The people starved as the drought entered the fifth year. The food stores were depleted, as water became a scarce commodity. The wind was dry, and so was the stretch of the land. From the point one stood to the far off horizon it was all dry and deserted, bereft of any greenery. In the occasional surviving bushes, a serpent hissed or a chameleon changed its colors in a slender hope of finding the prey. The nearby river had dried to expose its rocky bottom; the rounded stones were smooth and hot to touch.
The periphery of the village on one side was lined with rising hillocks, which were barren, brown, and bald. An occasional peasant tried to cross it in the hope of finding food on the other side; his children and wife followed him with a bag of small luggage tightly held below the armpit containing a few clothes, an occasional piece of bread, and a lump in throat. A goat tried to follow them, but was captured by the greedy villagers to be sacrificed in front of the village deity that would bring much awaited rains. The cattle were dying; the village was on the brink of total ruin.
A jeep screeched to the halt, and an engineer descended from it. The government had sent him to assess and report the drought situation. We shall call the engineer by his first name, Vishal. Tired from long journey and the heat, his eyes searched for a place to retire. Some rest was essential, as was plenty of cool water and juice, if it could be had! The noise from the engine of the motor vehicle had already alerted Sindhu (name of our heroine) who looked from the rear of her hut in anticipation of something about which she was totally unsure. Was it an expectation of some miracle that would bring relief to the famished village? Or was that just an idle reaction to the frustrated and bored routine? All the same, she did come out in open and walked towards the newly arrived guest.
After formal salutations, they inquired about each other, names first. "I am Vishal from Daryapur; the district collector has sent me to assess situation here. How's everything? No rains? Situation appears quite grave." "Yes," replied Sindhu, "I am Sindhu. I live in that hut. We are three: my mother, younger brother and myself. Won't you come to our place; then we could talk. And you also require some refreshment." "Fine," said Vishal and they slowly crossed the footpath to reach the hut.
"Mother, look engineer sahib has come from Daryapur. Please bring some water and tea for the guest," announced Sindhu. Unable to sense any response, Sindhu herself went inside the house. There were two rooms, separated by a thick but torn cotton curtain. After a while she returned
with a glass of water and two biscuits. "It will take some time to prepare tea," said Sindhu to Vishal. "It's all right, I do not want tea, it's already so hot," was his polite response.
However, somehow Vishal was not happy about the family; he sensed something was wrong inside. Why did her mother not respond when Sindhu called her? Perturbed, he asked Sindhu whether everything was all right with her mother. "Yes, of course, she is just sleeping it seems. This heat, and no work, has made us lazy, we do not have anything better to do other than to sleep!" said Sindhu as if talking to herself. After Vishal was somewhat at ease, Sindhu told him about the village chief and the few persons of importance who had stayed back even in the event of such serious drought.
"How do you expect to overcome this disaster?" Vishal was really amazed, "If it does not rain in a few days, the condition would be out of control and the very human survival will be at stake. Why don't you leave for some other place? Why do people stay even in such adversity," Vishal was serious as well as curious. But Sindhu did not feel it necessary to reply to his murmuring. Instead she invited Vishal to accompany her to the village chief.
They slowly walked to the somewhat better house. Here three men were seated deliberating on some important matter. As they saw the duo approaching them, the chief got up and received them in earnest. "Are you not the engineer the collector had informed us about?" "Yes," said Vishal and sat on a wooden chair nearby.
"I would like to know the severity of the drought and the measures you villagers have taken to tackle the problem," Vishal started the discussion. "Condition is as clear as an open field, engineer Babu. And what can we do? We have laboured to clear the wells of the mud deposits so that some water might be made available; it worked for a few days, but does not work anymore. A well far off to the east is the only source of water, overnight a few bucketful of water gets collected in it, and we have learnt to make adjustment from it."
