Last Week, The Guild of Service ( an NGO) released the result of a survey on the widows of Vrindavan. Reading it depressed me, the feeling compounded by the resurfacing of some memories I had strenuously tried to exterminate.
Travel does not always take one to enchanting places. There are visits that disappoint too and a few that fall flat . Yet , I have never really regretted visiting any of the places I ever have. Except one, because of the bitter after taste it left. Vrindavan. I wish I had never gone there.
"The Forest of Brinda "( The Holy Basil) is where the Divine Brat Krishna played out his leelas, say our Myths. A land of Peacocks, parrots and deer, of gardens in perpetual bloom, of perfumed breeze and sparkling streams, of blissful people enjoying blessed lives.............
Ofcourse, when I finally did visit Vrindavan, those rose-tinted glasses of childhood fantasy were not on. One was pragmatic enough to assimilate the fact that Krishna's fabled playground lies today in a chronically ill-administered state, situated in the underdeveloped cow-belt of modern India. So, pot-holed roads, uncleared garbage, long power outages, polluted water bodies and ramshackle urban slums were all expected - and hence, unremarked upon. The only thing I had not expected was the huge population of the "Maas " or widows . It was disconcerting to see them , vacant- eyed and hope-less, strewn about everywhere.
We kept our attention on the temples . There are hundreds of temples in Vrindavan. From un-datable riverside shrines to glitzy, dollar-rich Krishna- themed fairylands. We did our list : The Madana Mohana , The Banke Bihari , The Jaipur Govindaji, The Rangaji etc. There was architectural beauty to be admired, history to be learnt, myths to be revised. Yet, no uplifting feeling, because one kept seeing a Maa at every step and getting distressed.
Right from the time of our arrival in town, a self appointed guide had latched on to us, who said he was a sevak not looking for money, but only guiding us, athithis, as a service to god. And he temple-hopped with us , with his incessant "Radhe-Radhe" exclamations.
Around 3pm, he insisted that we go to the"Most famous, Most ancient, Most Holy Mutt"and get blessed before they closed for the day. So we followed him on foot, through a warren of suffocatingly narrow and silent alleys, lined by gray and grimy old dwellings. There was no sign of any Mutt or pilgrims. Just the stray cow and dog. AND, ghostly , white shrouded wraiths darting in and out of the gaping doorways or peering down from crumbling balconies. No voices. No sound. And no face distinguishable under the widow's -hoods. It was eerie and socked a clammy feeling into my gut.
The sevak entered a largish house which din't look anything like an ancient, holy or famous Mutt. The walls, floors and ceiling of the whole place were inlaid with white marble tiles inscribed with names , addresses and amounts. An old Priest welcomed us warmly, seated us on mats in front of a dusty tableaux of 3 wooden effigies ( Krishna, Radha and Unknown ), served us camphor scented water with sweetened poha and made polite enquiries about us. Then, after a short sermon about how blessed 7 generations of our bloodline (both ascending and descending) were going to be, he caught hold of my husband's hands, placed them on a coconut beside a lamp, mumbled some mantras and poured water on them, catching the outflow in his own hand. Only the last line of the mantra was intelligible : It was a promise " made in witness of Ishwar and Agni", to give a Daan ( of a very specific amount ) to the Mutt . We were had ! There was nothing we could do but pay up, because our sense of Dharma and basic decency prevented us from breaching a promise to give , albeit made inadvertently or under trickery.
In retrospect, it seems very funny and surprising that we hadn't said a word throughout this little drama. We had been remarkably gullible/stupid and the Priest, remarkably sly. Of course, we had decided that morning itself, to donate our mite ( certainly not that high amount) towards some "anna-daanam" scheme for widows, in any of the temples.But to have been coerced into donating was totally another thing. Though the priest said 12% of the amount would go towards God's puja and 88% to the needy widows, his credentials seemed dubious.
(He issued a spot receipt for the amount, ( less 10 rupees, because of his belief that a rounded figure denotes a finality, whereas the act of charity should continue forever! ) , promising to courier to us the official one, along with prasad from a personalised puja . Unsurprisingly, none was received. And all our subsequent enquiries about the alleged charitable trust yielded no leads. The Mutt was pure fiction. I pray that at least 100 rupees from the amount we paid went to some deserving mouth. How many such sham outfits exploit the name of widows to make money, we'll never know.)
Shaken by this episode, we abandoned all our pending plans for the day and headed back to our hotel room in Agra. And I kept seeing dozens of those shrouded apparitions - faceless, despondent, wasted - everywhere in that dreary town as we drove out of it.
The same year as we visited, The Ministry for Women and Child development announced a plan for the rehabilitation of the destitute widows of Vrindavan. It remains, still, on paper.
And now come these stats from the report put out by The Guild of Service :
There are 21,000 widows in Vrindavan.
Only 10%-12% of them have any kind of regular financial support ( from The Destitute Widow's Pensions or Charitable Institutions)
A disconcertingly huge number live on streets, with no access to toilets.
Most survive by singing bhajans for food.
Many resort to begging or prostituition.
Few have any contact with family. In fact,most were thrown into this dump-yard by family. Only a handful come here voluntarily.
The majority fear physical and sexual harrassment.
I wish I had never visited Vrindavan. I did not want to discover, first hand, what a rotten establishment we have, bureaucratic/ Religious, that tolerates/sanctions the treatment of women as garbage.