‘Don’t wear her clothes, you might also die.’
‘Has she completely lost her shame?’
‘A widow turning up for a wedding in colourful clothes is a bad omen.’
At what was supposed to be a joyous occasion, Nirmal Chandel was greeted with these insults instead. It was her brother’s wedding in the year 1994, and the groom trousseau she had purchased with her own earnings for her sibling was termed manhoos (bad luck).
But her brother stood up for her, wore the clothes and even danced with Nirmal.
For this resident of Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, this incident was neither isolated, nor the worst. Nirmal’s husband had died due to a heart attack in 1989, at the age of 30. For a year, she was made to live in a dimly lit room without even a fan. The outcasting of widows is common practice, and Nirmal’s case was no different.
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After her husband’s death, she was not allowed to wear colourful clothes, eat with the rest of the family, attend functions or do anything that even remotely resembled a normal life.
To break out of this subjugation, Nirmal decided to take matters into her own hands. She joined Social Upliftment through Rural Action (SUTRA), an NGO where she was trained and hired as an accountant at a monthly salary of Rs 350.
This process of fighting for her own rights and independence has catapulted Nirmal into impacting the lives of more than 16,000 widowed, unmarried and divorced women. In 2005, she formed Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) to lead the upheaval battle and bring policy-level changes.
“Logo ne kaha ki main apne pati ko kha gayi (People told me I had taken my husband’s life). They said I couldn’t bear him any children and my buri nazar (evil eye) had taken his life at such a young age. My own parents refused to stand by me and my in-laws treated me as a burden. I was on the verge of taking my life, but my friend saved me by introducing me to the NGO that was working towards women’s welfare. Once I was independent, I wanted to help others,” Nirmal tells The Better India.
Nirmal was expecting to get a job at the clerical level at SUTRA, given that she was only a metric pass. To her surprise, she was offered the accountant post.
“For the first time, I was allowed to make mistakes. People took interest in me. My inputs and work were valuable. Ours is a small village, so the word soon spread about my work. I was frowned upon and people left no chance to humiliate me. But I was earning and living at the SUTRA shelter so I didn’t care what they said. During this period, several widows approached me to share their issues. Their conditions were worse than mine. Children of the widows were left starved. I really wanted to help them,” says Nirmal.
Meanwhile, her parents, ashamed at their daughter’s new-found independence, asked her to quit her job and offered her a monthly allowance of Rs 500.
“I refused, because as soon as you depend on someone for your financial needs, they tend to behave as if you owe them your life. I knew my parents would restrict my freedom if I took their money. I wanted to build my identity and live freely,” she adds.
In 2005, life took another pleasant turn for Nirmal. SUTRA asked her to attend a widows’ meet in Rajasthan in 2005. The aim of the meet was to march to the Chief Minister’s house and ask for the rights of single women.
It was an eye-opening event for Nirmal, who had never even travelled out of Himachal. Dressed in beige sari, she was surprised to see other women from different states wearing colorful clothes and jewellery. Standing amid women who had similar stories, Nirmal realised the power of binding communities, and the importance of women being confident and unapologetic for the first time.