July 31, 2005

Moon engineering

When I stand there and look around, this is really a spectacular sight. The steel grey sky, the way colours stand out against it, the sharply cut brown and green of the hillside, the luminous ochre of wet mud everywhere, the yellow of the equipment, the black and blue uniforms in a long line emerging from the brown hill, the gold crests on their helmets, the brilliant gold of the sheet (foil? plastic?) that the men spread carefully and so reverently over the dead body.

It is spectacular, but that is a dead person.

With some difficulty, they tease the body from the enormous rocks, lay it on their stretcher. Voices yell, "Do it carefully!" and "We need some rope to tie it!" Over the gold sheet, they wrap a blanket, then a red sheet, then tie it all down with a long strip of the gold.

The body passes down the long line of blue camouflage uniforms. At the end, four men carry it down the slippery muddy road to a door with a handpainted sign on it that says "Moon Engineering Works, Sakinaka, Netaji Nagar."

Just so is Sunita Yadav, 27 year old wife of Ramdayal Yadav who trudges in tears behind her, brought out from a collapsed hillside.

We are, of course, in Saki Naka, where the massive downpour last Tuesday caused a fearsome landslide. It has taken nearly four days of boulder-shifting and body-extracting -- 70 bodies and counting -- to finally get Sunita out. Ramdayal has stood here all that time, knowing his family is destroyed but wanting to see them brought out. (Have you eaten? I ask him. "I haven't felt like eating," he replies). With Sunita, the men found their 3 year old son, Pravin. An hour earlier, they had brought Komal, their 1 year old daughter, down from the rocks.

And all three are set down side-by-side in the shack that was once "Moon Engineering Works" but is now a temporary morgue. All three are sprayed with a thin grey liquid pumped out of a bucket by two bored-looking -- 70 bodies and counting, after all -- Municipal workers.

And just so do Sunita, Pravin and Komal -- who died when the hill fell out from under their shack and the enormous boulders crushed them as they tumbled through the rain and mud -- just so does Ramdayal's family get their last rites. They are sprayed with disinfectant.

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