Shanti had one hand on my shoulder and was using the other to squeeze along my wrist from the elbow to the palm. “What is she saying?” I asked Asha. “Ah, she says they are not feeding you either!”
Shanti was the thinnest human I had ever met, but she was lively with an impressive wit and voice. She chanted for us as we sat on the stone steps of the pier at the Yamuna river, her dark brown eyes staring straight into mine as she sang. That voice was the very essence of the red clay dust and river haze ignited by the sunset, and I felt for the first time since arriving in India that I was in a mystical place.
Like all the widows we’d met, Shanti was an outcast in society, rejected by her family because her bad Karma was believed to have caused her husband’s death. And like many of the widows, she made her living by chanting and begging. But Shanti was too independent to be cooped up in an Ashram all day, with pride she led us to an old wooden door leaning against the wall with fabric draped over it for privacy. This was her home.
As we drove back to Hope Springz that night, the city of Vrindavan was alive with chaos. Our auto-rickshaw barely fit down the crowded narrow streets, and once we reached the main stretch we became one with the sea of endless honking. Everywhere I looked my eyes met equally curious eyes. A family of five mounted on a single scooter pulled up beside us. I pointed and Asha laughed, “When in India!”
I didn’t sleep much that night. Tired as I was of the dust, the trash, the smell of the open sewer trenches lining the road, the sand flea bites, and living on peanut butter and instant coffee, I knew my heart would break the next morning when it was time to say goodbye.
Since arriving in Vrindavan we’d spent most of our time with the widows at Hope Springz, a tiny two-room apartment that empowers over 30 women with life development skills. It was clean and cozy compared to the outside world, and for women whose purpose and dignity have been stripped away, it’s a place of restoration. Asha explained that when they first opened the craft center the Maas (Asha often referred to them as Maas or mothers, instead of widows) were not used to being hugged, and were reluctant to associate with one another because they came from different castes. This was hard for me to imagine. Since my arrival, all they wanted to do was hug me, and now they sat together at ease, sharing stories, laughing and crying. My visit was an opportunity for them to share pertinent marriage advice, which Asha translated- “They tell me to remind you it is your duty to massage your mother and father in-law’s calves every day.”
The next morning the Maas brought strands of marigolds to place around our necks and then seated themselves on the colorful mats. I stood up and asked Asha to translate
“Thank you for letting us celebrate the arrival of spring with you during Holi, and for allowing your beauty and love to bring healing into the world. I am eager to share your story, but my heart is heavy now with this moment of goodbye.”
When Asha had finished there was a soft murmuring, and then one of the women spoke up.
The next thing I knew, a fire of passionate Hindi speech was flowing from Asha. I looked around the room, all eyes were on her, tears began to form and run down the faces that looked up toward the speaker, they were wiped away with resolute hands. Backs straightened, heads lifted, this was an Indian Mother Pep Talk.
Asha explained, ‘‘They said to me, ‘why does she say that we are beautiful? Does she not see the wrinkles on our faces?’ So I tell them, it is their courage that makes them beautiful. That they did not give up, even when the world turned against them. That they still choose to love. Many people who are beautiful on the outside do not have this bravery. I told them every wrinkle and sadness is beautiful because it tells the story of their courage.”
The essay is written by Eva Holbrook lead singer and mandolinist of SHEL. Eva traveled to India to make the music video for Rainbow with a focus on raising much-needed funds and awareness for some of the world’s most vulnerable women. The sisters hope their partnership with locally run outreach Hope Springz will make a lasting impact, helping restore color and dignity to widows in Vrindavan, India. SHEL’s music can be heard in numerous films, TV shows, and commercials, including The Best of Me, The Fourth Phase, Depth Perception, Charged, the trailer for Women In Sports, Shameless (Showtime), The Fosters (Freeform), Riverdale (Netflix), Search Party (TBS), as well as commercials for Chevy, Toys R’ Us, Panadol, Splenda, and Glade. is the first single from SHEL’s upcoming EP, Wild Child produced with Joey Verskotzi and Tim Myers (previously of OneRepublic).