By Adnan Abidi
The sound of applause echoing in the dingy shelter forced a smile on the face of Tulshi Dasi. An expression she had almost forgotten since her world turned white. The reason: she could now write and had just finished writing the English alphabet on a blackboard. And all this at the age of 70! She had never felt this empowered and never knew that learning was so much fun. As Dasi wrote a new chapter in her life in the grimy shelter in Vrindavan, that she shares with many women like her, her companions, around 50 odd widows applauded her progress.
Widows, either abandoned by their family members or shunned by society, find their life's last refuge in various government run shelters such as this one. They come here from all across the country, but mostly from Bengal, where they survive by begging and chanting hymns in temples.
Hindu widows are branded as inauspicious by society and are forbidden to wear any form of color or be a part of any kind of celebrations like marriage and childbirth, hence most find respite amid their own kind, and seek solace in sorrow. As I spent my day with them I realized that learning was the best part of their day. Each of them would get up early, bathe and offer prayers together in the hall before resuming their daily chores of making prayer beads and flower garlands.
While shooting I tried to strike up a conversation with some of them, to get the best possible moment or an expression to make a good picture, but for most of them Hindi, a prominent North Indian language, was quite alien as most spoke and understood Bengali. Some did smile at being photographed but seemed evidently forced, as after a moment's smile their face resumed the monotonous expression that seems to have stayed on since they were widowed.
En-route to the ashram or the shelter I was briefed by an NGO representative that there may be a picture possibility when a family member visited the widows, though I didn't encounter such an event during my stay. I have a feeling that the smile I witnessed during their learning class would remain unmatched even if the relatives were to visit. An NGO has come forward to pay these widows a monthly allowance of 2000 rupees ($3.65) with the aim to give them a respectful life by offering them facilities like healthcare, education and some vocational work to keep them occupied and keep their minds off the sorrow that they have had gone through.