Thank You Naveen Patnaik, For Doing Something About The 'Living Sati' Of Our Widows

It is not very often that I indulge in the ardent regionalism which seems to affect my countrypeople. I have always considered myself "Indian'' first and not really got down to being Odiya. At times, though, I do fall into the delicious trap of measuring people vis-à-vis their home-state, but with no malice. That's something quintessentially Indian, right? So, while I marvel at the handsome Sardars from Punjab, I couldn't ever dream of dating one... I wouldn't be very sure of whose long hair, mine or his, I might pull in, er, romantic excitement! Or let's talk about the people from Bengal....many times I wish to scream from the rooftop that Ma Durga's surname is not just Chatterjee, Banerjee etc etc. It can very well be Rawat or Jha!

The government of Odisha has launched the Kartik Habis Brata Yojana, aimed at facilitating free lodging, healthcare and food for widows during the holy month in Puri.

I can go on and on about all the diversities, which we pick on, despite our unity, but allow me to be unashamedly regional/parochial today and declare that my heart burst with gladness at the actions of a fellow Odiya recently.

I am talking about the Chief Minister of Odisha, Shri Naveen Patnaik.

And here is why this man needs to be applauded.

He has reached out to the widows in the holy city of Puri.

The holy month of Kartik began from 16 October. This is the month when thousands of widows assemble at Puri to perform "Habisa" (penance) as a mark of respect to Lord Jagannath. In response to this, the government of Odisha has launched the Kartik Habis Brata Yojana, which is aimed at facilitating free lodging, healthcare and food for Hindu widows during the holy month in Puri. As many as 2000 widows will get free accommodation, mahaprasad and healthcare under this scheme. The government plans to accommodate even more beneficiaries next year onwards.

It is heartrending to see scores of widows sitting with a vacant look in the holy temples of Vrindavan, Varanasi, Mathura, Puri. Some are old and infirm; some are young and beautiful. What unites them is that they have been shunned and abandoned by their families. They lead lives shorn of dignity. Over the babble of the hymns they recite, no one really hears their cry to be seen as living beings. Sati, a practice in which widows burned themselves at their husband's funeral pyre, was abolished aeons ago, but the utter desolation these women today cannot be termed as anything other than a "living Sati." Every single day they burn in a hell created by misogyny, patriarchal hegemony, societal conservatism and apathy.

Many days the widows do not get enough to eat and depend on the compassion and conscience of random strangers. Deepa Mehta's powerful film Water chillingly portrays the fate of a young widow who is sexually exploited. Art always mirrors life. And "life" for the widows is that of merciless abuse by those who provide "shelter" to them. In Benares: The Sacred City, In Verses and Hymns, Mandira Ghosh offers these poignant lines about the fate of widows ''Still tears/Of widowed women/Her reflective grey hair/Shaken by wind and attitude/Broken by sand/Still their voices are still."

Every single day they burn in a hell created by misogyny, patriarchal hegemony, societal conservatism and apathy.

There are many individuals and organizations in India that have taken up the issue of widow welfare in earnest. The efforts of Sulabh International are praiseworthy in this regard. What touched me most was that along with providing financial, housing and healthcare assistance, they sought to bring back colour and beauty into the lives of widows—these abandoned women played Holi in Vrindavan, saw the Taj Mahal and very recently also participated in a fashion show in Delhi ! Being widowed does not a woman from being feminine...from wanting to wearing bright colours, jewellery, makeup. My eyes became moist when I looked at the photographs. I felt ashamed too. There are so many things that I take for granted.

On every visit of mine to the Jagannath temple, I sit amongst the widows and talk to them, buy them mahaprasad, offer small amount of money. This is the proverbial drop in the ocean, I know. Rehabilitation of widows needs to be institutionalized. Yet, I cannot help but think that if/whenever each of us visit Kashi, Varanasi, Mathura, Puri, Vrindavan such small individual gestures would go a long way in filling up the ocean of humanity.

Thank you Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. I would like to believe that yours is a similar individual gesture of compassion and reaching out.