Vrindavan, Sept. 5: One rides a lion; the other might merely fly. But come October, goddess and mortal could both match steps.
In less than five weeks from now, Vrindavan widow Manu Ghosh could be headed back to Calcutta more than 40 years after she had walked out of her son’s house in New Alipore after an altercation.
In a first for the widows, Durga Puja committees in the Bengal capital have invited them to come over and spend the five days from October 10 when the state celebrates its biggest festival.
If the 90-year-old does make the trip back to her old city, it would coincide with the homecoming of the goddess, her yearly visit to her parents’ home with her children.
Ghosh, who left home soon after her husband passed away, can still hear the sound of dhaks and the rustle of colourful saris. “They are still in my mind,” she says, “like a fragrance of happiness.”
The old lady is among 800 widows who live in ashrams, aided by the NGO Sulabh, which would select 50 of them for the October trip, depending on their health.
|Widows in Vrindavan on Thursday. Picture by Prem Singh
“They have had sad lives; we just try and make things a little better for them. That is why we are determined to take them to Calcutta for the Puja as we have received some invitations. We will select 50 of them and take them to their city in style. They will fly for the first time and you can’t imagine how excited they are,” said Sulabh founder Bindeshwar Pathak.
The NGO had been asked by the Supreme Court last year to devise schemes to rehabilitate widows in Vrindavan and Hardwar following reports that they were living in deplorable conditions.
Most of the widows who now live at ashrams in Vrindavan are from Bengal.
Today, after they learnt of the possible plane ride, the excitement was palpable. “I would love to go but I don’t think my back will hold up,” said Lalita Adhikari, who has spent 50 years in Vrindavan.
She was 58 when she arrived in this holy Uttar Pradesh town. That makes her 108.
Her eyes are still sharp and she reads out from the Ramayan every day to her companions, but she has trouble hearing and her memory often fails. “I can’t tell you what I am expecting because I can’t recall how I spent the Puja when I was in Calcutta,” she said.
But she would probably wear a new sari and offer anjali — if she makes the trip.
The widows, who are all over 60, live in small cramped quarters, often sharing rooms with five others. “We don’t mind living like this. But we don’t want to be insulted by our sons and daughters-in-law. Here, we are united in grief,” said Shantipadma Devi, 90.
She has no family to go back to.
Sulabh officials said they would approach relatives of those who still have families in Calcutta. If the families refuse to host the widows, the NGO would arrange for a place to stay.
Once they are in Calcutta, would they want to stay on?
“Even if we go to Calcutta for the Puja, I don’t think any one of us would want to stay there forever,” said Shantipadma Devi.
Sulabh, Pathak said, has made them believe in themselves. “They used to get Rs 4-5 for singing bhajans in the temples. They had no steady income. We have tried to make them self-dependent. We have bought them sewing machines and have been teaching them to read and write.”
The widows also get a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000 each, their only source of income.
But for now, it’s the anticipation of the Puja trip that has overtaken everything else.
Friends Hashi Debnath and Gaur Bhakti Devi, both 67, cracked up as they tried to recall the Puja they enjoyed back home. “I would love to go, but I need to be sure that I am coming back. I like it here. I got my brothers married and then my sisters. They are all well off and don’t care for me any more. Here I do whatever I want to. Above all, we are all equals,” said Bhakti Devi, who is from Dum Dum.
Her spirits are high. The chance of a first-time plane ride has lifted her further.
The goddess may ride a lion, but she would fly.