In rural Madhya Pradesh, death is often referred to as the act of becoming silent, shaant ho jaana in the local parlance. It was this very silence that Krishna Bai Malwi feared the most after her armyman husband died a few years ago. Sometime later, when her son also left the village for a job in Bhopal, the quietness in Krishna Bai’s house, and indeed, in her life, began to seem even more oppressive. That was when this spunky 48-year-old decided to redefine her life. In the process, she has become the fulcrum of community life in Chidawad village (Block Tonk Khurd, district Dhar). Here’s her story.
“Instead of letting silence and melancholy define my existence, I started thinking about what I could do to banish it from my house,” she recalls. Money wasn’t a problem, as her late husband’s pension from the army and 3.5 bighas of farmland was enough to sustain her. She started with hosting bhajan evenings in her house. “My verandah is spacious enough for a dozen women, maybe even more,” she says as she spreads a large dhurry for everyone to sit on. Women really enjoyed coming to Krishna Bai’s house: “Perhaps because there was no one else living there but me, they could uncover their faces and feel free to express themselves!” she says. Then, another opportunity arose. An NGO wanted to conduct adult education classes for women in Chidawad and were looking for a venue. “I offered my house as the women were already comfortable there,” she recalls.
Just like that, her once silent house soon became the hub of all village activity. For most women in Chidawad who weren’t fortunate enough to space or freedom to be themselves in their own homes, Krishna Bai’s house became the most happening venue in the village. Over the years, Krishna Bai has come to command a great deal of respect in her community for her leadership and generosity. “We can’t even imagine having a village function anywhere other than in her house,” says her neighbour Tina bai. “For us, Krishna Bai has become an essential part of everything good that happens in the village!”
Some months ago, when WaterAid wanted to work with the villagers on water security and cleanliness, again Krishna Bai’s house seemed like the obvious venue. “We get together in my verandah to discuss how to keep our water sources clean, the best way to store drinking water and also spread awareness in the community about the crying need to focus on the quality of water we drink,” she says. Not only has she become an enthusiastic and active member of Chidawad’s Water User Association which is responsible for operating and maintaining the water pump that gives piped water to every household, she scolds anyone she finds wasting water! Since she commands so much respect in the village community, people are forced to listen to her. “But I still find that once my back is turned, some of them revert to their wasteful ways,” she fumes. “Now I want to learn how to make videos so that I can record people who waste water and then use the videos to shame them in public!”
Krishna Bai avers that she has benefitted as much from the community gatherings in her house, as the community has. “When the adult education classes were held here, I also learned to sign my name,” she says proudly. Contributing to a collective cause has helped her to see her life more positively, she says: “I now feel much more confident than I used to be.” Krishna Bai has indeed come a long way since she was widowed. “When my husband died, I thought my world had come to an end,” she says. “But every day, life shows me that there is much left for me to savour...”
As she talks, women start settling down on the dhurry. Some have brought their children too. The air fills up with the melodious sounds of their bhajans. Amid all the chatter, laughter and music, Krishna Bai sits quietly, looking at peace with herself. “Can you feel the positive energy around my house?” she asks. “I have come to realise that I might live alone – but I’ll never be lonely…”