The death of 23 children in this Bihar village, following a pesticide-laden midday meal, evokes an era when it was known for the pyres of Sati.

The 23 children, who died after eating poison-laced soya bean curry served as part of their school lunch on July 16 in Gandaman village in Bihar’s Chapra district, are its new sati.

Their bodies lie buried in a mud ridge on one side of a large picturesque lake ironically overlooking the State-run primary school they once attended. Across the lake are two banyan trees, and in their shade are a bunch of small pyramids — surya mandir temples where villagers perform the State’s revered chath puja. In early November this year, and in times to come, as prayers are offered to the rising and setting sun, parents will seek blessings for the well-being of their children and for agriculture to prosper. This time and forevermore, their children who lie still will stare from across.

Once upon a time in history, Brahmin women had committed sati on the pyre of their husbands, giving to this village its second name — Dharmasati. There is a temple commemorating this practice by the same lake. I dissociate myself from this crude feudal practice so torturous to women and turn instead to the temples of modern India — schools for its children. A dilapidated single room set in the middle of 19 bighas of government land referred to as ‘sativaar’. Children came here every weekday at an appointed hour, in pursuit of the alphabets and numbers. In official records for July 16, over 100 children were crammed here as students ofStd. I to Std. V. There was a meal cooked too in the small verandah, by rasoiyas Manju and Panna. The meals were never good, I am told.

But on this fateful day, it was the soya bean nuggets — similar to Bihar’s famous badis made of pulses — that attracted many children to eat what turned out to be a dish laced with a lethal pesticide meant for use in cane crops. From the voices of the little ones who have survived: “the vegetable turned black while cooking”, it “tasted as bitter as a neem-kauri fruit”, the “mastarni beat us with a sataki (stick) and forced us to eat”, and “my brother fell by my side, he had only licked the badi.”

One by one, the children fell, outside in the sun, holding their stomach. Among them, Panna’s two children as well — this was the last meal their mother cooked for them. In their pursuit of a right to education, these little ones are my country’s newest sati, ironically in times which I consider to be characterised by a rights-based regime and a functional democracy.

There is a sense of timelessness in this village, where the residents belong predominantly to the dalit and backward castes. In Okil Ray’s house, his widow Raja Devi is the matriarch; she has lost two grandchildren. Her natini Khushbu, born to her daughter, and her pota Anshuva, born to her son. Khushbu had been specially kept behind by the grandmother to be sent to school. “They licked the khichdi (as the mid-day meal is popularly referred to in Bihar) like kukkur (street dog) and they fell.”

Mannan Sao has lost his only grandson, Shiva, while younger daughter Lakshmi has survived. The little girl is articulate beyond imagination and a child gawaah sought for her version of events. “The vegetable turned black on cooking, but madam beat us into eating. The children who ran away survived.” While I speak with her parents, she scribbles her name on my register in English. Her father Rajesh Sao is stoically composed. “We took Shiva to the Primary Health Centre in Mashrakh. The doctors there ran away; we turned to the Durga private hospital but they couldn’t manage; then to Chapra...We failed our children,” he says.

Akhilanand Misra has lost a five-year-old son and Ramkripal Misra a granddaughter. “We are now back by a full generation. God knows what dushmani they had with our children.” Kausilya Devi from Nonia Toli was bringing up a seven-year-old grandson who is now in the Patna hospital, battling for life. “I do not even have a bitta of jameen, maang-chaah ke kehungai ladika posat rahni (I was bringing him up on alms from here and there).”

In all the mourning I notice that women never use the word ‘death’ to describe this end. In Bhojpuri it is “Hammar babu jhook gaile” or “Hamaar babu toot gaile” — the children ‘bent’ and ‘broke’. Like a flock of birds in the field outside the school, they fell. Children from all jatis of the village — Ahirs, Gond, Kanu, Nonia, Brahmin, Dalit — none was spared. Politics is based on caste and local dushmani, but denial of the rights of the poor has a casteless character. Raja Devi gives me a wisdom that I will cherish for life: “Even a thief has some ethics, he spares a few households. This time, it was God himself visiting us — he spared none.”

Gandaman will remain a piece of savage geography on India’s map, alternating between a cruel ancient practice of sati, and its children who fell pursuing their rights. It needs not just a legal judicial process of finding facts and punishing the guilty, but a Ram Mohan Roy to mourn along with Dharmasati’s women, and usher it into modern times.