Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Feasting, Fasting: The Deaths of Photo Bai's Children

This article was translated into Hindi and published in the 'Haribhoomi' newspaper (18.9.2006) and Lokmaya magazine (September, 2006)

It would be wrong to call Baloda a tribal village: cable television dish antennas perched atop multistoried rooftops signify a habitation on the threshold of urbanity. Perhaps, the strongest evidence of its relatively recent rural antecedence comes from the communal nomenclature still in use to identify its various localities: upon turning left from the Gandhi chowk, one enters the ‘Soni basti’. As the name suggests, this is where people from the ‘sunaar’ (lit: goldsmith) community live. Continue to walk on the narrow concrete pathway, and one is in the ‘Mussalman mohalla’. Cement-houses interspersed every now and then by a grocery shop line up either side of the pathway.

Outside one such house, I pass by a group of youngsters. One of them wishes ‘Good evening, bhaiya.’ Pleasantly surprised at hearing the Queen’s tongue spoken in the Chhattisgarhi heartland, I stop to talk with them. They are second-year B.Com. students, returning from the local private college. ‘The biggest problem in Baloda,’ they tell me, ‘is the daily ten-hour long power-cut at 6 p.m. sharp.’ One of the girls adds rather poignantly: ‘we miss all our favorite television shows.’ After offering my sympathies, I ask them how much farther is Photo bai’s house. ‘Oh,’ a boy replies pointing his hand further down the pathway, ‘it’s right over there.’

And so it is: at the edge of Baloda, next to a little greenish pond, beyond which lie fields of paddy and the jungle. It isn’t really a house: just a two-room mud hut. The roof is made of used jute sacks with a heavy topping of what I imagine is hay. Photo bai’s brother-in-law’s family occupies one of the rooms. The other is home to Photo bai and her four surviving children. The rest- Amrit, a boy aged five, and Ahilya, his three year old sister- died last week. To be more precise: they died within three days of each other. It has been alleged that they died of starvation. At my father’s behest, I have come to offer my condolences. More importantly, I have come to investigate.

It’s obvious that Photo bai, squatting next to her mother-in-law (who lives with her son in the next room), is uneasy: the blinding flash of cameras, the crowds, the incessant chattering, the persistent drizzle of perspiration from bodies packed above paradoxically make her even more withdrawn. Cocooned in a hard-to-penetrate steely silence. I squat beside her.

Her face is draped in a thin-cotton dupatta. I steal a sideways-glimpse: her eye-sockets are hollow. Directly beneath her skin is bone. I tell her that I can empathize with her loss: after all, I too have lost a sister. I don’t know if she understands any of it. In an effort to make her feel less uncomfortable, I ask a few women workers accompanying me to talk to her on my behalf. I also keep a tape-recorder on, so that I can listen to what she has to say later, when the din is over.

From the ensuing discussion conducted over the din, I learn that last ‘asadh’ (July), after she gave birth to her youngest son Ganesh- who sits in her lap, plucking at my shirt-buttons with wiry fingers- her husband left her. She doesn’t know where he went, but it is easy to guess that any talk of her husband makes her angry. She makes a living by going to the forest to collect wood. She calls it ‘majdoori’ (lit: labor). A pile of wood sells for anything between Rs.15-20. That’s how much she makes in a day. Or at least on those days when there’s no rain. Unfortunately, for her, it rained all of last week. Food soon ran out. Amrit was the first to go. Then two days later, the three-year-old Ahilya followed. Neither was taken to the local primary healthcare centre.

After their deaths, a local official visited Photo bai. He gave her a 3-rupee card, which entitles her to below poverty line (BPL) benefits. He also left a bag of rice. For some curious reason, this bag lies unopened. The PCC President, who visited her a day before, gave her two pillows and a mattress (also unused). The local MLA, who is also a parliamentary secretary in the present government, gave her Rs. 350. The PCC President gave her Rs. 10,000. I too request everyone present to contribute. We collect about Rs. 13,500, which I hand over to her. The cameras flash. The crowd, fighting to get into the lenses’ frame, claps. It doesn’t make any difference to her.

While leaving, I decide to chat with her son Ashish, who is sitting alone in the dark room. I ask him what he’s had for lunch. He is more forthcoming than his mother. He tells me that the only meal he has everyday is at school as part of the mid-day meal scheme; sometimes he manages to bring some food for his elder sister Kusum, who doesn’t attend school. I ask him why? ‘Someone has to stay back,’ he explains in a tone that suggests that I’ve asked a very stupid question, ‘to do domestic chores.’ When I get up to go, I notice that Ashish isn’t alone. Ganesh, the infant who was plucking at my shirt-buttons, is now fast asleep.

I then stop by the brother-in-law’s room. His wife is also there. It is as bare as Photo bai’s, and without the pillows. There is a little bulb dangling outside the door. He has a 6-rupee ration card. He asks me for money.

At a crossroad, there is a cemented chowpal with a mike. People, mostly women, are sitting on the ground in front of it. Youngsters stand in the back. This is the tribal-harijan basti. The women want to tell me something. One of the women comes forward. She points to a desi sharaab bhatti (country liquor brewery) to my left. ‘That bhatti,’ she complains, ‘is ruining our lives.’ I also receive applications. They can be broadly sorted into two categories: requests to be included as recipients of old age widow pensions, and BPL ration-cards.

When I reach the Gandhi chowk, I come across a group of five women. They are from Jumni, a village that is two-hours’ walking distance from Baloda. Next to them, lie five bundles of wood. They’ve had no buyers today. It’s already 5:30 p.m. If they leave now, they will get home only after sunset.

