Ma Dham Ashram
We walked into the building with really no concept of what to expect. Living conditions in India can be quite appalling to middle class Americans and these women are amongst the lowest of the low, a forgotten slice of society. And in a place where the caste system is still quite prolific, being detested more than the untouchables, the people born to clean excrement and cremate the dead, is quite unthinkable.
We are greeted by a cheerful woman exiting the kitchen with a carafe of water. She is surprised to see two young Western women standing in the middle of the communal area. I motion to my camera with my eyebrows raised to ask for permission to take her picture. She dips her head in a shy gesture of agreement and adjusts her sari to drape just right around her face and hair. I snap a few photos and thank her “dhanyavad” with my touching palms to my forehead. She smiles a big, shy smile and shuffles along to continue her work. I immediately begin to wonder what her story might be, and what were the circumstances that led her here. Arranged marriages are the norm in India, and in a country that is growing exponentially, many families struggle for the basic necessities. It’s no wonder, that the devout Hindu faith combined with struggle for money leaves many families to encourage their daughters to marry young. This assures that she will be fed and sheltered. A woman, of course, does not have a career or a job or a means to subsist without her husband. She will bear the children, hopefully boys, and tend to the family, but if her husband should die, her life changes instantly and tragically. For in the fundamental Hindu culture, she has become the bane of existence, intolerable bad luck. For certain, it is her bad luck that led toher husband’s death, so much so that now, she is responsible for where her shadow falls . . . even touching the shadow of a widow is bad luck. And so, turned out by her immediate family, she is left with three options, none of which is reasonable.
The first option, and most honorable, is to throw herself into the fires of her husband’s cremation. After all, her duty and obligation is with him, in this life or the next. The second option is to be taken in by her dead husband’s brother. She is then just another mouth to feed, body to cloth, and family member to shelter. The third option is to become property of the state, to shave her head, dawn the white sari of the eternal mourner, shed her dignity, and live out the rest of her years begging at the temples for rupees, relying on handouts to subsist or worst, to sell her body for the pleasure of men at the common, but unmentioned brothels that dot the landscape.
The women that live here, in this home, chose the third, but in a fortuitous twist of fate, a payback of good karma, and because of the wondrous love of a woman named Dr. Mohini Giri, their destiny has led them here . . . to Maa Dham Ashram, where widows are offered, food, shelter, and most importantly, dignity. The social worker, a shy university student, leads us past a sign, “No men allowed,” and into the living quarters where there are eight cots in a room no bigger than my kitchen. Each cot is surrounded by personal items. A woman’s entire-life’s-possessions reduced to a space roughly six feet by four feet. I am interested to take note of each woman’s collections, mostly to help me answer the question, “What would I keep if I had 6’x4’ of space?” but before I can take stock, the room comes alive. For every cot contains a woman, resting during the midday heat, and our presence has disturbed the daily routine. At first, we are observed with little regard and so, I speak softly to one inquisitive woman who is sizing me up, “May I take your picture?” raised eyebrows, raised camera. A single nod of the head is all I get in return. Click, click, click. I turn the camera around to show her and apathy and disregard melts away; her wall is down and an enormous smile takes over her face. She says something in Hindi, and the social worker translates, “Again.” She now poses, a deliberate tilt of her head. I can picture her teaching her children to read and scolding them when they’ve misbehaved. Click, click, click. She is satisfied with these and a good thing because the room is now a buzz with energy. Every woman is now open to being a portrait subject. Many of them want multiple takes; all of them are very austere. Certainly, I have found that in all of India, it is not the custom to smile for pictures, but these women are different, and as I move from room to room, disturbing their midday slumber and snapping pictures, I realize what the commonality is. It’s not sadness, or self-pity, or even wanting. It is, in fact, dignity that these women exude. These women, whom society has disregarded and diminished, have, against all odds, risen above thousands of years of tradition and multiple layers of religion to exemplify what often alludes many women in the Western world. We are so preoccupied with defining ourselves by our family, our possessions, our careers, our children, our own mothers; how do we define ourselves without these things? When we’ve stripped everything away and are left with the nakedness of just us? Perhaps these women can teach us; perhaps a lesson is here, past the sign “No men allowed,” in a space no bigger than six feet by four feet.
Today, in this one small town outside Delhi, 16,000 widows live out a life of poverty, sorrow, and misery. Only 200 have found refuge at Maa Dham. That leaves 15,800 begging for 2 rupees a day and a handful of rice.
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