Sunday, October 11, 2009

Real Life

Every day in the papers we read of conditions where poverty makes parents sell their child so that they feed the other kids or send the older kid (say 6 yrs) to work. How could they do it? It is a question that has multilevel interpretations.

Long ago, at school, I read the Hindi masterpiece “Kafan” by Premchand and could not believe that anyone can be so ruthless. I hated the father and son duo for their helplessness and resignation. But growing up, I do feel that multiple problems sometimes tend to make one resigned to fate and behave in ways that one would never expect a human to do.

Sometime in 1995 when I used to be a student of MSW, we had a 10 day camp in a nearby village. We traveled by a tempo (a three wheeled vehicle that can accommodate about 12 people but which usually carries about 18 on the rural roads of India). We arrived to find that the stay was organized in the government school house- a single storey building with just two large rooms. One room was assigned to the boys and another for girls. We put our baggage in the rooms and someone inquired where the toilet was. The eager villager took us outside and into a plot adjoining the school. None of us were ready for what we saw.

He showed us the temporary pit enclosed by sacks. The pit might have been say 15 feet deep and about 3 feet wide. They had wooden planks across on which we were to squat and do the holy job with water brought in a bucket from the hand pump about 100 feet away. Only one pit for the twenty two boys and girls - that was just the hint of what was in store for us. And our first brush with reality of how rural India was even in 1995.

“And the bathroom”, someone asked.
“Oh, you can use the village pond.”
Seeing the look on our faces, he said,” You can always use the school toilet as a bathroom”.
So they had a regular toilet. Soon we trooped to find the school toilet. It was a dinghy longish place which stinked of urine and had no running water. The water source was the same hand pump.

“Hey, you lot, The Sarpanch is here and wants to meet you”. All of us walked hurriedly to the school building.

The Sarpanch was a man in his forties, well dressed and the most influential guy in the village. He had studied at the town and had gone to college and that showed in how he spoke and wore clothes. He spoke to us for a while about rural life and inquired how we found the arrangements, and invited us for tea in the evening at his house before taking leave.

The tea at the sarpanch had hot snacks to go with it. We had our fill. We girls had struck an idea before going for tea. We can use a toilet at the sarpanch’s if he has one. And he did have. So before taking leave of the Sarpanch and his dear wife and two kids, all the girls had used the restroom for the day. We were not sure of using the pit in the dark of night before going to bed.

Tired as we were, we slept as soon as we hit the bed (read carpet + bedsheet + bags for pillows).

The next day, we woke up early so that we may complete our morning ablutions before daylight. But we were all sharing the same bathroom which meant the queue was long. Some of the boys went out to the fields in the dark to attend to Nature’s call. When they were retuning, they weren’t alone- many villagers were also returning after the same.

So, finally we were all ready for the day by 9 am. Our teachers split us into groups of four and sent us to different directions. Our work started in earnest. We had questionnaires with us to assess the quality of life in the village. A group was kept at the school to look after the belongings and cook us our lunch. Each group was to take turns at the cooking. By lunchtime we were all back at the school building. It looked so inviting after the hot Sun.

Post lunch we didn’t want to go out in the Sun again. So, we sat around and discussed what we saw, whom we met etc. Our lecturers asked us to plan for a cultural evening which we skit and immediately it was taken up by others. Fillers like mimicry and songs were also plwere to present on the penultimate day of the camp. One of the guys came up with an idea for a skit and immediately it was taken up by others. Fillers like mimicry and songs were also planned.

Next day onwards, it was just heavy work. We went around the village taking a full census. The village temple was in the centre of the village that spread across a vast area. It had two ponds one for the upper castes another for the lower castes. The upper castes lived to the east, the middle order in south and west, while the lower castes and the outcasts were in the northern part. On the third day my team was assigned to the northern part. We covered about 20 households and were nearing the boundary of the settlements.

The sizes of the houses were getting smaller and the material with it was built also changed. The wall height also decreased. There were no pucca houses( houses built with brick and mortar) here. All were kuccha, First, we saw those with tiled roofs, then thatched roofs, then mud walls and thatched roofs and now even the thatch was just namesake.

It was close to 2pm.We were exhausted by then. We asked for water at one of the houses. First they were reluctant to give. They were no sure if they can give us water. Then a boy of about 14 came along and went inside and brought us water. We were happy to note that at least the younger generation was confident of itself. We reached the last house.
In the front yard, under a neem tree, there were an old man, a leper, and a baby on the charpoy( a simple cot with wooden frame and coir ropes).

We started off with our questionnaire
“Who is the head of the family?”
“Iam”, says the old leper
“No. of family members”
“Names and age and relationship with you”
“Santidevi, wife,50
Atmaram, son, 30
Urmila, Daughter in law, 25
Vijay, grandson, 6
Raju, grandson, 2”

“And this baby, we asked”, pointing to the baby on the cot
“That is the two year old”

We could not believe it. It looked scrawny and had a bloated head.
Since we had planned a medical camp on the 8th, we were collecting information about the common problems. So we asked now, “Any medical problems?”
“Can’t you see, Iam a leper”
“Does anyone else have leprosy in the family?”
“Yes the wife and the son”
“Where are they?”
“Wife has gone to bring water from the pond on the outskirts of the next village.”
“Why? There is enough water in this village,” we said
“We are not allowed to. Earlier when only I had leprosy they allowed. But now my wife and son have it and they are afraid.”
“And where is your son?”
“He has gone begging to the town. He has lost a foot and so can’t work. So, he begs.”
“Does this boy go to school?”
“No. He helps his mother on the small patch of land.”
“Why did they not go today?”
“She did. But she is weak and swooned on the field. The boy has somehow brought her back”

Then the daughter in law came out of the house -a frail woman with sunken eyes. She stood by the cot. My attention suddenly went back to the baby on the cot.
“Was he like that always?”
“Yes. Something happened at birth. Only, his head has been growing. He can’t sit or stand, lies there whole time.”

