MUSSOORIE, Feb 14 2019
The unfailing cold only adds to the starkness of disaster. For even six years after the Uttarakhand flash floods that killed over 650 (official figure) and over 70,000 went missing, Kedarnath has not been able to wipe away the signs of the blow dealt to it by Mother Nature.
It is not unusual to spot collapsed homes, inns, schools and more. Buried under what is now rubble and concrete, are many lives and hopes.
And the wounds run deep. A dhoti and kurta in place, an oversized jacket on top, Pandit Semval in his early mid 20s stands tall. But broach the topic of the tragedy and you notice his shoulders droop a little, “It was early morning, we were thinking of the day’s puja when the waters came gushing. I managed to survive. But my cousin didn’t, as didn’t so many of my village. It is still difficult to imagine so many lives changed in a matter of seconds,” he says.
Among the many lives lost in the disaster were about 55 priests from the village of Bhanigram, about 30 Kms of Kedarnath. The village has had the tradition of most men becoming priests. So when the tragedy struck, it also washed away the joy from the lives of the many women in Bhanigram leaving them widowed. The village earned the title of ‘Widow Village’ and the women a life of deprivation.
When Dr Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International read the news he went through several emotions. “The very thought of these young women with nothing to look ahead to was devastating. If the deaths of their husbands weren’t bad enough, they had the additional worry of supporting themselves and their children. That’s when I decided to do my bit.”
Dr Pathak announced a monthly benefit of RS 2,000 per month to each widow (34 in all), opened a stitching centre for them and a computer center for the children.
And as I make my way through the steep climb and walk towards the sewing centre, my heart pounds hard- a little from the walk and much more from the prospect of facing these young women.
A petite Poonam Tiwari dressed in a green salwar kameez greets me. And if it wasn’t for her nine year old daughter waving a bye to her mother as she walks to me to the sewing centre, I would have mistaken her for an unwed young girl from the village. “No ways. I am 29 now. I take care of my fields and my family. I am all matured and sensible now” she giggles. And then adds matter of factly. “I was 19 when I got married. Then I was sure a lost case.”
A neat verandah with a few plastic chairs leads one to the simple one room centre. Peals of laughter floating out from the room put me at ease before I step in. Almost caught like naughty school girls cracking a joke, they try and wipe the laughter remnants as they greet me with smiles. There is 53 year old Leela Devi who is trying hard to put thread into the needle of a sewing machine. Not too far way is 37 year old Reeta Devi hemming a kurta. There is 27 year old Meera Tiwari dressed in a blue flowered synthetic sari and 30 year old Vinita Semwal in an orange salwar kameez.
“This place has helped us deal with our grief while giving us a source of earning. Not only have we learnt self awareness here but also learnt to deal with stress and emotions. Here we are all the same. We know each other’s hurt and we know it’s important that we stay happy and occupied” says Poonam who now teaches others to stitch and gets a neat Rs 6,000 per month.
Meera Tiwari might not wear a bindi just like most others but she wear hope of giving her son a better future. “I have learnt how to stitch a blouse as well as salwar kameez. When we gave our blouses for stitching in the market, it would be Rs 80 and for a suit, it would be 250. Now we not just stitch for ourselves but also others when we manage to find time. It’s a good feeling to not depend on anyone to take care of your needs.”
For Vinita Semwal, the centre is her getaway from the mundaneness of a widow’s life. “We laugh we cry, we learn, we teach. Somehow this place gives me wings, makes me feel normal again. And that I make some money from the skill picked here is the icing on the cake.”
As they giggle consciously when we shoot pictures, they gather to see the results on the camera screen.
As Poonam walks me down from the centre, her daughter comes running to her. She scoops her in her thin yet strong arms and pecks her weather beaten cheeks. “Life does find a way, doesn’t it, didi?” she asks, her moist eyes shining in the afternoon sun.
–The story is a part of OneWorld – Dream a Dream Media Fellowships on Life Skills, 2018