Tuesday, 23 March 2004 — Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
It was way past midnight in the holy city of Varanasi when they entered the darshan line, most aided by walking sticks. In fact, they seemed as old as the city itself: a disoriented-looking lady with incredibly thick glasses, a handicapped woman dragging herself forward by her hands, a blind man guided by his almost-blind wife. They had been brought for Amma’s darshan from the village of Kanchampurkiri, not far from Allahabad, by one of Amma’s devotees.
When the first old lady came for darshan, Amma had to bend way over in order to take her into Her arms, as she was suffering from somewhat of a hunchback. The next woman had to be lifted. All around tears were flowing. Amma then called one of Her swamis to come and record their names, addresses and stories, so they could be considered for Amrita Nidhi, the Math’s free pension programme.
Through Amrita Nidhi, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math has been providing to India’s poor since 1998, initially in South India. During Amma’s in 2004 North India Tour, the programme expanded to eight other Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh. Beneficiaries receive enough to ensure they get at least one good meal a day.
Angani is around 60; she does not know her exact age. She has been a widow for more than 20 years. After her husband’s death, she worked in the fields, harvesting grain and coriander. The long hours in the sun have aged her skin. Since she has lost most of her eyesight, she cannot work anymore. Daily, she now goes out to beg for food. If she is lucky she gets enough for one meal a day. Her daughter does not come to see her anymore; her husband forbids it. Angani cries as she talks about how she has to beg for food; “If only I could get my eyes back.”
Sahadev is completely blind. His wife, Ranjani, who is also poor-sighted, guides him. She begs for food on the street. “We eat every other day,” she says. “There is no more.” She starts crying as She is telling her fate. They have one son. He drives a rickshaw and has six children. “What can he give us?” she asks.
“He hardly makes enough to support his family.” Ranjani starts crying, and then Sahadev starts talking. He has four more daughters, but they all live with their husband’s families. They have not seen them for years and have lost all contact. “It is because we cannot invite them. We cannot even offer them tea or food. How can we receive our daughters then?” Sahadev breaks down and buries his face in his turban.
Maana is 55 years old. She is handicapped and has been a widow for the past five years. Her husband was also handicapped, and they were used to a life of begging. Since her sister’s death, Maana also has to care for her mentally retarded niece. They are entitled to a government food ration because of their handicaps, but it is distributed through the village chief, she says, and he gives it to his own family.
Sukrana lives with her son. He supports his mother and himself with the few rupees he makes in the cotton mill. “It is not enough to live on, so I have to go out begging. If I beg for eight hours, maybe I have 10 rupees; this will give us two good meals.”
Sahjina is 85 years old. She still works everyday, seven days a week. From early morning to the late evening she washes vessels and pots in a local restaurant. She earns Rs. 150 a month. She earns so little because she cannot work very hard anymore; so her boss lowered her salary.
Panchu works in a shop that sells rice and grains. She sits in a corner all day removing small stones from the rice. For this, her boss pays her only in food; sometimes only half a meal when he feels she has not worked hard enough.
Once their stories are verified by the Ashram, Panchu, Sahjina, Sukrana, Maana, Ranjani, Sahadev and Angani will be entitled to be part in the Amrita Nidhi pension programme, which will eventually benefit over 50,000 people.