For Widows, Life After Loss

In some cultures, the death of a husband has meant exile, vulnerability, and abuse. But bereaved women are beginning to fight back.

1. RETURNING TO LIFE, Vrindavan, India

Long before sunrise the widows of Vrindavan hurried along dark, unpaved alleys, trying to sidestep mud puddles and fresh cow dung. There’s a certain broken sidewalk on which volunteers set out a big propane burner every morning and brew a bathtub-size vat of tea. The widows know they must arrive very early, taking their place on rag mats, lifting their sari hems from the dirt, resting elbows on their knees as they wait. If they come too late, the tea might be gone. Or the puffed rice might be running out at the next charity’s spot, many alleys away. “I can’t rush in the morning—I’m not well,” a widow complained. “But we have to rush. You don’t know what you will miss.”

It was 5:30 a.m., a cool dawn, a sliver moon. A few widows had wrapped themselves in colorful saris, but most wore white, in India the surest signifier of a woman whose husband has died, perhaps recently, perhaps decades ago. In the dim light they moved like schools of fish, still hurrying together, pouring around street corners, a dozen here, two dozen there.

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