This is a true story and contains elements that may be disturbing to some of you.
It was very early morning of January 11, 2011. The fog had engulfed the village of Shiwpur in the eastern U.P. The cold wave was merciless - particularly to the poor. I received the news that another poor woman had died in Baramdeva a twin village to Shiwpur. I expressed my sorrow and asked that we should give some help to the family. After a while I noticed that the messenger was still standing near me. When asked what the problem was, he stated that the poor woman had died yesterday afternoon and her body was still lying in the house inhabited by her 70 year old mother-in-law and four young children. Nobody from the neighborhood had stepped forward to help and the family had no resources to give her the last rites.
I struggled to get ready as fast as I could to reach the family. What I saw there absolutely astonished me. There was this tiny one room mud house with thatched straw roof with a 5 foot overhang resting on bamboo sticks. Sunita, the dead woman, was only 35. She was asthmatic and had developed (what I surmised to be) pneumonia. She was suffering with high fever and shivering most of the time. The cold wave apparently took pity on her and ended her misery. Her husband Ratan had died last year of throat cancer. Her mother-in-law, Nanhaka, 70, appeared fragile and almost lifeless. Sunita had left behind two sons and two daughters, Balihari,15; Shivdhari,13: Jaan,10; and Poonam,8.
Meanwhile we had gathered the neighbors and started making arrangements to drape the body and prepare to take it away for cremation.
The children appeared emotionless. They were apparently still in shock some 20 hours after their mother had died. Every time I looked at them, I found them staring at me. Their stare made me very uneasy. I felt as if our future was silently staring at us. I was struggling in vain to find some words to speak to them. It was important that they comprehend and face what had just happened. I asked Jaan about how she spent the night yesterday? She did not respond – just stared at me. I asked Poonam the same thing. She started crying and sobbing loudly.
“I was cold and very tired” - Jaan had finally started answering my question. “I sat besides my mother (mother’s body) for a long time and then I fell asleep against the wall. When I got up it was dark inside. My mother was still lying next to me. I tried to wake her up and then realized that she was already dead (she started sobbing). I took off my Chaadar (a worn out cotton shawl) and tried to cover her body but it was too small for her”. She became quiet again but at least her eyes blinked. I stared back at her not knowing what to say.
What has our country come to? At the current rate of economic growth and an efficiency factor of 70%, India could easily provide a dignified basic living to all its poor within a short time span of 15 years. The anger that had surged inside me about our despicably corrupt and inept government(s) had momentarily turned into self pity and despair. The lines from Nishtar Khankahi flashed through my mind:
"Kis abhaage ghar ki hum chaadar huye,
Tan dhakaa to haath muh baahar huye."
The images from the posters of “India Shining” a few years back started flashing in front of me. On this cold foggy day the Sun felt ashamed to watch this spectacle of India Shining and hid its face inconspicuously.
Meanwhile, Sunita’s body was draped securely for the final journey. She could afford to cover her body decently at last. She was shivering no more! I watched her being carried away on a rented tractor. She was free at last – no longer imprisoned by the citizenship of India and the inept stewardship of its leaders and bureaucrats. I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of Sunita’s young children.