The Cursed Widows of India

A still from Deepa Mehta’s famous film, Water

She stood bent over her years. Long hair, large eyes,and lips that constantly sang her every-morning hymn for Krishna. Her prayers to the lord were to pass her over to the other side of life, so that she could join her late husband in heaven.

I must admit, I didn’t understand her insecurities nor could I fathom her pain of being a widow in a world full of married people. A world where her identity was sealed forever with her white sari, no jewelry, comlete ostracism, pious fasting and giving up her favourite things. This was the damned and cursed life of widowhood.

I called her Dida and my Thamma. Both beautiful women who embodied kindness, pious deeds and always believed that the lord will look over them.

Dida died alone one winter morning with a cardiac arrest in Delhi. Her body was stiff and she lied desolate by the corner of the bed in the apartment, found hours later by my aunt who came back from work in the evening. Today, I don’t know if God really had looked over her.

This guilt haunts me forever and remains my worst regret of not bringing her back with me the last time she left my home in Bangalore.

Dida’s sari pallu was always delicately hiding her bosom, no bra ever, only a white blouse with pins holding her broken buttons. Beneath that was her wrinkled tummy that had a fragrance of familiarity, crushed flowers and a mix of ponds talcum powder.

She wore her sari with pride & a great acceptance of an archaic conditioning that no colour would ever be present in her life ever again. The parting in her hair was dry and broad from the copious vermillion remains of the past.

I have seen both my grandmothers always wearing the white & black or white & blue border widow sari. I must admit I found her collection of saris extremely sophisticated and one school function I decided to wear her sari, only to be reprimanded by others, that this is a cursed colour of widowhood.

I asked Dida, this question constantly, what she thought of this colourless life and did she ever question the unfairness of this custom?

She could never be coaxed to answer those questions. She always smiled and said she knew no difference between having or not having colours in her life.

She diligently starched her cotton sari & wore it the Bengali style during the dry Delhi summer months & a soft white silk called the gorod during pujo evenings. She looked fabulously stylish and stunning.

My memories remain of the days as I watched the lone crow sitting on her wet sari on the clothing line. She used to tell me that the crow was a messenger from her forefathers.

Save for that lone black crow I never saw any colour ever on that deathly white that hung every morning wet from wash and dry from the burning noon sun.

I understood that this was an identity she had surrendered herself to over the years of solitude and sullen gloom.

Her mourning was on her sleeves and in every aspect of her lifestyle choices. I shudder today to think of the life she was subjected to in the name of tradition.

As I grew up and all sorts of colours filled my life. That white sari— wet, then dry, then neatly folded— was always lying like a dormant memory in the corridor of my past where Dida lives forever.

Years have passed away & I miss the familiarity of the corner in the room. The chair lies empty today. The saris were given away and some had become soft like balls of cotton and were used to wrap bell metal utensils.

Everytime I open the trunk that has her stone plates and her little Krishna book, I am reminded of her curbed young feminity, that was squashed with her husbands death.

I wear the white gorod every Durga Puja, that she gave me as a gift. It remains a talisman with the fragrance of her compassion and empathy.

I also find her talking to me on many noons, when I sit contemplative, a lone fluttering butterfly comes near me, trying to tell me that all will be well. She lives in the myriad colours of those butterfly wings that stop by just to bless me.

So many widows in traditional India live a pathetic life of waiting. A waiting for death in the ashrams of Vrindavan and Varanasi. Their empty eyes stare vacantly towards the world passing by from their grilled narrow windows. The sight leaves my soul tormented. I wished I could give them the gift of life or even the gift of death that they have come to believe is their holy renunciation, their only destiny.

I am convinced this is a rule laid out by patriarchy to ensure women remained chained and tortured forever.

With all the changes and upheavels going on now, I hope and pray Hindu households wake up to these dark practices that lurk just outside their frame of the worldview. Isn’t it well past time to end this discrimination of women based on their marital status? The word “widow” should cease to bring fear among women. Much of our urban society has become progressive, where young widows can freely remarry, wear any colour they wish, eat any food they covet and live their lives fully. But this basic equality has not reached many. Those tortured women must be integrated into an equal society, where their voice is not shivering and quivering in fear to be heard and understood.

  Many widows are not allowed to take part in festivals, as festivals represent joy and colour. This photo is from a path-breaking event a few years ago organized by an NGO, Sulabh International, a special gathering in Vrindavan for widowed women to celebrate Holi.


Today is International Widow’s Day, which was created to bring awareness to the deeply prevalent discrimination against widows. Some links below to know more about the issue:

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