Clad in a white saree, she sits chanting mantras devoted to Lord Krishna. Eyes closed, head down. Finding it hard to ignore the activity around her, she lifts her head, to view the corridor filled with women soaked in colour. Seeing them looking at her, she shuts her eyes and returns to her prayers. She snaps at women near her giggling, singing Holi songs and asks them to leave. No one seems to mind.
Lalita Adhikari is 108 years old and has spent over 70 years as a widow in Vrindavan.
She is among the 1,000 widows brought from six ashrams by NGO Sulabh International to celebrate Holi with colours and flowers, which widows are not allowed. Unlike others, Lalita is hesitant to accept the change.
The native of Hooghly in West Bengal has been witness to times when widows were treated worse than animals, made to sleep on the floor and not given food. Having suffered, Lalita is reluctant to welcome the change. “The more we stay aloof from worldly pleasures, the better. Breaking tradition is great, but I doubt if this is to stay. The state of widows is not going to change by playing Holi once,” she says.
Lalita hears cheers and claps of women dancing in the main hall, where celebrations are on and decides to take a look. She picks her lathi and refusing help extended by another widow, walks to the hall. “I loved Holi as a kid. I played it after I got married at the age of 10. But colour vanished from my life after my husband died. I was just 20. I could not wear colourful clothes, or apply lali (colour) on my lips. I was shooed away from functions. Playing Holi was something I could not imagine,” she says pointing to her white saree. “I decided to come to Vrindavan. But conditions were no better. I started to work at a glass factory as I had to support a family back home. I used to send them money but they refused to take it from a widow,” she adds.
Lalita looks at women in yellow, red and orange dancing to Krishna’s Bhajans. Some dressed as Radha and Krishna were encircled by a cheering crowd. Some widows cut a rope using scissors, to show they are free from shackles that bound them from colour. A smile appears on Lalita’s face.
“Are they really playing Holi? All their white sarees are now colourful.” After a pause, she says, “I will talk about my life later. Can you get me some colour? I feel like holding it. I want to feel the texture.” A volunteer does the needful.
Other widows, on seeing Lalita joining in, rush to her with colour and apply it on her forehead. “This time Lalita does not snap at them. “Bhalo rang,” she says touching her forehead. A tear trickles down her cheek. “My white saree has colour after 80 long years. She chooses a corner, goes and sits there, holding colour in both her fists. She refuses to talk.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, says, “These women have been treated badly. The celebration was a way of telling them they are one of us. They can wear coloured clothes, eat what they want. The ones who want to remarry can. We are giving them education so that they can be employed. It is for their uplift. Some have accepted it well, some are trying.”
Sulabh Foundation has appointed teachers to teach English and Hindi to widows.
“We also give them employment. They make cloth for covering gods and goddesses in temples. They feel proud as they were not even allowed inside temples earlier. We are bringing a change,” Pathak says.