Durga Devi is 80 years old. Perhaps older. She cannot accurately remember her age.

As per Hindu custom in her youth, she was married at the tender age of 12-14, to a man much older to her. Well into his sixth decade, her husband had several wives.

Soon after their marriage, Durga Devi’s husband passed away and she became a teen-widow.

Destitute widows like Durga Devi were largely ostracized by society and were forced to spend the rest of their lives in institutions for widows called ashrams. The women were sent to these ashrams to expiate bad karma and make amends for their sins which supposedly caused their husband’s death.

Durga Devi has lived all her life in ashrams, relying on the kindness of others for a frugal subsistence. Bound by strict social customs, she never remarried, wore white at all times and devoted her life to prayer in social seclusion. She lost her dignity. Her identity.

Every morning, at dawn, come rain or shine, Durga Devi walks the short distance from her ashram to the bathing ghats on the banks of the river Ganges (Hoogly) in Kolkata.

Hindus consider the waters of the Ganges holy. It is Durga Devi’s deep belief that bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges will absolve her off all her sins. In her next life, she hopes to attain the happiness and peace of mind she never had. She yearns to regain her identity.

Durga Devi’s story serves as a poignant reminder of what it means to be deprived of your identity. Your human dignity. Thankfully, today such cruel customs that stole the identities of thousands are fading. Increasingly at odds with a modern India.

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