Deepa Karmakar got up as usual at 3.30 am. But unlike most days,she didnt hurry about waking up her roommates. For the first time in 14 years,she could lie in. When she got up,she walked across to a bathroom nearby with a shower and wash basin and took her time bathing.
It is a short-lived luxury of five days,and Deepa treasures it. After she returns to her Varanasi ashram on October 11,the 50-year-old widow would be scrambling with 350 others for use of the six toilets on the premises,equipped with sparse light and a dirty lota (mug). Should she wake up a minute late,she could miss her turn in the long queue,delaying the start of her pooja and the making of the bhog for the nearby Radha-Krishna temple. If she is not there before 7 am,in time for the bhajan,the temple gates could be closed. Should that happen,she wouldnt get the Rs 3 she makes for two hours of bhajan.
Deepa has put that thought behind her for now. Among the 50 widows from West Bengal banished to ashrams in Varanasi who have been brought by NGO Sulabh International to Kolkata for Durga Puja,she is concentrating on what finds her back in a state that she left or was forced to leave two decades ago. In all that time,she returned only once,visiting Paninala village near Krishnanagar in Nadia on the Indo-Bangla border,where she was born and got married.
On this visit,she refused to go to Paninala,a place she associates only with bad memories. The fourth of nine children of poor parents,Deepa was 13 when she was married off to a widower and father of two in his early 30s. My husband Ashok Karmakar used to run a small shop. He died when he was around 42 years old.
Deepa was 25 at the time. I didnt leave his home. I looked after the children. For five years I worked hard to earn two square meals for them.
Sobbing,she adds,things kept worsening,including advances by a local priest. I tried to live on my own by working as a maidservant and a field labourer. But society never spares a widow who does not have anybody to stand by her.
At the age of 30,Deepa left for Vrindavan with a local woman of the village. She moved to a small slum shanty and later,into the widow ashram now housing 350 women,who are mostly destitute. They call themselves sevadasi.
When they first heard about the trip to Kolkata last month,Deepa says they couldnt believe their ears. On October 6,she boarded a flight to Kolkata,the first time she had been on a plane. All of us were scared when the plane took off. We all burst out Radhe Radhe. Then after strong jerks,we felt light, she says,adding elatedly that it felt nice to be addressed respectfully as mataji by the airhostess.
In Kolkata,the group of 50 had another first: lunch at a five-star hotel. We had never seen such a gorgeous place. We were told serve ourselves. We did not how to hold all those expensive utensils! laughs Deepa,adding that she learnt about buffet and many dishes she hadnt heard of before. We live on doodh-muri (milk and puffed rice), she says.
On October 8,their second day in Kolkata,they woke up at their usual 3.30 am but took their time getting ready for a planned boat cruise along the Ganga. It took them to Belur Math,where they visited the main temple.
The cruise ended around 12.30 pm,with the group heading for Babughat. From there,they took a bus to the Durga Puja pandals in south Kolkata,where they were scheduled to meet Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
While they were served lunch packets on the bus,Deepa says she didnt have hers. I was not feeling hungry. I had been just resting the whole day. How would I feel hungry? she says.
They met Mamata at a pandal inauguration programme at 4 pm. The CM assured that she would introduce some scheme for them.
They boarded the bus again to visit other pandals,including the two they inaugurated in south Kolkata. One of those had temple town Vrindavan at its theme.
However,what had the group most excited was the other pandal they inaugurated,in Jodhpur park. Its theme was 100 years of Indian cinema. The portraits and frames of the stars of the Sixties and Seventies left them giggling. Manu Ghosh,a 90-year-old widow grabbed a frame of Guru Dutt. I am seeing his photograph after decades. TV channels do not play movies of Guru Dutt. I used to love him as a teenager, she blushed.
Deepa thought they had entered a film set,she remembers.
Says Shibu Mitra,the secretary of the committee,We had contacted the NGO because we were determined to get our Puja inaugurated by them.
The group called it a night after this,retiring to their hotel.
Manu is the leader of their ashram,says Deepa. She lost her husband when she was in her late 30s and left the city 20 years later after her married daughters deserted her and she was forced to live in a slum in Jadavpur. After decades,I am seeing Kolkata. It has changed a lot, Manu says.
Manu has made necklaces and earrings out of Tulsi seeds for the group. We do not have jewellery,so I have made these garlands for us. Are we not looking good in it? Manu smiles.
Having lost touch with her daughters,she has no interest in going back to her home in New Barrackpore in North 24 Parganas district. I left the state as my people never showed any affection towards me. But now,those people here have invited me to inaugurate puja pandals. But the urban society has changed,not rural Bengal. Had it changed,we would not see young widows coming to Vrindavan from Bengal villages. In Vrindavan I got a shelter at least. I want to die there, Manu says.
The oldest in the group is 108-year-old Lolita Adhikary,who has been living at the ashram for 50 years. Lolita used to live in Hooghly district and left Kolkata after her sons discarded her. She is called Bakshaburi as she was given a box in the ashram she used to live in earlier to keep her stuff in and sleep on as there was was no space for a bed.
Unable to see and hear properly now,she says: My sons want me back,but I refused to go. I do not have a relative other than god.
Deepa says life at the ashrams has improved since a Supreme Court directive that the Vrindavan widows be paid Rs 1,000 a month,that was later raised to Rs 2,000 per month. Earlier,they could at best hope to earn Rs 6 per day through bhajans.
A teacher appointed by the NGO that runs the ashram comes to teach them Hindi. I love reading, Deepa says. Earlier I could only write my name. But now I read Hindi and Bengali both.
Their life centred around religion,it is at night that the women,who call each other ma,let their hair down. We do lot of addas till late in the night, smiles Deepa.
Ask her when she will return,and Deepa shrugs: It is such a change in our lives… I do not expect it to come again in the future.