At the rest house, where party-workers have gathered, Mr. Siyaram Kaushik from Bilha, one of the 6 MLAs who I accompanied, says that ‘Photo bai ké bacchon ki maut né is sarkar ki photo kheech di hai’ (lit: the death of Photo bai’s children has taken a photo of this government). He is visibly agitated. Thakur Balram Singh, the MLA from Takhatpur, warns that unless my father’s demand that Photo bai be given a compensation of Rs. 500,000, a house and a government job is met, they will not allow the Vidhan Sabha to work.

I also say my piece, citing Yudhisthr’s encounter with the lake-yaksha from the Mahabharat. The yaksha of the lake tells Yudhisthtr that unless he answers his question, he will not be allowed to draw water. Yudhisthr agrees. ‘What is the greatest sadness in the world,’ asks the yaksha. Yudhistr replies, ‘the death of a young child while the parents are alive.’ Yudhishtr is permitted to not only take water for his ailing mother Kunti, but also manages to restore his four other Pandava-brothers, who have all been turned to stone, to life. If only the diety of the pond next to Photo bai's hut could do the same?

I go on to quote a Kabir couplet, my father’s favorite: “nirbal ko na sataiye jaaki moti aah, maré chaam ki aah se lauh bhasm ho jaaye.” It translates as ‘don’t trouble the weak for their cry is powerful, even iron melts from the fire of a blow-pipe made of dead skin.’ Photo bai’s children didn’t die, I tell them. They were killed because of this government’s abject apathy towards the poor and the downtrodden: the greater sin is not that this government let Photo bai’s children die of starvation but that it continues to deny the cause of those deaths.

I want to say much more, but I don’t. Instead I telephone Papa on the way back to Bilaspur, and give him a blow-by-blow account of what I saw and felt. I tell him that I am upset. Upset at the people of Baloda and at our society. In fact I am more than upset: I am positively angry. They- no, We- stood by in silence while Photo bai’s children died, one after the other. Even if the government had failed to do what it ought to have done, does that excuse society from its duty to look after those at its peripheries? Papa agrees: ‘when I was young, and even though we were poor,’ he says mournfully, ‘we didn’t allow anyone in our village to die of hunger.’ The BJP spokeswoman claims that the Congress’ allegation of Photo bai’s children’s starvation deaths is an attack on motherly-nature: a mother, she says, will die first before letting her children starve to death.

I can sense it: we are all of us ashamed. That is why it has been so painful for me to write about this. As Salman Rushdie says in his novel Shame: if we don’t talk about it, we are riddled with guilt; and when we do, we invite shame upon ourselves. Whichever way we look at it, there’s no denying it: the starvation deaths of Photo bai’s children are our collective shame.

September 11, 2006

8 comments (टिप्पणी):

Anoop Saha said...

That's a really wonderful article. I must congratulate you for that.
Starvation is something which we have always had since independence. But our typical reaction was denial. The day we accept that, yes there is a problem of food distribution, that will be the first step towards the solution. Congratulations on your effort to shred this cloak of denial.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping to read you on chattisgarh-net since your return from the Balod. I even posted myself on it so that atleast the topic should be started. Just read your post & I must say that it was a beautiful use of words to express one's emotions. Even I was moved while reading it.

You yourself have seen the growing amount of expectations from you. Every hand in Balod wanted to reach out for you. You managed it well.

Keep guiding us in the same manner.



Anonymous said...

Dear amit ,
nicely written article..
i could not stop reading till finished the complete article ..
i will give this link in todyas diary ..
also you can post the message in group ..
One more thing, i was about is that you have used simple english ... mere ko pura artilce samjah me aa gaya ...
keep it up and best of luck .


Yuvraj Gajpal,
Co-Moderator CGNet,
PhD ( Management Science), McMaster University Hamilton, Canada, Phone: 905.525.9140 Ext : 26178(off)905.525.4832 (Res.)

Anonymous said...

one person's tragedy is another's political battleground. if large
corporations can be prevented from illegally grabbing farmland and
forests - with overt support from state machinery - it would help in
reducing starvation deaths. everything else is a smoke screen to continue with what is going on.



Praveen said...

its very sad nd disappointment that even when we r boasting of 21st century india we r witnessing such conditions.dont no whom to blame,whether to the local ruling party(BJP-which in itself is a political blunder)or to the prevailing corrupt administration.

Anonymous said...

Dear AJ
Its a not new when my respected sir was lost the office at till the time the tribles are affected by te governemt,or by the police because they are innocent people. See the Baster reasion where every day the tribles are killing by the naxalight the gonernment is sleeping, becouse they wants to kill the all the adivasi and sift the iron factory, whre the advasi are not alive thats easy get there's land there no doubt abobt, thtat its relevant fact the case of the tribles woman and children. In the case of salwa judum the government says come and fight to your freedom then you get land and freedom, then government make law for reservation, it will be seen that there is no trible people there no needed to reservation and education instituition, if you will see the concept the ratio of education of ST/ SC in dantewada there is not opening the school till now, becoust there fighting is going on, ther is question who are victim? only tribles are victim, we are victim. Please do'nt mind spealing mistake because myself also an Adivasi of Baster reasion.
Thaiks AJ For news of victim Adivasi woman and also thainks that you are continueclly sending mail and contecting me.
Definetly will sned your mail all of my firend any community member.

knawal singh baghel VIth Semester (HNLU raipur CG)

Ashok said...

one point to notice from your article.. Many Many families all are suffering like this... usaually none of them have done family planning.. hell lot of childrens .. even if they know
that they won't be able to earn enough ..

Ashok Verma
Baikunth, Raipur, CG

Anonymous said...


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