“A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.” ~Diane Mariechild
Sunday night I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. Since my first week working for Maitri we have been trying to organize a trip to visit Maitri’s widows project in Vrindavan as well as Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Several times we’ve made arrangements that only fell through for various reasons, but finally the plans were set in stone and the car that would take us first to Vrindavan and then Agra would be at our apartment in 5 short hours.
We reached Vrindavan around 9:00 am. The streets were already bustling due to a festival going on in honor of Krishna. Stands were scattered everywhere, where women, dressed in brightly colored saris, and their children sat on top of wooden planks stringing bright orange flowers into necklaces. We slowly made our way through traffic to Maitri’s center where the widows stay. At first the place looked completely empty, just a large concrete building with cut out open windows and doors. Laundry hung in between the columns and monkeys played near by on top of a concrete fence. As we approached a younger woman came out, wearing a black and white kurta with her hair in a bun. Her smile was warm, and after a few words with my coworker, Anita, she led us into one of the rooms where the women sleep. Immediately I felt like I had 10 new grandmothers! Each woman approached us, smiling so sweetly, they pinched my cheeks, hugged me, kissed my cheeks and one woman even braided my hair.
After visiting for a little while, we left the center to go and see Maitri’s plot of land where they will be building their Aging Resource Center. Once it is completed they will provide housing and vocational training for 200 widows. Afterwards we visited an ashram where 70 widows stay. At this particular ashram they were not only feeding the widows who stayed there, but are accepting of others who stop in. Near the doorway were 3 small children who were also given food. I assume it was a young girl and her baby sister and toddler brother. The young girl smiled up at me with fire in her eyes and ushered her small brother to waive and look at me. She showed me her baby sister and laughed as she picked up her small hand. I wanted to sit and eat with them, but just as soon as we got there we were being directed to continue on our journey.
It was mealtime when we returned back to Maitri’s Center. The widows sat in 4 lines, barefoot and cross-legged on the floor with their sectioned metal plates before them. Three of the women scooted large metal containers full of rice, curry and some other Indian dish. They heaped piles on each of the widow’s plates. They dug in, and I was amazed at the quantity of food their tiny frail bodies were able to hold. I was able to help distribute the bananas once they were close to finishing their main course. As I placed each banana into the warm hands of the recipient I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and happiness.
It made me smile knowing that they are all well fed, and I enjoyed watching them chat and laugh as they ate. While I watched I realized India’s Holy Cities are set apart from other areas because they are places of gathering. I remembered a quote from Maitri’s website about widows.. that they “face a triple jeopardy: that of being old, of being women, and of being poor”. These beautiful women, who have spent their lives being wives, mothers, and grandmothers, escape situations of torment and abuse. They are often abandoned by their own families, have their homes and lands taken from them (even by their own children), and are viewed as “cursed” because their husbands passed before them and are therefore ostracized and cast out from society. I knew they were at Maitri’s center because they had nowhere else to go. At a first glance, their living conditions may look bleak, but as I walked around the center and sat on their beds as they proudly showed me their few belongings, smiled for photos, and sat eating together, all I felt was warmth and a sense of belonging. As our car pulled away I realized that I didn’t want to dwell on their pasts….I wanted to focus on the hope and life they have found in Vrindavan. Like leather, the wear of life's struggles and experiences has left them softer, more aware of the world and compassionate to those in it, and that with age they have only become more beautiful.
They have found refuge in Vrandavan…safety in its Ashrams…comfort and solace among its people. Ultimately, they have found family and community in a place where they can love and be loved in return.