For people born and raised in a privileged society, who have always moved in circles of people just like themselves, it is natural that most facilities in life will invariably be taken for granted. I admit this without an iota of hesitation.
After an 18-hour train journey leaving Chennai behind, as it lay under pregnant clouds, our train took us through Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, and finally West Bengal. We stopped in Kolkata and all I can remember now is our search for Thakur Mahal, a little vegetarian restaurant off the bustling MG Road where the remains of the Metro still whisper their presence as the speeding vehicles flatten them further. Fast forward 13 hours later: we were in Dharhara, a district three hours away from Patna, Bihar. It was to be our home for the next five days; a remote, cold and practically non-existent spot on the map of India; a vague memory from geography sessions in school. I was on a trip to understand deprivation in various parts of the country.
We camped at the Durbar, the residence of Pragati Sinha, one of Dharhara’s landlords and a radiologist in Patna. The Durbar is as palatial as it sounds. As we looked around, several men tidied beddings and rooms for us. Little children, who did not seem to belong there, walked around picking dry leaves from around the place. Without a care in the world, with a huge smile on her face was six-year-old Manisha. She was soon to represent the entire village of Dharhara for me; she was a prime example of the struggle one goes through while growing up with just the bare necessities of life, yet so happy that one wondered why happiness seemed so hard to achieve.
I decided to see Dharhara through her six-year-old eyes. An early morning stroll in the green surroundings with the mist almost fading led us to Manisha’s little settlement. There were haystacks everywhere. Cattle stood in puddles of water next to their sheds, watching whoever went by, as they chomped on hay. Old women were drawing water from pumps. I saw several houses with thatched roofs. People ran out of their houses to see us. Women carried their children on one hip even as they efficiently knitted scarves. The men worked as barbers either within the village or in a shop in Hajipur, the headquarters of Dharhara.
The residents approached a local medicine man for any treatment. If there was something he could not cope with, he sent them to qualified doctors in Hajipur, the nearest approach to a town where these people went not only for better medical facilities but also to get whatever they may not find in stores in Dharhara. Manisha’s mother Sudha Devi confesses that she wants her daughters to go to college. But if there is shortage of resources, she will not hesitate to pull them out of school and either get them married or work somewhere.
We meet 19-year-old Lalita. She watches with her three-year old daughter next to her as we eat rice, palak and aloo gobhi that she has cooked for us. She speaks of her life so far, how she did not like to go to school and got married way too early. She expresses regret at not having gone to school. Her husband, who lives in Ranchi, visits her once a year. Chandan Kumar is a school drop-out. He helps out in his father’s shop. He dreams that he will major in mathematics some day and teach at a university.
Caste segregation is a reality in Dharhara. People from different castes live in their own hamlets. The children study in the local government school, which has seven teachers and a few hundred children. The teachers take care of the academics and also manage the administration of the school. Several parents admit that a prime reason to send their children to school is the mid-day meal scheme. A week here opened my eyes to what it means to be born and raised in a rural place, where a high school education is as far as you can get, where you need to work with a lantern after the sun goes down… And yet these people live in hope that someday they will see their children become graduates, and work in an ‘office’.
Sharadha is a student at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai
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