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Night brings sad songs of destitute widows

India's Forgotten: The economic reality is that their sons are their only link to the land, and the land is their only link to survival

By John Stackhouse
First published May 17, 1995

Biharipur, India

When evening turns to night, when the men are fed and a full moon hangs over the rice fields, Biharipur slips into a languor broken only by the sound of widows singing.

Around smouldering fires, they sing with their sisters, calling to the night for brothers to fetch them, for fathers to take them home, for sons to protect them.

There is the untouchable woman with no name, the oldest of Biharipur's widows, who has been singing these songs since 1947, "the year the Muslims and Hindus had their really big fight," she said.

There is Pyari - her name means "beloved" - who was called back to her father's village 30 years ago, when her husband died, to care for her brothers.

There is Shanta Devi, who never worked outside her home in marriage, but now toils in the fields with her three young children to survive.

And there is Ram Veti, already abandoned at age 25 by two husbands to a caste lower than widowhood itself.

The widows sing for themselves, and for each other, and for Jashoda, the saddest of all widows - sad because last year she lost her only son.

Jashoda does not sing. "I am too depressed," she said, "to even talk."

No one bothers to count them, but there may be 50 widows in Biharipur, some endowed with sons who care for them until death, others consigned to spend the rest of their days in servitude. Either way, they are the forgotten elders of rural society. Forgotten by government programs that focus on young mothers and children, farmers, doctors and economists. Forgotten by their own families, too.

In the morning, Pyari sneaks behind a mud wall to tell her story. She fixes her tattered purple sari and plants her tiny frame on a charpoy, the ubiquitous woven cot, carefully placed away from the sight of her two brothers.

"How can I let them see me sit down?" she asked.

As long as the sun is in the sky, there are chores for a widow like Pyari to do. She must sweep the house, clean the pots, and care for her nephews and nieces.

About 30 years ago, Pyari's husband died. Why? She does not know. Soon after his death, though, a message arrived from her mother, calling her to return to Biharipur, the village of her birth. "If I had sons, I would have had the right to stay there," Pyari said. "But I had no sons, so it was best that I left."

Her brothers arranged marriages for her two young daughters, and she took a cot in the back of their home, beholden to them for the rest of her days. "It would have been great trouble without them," she said. "I came here with nothing."

Before sending Pyari home, her in-laws kept the dowry - her share of her father's inheritance - which she had brought to them in marriage.

Although the status of Biharipur's widows has improved greatly over the years, they remain women of a lesser god. In 1956, the Indian government granted widows inheritance rights (and this year it announced a life- insurance scheme for village women), but in rural India tradition tends to prevail over law, and economic reality over tradition.

For the widows of Biharipur, the economic reality is that their sons are their only link to the land, and the land their only link to survival. If a woman has a son, she can stay in her matrimonial village and live off his land. If she has no son, she must leave, as thousands of destitute Indian women do every year, for a twilight of uncertainty.

Pyari's neighbour, Krishna Devi, was one of the lucky widows. She did not have to leave Biharipur when her husband died eight years ago because she had sons, two of them. They inherited her husband's large patch of land - enough to support many families - and assumed responsibility for their mother. Now in her late 40s, her big teeth crooked and stained, Krishna Devi can spend her days gossipping and minding her grandchildren. Her two grown boys take care of the fields. Their wives take care of the housework.

"Who else would feed me?" she said with a laugh.

But that is the story of a landed woman. On the other side of Biharipur, where the landless labourers live, Ram Beti has sons but no land. At 35, widowhood for her meant pulling her children from school and putting them to work. In the fields, a family of four can earn $1.50 a day. "I have brothers but why would I return to them?" she asked. She married a landless labourer; now she must rely on the labour of his landless sons.

The untouchable with no name ("No one ever gave me one") learned that lesson in 1947. She lost not only her husband, but all of his assets. "His brothers took everything: the pots, the pans, the land," she said. "After my husband died, I didn't even get this much space in his house," she continued, holding up her index finger.

She took to the fields to survive. Her young children stayed at home to care for themselves. Most of them died.

Nearly 50 years later, the woman with no name sits, frail and stooped, on a charpoy, in the shade of the house she built with her daily wages. She watches her 14-year-old granddaughter Archana fetch water from a nearby pump, and wonders if a better future awaits the girl.

Archana is to be married this summer to a teen-aged boy in another village, where she will likely spend the rest of her life, disinherited from one family, transferred like a chattel to another.

The old lady whispers to a visitor that she has saved $87 for Archana's dowry, money she hopes the girl can stow in the thatched roof of her new home. Watching the young girl talk merrily to her friends in the spring sun, the woman with no name knows there is danger yet for Archana, if she is struck by the curse of a widow with no son.

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