Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The World of Widows

When Deepa Mehta was making her film” Water”, one of the controversies that latched onto the book was the allegation of the renowned Bengali author and current president of the Sahitya Academy , Sunil Gangopadhyay alleging that the movie was based on portions of his well known work “ Shei Shomoy”, translated into English as “ Those Days”. That may not be true because the novel is set in the late nineteenth century whereas Deepa Mehta has set her story in the midst of India’s freedom struggle with John Abraham playing a freedom fighter.

However the fact really is that Deepa Mehta could well have chosen to base her film in the 21st century and not in the 20th where she did or in the 19th where Gangopadhyay’s novel is set and frankly little would have changed; there is little that would have changed. The Bengalis of that day packed off their widows then to Kashi for a life of abstinence, prayer and penance while the men lounged in pleasure gardens. The widows, many of them child widows, did not have to worry about prayers – there are and were men in plenty to “take care” of their needs. Such scenes are shown in “Water” as well as in Sunil Gangopadhay’s novel.

I guess that the opposition that Deepa Mehta faced when she made the film would have been a bit muted if these were facts of the past because it is easy to say to others that it was some thing that happened in then…. We are modern today and we have moved on and these child widows and women living lives as depicted in the film aren’t lived in any more. That would have been a nice position to be in except that we aren’t. The sad fact is that in spite of untiring efforts of reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and his friends and many others subsequently, widows as well as child widows abound and exist and not very far from India’ National Capital—may be about 150 KM at the most.

Vrindavan is the town most people have heard of because of its association with the childhood of Krishna and the many other associations with his life. However not many my know that the Vrindvan of Krishna was a town in ruin by the middle ages and it was more or less recaptured by the jungle by the Bengali Vaishnavite mystic , Sri Chaitanya Maha Prabhu, who in 1515, more or less founded the town that we know today as Vrindavan.

The fact that the Vrindavan rapidly became a place of pilgrimage where the wealthy feudals ventured once a year to pay obeisance to the deities and the added advantage of being even further away from Bengal from Kashi meant that Vrindavan soon became a place where one could dump one’s widows. Many mansions built by the elite of the day, now mostly in ruins and decaying by the day are still to be seen in the town and it is possible to imagine that as in Varanasi the men of the day came to Vrindavan too with their retinues for pleasure as much for piety.

In the movie, apart from an opening reference to ‘the woes of widows’ in the Laws of Manu traditions regarding widows are not fully explained outright but unfold within the story. The widows live lives of enforced asceticism, atoning for the bad karma that has that has killed their husbands. Their unadorned white saris and shaved heads mark them for all to see. In life too , there is often little to differentiate the reel and the real as perhaps symbolized by the widow’s white worn by ” chuhiya”, the child widow in “Water” and the scores of widows like the ones in the picture above who wander the streets of Vrindavan, much like cows who incidentally fare better than the widows in terms of board and lodge with traders funding plenty of gaushalas in the town. I wonder why Sunil Gangopadhyay got agitated that Deepa Mehta lifted her script from ” Those Days”. A man of his eminence should have known better. A lot of abominable things that we thought only happened those days are still happening “These Days”.

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