed the government “reimburses” the money after the home authorities “submit the expenses”.
The home used to be run by the state’s social welfare department before the women welfare department took over in December 2009. Till April last year, no funds reached the ashram, which barely managed with donations by visitors.
“The funds crunch took a toll on the home’s maintenance. We failed to provide even basic facilities such as nutritious food, proper treatment or a water filter,” says Singh.
The home was built in 1953 to provide shelter to Bengali widows. The building was converted to an old-age home in 1988.
Staff shortage has exacerbated the situation. A clerk, a cook, a nurse and three Group D employees look after the 19 inhabitants. “Apart from the government help, we receive aid mostly in kind, such as food, medicine or white saris from NGOs and other visitors. In fact, the Group D staff have not been paid their salaries since December 2009,” says former clerk Navneet Ranjan, who has recently been transferred.
Bengalis, who form an integral part of the city’s population, have also not come forward to help widows like Lakhyi.
Pijush Kanti Ghosh, a chemist and long-time resident of Varanasi, blames the apathy on lack of political backing. “One needs to have political support to carry out welfare programmes for the widows here,” says the 58-year-old.
“Moreover, people have become more self-centred. Hence, we organise Durga Puja every year with much pomp to celebrate true Bengali culture.”
Shanti Sarkar, 79, another inmate of the home for the past seven years, however, bears no grudge. Apparently.
She, at least, has a roof over her head, unlike many like her who are forced to beg on the streets.
She has only one wish: a dip in the Ganga. “It might have made my journey to eternity smoother.”
But there’s no one to take her to the ghats.