Scissors snip and the widow tears a strip of old dress cloth. Then she snips and rips again, repeating a tedious ritual with only one salvation in sight. Maybe this will be the day she dies. In a long lifetime of torment, each day that she stays alive allows death to punish her a little more by making her wait.
Kamala Devi Mukherjee, 70, sits barefoot in the doorway of a dark sweatshop where there is just enough room for two rickety looms and stacks of sari cloth waiting to be torn and weaved into bedcovers. The piecework pays less than a dollar a day. With the few cents she earns daily cleaning three families' homes, Mukherjee has enough to rent a room where she sleeps on the floor.
Indian society can be especially harsh on widows. Many have no skills and little education, and barred by their Hindu faith from remarrying, they are frequently left with no one to support them.
Although some more progressive families shrug off the customary ban on remarrying, which applies only to women, the majority of Hindus uphold it. That leaves many widows with a painful choice: Suffer in silence or, like Mukherjee, strike out on your own.
Like many widows before her, Mukherjee left her village home 15 years ago to live alone here in the holy city of Varanasi. The widows believe that by dying here, on the banks of the mother Ganges River, they will be reunited with their creator, and the recurring cycle of birth, death and reincarnation will cease. This moment of liberation is called moksha, and with it, an infinite pain passes.
"I now want to die quickly," Mukherjee said through an interpreter, pulling on another strip of cloth. "I've had enough suffering in my life."
She can find no comfort in childhood memories. Mukherjee's parents sold her in marriage to a farmer from Diamond Harbor, in the state of West Bengal, when she was 7. Her newlywed husband, Bijoy, was a widower with four children. The child bride visited his home only once, then returned to her parents after Mukherjee's father had second thoughts about the groom, she said.
They were married anyway but two years later, Bijoy died. At 9, Mukherjee was a widow, bound by ancient tradition to remain faithful to a man she had never really known, let alone loved.
She lived with her parents in the West Bengal city of Navadwip and learned the harsh lessons of survival as a social outcast. Before long, her parents were dead, too, and Mukherjee lost her last refuge.
"My brother, together with his wife, stopped giving me food and fought regularly," she said. "I tolerated it for a long time, and when I could not take it anymore, I came here."
Varanasi's widows are easy prey for merchants or charlatan sadhus, or holy men, who roam the steps leading to the Ganges in search of naive pilgrims or gullible tourists.
"There are some fake sadhus who wear [holy] saffron dress but who are criminals at heart and who exploit these women sexually," said Rolee Singh, a social worker. "Once it happens to them, they stay quiet because it is a big shame here in India to be raped or sexually exploited."
Widows are expected to live by social rules that are often humiliating. The worst rituals of the past -- such as shaving their heads or committing suicide on their husbands' funeral pyres -- are rare nowadays.
But the women still are supposed to sleep on the floor, eat a bland vegetarian diet that excludes onions or garlic, dress plainly and not wear makeup, and stay away from public celebrations such as weddings.
The restrictions are rationalized, in part, as essential to suppressing a widow's sexual desires so that she will not be tempted to betray her late husband, said Singh, whose charity has begun aiding some of the destitute widows in Varanasi.
"As a child, a girl is taught that when she marries, her husband is God," Singh said. "She has to bow and touch her husband's feet in respect. When he dies, she is left blank and doesn't know what to do or where to go."
In a society at times so cruel to its women, the Ganges is a mythological mother treated with the utmost reverence. It flows about 1,600 miles, from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, but it is much more than a mighty river to Hindus. They believe it to be a goddess linking Heaven and Earth, and a sprinkling of its water can purify an unclean soul and heal an afflicted body.
More than 38,000 corpses are cremated each year in pyres that blaze at the river banks, day and night. The ashes are poured into the river, which, according to belief, carries them to Heaven. In time, they will be reincarnated and return to Earth to suffer again.
Only those who die in the waters of the Ganges, or are sprinkled with them as they take their last breaths, are said to achieve absolute salvation.
It takes conviction to believe in the purity of the Ganges, where thousands of Hindu pilgrims gather each morning to pray and dip in a river filthy with raw sewage, partially cremated body parts and even the odd complete, if slightly charred, corpse.
Every morning, Mukherjee joins thousands of Hindus who gather on the steps, or ghats, that line the riverbank. She immerses herself in the holy water, prays for liberation from this world, then walks to the small weaving factory to tear more dress cloth.
She passes beggars in the streets, many of them widows like her, and is determined not to join them. Mukherjee, a high-caste Brahmin, insists that she will survive on her own sweat and toil, or not at all.
"Of course, I've had to go through various hardships because of this decision," she said. "There were times when I went without food for three to four days at a stretch. But even then, I never begged."
The rhythm of each workday is set by the gentle slip and clack of the loom as another widow, Shobha Rani Debnath, 65, passes a rough-hewn shuttle back and forth, pressing the loom's pedals with her big toe. Mukherjee has a lot of time to think as she works, but the death she so eagerly awaits rarely causes her anxiety, she said.
"Tell me, is there any point?" she said. "Here, I have to work and earn my living. Death will come in its own time, and when it takes me away, I will be happy that I have been released from this world and its suffering."
Reena Roy, 51, doesn't have far to go from morning prayers in the Ganges to the place where she earns her living. It is a spot on a busy sidewalk where thousands of pilgrims pass each day, sometimes dropping a coin into her tin bowl.
Roy has staked out a prime position in a line of begging widows beside one of the oldest and most popular ritual sites on the Ganges, called Dasaswamedh Ghat. She is a woman of solemn dignity, sitting on a piece of plastic sacking, anchored by two bricks and a rock.
She has nothing more than a bottle of river water, a few belongings and her faith.
Her husband, Sudhir, a grocery shop owner, died 12 years ago of lung cancer. Without children to support her, Roy got by as best she could on the little money left over after a long struggle to keep her husband alive.
"Even after selling all our property, I could not save him, and now I have been reduced to this state," she said.
At the end of the day, Roy rarely has more than 40 cents. It's been a year since she left the village of Bokultala in West Bengal and made this stretch of walkway her home. She has strayed from the riverside only once, when a pilgrim offered a place in a widows shelter run by a Hindu charity.
"I found it very crowded after staying for two days, and later even the kind gentleman who had taken me there told me that it was actually meant for widows older than me," she said. "I have never gone back there again."
For all of her troubles, Roy said she is happy because as she waits for this life to end, in hope that she will never have to live again, she has peace of mind.