I noticed that the baby was now licking something. A second look revealed that it was his own stool. He lay in plain view of the grandfather and the mother and neither took it away from his mouth or cleaned him.
“Look at what he is licking,” I screamed.
“Oh! He does that all time.”
“Remove it and clean him”
“We have nothing better to feed a dying child. The little we have is for the stronger older kid.”

We shoved away the dirt with a paper and pleaded the mother to clean it up which she did with a little water.

“Feed it properly and bring it to the medical camp on Thursday,” we said, thrusting some ten rupee notes into the old man’s hand.

On Thursday, we waited for these people to turn up. At last, in the evening, the grandmother brought it accompanied by the lame son. The doctor examined the baby and referred them to the district hospital. I wonder if they ever took that baby there. The doctor told us that it was a case of no cure and slow death. Most probably, he might have died soon.

The whole scene has come to me again many times in nightmares. We all have studied about the Survival of the fittest theory, but it has never struck me that it can be such a harsh choice.

Premchand’s Kafan is a story that is still repeated. I salute the classic and dread the helplessness


  1. Harsh realities of life. And don't we all take everything for granted! When there's plenty to eat, rooms for everyone in the family, attached bathrooms (rather than pits / trenches!), healthy kids, normal life....we rarely tend to think of the lesser fortunate people. High time we wake up to the truth and do something to make a difference.

  2. I don't know Holy Lama. Some how, I am feeling kind of depressed after reading this. I can't imagine, what you must have gone through, having witnessed the scenes in real. I could actually see the so-called toilet, the kuchcha houses, the hot sun in which you walked, the leper and the helpless baby. We have more than a 1000 reasons to thank god. Somehow, I feel like countign my blessings over and over again after reading this....

    Do you still have a copy of Kafan?

  3. Reading this no less than horror..such a harsh reality of life...may be we know but keep brushing under the carpet.In India disparity is increasing day by day, on one side we have people like Ambanis and tharoor and on the other this...... feel so helpless.

    Havent read kafan, but many others of Munshi Premchand..and it is his ingenius that we can still relate to them.

  4. this post depressed me...i can imagine what you must have gone thru, and worse, what the family have gone thru or must be going thru...sad reality of life...

  5. RGB
    Yes. You feel that each time you see these unfortunate beings who just exist. Can we come together for some good cause?

    Destiny's Child
    It is a good sign that you feel unsettled after reading it. Our conscience is still alive. Let's rekindle the spirit and do what we can to make a difference.

    It's not only disparity, its worse. These people who are so resigned to their fate that it will take a huge effort to instil confidence in them, make them believe that they can live a better life.

    So the next time you see a street fight of a couple, you'll see it in a different light. It is not monetary help that can make the difference, but effort like Baba Amte and family where you have to put in valuable years to help light filter in.

  6. Its really sad but these are the conditions of the people in rural areas. Half the population does not know how the other half lives.
    Wonder what development we talk really disturbing to know that our people in rural areas are in so much pain!!

  7. You had an experience of a life time, face to face with the plight of the downtridden, its sad that till date the same old customs and rituals are being followed, people are in such a condition that they dont even want to think about it anymore. Im sure they didnt take the baby to the hospital...until and unless major initiative is taken on the glass root level, change would be difficult...theres a need to lift up such people and teach them to value themselves, they have totally forgotten or have no idea of self worth, this is how theyve been conditioned by society. Hats off to the NGO's who are working for such people, its a big challenge.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post KK, your thoughts have thrown light on the dark quarters of our society.

  8. poverty is such a curse and we cry our lungs out coz we couldn't buy a solitaire!!!!! awesome post.. will come back again..

  9. Nazish Rahman
    Yes. We need to redirect media interest to these matters, rather bother a bit too much of twitter, tendulkar's illness, or kareena's boyfriend. People in publishing should endeavour in this direction.

    A New Beginning
    Dedicated work for these people are few. Charity as a offload of corporates are not the right thing. BUt tthe TATAS have done real wonders for Jamshedpur and surrounding villages. Public sector too adopts villages but then there is mismanagement of funds and resources. In spite of that, the large Public sector undertakings have made a marked difference providing basic education and healthcare for the needy.

    A welcome visitor. True, we fret over silly things when mere existence is a question for many.

  10. That was such a sad story! Thought-provoking too..Feeling ashamed that we are living in a cocoon of luxury, insulated from any sort of real problems and moaning when the slightest of troubles reach us..

  11. awesome post!! You have a big heart to see all these things!!!

    Poverty is one curse to our country!! The rich is getting more rich and poor is getting more poor.. The gap is increasing day by day!!

    Thanks for the visit to my blog hope to see you again!!

  12. The world has two faces, the side of riches and the side of poor..Its not actually the division between urban and rural..In India, I think the gap between the two is very very huge..thanks for this thought provoking post. you did a great a job..

  13. Novice Writer
    We can do our bit whenever we have a opportunity. On the more practical level, maybe be more benevolent with people on the lower rungs of society, with them not feeling belittled.

    It is the stupor that bewilders me. Poverty and multiple disasters make people inhuman. Hope to see you more often on the blog

    Welcome to the blog. The divide as you say will always be. Let's hope the status of the downtrodden gets better.

  14. It takes a shift in the mentality of each and every Indian to erase apathy towards Poverty. Dr. Abdul Kalam has written ways to bring about this shift in India in his book' Ignited minds'. You may like it.

  15. The Unsure Ascetic
    Thank You for the comment. I have read ignited minds. Hope most Indians do and do their bit.