December 19, 2004

Moments of Epiphany

Complete darkness, and I'm walking along in driving rain, through mud and fields, unable to see any kind of path, unable to see my companion only a few feet ahead of me, heading for a town called Bargi Nagar. It's next to the Bargi dam on the Narmada river in central India. From here where I'm trudging, about a mile away, I can see bright lights on the dam, and also in the town.

But here where I'm trudging is in utter darkness.

Which is OK. Why should fields be lit?

Two things happen almost simultaneously. I hear a cough pretty much in my ear; then a dog begins barking at my feet. When my nerves stop leaping, I understand what has happened. In this blanketing darkness, I've walked right past -- or through, who knows? -- someone's village home. He has coughed to alert me.

And now I understand something else. People in this village -- like this coughing man -- can see the gigantic dam that's only a mile distant, they can see bright lights powered by electricity from that dam. But if they can do that, they themselves sit in darkness.

We build dams. We supply electricity from them far and wide -- to homes such as mine, hundreds of miles away. But not to this village, only a 15 minute walk away. Where people sit in the same darkness that has lain on this land since the times of Ashoka and Julius Caesar.

That was one moment.

I'm at an anganwadi (creche) in Joda, a mining town in Orissa. Most of the mining here is done by migrant labour, much of it tribal, most housed in company-built shanties at one end of Joda. Usually, both parents work in the mines: they can use the extra salary. But this means that their kids are on their own. The anganwadi is run for these children. Two dozen bright-eyed, if skinny, kids play and sing around me. As they do, I pore over a sheaf of charts: monthly weight records for the first five years of each child's life. And I learn...

Every single kid who has been through here -- hundreds of them -- was malnourished, most seriously. The heaviest five-year-old listed weighs a full five kg less than my son -- by no means overweight -- weighs at two months short of four. This is hardly unknown. In a report to the Supreme Court -- for which he traveled in this area too -- a bureaucrat called NC Saxena noted that India remains one of the most undernourished countries in the world, with about half of all children suffering from undernutrition.


I look more closely at the charts. Printed by the Government, they have a title and instructions in Oriya, a grid of lines. And one more thing. Or four more. Four curves that stretch across the grid, marked "1", "2", "3" and "4". Four grades of malnutrition. Grade 1 ranges from 2.75 kg at birth to 15 kg at 5 years old; grade 4 from 1.5 to 9 kg; 2 and 3 are in between. Four malnutrition curves, preprinted on these sheets.

The presumption here is that tribal kids will be malnourished. And every child is indeed malnourished; most hover between grades 3 and 4. So hey, why not preprint those curves?

That's the second moment.

On a hilltop in Kashmir, I visit a monument to soldiers killed in this area in fighting with Pakistan. "Hall of Fame", it's called. It's a quiet, lovely spot. The actual HoF is a squat building right at the top. Below it, all over the superbly manicured gardens on the slopes, are memorials and stirring inscriptions.

Thus "Slain thou shall obtain Heaven, Victorious thou will enjoy the earth" from the Bhagavad Gita. And from Horatius, "How can man die better, than facing fearful odds for the ashes of his father and temples of his Gods." And a large sculpture of Sikh soldiers planting a flag, clearly modelled on the famous US Marine photograph from Iwo Jima.

Rising from the grass are several large black granite panels. From the left, they list the names of the soldiers killed in this sector, every year since 1948. 169 died in 1971. 16 in 1991. 28 in 1994. 52 in 2003.

One soldier dead each week in 2003. When in the year did Rajinder Singh go? Raghothaman C? Surinder Dattarwal, Sheik Akbar, Ram Dhan Boro, Nissar Ahmed Rishi?

As I read their names, I realize there's nothing to the right of 2003. No names, that is. What there is, is an expanse of blank black granite panels. Blank, and ready to be engraved. Waiting for soldiers to die. Knowing they will die. Might as well set aside the space for their names now.

That's the third moment.

I have them every now and then, those moments. When something ordinary suddenly says a lot. What do they say to you?


Nishit Rawat said...

I guess we have become too immune to notice such things. Often when I read things written by foreigners I come to know so many things about us which happen right infront of our eyes and yet we never observe them. V.S. Naipaul is particularly good at this.

AmitKen said...

"I have them every now and then, those moments. When something ordinary suddenly says a lot. What do they say to you?"

Yeah agreed.. these moments occur to us often, and they always say something to us. But are we ready to listen ? and if we listen are we going to do anything about them? or, as you rightly pointed out, we are just going to be 'used to' them and move ahead...