“Kanha sang khelu holi,
Is biraj me rang jaaun main
Kanha aayenge sakhi”
Meera was searching for her diary when these soothing vocals came to her ears. Amused almost, Meera just couldn’t fathom the fact how beautiful someone could sing.
In those narrow lanes of Varanasi, where folks and canines struggled to walk simultaneously, there lied the Ashram ‘Shivoham’ for the widows. So many widows of all ages clad in white lived together, breathed together. Sandalwood tilak on the foreheads, beads in hands and chants of so many Hindu gods filled the environment with strange yet tranquil sentiments. While the traffic snarls outside made the ambience little more chaotic yet Meera could feel a sense of contentment.
Meera’s boss at the bureau had asked her to cover the story of Nadiya in the Ashram. Just a day before four day Holi celebration in the Ashram, Meera knew, she wanted to cover the celebration, the interview and click umpteenth pictures. Lot of homework awaited for the newspaper.
“Hi, I am from ‘The Chronicales’, Mr. Tejas spoke to you. I am here for the four day celebration and news coverage.” Meera informed to the officer at Shivoham.
“Yes, yes. I have the letter with me as well. Hope, your lodging and bearing arrangements have been made.” Keshavji, a 70 years old at the office responded to Meera as he checked the old registers and letters.
“They have been done. Could you please let me know the timings and the regulations, I suppose you have some in Shivoham.” Inquired Meera with sheepish smile.
“Well, a lot of journalists and filmmakers come each year at this point of time. We do not allow everyone. Since, you have come from ‘The Chronicales’, we are permitting. We have some rules definitely. See, we appreciate the privacy of the Vidhwas here, we do not like them to be publicized outside. But, the media doesn’t seem to let them live free……” Keshavji was abruptly stopped by Meera.
She said, “Sorry to stop you in the middle but I think the women inside have the right to speak to the world even if the medium is media.”
Keshavji while adjusting his spectacles, “Lady, this is why I do not let all the media agencies come here as I know, you will start all that debate on independence and freedom of speech and stuff. Majority of women inside are old. They want to lead a peaceful life before they die. With your all that provocation, I wonder where will our tradition go.”
Meera, “Sir, women today have equal rights to have an independent life even if the husband dies. Why should they be in shackles?”
Keshavji,”Keep your modernity with you woman! I don’t have time for that.”
Meera, “Fine sir! Just tell me the rules, I will be done may be in a day or two.”
Keshavji,” Well, you are not supposed to be here after 5 O’clock, you cannot ask personal questions like if their family comes to meet, if they want to seek the city life, if they want another man in life or what they think about man women relations. I don’t like that. In past, we had troubles with the journalists. You people should understand that they have left home after their husband died and they are now leading a complete non materialistic life following celibacy.”
Meera, “Wow! Looks like you are making the entire format for me to cover the story. I am not here to do any school homework. I am creative person and will interview the women in the most resourceful manner. Otherwise, I could have just Googled everything.”
“Keshavji,” Googled????Eh! What? Lady, I have mentioned my things.”
Meera, “So have I sir! Let’s get started.”
Keshavji leads Meera to the interiors of Shivoham.
Day 1 of Holi Celebration
A world of whites eagerly awaited Meera. Women across diverse eternities thronged to see Meera. Some peeped from the windows of their quarters while some stood at the doors to check how city women in trousers and make up look like.
Most of the women were in 70s or plus but Meera was amazed to see a few young women of approximately 35 living there too.
“Whom are you searching for?” Asked an old women woman adjusting her veil.
“I am looking for that old lady who sings. I heard her singing Krishna Bhakti Geet while I was at the office.” Meera answered.
Keshavji from behind just came barging in the conversation,” What? The lady who sings! C’mmon! Aren’t you here to interview Nadiya Devi? And she doesn’t sing for your information. The lady is bedridden; you can just ask a few questions, click some pictures and get away.”
Meera, “I understand sir but there was something very intriguing in that voice. At least, just let me see her once. I assure, I will not breach any rule that you mentioned. I swear. I give my word.”
Keshavji,”Huh! You journalists, your degrees, goodness. Please go and I hope you wind up. And yes, no personal questions. I repeat no personal questions.”
Meera, “Thanks a ton.”
Keshavji leaves while directing her where she could find the woman who sings.
