August 19, 2005

Lost only seven

Three vignettes I wrote and forgot all about for nearly six years. These are from the days I spent working in Erasama, Orissa, after the 1999 cyclone.

***

White coat and stethoscope: the man is obviously a doctor. He shows me a piece of paper and says: "Please issue me these tablets." My face must betray some confusion, for he goes on quickly: "They told me the doctor in charge of medical supplies was sitting back here."

I say: "But I'm not a doctor, I'm a journalist."

"A journalist?" The man beams, then reaches out and pumps my hand enthusiastically. "In that case, please write about me! I have come all the way from Bombay to work here!" Off he goes to find his pills, but not before repeating, twice: "Write an article about me!"

I have met the man for precisely half a minute. He knows nothing about me. Nor I about him, save that he has come to Erasama to help with cyclone relief. Yet he seems sure I can write an entire article about him.

***

The cyclone has attracted people from all over. The chance for publicity is sometimes part of the attraction. With some teams, it is so strong a part that they have arrived in Erasama complete with their own machinery. One Relief Committee has a video unit that goes up to every official, sticks a mike in his face, rolls the camera and asks: "What do you think of the work of our Relief Committee?" The official can hardly say anything but "Excellent!" or "Wonderful!" -- which their work likely is, anyway -- upon which the mike-holder says "Thank you very much, Sir!" and moves on to the next official.

Another Relief Committee, visibly exhausted, is about to leave for home when I arrive in Erasama. I walk over and chat about their time here, taking notes in my diary. Before I know what's happening, a camera has appeared, a small crowd has gathered and a man who hadn't heard of me five minutes before sticks a mike in my face. "We are here speaking to Mr Dilip, the famous and respected journalist from Bombay," he says to the camera. Then he turns to me. "Mr Dilip, what do you think of the work of our Relief Committee?"

"Excellent!" I say. "Wonderful!"

***

The tragedy is so enormous, it can overwhelm you. Yet people find ways to cope. A doctor who spent many days running a clinic in an inaccessible village told me of patients who would meet and exchange notes about their own family tragedies. "Tere sirf saath gaye? Mere nau!" ("You lost only seven? Nine, for me!") Sheepish guffaws.

The saddest, he said, were those who had lost just one or two loved ones. Their loss was, to them, on a scale they could comprehend. So they were inconsolable. But how do you come to terms with losing five sisters, two brothers, your wife and both your parents, as a young man I met in Kankan had? Only, I suppose, by telling the inquiring journalist from Bombay: "Mere dus log mar gaye." ("I lost ten people.") And dredging up a small smile.

The volunteers develop their own macabre humour. I was in an Army boat with one team, taking a pile of lanterns and grain to Padampur village. Throughout the three hour journey, we saw, and smelt, bodies: floating in the river, stuck in the weeds, lying on the sand. Sad, sobering sights, and the mood on the boat reflected that.

Until we pass a villager, standing on the bank and watching us go by. Someone shouts: "Dekh, dead body khada ho gaya!" ("Look, the dead body is standing!") Uncontrollable laughter.

5 comments:

arZan said...

Very interesting vignettes. Can we know a little more of the context in which you wrote them/went there?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Arzan, here are some things I wrote for rediff at the time:
One article, another, and a third.

chappan said...

Excellent perspectives Dilip. I am so so so grateful to technology and internet. With only print mainstream media we would have never got these precious little nuggets.
Sourin

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sourin, thanks. You're right: these little notes of mine would have been hard to publish anywhere except here, and I'm glad to be able to put them up here.

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