Features Thursday, May 28, 2015 - 05:30
For the first time in her life Anita Aswale got her hair cut last week. At 50, her head felt light, and for once, had a peaceful night’s sleep that day. She had gotten rid of mass of hair that was never combed or washed in the last 10 years. Vermilion and flowers offered regularly to that mass of unkempt hair led to an infestation of lice, and also caused pus-filled wounds to bleed. She also suffered from headaches. But it was the knotted hair that fixed her identity as a Devdasi, a woman offered to a god and who was not allowed to cut it. Women have been routinely initiated into the Devadasi system in parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra, after which, they cannot cut their hair or get married to a man. They must leave home and their families, serving god by begging or working in temples. But most Devdasis only end up being exploited by priests and local leaders. Eventually they are pushed into flesh trade, but rituals of revering the knot with vermilion and flowers are not discontinued.   Anita is one such Devdasi and sex worker. Her in-laws evicted her from her house in Patan, Karad district of Maharashtra, after her husband died. She had to bear the pain of leaving her eight-year-old daughter behind. Then, claiming to provide her with a job around ten years ago, a woman cheated her and took her to Budhwar Peth, a red light area in Pune. Despite being a sex worker, Anita did not cut off her hair because tradition and custom did not allow it. Her fellow sex workers and social activists told her to break tradition and cut her hair, but her faith in god did not allow her to do so. “I had many health issues like bleeding and had to take treatment many times. I could never sleep peacefully due to knots,” she says. However, an awareness program on the Devdasi tradition organized by the Andhashradha Nirmulan Samiti that works toward eradication of superstition, gave her courage to go ahead and express the wish to cut hair. Very next day, Nandini Jadhav, from ANS, did the task. It is not that Anita is not scared or completely at peace with her courageous decision. Her faith in god and tradition is intact. “I wanted to give it a try as in I have to suffer in any case. If god wants to punish me, let him do that. Let us see what happens. At least I will not have bad health issues now onwards,” she says. She is still worried about what her family would think of her if they knew of her decision. Regardless of these consequences, Anita may have begun a tiny, hair-cutting rebellion, a baby step, in putting an end to the practice of initiating young girls into the Devadasi tradition: All six Devdasi-sex workers from the red light area have now expressed their wish to get rid of their knots.