According to the most recent Census, there are 34 million widows in India, and more than half of them are less than 50 years of age. A UNIFEM supported survey of 255 widows in Vrindavan, conducted by the Guild of Service in 2002, reports:
A whopping 39 per cent of the widows interviewed had married below 12 years and 47 per cent between the ages of 12 and 17. Thirty per cent of them had become widows by the age of 24. Two had become widows by the time they were 12. They were married when just 7 and 9 years old respectively.
If we extrapolated from this sample, a third of the 34 million Indian widows 10 million would have been widowed by the age of 24, approximately the age when most women in the developed nations even begin to contemplate serious relationships.
That the Widows Remarriage Act of 1856 was no match for the Laws of Manu, is underscored by the fact that 60% of surveyed women have been widows for more than 20 years. More disturbing, 90% of the women were against remarriage. Only 13%, however, said they did not believe in remarriage. 70% attributed their reluctance to remarry to social and religious taboos.
The Hindu woman is not only commanded, but also brainwashed into believing that she could not love more than one man. If she did, she'd be unfaithful, flouting the pathivratha dharma [duties of a chaste wife to her husband]. That holds, even if the man she might have loved once is now a mere shadow on her mind. She must wait patiently until she's reunited with her man in the next birth. Then, in every birth after birth, for eternity. No such prognosis or restraint for her man, though.
All of this, of course, is nothing but horse manure. A woman, just as a man, can love more than once, more than one man, whether her ex is dead or alive. Sita, my maternal grand aunt, was only twelve when she got married. Within a year of the marriage, before it was even consummated, her husband (an undeserved label, really) had died, leaving her a child widow. In the heartless and cruel culture that considered a barely thirteen as an inauspicious widow to be cast into a dungeon, Sita refused to accept that her life was over. She declined to have her head shaved, dress in bland brown, or stay indoors. Unable to bear the community's ire, my grandfather packed her off to Saradha Vidyalaya, a boarding school in Madras (now, Chennai) for young widows, started by Sister Subbalakshmi in the 1920's.
Savithri, the Headmistress of the school, and a divorcee who had lost her twelve year old son recently, developed a special liking for Sita, and took her into her own home. She would live with my grand aunt until her death, and I would have the honor of meeting this remarkable lady several times. Sita was fairly well versed in classical music, and with the active encouragement of her foster mother, became a singer for the All India Radio. There she met another AIR artist, a progressive man from the neighboring state of Kerala. They fell in love, and after a year, they were married (civil marriage, of course). My grand aunt passed away in 1978, and was survived by her daughter, and grand children.
My paternal grand aunt, Soundarya, was not so fortunate. Widowed when she was 23, and childless, she returned to my grandfather's household, with a shaven head and a brown sari wrapped around her. She was wealthy with her dead husband's property, but every penny of it was squandered away by my grandfather, a compulsive gambler and a philanderer. After my grandfather passed away, she was forced to lead what can only be described as a nomadic life, shuttling between the homes of her nephews and nieces.
I have been a personal witness to all the unprintable abuse that were heaped on Soundarya. During rare moments of respite, she'd ask my mother, "Mythili, you are an educated woman. Men in their fifties and sixties marry, often taking women young enough to be their grand daughters, as their second and third wife. Tell me, how is it fair that women should languish in the life of the dead?".
The Shankaracharya of Joshimat [one of the six high priests of Hinduism] explains:
... it [remarriage] is forbidden by the shastras [the scriptures]. Widows are like sadhus and for society to recognize their new status as ascetics they wear white clothes and have their hair shorn. As ascetics they are not invited for happy occasions. They are supposed to dedicate their lives to God.
Supposed to? What gives this man the right to suppose anything for another woman? If love could blossom again for Sita, so it could for Soundarya. And, each one of the 34 million widows of India, can be a Valentine again for someone today, after having been one for someone else yesterday. Let no shastras or their hallowed custodians interrupt her life and loves.