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The long and winding road

The umbrellas stood silently by themselves, watching as their owners worked busily in the fields. The late rains in Orissa in end-August 2002 brought a burst of activity. While the rest of us debated whether it had been the worst drought of the decade or the past 100 years, lakhs of people in southern and western Orissa just seized this slender chance to get on with their lives.

Groups of labourers like these, from Koraput, came down the roads of Rayagada in search of work. Matter-of-factly salvaging something from a devastated agricultural season. The late rains meant they might just find some employment. At well below the minimum wage, of course. But when you're driven by despair, the choice between miserable pay and nothing at all is quickly made.

The umbrellas are vital. You can't afford to lose them and have no money to buy new ones if you do. So the pointed tops of these are pushed into the boundary or ridge of the plot, made soft enough for that by the rains. You can see yours from where you work. At day's end, you pick it up and move on.

If you're ploughing or otherwise moving through the field, you balance the umbrella on your shoulder to negotiate movement. It's harder than it looks and you keep using a hand to stop it from falling off. One man, though, has just stopped bothering about it. Many of the umbrellas are decades-old hand-me-downs. Patched and repaired more times than the present owners know. But there's an even more ancient alternative. Still preferred by some of grandma's generation. The bamboo rain hat. Like the one the lady at the x haatx (rural market) is wearing. It scores over the brolly in three distinct ways. You can make it yourself at home. It shields you from the drizzle while you work. And, above all, leaves both hands free for work.

It's market day and others hopeful of feeding their families and themselves are up and set off very early. Hunger is the ultimate alarm clock. One that's ticking for the frail old man on that remote stretch of road. The heavy load of chopped firewood on his erect but slender shoulders. It's wet, chill, painful and many kilometres to go. Further down are the couple on the cycle and the youngster with the buffaloes. It's just about 6 a.m. and people have begun their journey down the long and winding road.

Text and pictures by P. SAINATH

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