The custom of Sati was legally banned in India nearly 30 years ago. Unfortunately, whether you like it or not, religious practices, traditions and rules that are passed down from father to son are still of more significance than the law.
The ritual of self-immolation, which is performed by a widow with her husband''s corpse on his own funeral pyre, is strongly rooted mainly among the elderly or very religious people. Even though they are not largely present nowadays, such suicides still do occur, which Hindu themselves know and talk about. There are infrequent cases when a widow chooses to die after her husband’s death, which she does either of her own free will or is persuaded or else forced by the closest relatives. Sati is therefore a sign of devotion and great love of a good and faithful wife. As tradition has it, it is the only way for a widow.
Numerous orders didn’t help to stop this practice. Notwithstanding this fact, however, some things have changed in this regard – India has increased the applicable standard of living in society. A widow’s suicide or urging her to do it is no longer so acceptable. The ritual of self-immolation has turned into a widespread rejection - social and family exclusion. Widows in India, whose number is estimated at about 40 million women, stay alive but their life is far from ideal. A woman becomes a social being only after she gets married and, without her husband, she does not provide any value here. Touching her body or even the shadow that she casts on the ground is an evil curse. The woman, whose husband died, is at the mercy of her spouse’s family or the eldest son. She becomes deprived of everything that she owned when still married. She has no rights. Nobody wants her, including her own children. Casting a widow out into the street is commonly practiced in India. I heard about the case of a woman who had her legs broken and was taken away from home so that she could not return for sure. These stories, unrealistic as they may seem to us, unfortunately occur these days, in our – supposedly civilized – times.
The fate that awaits the widows is something regular for the majority of Indian society and only few oppose it. This results from the fact that it is the widow who is accused of causing her husband’s death. The real cause of his death doesn’t matter. It is always his wife to be blamed. For a woman in such situation, the only way to continue her existence is to completely lose herself in prayers for her husband. The re-marriage is virtually impossible. As a Hindu custom has it, such a woman should permanently give up all the luxuries or elegant robes and lead a simple life. Shaving her head or eating cold and unseasoned foods is a way of asceticism and deprivation her of symbols of vitality and potency. It is also to reduce sexual urge at all widows, including those very young ones too. The Indian books, whose standards are strictly followed, state that after her husband’s death, the woman should also avoid using perfumes, wearing jewellery, eating from the pots made of bronze or sleeping in a different place than on the floor.
Such are the rules and what does the reality look like? Unfortunately, the same.
I decide to go to Vrindavan to see myself the life of an Indian widow. It is a small town located about 150 kilometers south of Delhi, called the City of Widows. I join the female employees of humanitarian non-governmental organization founded by Winnie Singh. Maitri is an organization which aims at, inter alia, protecting the elderly women at risk of violence and giving them access to basic rights. "Maitri" is also a Buddhist term meaning "the one loving kindness". We''re going to one of the two centers that they run, which are home to more than a hundred women. This is just a drop in the ocean, as only in Vrindavan itself there are more than 20,000 widows for more than 50,000 inhabitants.
When I get to the well-kept building that is isolated from other properties with a wall, I and other visitors are welcomed by a crowd of women. What is really touching is the fact that they give one another a welcoming hug. I conclude that for these women, who have been spurned by their beloved ones, this is the only way in which they can experience the closeness of another human being. It is a moment in which they may not feel as air or unnecessary thing. Their faces smile sincerely. Although they experience such dreadful fate, they seem to be happy to be in this place that has been created especially for them.
I observe how they live. The modest dorm rooms are equipped with very basic items. Each of the women has her own ration of bedding, dishes and clothes, which she has to take care about. I can’t see any imposed duties. There isn’t even a garden which they could deal with. There is nothing that might distract their attention from everyday worries even for a while. They’ve been recently really happy about the refrigerator – a new donation which, though still in the box, already stands in the hallway. A modest kitchen in which the meals are prepared and even a more modest bathroom – this is everything that can be found in the multi-storey building.
Today, all the sorrows go aside - we will celebrate. We came to Vrindavan two days before Holi which is a Hindu celebration of spring. It is a feast of colors that represent the diversity – no religions, cultures or castes count on this day. Everyone can celebrate. It is also the feast of forgiveness and a new beginning. A very happy time for everyone without exception.
The house is already decorated with flowers and more and more women are entering through its gate. Cars are coming bringing other women. Some are still preparing flowers, others are dressing up smartly. Loud sounds of drums can be heard in the courtyard. When Winnie Singh reaches the place after a few hours, Holi celebrations begin. Everybody is dancing and laughing. It is loud and fun. After 20 minutes, I''m tired with jumping to the beat of the drums. I am but the women are not. This is the moment when they can recall how their life looked like before. They give vent to joy dancing like in a trance. Within an instant everyone got rid of at least a dozen years, regardless of their current age. More than a hundred people are having fun in the yard, showering their heads with colored powder and tossing up countless colorful flowers. It takes a very long time, a few hours, maybe half a day. When the celebration ends, the women sit down on the floor and eat the meals distributed by Maitri’s employees. In the meantime, they are given some gifts on the occasion - a new sheet, a few rupees for minor expenses and a small wrapped bundle. Everybody eats in silence. When they are finishing, every now and then, one of them gets up and, raising her hands, she screams loudly. The other ones scream afterwards manifesting their joy and thanking the owner of the house for anything good that happened to them on that day.
I realize that this celebration differs from a weekday. However, I know that the joy of these women is true. They appreciate the lack of worry that other widows, who are not under the care of Maitri, experience every day. I can see the respect and devotion with which they are looking to Winnie and all the people helping them. I can see how grateful they are. I leave this place but I will never forget what I saw and what I witnessed today.
Although the Indian tradition is so significant and clear in its manifestation, it is not eternal. It is true that the majority of women, whom fate decided to turn into widows, give up. They still believe that they are meant so, that there is no turning back and that nothing good awaits them in this life. Fortunately, you also hear about those women who are strong enough to break the fate which they – widows – should face. They do not agree to wipe the colorful marriage spots of their foreheads. They do not change the way they dress or decorate their body with jewellery. Unfortunately, such attitudes are extremely rare. The pressure of the general public is still stronger. Without the support the widows have no chance. This is why the organizations such as Maitri that can help are very important, not to mention the people that are so much involved as Winnie Singh.