If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The first cold-wave death of the winter?

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.]


  1. Dear Mr. Chaudhuri,

    I must say that you are going to enjoy a lot with us at Suvro Sir's blog. We are one happy family, talking and discussing on many things. We share books and movies, have fun and talk on several issues at Sir's house. He is a real good man. We were so lucky to have him as our teacher. And I believe you are a wonderful person too.

    I have been thinking for sometime whether I should be having a blog or not. All of you write so well. Who will read me?

    But now I have finally decided to have a blog. I have made my blog in 'Blogger' itself. The name of my blog is - My Third Eye.

    In recent times I have discovered a genuine fondness for photography. To me, photography is a brilliant medium to portray the world. It appeals to me more than videography. Capturing the world and its people in still images is a very difficult task. Probably even in my eighties I will have to tell myself that photography is not for me. But right now I am trying; training my eye everytime I go outside. I am serious about this hobby. And I will carry on with it for years to come.

    In my blog I have posted a few pictures that I have taken in recent times. There are four categories. There is also another category which has my sketches.

    The URL is:


    I will be glad if you pay a visit to it and post your thoughts. I hope others will pour their thoughts in soon.



  2. What a wonderful story! Apart from the style and language - which are undoutably brilliant - the point of view is truly laudable.

  3. Thank You Sir for your comments at my blog. I have corrected the error. It was such an awful mistake.

    That frog came as a real surprise to me. I was studying when I noticed it on the window. It is one of my best shots. Since the frog was sleeping, I was able to get many shots. This one had clear focus and good placement of subject.

    The essence of photography lies in how good you are at observing your ambience. A brilliant eye and a wonderful heart is all that photography needs. Then comes the camera. It is important to note that one does not need a very expensive camera for photography; like the Nikon D3, which costs around 2 lakhs. But one should also understand that one cannot pursue this art seriously if one has a low range camera, or a compact camera for that matter. The manual mode of a compact camera is of not much use. So a middle range DSLR like the D60 or D40 is very essential for all kinds of photography. Those who say that the need for a DSLR is 'bakwas' and that photography is 'only about the eye', I strongly disagree with them. Even all the amateur and professional photographers that you may encounter will say you the same thing.

    You see I do not have a camera. A DSLR is too costly for me. I use a compact camera of a sister who is kind enough to lend me hers. I wish I have a camera soon. I often pray God to give me a well-paid job on January so that I can work till June (as my MBA will start from July)and save enough money to buy a D60, with 18 to 105 mm lens. I need at least Rs. 40,000. I hope I succeed.

    Take care,



  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Two-days late, and a chain of wonderful comments have already flowed in! That is progress.

    It's quite the same old story, but has been brought out differently and that is what is commendable.

    Reminded me of Jefferey Archer's A Prisoner Of Birth, based on similar stuff.

    Manoshij Banerjee

  6. Read this,


  7. I came across your blog link in Suvro Sir's blog.Truly speaking this story of yours has been one of the pleasant and memorable reads of recent times for me. Your style of narration reminds me of Ruskin Bond.I think I will enjoy reading here.
    Best Wishes,

  8. Thursday, 20 November 2008

    Thank you all, for your comments. Of late, since Suvro's endorsements, more people have started reading my blog and I feel enthused to post more often.

    All these years, I had a small, captive readership consisting of my wife and a few close friends. And rare visitors like Manoshij, Anirban and Tulasi to my blog. I feel great if my humble memoirs and short stories are read by more people, and if my pieces manage to touch a few chords.

    I am embarrassed and happy that my narrative style reminds Partha of Ruskin Bond, an author I greatly admire.

    As regards Suvro’s comments, I often think what ordinary people like you and me, who don’t subscribe to the crass opportunism and selfishness that dominate the world around us, can do. As Suvro rightly says, we can live non-extravagant lives and give as much as we can to charities. My father used to quote (I think) an anonymous epitaph from an unmarked tomb:

    “What I spent, I had.
    What I saved, I lost.
    What I gave, I have.”

    But the fact is that we do little for the wretched of the earth. Perhaps we are capable of doing very little.

    I was greatly impressed by Kurosawa’s film Ikiru, which in Japanese, means “to live”. You would recall, Kanji Watanbe was a middle-aged bureaucrat who lived a meaningless, monotonous life until he came to know he had stomach cancer and had less than a year to live. A widower, his relationship with his only son had been fractured. He wanted to tell his son about his problem, but decided against it when he found that his son and daughter-in-law were not interested. That brought him face to face with the reality of the hollowness that his life was. And he tried to find an alternative way to live “meaningfully”. He tried to find meaning in the nightlife of Tokyo, but after one night, realized it did not offer him an answer.

    A chance meeting with a young woman former employee of his office offered him a new direction. The girl was vivacious, bursting with the joy of living. Watanbe told her that all he wanted was to live one day in the same carefree happy manner as she did.

    Ultimately, Watanbe fought hard with the callous bureaucratic machinery, of which he was a part, to convert a garbage dump into a children’s park. On a cold winter night, he died, sitting in a swing in the same park, as snow fell from the sky.

    Perhaps we can do something by doing well whatever we do.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.