As I wrote earlier: for me, this anniversary brings back plenty of memories from other disasters. Perhaps I'll put a few up here through this Remembrance Week. Here's one more from Orissa, 1999. Speaking, of course, of heroes.
How do I forget PK Gupta? I met this thirty-year-old from a big Delhi bank in the chaos and sadness of Erasama, and over the several days, we became good friends. No doctor, no logistician, no expert on anything, PK was an ordinary bank executive, that's all. But as far as I could tell, he had read the news reports on the cyclone, got up from his desk and taken the next train to Orissa. (Not easy in itself, considering how disrupted the trains were). That's it. He arrived in Erasama with the clothes on his back and a sheet to sleep on. Not a thing more. Not so much as a toothbrush more.
He arrived, and he asked to be put to work. That's it.
The first thing he did, he spent three days tramping tirelessly through villages, speaking to every single family about its needs, writing it all down, reporting back to the doctors and relief teams about what he learned. This effort, of course, was no small help in streamlining relief efforts to those villages. This effort, of course, involved dozens of kilometres of tramping every day: walking and wading being the only links to some of these groups of stranded people. Later, he helped carry relief materials to all these places.
Through the days I spent in Erasama, as I watched people like PK do their bit, I kept asking myself as I have asked innumerable times since: Why? Why do so many ordinary people leave their ordinary lives to travel to this desperate corner of India, to do thankless, backbreaking and often nauseating work in the wake of a great calamity? (I mean no disrespect at all when I say that PK was just that: an ordinary man who suddenly got up and did some extraordinary things). What makes them do it uncomplainingly, over and over again?
No answers came to mind in Orissa. So one evening as we ate together, I asked PK. Why had he come?
"Arre yaar," he said with a sheepish smile, "I just had to see what I could do."
Took my breath away.
There's a small postscript. Passing through Delhi two years later, I called PK. I told him how moved I had been by him, and that I had written about him. (I had sent him a copy of the article I had written, but it never reached him).
"Me?" he said, genuinely bewildered. "But what did I do?"