THATCHED ROOFS AND THE ANITILIA
Arun Pratap decided to visit his village after six decades. He was nine years when had left his village along with his mother to join his father, a poorly paid employee of a private firm in Delhi. Arun was excited that he was going to see Red Fort, Qutab Minar, Birla Mandir, Rashtrapati Bhavan and many other monuments he had read about in his books. And above all, he was eager to see aeroplanes flying in the sky. Never did it ever occur to him that it will take him sixty years to return to his native village.
His schooling was in a government school of Delhi but he was a bright student and on his own merit, he was selected for law graduation by the Indian Law School, Bangalore. After qualifying his law examination, Arun started his career as an advocate in Delhi High Court. Since his parents had returned to their village, he shared a small room with another bachelor friend. He was doing well in his profession and couple of years later when he got an offer to join Bradford University Law School as a research assistant in the Faculty of Oriental Customary Law, he accepted it.
For Arun, life thereafter moved at a faster pace. He married a British woman of Indian origin; had two sons from her and purchased a house in Bradford. He was a generous father but could never become a good husband. Perhaps somewhere at the back of his mind he perceived his wife to be like his mother; always submitting to her husband’s command. The differences between them widened over the years and ultimately, their marriage of fifteen years broke off. He never thought of marrying again.
He became a British citizen and was honoured for his contribution as a ‘Greenpeace Volunteer’ and his work for the under educated Asian immigrants. His fame reached the pinnacle when he was elected Mayor of Bradford City Council.
Arun travelled worldwide and evinced interest in the technological innovations around the world. As Greenpeace Volunteer he had visited several nuclear reactors, giant hydro-electric projects; motorways running over the sea and condominiums piercing the sky. Strange that whenever he returned home from a trip abroad, he remembered his small village in Betul district of the state of Madhya Pradesh in Central India.
He was sixty nine now; a frail and feeble man after a bout of pneumonia and he felt lonely after his wife and later his sons moved away from him. In fact, he was leading the life of a recluse. Now he longed to visit his village but there were several impediments. He had no contact with his folks other than his cousin Satya Prakash who lived in Delhi. He had no knowledge of the conditions prevailing in his village.
It was a cold winter in Bradford. Arun Pratap was sitting in his study listening to melodies from old Hindi movies and smoking a cigar. He was found of smoking cigar even against the advice of his doctor. His wife used to admonish him for it and his children frowned at him. Now that he was a loner, there was no one to reproach him.
As he lit a cigar, he was reminded of an old incident of his childhood days in his village. His grandfather had asked him to prepare a hookah for a guest. He readied the hookah and sucked it hard. And then he coughed and coughed until he fell on ground, exasperated. There were tears in his eyes and his lungs were full of smoke. His grandfather rushed up to him and the first thing he did was to spank Arun hard couple of times on his hind side. That was the way children were managed those days.
A thin smile appeared on his face. He called Satya Prakash and told him of his intention to visit his village. “Tell me what the conditions are in general? I mean road, housing and water supply ....”
“Road connectivity has improved. You have to walk less than half a mile.”
That was quite encouraging for he remembered they had to walk nearly twenty miles to come to the bus stand though he knew walking even half a mile was now a challenge for him.
“Unfortunately, your house is no more there. Sixty years of neglect has brought it down. Only walls are there with weeds all over,” Satya told him.
Arun was sad but he knew that was expected, inevitable.
“You stay in my house. It has Indian style toilet but water has to be collected from the drum kept outside the house.”
Arun laughed for he remembered the good old days they would carry a lota of water and ease in the open behind some brushes. And it was always a thrill to bathe in the open in the natural stream, splashing water on each other.
On a sunny April morning Arun Pratap landed at Delhi airport. He was wonder-struck to see the expanse and elegance of the airport.
Fabulous; can be compared with the best of the world. He thought and felt proud.
That night he stayed with Satya. He didn’t want to hurt his cousin by staying in a hotel. Besides, he wanted to acclimatize to lesser comfort living. As directed by him, Satya had hired a jeep for a week to visit their village.
Next day, Satya and Arun started from Delhi early in the morning. Satya’s wife had made stuffed paranthas for them for lunch. Arun relished paranthas. After nearly nine hours, Arun was delighted to see his village but the realization that he had to climb a plateau to reach there depressed his spirits. Walking the craggy track was painful but Arun didn’t give up. He stopped after every few yards; took long breath and resumed walking. He was returning to his village after sixty years. Finally, they entered their destination in the evening.
The first look at the village shocked Arun. He was appalled to see the condition of the houses. Most of them still had mud walls and thatched roofs. Many roofs were crumbling for want of maintenance. He could see men, women and children compelled to share space with cows, oxen and goats. He was pained to see young boys smoking in the village chowk and fooling around in inebriated condition. Satya could see the grief in Arun’s eyes.
“Poverty stalks the village life. These boys cannot continue schooling. There isn’t any skill development center here. Some of them do menial jobs and have taken to these iniquities.” Satya told Arun Pratap.
It was dark outside and also inside Staya’s house. There were electric poles in the village but without power. Satya lit a kerosene lantern and asked Arun to settle down. “I will see if I can get you a cup of tea from a neighbour,” he tried to comfort Arun.
“Satya, can you arrange some hot water? Hot water bath is very refreshing after a long drive,” he said with a wry smile.
Satya laughed aloud. Arun Pratap was baffled.
“Skip the bath to night. I will try to get some hot water from neighbouring house tomorrow,” Satya told him. Arun realized, perhaps he had asked for too much.
Next morning he got ready early and came to the village chowk. He saw children; some of them merely six or less going to the school through the forest track. Many of them were barefoot; only a few had slippers.