“Dekh Girija dekh, koi tera geet sunkar milne aaya hai.” (See Girija, someone has come to see you after listening to your songs) Announced a woman with wrinkles, clad in a shabby white robe.
Meera eagerly waited in front of the small quarter with her pen and diary while other women glared her in amusement.
Girija was busy in arranging her bedding and utensils when she heard the announcement. Carrying her beads and adjusting the veil, the lady peeked out of her dilapidated door.
“Who is it?” Inquired the lady.
In last 30 years, no one had come from home to see her. The last time someone came was her brother who wanted to give her the utensils. Girija was inquisitive this time just like she did in her hay days when someone would knock her door in her native.
“Hey! Hmm….I am Meera. A journalist from Mumbai. I heard you singing outside. So, wanted to meet you.” Meera answered to all the inquisitiveness that had built up by now in the environment.
Girija Devi came out of her quarter after much of hesitation. Well draped in a milk white saree, the woman with well combed hair instantly covered her head, wore the beads and carried another in hands. Her Sandalwood Tilak was freshly put on her forehead in a fine shape just as other Krishna devotees put. One could clearly feel the wrinkles emerging beneath the Tilak and making it apparent how old she must have been. What beauty those creases still held! She had sharp eyes big enough to capture all that the big world had to offer. The dusky color and that broad face cut clearly proved how attractive she must have been in her youthful days.
As she neared Meera with reluctance, a few women in near distance were overheard, “Guess, they will talk about our Puja. You remember, we had someone similar last year, it was a ‘man’, and he clicked us.”
Meera initiated the talk,” Hi! I am Meera. I heard your voice and found it terrific. You have learnt it is it?”
Girija,”No, I just sing from my own will. I have embraced Krishna and I write for him.”
Meera, “WRITE??? You write songs?”
Girija, “Yes, I do. After I surrendered myself to Krishna, I just could write in his name.”
Meera,” Wonderful! Could you sing a couplet for me. What voice you have.”
Girija smiles coyly,” No no, Krishna is sleeping now. I will not disturb him. I will sing during Godhuli.”
Meera,” Godhuli means?”
Another widow making a garland says, “Young woman! That’s the time when evening and night meet.”
Girija nods and seconds the information.
Meera, “Oh ok! I get it.”
Older women sitting behind giggled in chorus and exchanged messages in whispers. Some stood by the pillars awed by a modern woman in their vicinity, and another few got up to do their daily chores.
Girija looked at her camera, “Will you click me?”
Meera, “Do you like getting clicked? I will. You are so beautiful and blessed with talents. You should be out.”
Girija laughed gently and answered, “Who will take care of my Gopal then?”
Meera, a little unconvinced, “Well, take him along.”
Girija smiled and waved at the thought.
Meera ran to Shivoham in hassle as she wanted to capture the early morning happenings like the puja, the chants and other ceremonies before Holi took place.
What joy today at Shivoham, widows were seen arranging the colors. Those colors they see once a year. It seems widows get sweets to eat from outside. They are all joyful today, two more days for their fun to remain. One could hear Girija from distance singing:
“Holi ke rang anek
Is baar Kanha aayenge
Nahi maanungi main,
Meera all exclaimed and ecstatic at the vocals, “Your music takes me to another world! Keep singing and I shall just vanish in the thin air.”
She continued, “I have so many questions to ask, let’s sit somewhere.”
Girija leads her to a decent section in the Ashram. A bedding adjacent to the wall with chair and tables aside, Meera preferred to sit on one.
Meera asked, “Tell me something about you. Don’t you feel, you have a life beyond this widowed life?”
Girija replied,” I am not a widow.”
Stunned at the response, Meera inquired, “Wait! What? What did you say?”
Girija,”Yes! My husband is alive.”
Meera took some time to come to sync with the response, “Then why are you here? Do people know in Shivoham?”
Girija,”No one but Keshavji.”
Meera,”Ah that man!”
Girija,”Wait, I will bring something to eat. It’s Holi season so we have some special things. I will share with you.”
Meera,”No, I want to hear your story.”
Girija, “There is no story. I am here ever since I could actually remember my hay days.”
Meera,”No! There is a lot behind you. I want to know. Don’t worry about Keshavji, if you are thinking about that nutcase.”
