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A bride and a widow.

Binodini’s life changed after marriage. She was now a daughter-in-law. She could no longer be the Binu that she had been in her natal home. Binodini had to constantly be conscious of her conduct. A year passed in getting accustomed to the norms of her new home, and soon the murmurs began: the daughter-in-law hadn’t conceived yet. Soon, Binodini’s infertility became a talking point in the family. In fact, the case was exactly the opposite, which put Binodini under even greater distress. However, the worst was yet to happen.

Binodini had been married to Kartik for little more than a decade when the shock came. One evening, after Binodini’s husband had returned from work, he gifted her a beautiful gold necklace. He had gifted her something after a long while. Binodini was glad, perhaps her fortunes were to change. She carefully placed the necklace in her cupboard’s locker, guarding this token as if it ensconced their relationship. She watched Kartik take his shoes off and hurried to the kitchen. Unbeknown to herself, she was smiling.

In the next five minutes, when Binodini came back with a cup of tea and some biscuits for Kartik, she saw something that she could not have imagined in the least. Kartik was lying awkwardly on the bed: his head tilted towards one side, his face contorted, his hand hanging down from the bedside, loose, limp. Binodini rushed to Kartik, the cup and saucer flying from her hands. The crashing of the cup and saucer was muffled by Binodini’s cry of horror. “Maaji!” Binodini called out in alarm. Hearing her, Keshav, Kartik’s younger brother, rushed into the room. Their mother also rushed in. Binodini was rubbing Kartik’s chest, desperately trying to revive him. An ambulance was called, and Kartik was rushed to the hospital. However, by the time the doctors could examine him, Kartik had already died of a mysterious ailment.

Misery cast its gloomy shadow on Binodini’s life. Her hair was cropped short. She had to wear white sarees. She had to eat food bereft of nutrition. What had once puzzled her about her grandmother was what she was living through now every day. Looking at Binu’s plight, her parents asked her to come and live with them. But Binodini’s in-laws were unwilling. They were a rigid, conservative family and refused to let go of her. Binodini was first, and for always, a daughter-in-law, and her fate was linked inextricably with her marital family.

Eventually, Binodini’s mother-in-law & brother-in-law began misbehaving with her. They decided to marry her to a distant relative of theirs. The man was twenty years older to Binu and a widower. Binu protested, but in vain. She was a liability now, like dead wood. It suited Binu’s brother-in-law to remove her from the family. That way, he could inherit all the ancestral property himself. Binu was a thorn in his way, one that he was determined to pluck and throw out any way possible.

Binu’s parents strongly objected to the match, but her in-laws were adamant. They gave the same argument for everything: Binu was now a part of their family, and they knew what was best for her. A few weeks before the wedding, Binu received news that her grandmother was ill and unlikely to live for long. Binu wanted to meet her. Binu’s mother-in-law agreed reluctantly, sending a family escort with her. She instructed them to return the very next day.

Binu’s Dadima was shocked to see her beloved granddaughter in widow’s attire. No one had told her about Binu’s reversal of fortunes. Now, she asked Binu about all the misery that had befallen her since widowhood. Dadi held Binu’s hand and spoke with great difficulty as tears welled in her eyes. She could not see her darling granddaughter live a life of neglect and disrespect.

In her lifetime, Dadi could never summon the courage to question tradition. But if breaking tradition was a sin, then tolerating injustice was also a sin. She advised Binodini to run away: “Tu bhag ja, beti, kahin door bhag ja. Krishna bhagwan tere sath hain, iss narak se door chali ja.”

Even before Binodini could process what her grandmother was asking her to do, Dadi called for the most trusted servant of their family, Raghu. She urged him to take Binu somewhere far away from Bengal, where she could be safe and independent. Raghu hesitated, but eventually agreed. He had a relative who was a Vaishnav and ran an ashram in Vrindavan.

And so, Binu chose to remain a widow, to live with dignity, rather than get married against her will. In the dark of the night, Binu left her parents’ home with Raghu. The two took a train to Vrindavan. Binu carried two suitcases: one was light, which had her clothes and an idol of Krishna, the other was heavy—it was filled with all her books. At Mathura station, Raghu and Binu engaged a tonga for Vrindavan. The holy city was home to many widows: most were from Bengal, but some were from Bihar & Odisha as well. As the horse clip-clopped towards Vrindavan, Binodini was filled with hopeful expectation for this new chapter of her life.


tonga: a two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle used in India.

Photography: Jassi Oberai

Location: Vrindavan, Mathura, India