He remembered the situation was nearly same sixty years ago when he used to go to school. It was the same track, leading to the school. He had always found it difficult to walk with the satchel on his back. And then suddenly his mind swerved to his grandchildren who would not even carry their water bottles and had to be placated with cookies and chocolates to go to their school in a luxury car. He decided to follow the children. He gasped for breath negotiating the rugged track and it was a great relief when he finally reached the school.
The school was a dilapidated structure; half of its tin roof opening to the sky. The school teacher greeted him and asked a boy to bring a glass of water for him.
“You seem to be too tired,” he told Arun Pratap sympathetically. Arun Pratap did need water quite badly. He drank the glass of water even though he was unsure whether it was potable.
“This school building is in very poor shape. Don’t you get funds to repair the building? And what happens during the rainy season?” He asked the young school teacher.
“We have no say in the allocation of funds. The best we can do is to gather the children on one side below the roof when it rains,” the young teacher replied nonchalantly. By then the headmaster arrived. Arun introduced himself briefly.
“I am Arun Pratap from Bhatkoti. I was as student of this school over sixty years ago. Just come to village and was keen to see the school.”
“We are honoured to have you here,” the headmaster said and offered to take him around. As they went around, he saw a splintered blackboard hanging on a wall. A teacher had done some multiplication sum on the board.
“How many classes are here?”
“This school is up to eighth class.”
“You mean eight classes being run in three rooms?”
“During fair weather, we hold classes in the open also,” the headmaster volunteered the information.
“What about teaching aids?”
The headmaster laughed. “Have you come from villayat?” You seem to be unaware of the life in villages.”
Arun didn’t want to tell him that he had in fact, come from villayat- a foreign country. And then he suddenly remembered his grandchildren.
“I want my Tablet,” one would demand and the other would scream for his video game.
“I mean you surely have heard of overhead projectors or electronic screens or computers? He asked the headmaster.
The headmaster laughed sardonically. “Yes, we see them on TV.”
After a little pause the headmaster continued, “Sir, you are talking of teaching aids? We don’t have enough chalk pieces to write on black boards. We pool money from students and buy them from market and we use worn out ‘pyjamas’ to clean the black boards.”
Arun was pained to see the abysmal condition of the school and then he asked, “Incidentally, what do the students do in the sports period?”
“We ask them to fetch water from the PHC- the Public Health Centre building. Girls help in making tea and mopping the classrooms.”
“Do you have any library?”
“Having seen the school and the conditions prevailing here, don’t you think it is a silly question?” The headmaster had grown bold after the long conversation. Arun was dumbstruck.
Then he saw a little boy dipping a plastic mug into the water canister. Arun Pratap noticed that child’s hands were filthy and after he drank from the mug, the child dropped it in to the canister.
“Is this water potable; I mean properly filtered?” He was getting impatiently curious.
“We are lucky that the PHC guys allow us to take water from their tap. You think we can ask them whether it is purified or not?”
Arun Pratap knew in several African countries children had tape worms because the supply was from a stagnating source and there was no system of purification. He was sad that situation was no different in his village.
Arun then noticed a board reading ‘Government Public Health Centre’ on the adjoining building. He was curious to see the PHC. He asked Satya Prakash to accompany him and as they entered the building, they saw about a dozen villagers waiting to collect medicines. There was a shabbily dressed middle aged man dispensing medicines to the villagers. He was the compounder. Arun found out that out of the two doctors posted there, none was present.
“Where are the doctors?” He asked the compounder. The man’s authority seemed to have been outraged by a nincompoop asking an impertinent question.
“What have you got to do with the doctors?” He frowned.
“I understand there should be two doctors here.”
“Yes, but what’s your problem?”
“Where are they? Shouldn’t they be here?” Arun Pratap was seemingly curt.
The waiting patients joined him. “Sir, the doctors are seldom here. In fact, they come in the first week of the month; indent medicines, pick up their salary and go away to practice in their home towns.”
Arun was taken aback. “Are you suggesting that you are competent to dispense drugs to patients?” He asked the compounder.
“What drugs? The doctors take away all the medicines to their personal clinics,” the impatient patients said in unison.
“In that case what do you do here?’ Arun Pratap asked the compounder.
“I am here to disburse pain killers, analgesics, apply bandages or ointments in some cases.”
It was a distressing revelation. Arun Pratap was shocked at the quality of medical facilities available to the villagers even after sixty years of independence.
“Do you have any female nurse here?”
“One female nurse was posted here a year back but she is yet to join; has appealed for cancellation of her posting. No one wants to work in these remote areas.”
“What do you do in cases of a child birth; I mean what happens when a maternity case comes here?” He asked the compounder.
“There is an old midwife in the adjoining village. She comes on call basis. In fact, she knows all the would-be mothers and knows when an expectant mother is brought here. In some cases, she helps in child birth at expectant mother’s place.”
Arun Pratap was shaken. Satya Prakash could see tears rolling down his cheeks. He arranged for a chair and asked Arun Pratap to sit down.
Arun had read about India’s successful Mars Mission. He had read about the increasing number of Indian billionaires in the Forbes list. He had seen the TV news item splashing Anitilia - as world’s costliest house owned by an Indian. He knew India had the best of luxury hotels, exclusively fashionable spas, endearing entertainment parks and beaches; and that India provided the largest number of software engineers and doctors to the world community.
Why has my village been left out? In which century are my people living? Why this uneven distribution of wealth? Will the fosse between the thatched roofs of my village and the world’s mammoth living abode, Anitilia owned by my own countryman be ever filled?
Arun Pratap was an anguished man.
“Let’s return to the village,” he told Satya Prakash.