Indeed, it was not at all necessary for Vishal to ask any more questions; the condition was as clear as the sky. Taking their leave, Vishal turned to say hello to Sindhu, but found that she had already left. The chief had advised him to stay in one of the rooms in the school building. Thus, left to himself, Vishal walked slowly towards the school. The condition was extremely bad to say the least. He wondered why the few people continued to stay in such adversity. Should they have not opted to shift to the rehabilitation camp that the government had announced as a temporary arrangement?
Tired as he was, Vishal felt drowsy and fell asleep. It was quite dark when he felt someone knocking at the door. He got up and found Sindhu at the door with a cup of tea. "How's your mother?"
"She is better now."
"And your brother? I have not met him."
"He has gone to fetch water. I will bring some food for you. Would you like it here, or would you come to our place for dinner?" inquired Sindhu.
"No, it will be fine if you can bring it here," said Vishal.
"As you wish," said Sindhu and left for her hut.
The next day was same as the previous one. Vishal tried to persuade the remaining villagers to shift to the camp where the government had already made arrangements for the drought-affected people. But no one agreed, they were confident that rain would come soon, and if at all it
fails them they would prefer to be buried in their native farms. Vishal felt that his work was over and decided to leave for the town the following day. But he had one desire, to help Sindhu and her family in some way or the other. He was highly impressed by her wisdom and maturity. Thus, he decided to visit her again. In the lonely afternoon he reached her hut, and knocked on the half-closed door. A voice came from within, "Who is there?" "It's me Vishal." "Wait," said the voice.
After sometime Vishal was taken in. He inquired of Sindhu about her mother and her brother. She replied as usual, but this time Vishal could judge that something was wrong somewhere with the family; for, Sindhu said exactly the same things about her mother and brother as she had told him the previous day: That her mother was tired and sleeping out of exhaustion and her brother had gone to fetch water. Then it suddenly struck Vishal that in fact he had not even seen Sindhu's mother or her brother. He asked Sindhu to take him inside so that he could talk to her mother. Suddenly Sindhu appeared somewhat upset, "No, no. She is sleeping," "Ok, I will just look at her. I must see whether she requires any medical attention," Vishal insisted.
In an unexpected development, which Vishal had never anticipated, Sindhu started shouting, "Get out of my house, you are not wanted here. Already we have suffered enough, we do not need any more sympathy from you. Get out." Vishal was taken aback. He could see the stress on her face; how the life had caused her suffer internally. Still, forcing his way he went inside.
Inside the room all that was left was but want and poverty. There was only one torn and thin mattress on the floor, a plate from which some dry bread was recently eaten, and an empty glass of water. Mother was to be seen nowhere!
Frightened and confused, Vishal rushed out of the hut and went straight to the village chief. There he inquired about Sindhu, her mother and brother. He was told about the most pathetic story of her life; how her mother and brother became the victims of the drought. It was a story of the most courageous lady. There was no mother or brother with her now. They had died a few months back leaving Sindhu all alone. In the event of such grave tragedy, Sindhu had lost her mental balance, or had she?
The village chief also told Vishal how Sindhu believed that someday someone was sure to come to her hut and take her with him to the land of peace and prosperity. Her life revolved around that one hope; she had no interest in relief camps or any such measures.
Vishal intently listened and thought over the matter, and thanked the chief for the information. In the dreadful plight due to nature's fury Vishal saw unusual courage and hope in that helpless lady. That night Vishal slept a restful sleep. He had something to be happy about.
Next day he went to the hut where the lady lived; she had won his heart. "Sindhu, I am here. Won't you come out?" Unsure of herself, and unsure of the fate that was to be, Sindhu opened the door. "I am sorry, Vishal, I shouted at you yesterday night. Please come and have some cold drink before you leave." "I am not leaving alone, dear. Pack up you baggage we are going together," said Vishal with great joy. Sindhu could not believe her ears; was he talking the same thing that she had heard?
"Come on Sindhu, we must leave as early as possible. I have office to attend to." The clouds gathered in the far-off horizon. The wind went mad in the delight that love sometimes brings to the face of earth. The occasional kite and birds started encircling the sky. The rain was in the air! And before it could soak them in its fury, Vishal and Sindhu had stared their jeep.