Girija,”No, you cannot speak that way. He is the one taking care of us since so many years.”
Meera,” Ok ok! C’mmon now. Tell me about who you are?”
While bells ring behind and a chorus can be heard, widows walk in groups, rejoice as they see Holi colors. Right in the middle of the Ashram, arrangements have been made for Holika Dehen.
Girija in her usual soft voice recollects, “I come from a small village near Debnathpura in Varanasi. I was 15 when I was married. My husband was a farmer. My husband used to be well built, dusky and tall. I could see my Krishna in him. We had a blissful marital life of ten years.”
Curious Meera intervened, “Then what? What happened then?”
Girija continued, “It was the time of Godhuli when I was singing a bhajan and suddenly we received news. My husband died in an accident. His body was found burnt in the meadows.”
Meera didn’t speak a word. There was an uncomfortable silence in the atmosphere for sometime.
Girija said, “After completing the last rites, my in-laws send me here.”
Meera gasped at the response, “Oh! And your children”
Girija,”I have two daughters and a son. I saw them last when I was coming here. I do not know where they are now.”
Meera, “But! I mean what went wrong later?”
Girija,”I came to know after few years that my husband did not die in the accident. It was a body wrongly identified while my man had minor injuries.”
Meera, “You didn’t go back?”
Girija,”No one came to take me. I as informed that my husband remarried.”
Meera, “What nonsense! How can you bear that? He has no right to abandon you. You have no right to live in a recluse and eat boiled rice.”
Girija smiled,” It’s been several years now child! He has forgotten me now!”
Meera, “I still cannot accept it. I cannot! A beautiful woman like you doesn’t deserve a life like this.”
Girija smiled again, “Come! It’s time to sing for Krishna again.”
Widows accumulate to sing and dance with each other. Many are wearing garlands and many are flapping aabir in the air. Maroon, green, blue and so many colors right in the air!
All the white saree draped women were now in smeared in colors. All happiness could be felt in the eyes, the smiles and in the aroma of marigold. “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna!” Across the air, one could hear. What a treat to eyes it was! Meera was fully amused while her eyes kept searching for Girija.
Meera ran to her quarter to see the old woman flipping torn pictures of her family. All she had was this. From behind, Meera could hear Girija sobbing.
“You cannot do this! You have to fight for your right!”
Girija hastily started to keep the pictures in the cupboard and wiping away the tears simultaneously.
“Let’s go out! Keshavji will be here anytime soon. He shouldn’t see this.” Said Girija.
Meera responded,”I will put your story in the papers and let the world know of your pains.”
Girija shocked, “No! No for heaven’s sake, you cannot. It is Holi. Nothing can be more beautiful than this. Even my Gopal is in colors today.”
Meera and Girija swiftly made a move in the portico where all women were dancing, tossing hair and flinging colors at each other.
Girija sang in her own glory:
“Sakhi, sringar ras kahe kije
Mere to Girdhar Gopal
Kanhe hue mohit
Jab nainan na ho kajal
Sakhi, kahe kije sringar.”
Meera observed Girija while she danced in the middle of other women. Happy and ever smiling! The coy and docile Girija just whiffed some colors at Meera.
Keshavji came from behind and asked Meera to meet her next morning before she finally leaves.
“So I suppose, you had a good time at Shivoham. And I assume, you really got close to someone at the Ashram.” Asked Keshavji.
Meera answered,” Oh yes! Let me tell you women here are blessed with talents. Let them come out.”
Keshavji, “I see young lady you have been advising me since you have come here. Enough has happened. And you cannot write especially about Girija. I overheard everything. Dare if you do that. Shivoham doesn’t allow its women to be spoken in papers in detail.”
Meera,”Even if it is a matter of one’s human rights?”
Keshavji, “Yes! As you gave a word, you will not breach any of our rules. You are bound to keep your notes with us.”
All teary eyed Meera, “Yes, I gave a word. I will keep it!”
She keeps the notes at the table and leaves Shivoham.
Keshavji called Girija.
“I have a bad news for you Girija. Your husband passed away on the eve of Holi.”
Girija leaves the office in utter silence. One could hear her sing from her quarter as other women broom the leftover colors from the doorway:
“Kanha sang khelu holi,
Is biraj me rang jaaun main
Kanha aayenge sakhi”