Glimpses into lives of people condemned to hunger, who yet find a space for dignity and hope in their lives…

The evening light is fading over an indigent rural hamlet in eastern Uttar Pradesh. We take shelter from the rain in a small earth home. Sitting on the uneven mud floor under a dripping thatch roof, a clutch of Musahar women talk of many things: of the diverse ways they negotiate their difficult lives, without land, without work, often without food, and without hope. As the rain ebbs more women gather, and the talk turns eventually to the raising of their children amidst want. They speak then of the most terrible of lessons that each of them has to teach their children.

This is the lesson of how to sleep hungry.

‘Half the week we are able to eat roti or rice with either vegetable or dal. The other half, it is just roti, or rice boiled with salt and turmeric. But there are four or five days in a month when there is no food, and we have little option except to fast. If there is any food, we give it to our children, adding a lot of water to fill their stomachs. Any additional food goes to our men folk, because we women are used to staying hungry'.

Dark days

On these desolate days each month when there is absolutely no grain in the house and no work to be found, the entire family sets out literally in search of food. They look for undigested grain in the dung of cattle, and by burrowing in the stores of field rats. They glean grains of paddy or wheat that may have fallen on farmers' fields that have been harvested, or forage for stale vegetables which are discarded after the weekly village market. If the family is fortunate, a full day's quest yields just a fistful of grain. This is boiled in a large pot of water to create the illusion of plenty, with chilly powder and salt.

But the children's bellies are still empty, and they are restless and clamour for more food. ‘It is difficult for us to bear their weeping', the women continue. ‘When the wailing of infants gets too much, we lace our fingertips in tobacco or wild intoxicants and give the fingers to the babies to suck. It helps them sleep even with nothing in their stomachs. If they are small, we beat them until they sleep, but as they grow older, we try to teach them how to live with hunger. It is a lesson that will equip them for a lifetime. Because we know that hunger will be with us the rest of our lives.'

Other lives

Dialogues with people for whom hunger is a way of life has helped some of us who have never personally known involuntary hunger, to try to comprehend, even if just very little, the ways that people condemned to hunger cope, and still find ways to live and hope. It is these dialogues with people who live with hunger — to which I will return repeatedly in this column — that have constantly challenged my detachment. They will yours.

Arkhit, and elderly widower from Orissa, cooks rice once a day, and that too only if he is able to muster the energy and will necessary to cook for just himself. If not, he just brews black tea, drinks it and goes to sleep. For aged Somaiah in Andhra Pradesh, most days are preoccupied with finding some dalto eat with boiled rice. His neighbours on occasion share some dal from their kitchens after diluting the leftovers with water. Many aged people go to the village government school and beg for a little dalor sambhar (spiced lentil soup) from the mid day meal prepared for school students. Aged widow Malti Bariha craves for curry with her rice, but cannot afford the spices. She sometimes does not have the energy even to collect enough firewood; at such times the rice and potato that she customarily eats is half cooked.

Widowed early, Antamma was abandoned by her children when she grew in years. She confesses that most of each day, her thoughts centre on how she will procure her next meal. There are times she wants to beg, but worries that her neighbours will gossip when her back is turned. She once begged at the school for morsels from the State-funded school meal for children, but was torn by guilt afterwards that she had eaten the children's share of food. When Rajasthani widow Mani Yadav cannot get work even after begging for employment, and her government pension is depleted, she drinks tea and hot water and tries vainly to convince herself that her stomach is full.

Sankari, an Oriya widow, used to collect bamboos that were soft and small, and crushed these into a paste for her family. Another meal was of kaddi — a poisonous wild plant, which she cut into small pieces and pressed into a basket which she immersed in the river for a day. The river water drained away some of the poison and the family got its food. It tasted foul, so she mixed it with a little jaggery and salt. June and July were good months for Sankari, as shemanaged to collect wild fruits (tholand kusum) and exchange these for broken rice (usually fed to chicken) and salt. Only during the monsoons, her children were able to taste meat, as she collected snails and scooped these for their flesh. Her hours of toil were rewarded because the children relished this. When she was able to get work in the fields, she was paid one and half kilograms of mahua. Now that her children are grown and she is alone, she spends her entire State old age pension on buying rice. However, this rice is not enough to last the whole month.

Long struggle

Udiya Bariha, now frail and wasted at 75 years, lost both her eyes as a child to small pox. She became an orphan at the age of 15, and says, ‘from that day till now I am struggling, yet death has not come to my door'. Alone she has survived 60 long years of unmitigated want, after her father died. All these years later, she says it is still difficult for her to light a fire on her mud stove. Udiya trudges most days to the forest to collect dry wood for fuel and to sell; then she cooks rice and eats it with water and spinach. In the evening, she cleans cowsheds and in return gets cooked rice. On days when she was not able to go anywhere due to exhaustion or illness, she begs in the village for food.

When it was discovered 14 years ago that Dhonu Badiya suffered from leprosy, his brother turned him out of his home, and he was reduced to surviving by begging. He lived alone in a small hut at the edge of their fields in the village Burumal in the chronically drought-ravaged district of Bolangir in Orissa. Years later, the health worker insisted that he was cured, and his brother finally relented and gave him shelter in an open veranda of the cowshed of their home. His entire belongings are one frayed change of clothes strung on a rope, and a couple of dented aluminium vessels. The food his brother gives him in return for grazing his goats in the scrub hill near the village is small quantities of baasi or fermented rice water cooked one day earlier. It takes Dhonu more than an hour to painfully scoop up this liquid with his fingerless hands and bring it to his mouth. He longs for a pension from the government, so that he can buy enough food to fill his stomach, solid food that he can eat with greater dignity. He also wants soap to clean his body. These are his only dreams.