Although Death speaks to everyone in the same language, we fabricate widely divergent meanings out of that immutable statement. As a matter of fact, we invariably fancy our chances as philosophers while discussing death. The resident mason of our project, Rasheed, is no exception to this rule. Normally a rugged brick and mortar fellow, he became a little emotional when I enquired about his house. ‘Saab, we live in mud huts. And when our time’s up, we shift from one mud house to another; the change doesn’t hurt. Bus!’ Obviously, for Rasheed, the builder of many a mansion in his lifetime, living in a mud hut rankles.
The NGO project we work in is in Jharkhand now, but till the other day, 14 November 2000 to be precise, it was a part of Bihar. It is in the middle of nowhere, a few kilometres from a tiny desolate railway station through which a solitary passenger train shuttles a few times every day. The place is thinly populated and totally unspoilt by civilization, except for transistor radios, the rail track, and that ultimate symbol of progress, coca cola. Incidentally, the teashop where we often have our evening cuppa has a red coca cola fridge with a transparent door. It serves as a cupboard as there is no electricity.
The area is blessed with an excess of natural beauty. A two-mile walk from our project site to the rail station in a moonlit evening is perhaps one of the most fascinating walks you could ever take. It is a gravelled path with vast, undulating fields on either side dotted with occasional shrubs and acacia and saal trees. Tiny dots of lights from distant shops vie with fireflies for attention. On evenings when the wind blows in the right direction, one can hear the soft sound of water flowing in an unseen, imaginary river.
A few weeks ago, during one of our mandatory evening-walks, we came across an old woman who had almost shifted her residence rather abruptly. Although we were still in November, the cold was rather fierce. The radio bulletins spoke of snow in Kashmir and a cold wave in the rest of North India. But for us, the news of the cold wave was superfluous; the sharp nip in the air cut through the sweaters and shawls that swathed us. The early untimely chill kept people tucked in their houses. When a train arrived, it would disgorge a few souls onto the road, but otherwise, the road was deserted. Only the sibilant sound of a lonely cycle passing on the gravelled path occasionally broke the absolute stillness of the evening. That was how it usually was, but that evening, we were surprised to find a small group of excited people standing around a fire beside the road. Despite the cold, the children were almost naked, and as usual, they outnumbered the adults by a handsome margin.
An ancient woman was at the centre of the commotion. She was thin, wrinkled all over and seemed to have shrunk due to the cold, old age and malnutrition. A reincarnation of Indir Thakrun of Pather Panchali, she was wet from head to toe and that was the reason for the commotion. She had tried to kill herself by jumping into a nearby pond, stark naked. Rescued by a passer-by and covered with a dhoti, presently, she was being dried and warmed up in the fire made of hay and twigs. While she impassively accepted the unfamiliar attention that was being showered upon her, about a score of men, women and kids standing around her animatedly discussed her destiny.
She spoke incoherently in the local dialect, Khotta, and didn’t understand a word of Hindi. But even when spoken to in her own language, she understood very little and hardly responded. Chaman Lal asked her name. No reply. What was the name of her village? An indistinct mumble that didn’t match the name of any nearby village … Did she have any relative here? Once again, a vague answer, which meant nothing, or perhaps, meant a lot. Looked like it was a case of dementia, or perhaps she had suffered a cerebral stroke. During the conversation, she made a few attempts to stand up, but her legs were too feeble for the task.
Apparently, her relatives had had enough of her, and thrown her out. The people around her vociferously condemned the raw deal meted out to her, and made it a mission to save her life. My colleagues and me wondered when she had had her last meal, an issue that did not unduly bother her poor saviours. As we offered her a ten-rupee note, it was intercepted by a man who almost snatched it from my hand and volunteered to buy food for the unfortunate woman. The Good Samaritan returned after a while, smugly smoking an incongruous cigarette in this land of bidis. He brought a packet of mudi and chhole worth about five rupees. I could not help reflecting that the cost of delivery of our humble charity was more or less the same as what donors of charities incur the world over. Being employees of an NGO, we had firsthand knowledge of the fact!
(Charitable people of the world, beware! If this piece ever reaches you – it would be uncharitable of me to presume otherwise – think twice before you put your hard-earned money in the offertory box of a Good Samaritan. Perhaps he needs a cigarette badly. And a few other good things of life!)
Messengers had been despatched to nearby tolas where the woman might have had relatives. A few of them returned with more onlookers in tow, but no useful information. After much deliberation, the little congregation decided that for that night, the woman would be sheltered in the veranda of the chamber of the doctor with dubious degrees. Harvesting had just been over and hay was available in plenty. As we left, we made peace with our conscience hoping that the woman would sleep under a blanket of hay and at least have a thatched roof over her head for the night.
The next evening, we enquired after the old woman. She had been packed off to her village, the name of which she could not remember, by the last train that left our station after ten in the night. It was perhaps a matter of minor detail that in that night of her journey to nowhere, the cold was freezing, and the old woman had only a dhoti on her slender, emaciated body.
[This true story (names changed) was written on 14 December, 2000 and published in WordPlus, a literary magazine. A Malayalam translation done by my friend K T Rajagopalan was carried in Matrubhumi.]