Those with little often give the most

After shifting from Delhi to Bhopal, to cover a state I had never visited before, I was itching to explore the 50 districts. Three weeks into the job, I got a flood of assignments in three corners of the state. Adivasis were protesting against a nuclear project in Mandla bordering Chhattisgarh, police had evicted Adivasis picketing a minor irrigation project in Khargone bordering Maharashtra, and the BJP was hosting a conclave in Gwalior in the North.

For the next 10 days, I lived out of a haversack and criss-crossed the state in taxis and trains, sometimes without reservation. Food was not a priority. Photographer Faruqui and I ate whatever was available whenever we had the chance. We considered ourselves lucky when we were served in clean plates and did not mind if everything tasted the same.

A large number of individuals quoted in my reports were those on the margins of the economy— subsistence farmers, small business owners and junior public servants. Most of them could write their names but weren’t literate enough to read the reports that I filed. Yet, they opened their homes to a hungry photographer-reporter duo whom they had met for the first time and who had come from places they had never heard of.

The best meal I had, at the time, was at a village school teacher’s home in Khargone. His home was in a tribal settlement resisting land acquisition. A few days before we reached Chaukhand village, many of the residents had been caned by police and some had been arrested for rioting. The track to the settlement was unmetalled and rocky.

Though they had been receiving power bills, for the last five years they claimed, the hamlet was in darkness. The school teacher had a single phase connection which was strong enough to light up two flickering five-watt CFL lamps. You could read a book close to the lamp. The teacher’s brother was one of the organisers of the protests and he requested anonymity for fear of disciplinary action against himself.

The hunger, after a day on the road, was overpowering. The teacher invited us for dinner of jowar rotis, tuvar dal, raw onions and salt. The rotis were large and leathery and the dal was spiced with red chilli and cumin seeds. Simple as it seemed, it was delicious. The teacher unflinching served us multiple helpings until I spotted the utensil with the left over dal, in a corner. We had almost entirely eaten the family’s dinner.

I felt terrible and declined further helpings. Still, our hosts kept insisting we have more. As I left the hut, I saw four children feast on two handfuls of dal and three rotis. The hungry parents looked on in admiration.

In Gwalior, after the BJP conference, we searched for a restaurant where the meat looked good and clean. Almost every restaurant we found was packed with BJP members and had queues outside. Hungry and tired we decided to go to back to our hotel and eat whatever the cockroach infested kitchen served us. Our driver, in his early twenties, then asked whether we wanted “Musalmani Khana” (Muslim food).

I said we’ll have anything, irrespective of whether or not the chef reads the Kalma. He took us to his house in a narrow old city bylane at 10 pm. He woke up his mother, sister and wife and asked them to get dinner going. There was fiery red chicken and rotis. Yakoob Khan and his family only let us go after we had consumed the whole bird.

On my way out I saw medicines on the shelf and a couple of medical reports lying on the bed. Yakoob’s father was apparently very ill and had been to a hospital recently.

“My father made the chicken,” he told us on his way back. “He used to drive an auto rickshaw but he’s ill now. So I support the family. The most educated among us is our sister who’s now a prison guard in Bhopal. We haven’t studied much but we all can cook well.” He said this as he treated us to lassi in the only stall in town open at midnight.

The generosity of those with limited resources is often not noticed. They seek no tax cut and their corporate social responsibility does not win them a favourable investment climate.

On our way back from Chaukhand, a resident accompanying us smiled when he heard a Bharat Nirman ad on the radio. The ad was about a woman who claims her right to an ambulance and other facilities at a public hospital when she is pregnant. Our co-passenger told me that pregnant women of his village have to be taken to hospital on bullock carts or tractors, which complicates their delivery.

The ad ends with the punch line- Bharat ka nirman pe haq hai mera (I have a right to India’s development). If anyone has the first right to anything in this country it should be people like Yakoob and the school teacher, who freely give away more than anyone can refund.