I’m not sure why she comes to mind. It was more than eight years ago.
We’ll call her Hepzibah.
Covering her head with her scarf, Hepzibah bowed to pray. She knelt upon a mat covering the dirt floor of a small and rickety church building. The church stood in the middle of a slum area she called home. Under her scarf, she beamed with joy.
Her everyday burdens set aside. Her nightmare interrupted for a time.
The Widow’s Journey
Hepzibah’s journey had led her here. The sentence of “outcast” had been handed down to this young woman and her children. Her only crime being that her husband died and left her a widow.
Becoming a widow in India was the beginning of her nightmare. Immediately after she lost her husband, she was isolated, placed in a dark room to endure the widow ceremony. Shaving her head, she was separated from those she cared about, those who might have brought her comfort in her time of mourning. Feelings of abandonment consumed her as a person of prominence removed her bangles and her gold. She would no longer be allowed to wear jewelry in a culture where even the poorest women wear bangles. She’d no longer be permitted to adorn herself in any way. After an eleven-day isolation period, Hepzibah’s friends and family were permitted to speak to her as daughter, sister, or friend one last time.
After the ceremony, a widow in India must don a white saree. In some parts of India, the widow must wear white in one form or another for the remainder of her days to identify herself as a widow. Spying a widow approaching, people will often cross to the other side of the road. Many believe by crossing the path of a widow, even if her shadow touches theirs, they will have bad luck for the remainder of the day. In many parts of India, a widow is forced to live in solitude for the rest of her life. If she is a Hindu, she is no longer allowed to worship at the temple or place the ceremonial dot on her forehead. She is not permitted to participate in any community activities, ceremonies, or festivities. She is as a ghost.
A coworker of mine, Sireesha, explained to me while living in India, that a woman who is without a man in India is considered “already dead.” In the past, there was a common ritual called Sati Sagamanam(or Sahagaman) where a wife was burned alive with her deceased husband. Sireesha explained, “As soon as the husband was put in the fire, the villagers would put the wife, who was living and healthy, into the fire to burn her alive. This still sometimes happens today in secret places.” The Hindu belief is that if the woman dies with her husband she will be purged from her sins and released from the cycle of birth and death. This act would ensure salvation for her husband and the next seven generations to follow as well. A tremendous amount of pressure was placed on a widow, to carry out this tradition, by the priests and by the husband’s family. This tradition has created within India antiquated ideas that carry over until today. A woman without a man within society is not valuable, therefore, she is vulnerable. Most divorced and widowed women in India live in abject poverty, ostracized and shunned by their community and society at large. They live in fear because they are not under the protection of a man, therefore, outside the protection of their community. It is taboo for them to marry again. Even though Sati practices were outlawed in the 19th century, the “idea” of Sati remains in many parts of society.
Kumari stood weeping at the metal gate leading into the courtyard. We opened the gate and she staggered in. Sitting heavily on the front porch, we gathered around her as she wept. Through her tears, she told us her husband had died. Her tears were not from sadness. He had abandoned her and their daughter several years before. He had been an abusive man. Her tears flowed from fear.
She cried, “I will have to sit many days in a dark room, have my head shaved and my bangles cut off. I will not be allowed to worship at the temple and worst of all I will be turned away by all others.”
The Widow’s Community
As punishment for her “crime,” Hepzibah was abandoned by her family and her community, leaving her and her children destitute, ushering them into a life of brutal poverty.
“Widow unclean!” Having been driven from her village, Hepzibah and her children made their way to the big city in hopes of finding a way to eke out a living, a way to survive. Their road ended in a slum area near the train station where she met other outcasts of society.
On my initial visit to this place in 2006, I must confess I didn’t want to leave the comfort of the van. I could see from a distance. The sights were horrifying. The path leading in was muddy. The dwellings were made of rotting wood, corrugated metal, and discarded material collected along the train line. Everything appeared to be covered in a thick layer of black as if soot had rained down from the sky, adding to the darkness that consumed this place.
Getting out of the van, I was barely able to place one foot in front of the other. I felt frozen. I wanted to turn around and get back into the safety of the van. The first time seeing is always the hardest. I wasn’t sure I could bear the suffering I knew the slums contained. I couldn’t take my positivity paintbrush and paint over the scene on the canvas in front of me. It would be traumatic and I would be changed, so I hesitated.
Amid my musings, little children dressed in rags with no shoes, ran up to me. Their eyes searching mine, asking the question without words,
“Will you come?”
Grabbing my hands, faces lifted to mine alight with bright smiles, they pulled me along the path. We walked on together.
I walked through that day with the children leading the way. They gently tugged my hands, not wanting to pull too hard, leading me down dark, unpaved alleyways deeper into their world. As we passed others living in this place, some looked up and briefly smiled. Immediately, they lowered their heads, as if they were too heavy a burden to hold up and continued surviving the day. There were small children with malnourished bellies laboring and other children darting in and out along the pathway. Some wore smiles on their faces while others gently tapped their fingers to their lips in the universal gesture that said, “I am hungry.”
Gangs of men and boys patrolled the mud paths either to protect their friends and family or to prowl, looking for whoever they could exploit and take advantage of. Wild dogs scurried along the path, looking for morsels of food. They made a wide berth around us as we walked by.
Families, widows, and laborers had left the countryside in search of a better life, only to get stuck in this difficult and dangerous place. Outcasts arrived with nowhere else to go, seeking ways to survive. To earn enough money to feed themselves and their children. My observations of that day are too numerous to write them all here.
I wondered,“How do people survive here?”
Not all of them survive, but some of them do. With help from those outside this place and through a life I could never imagine in its difficulty. In addition, amidst their suffering, they create a kind of community.
The Widow’s Pot
These dark alleyways were Hepzibah and her children’s world. She found a way to provide for her family by fishing in the inky black waters that sluggishly ran nearby her home. She sold what fish she could pull from the river. Her arduous labor made barely enough to feed her small family. However, with the money she earned from selling her fish, she bought a large silver pot and donated it to the small church located as a hub in the middle of this community. To us, the privileged ones, it seems insignificant. What is a pot? But not to this woman. The pot was purchased out of Hepzibah’s sacrifice. For this little family, gut-gnawing hunger was a reality. However, she gave to the church a pot that would be shared by others in her same life situation. They gathered together and shared what they had. The pot would be used by all. Her sacrifice was humbling.
“Would I ever give so much having so little?”
She had found community. She found a family of sorts. With a thankful heart, she wanted to give back. Hepzibah had reasons to be bitter. Reasons to hold on to every rupee she made, every morsel she had for herself and her children. However, she gave. To her new family. To her God, who followed her to this place and gave her a new community and a new way to live. It was not a perfect way, it was far from a perfect situation, but she was content at that moment, even thankful. Here was a respite from the difficult life she was condemned to. Her thankfulness overflowed into a desire to give back. She chose to give and received joy in place of sadness. Joy in place of bitterness.
The pastor asked my husband to pray for the pot. He humbly prayed for Hepzibah instead. As she bowed and covered her head, she was for that moment filled with joy.