SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Snapshots from Sitamarhi

IMPRESSION

A bright future is in sight.

A bright future is in sight.  

A photograph captures a moment in reality, a flashbulb in time. The pictures here have not been carefully arranged in a photo album. They are stray scenes, fresh, still wet from being developed. They are simply what they are: pictures through the eyes of a traveller.

Somewhere between Bathnala and Sundarpur

THERE is a river flowing fast under the bridge. This bridge, like all others we have seen today, is almost falling apart. The steel girders are exposed and bent. The road leading up to the bridge is pitted with large, deep potholes. On both sides, the ground falls away steeply into the fields. It is early June. The heat is scorching.

The water in the river is muddy. Buffaloes are in the water like flat islands: only bits of their back and faces are visible. Children are sitting on the buffaloes, trailing their legs and hands lazily in the water. On the far side of the river is a school building. It is deserted and silent. But in the river there is splashing and waving, shouting and laughter. Pure fun and joy.

On this side of the river, under the trees in the distance, are two dozen girls and buffaloes. Not a single girl goes to school. Not even one can read or write. "Where are all the boys in your village? The boys who are your age: 10, 11, 12, 13; boys who must be this high?" we ask. "They go away to work". The girls look surprised: it is so common for boys from these villages to go away to Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi to work in zari workshops. "How many boys do you think are away now?" we ask. An old man with a thin white beard standing nearby answers, "Maybe 50 to 60 boys."

A bus arrives at the other end of the bridge. It is packed with people inside and on top. Dangerously overladen, completely off balance, the bus lurches across the bridge. The driver's eyes are unconcerned. He does this trip day after day.

Perhaps in this bus too there are children, young boys, leaving their villages and going to the big city to work. The crowd of girls in the field watches the bus go by, unconcerned. They too have seen many a journey begin here.

Dimahi

Around a verandah in the centre of the village, there is a crowd of men. Most of them are Muslim. They are talking about how bad the village school is. "Who is supposed to make sure that there is someone to teach every day?" they ask. "Why is there no school in our part of the village?" There are many complaints. One middle aged man says, "This is Bihar. Nothing can happen here". He has been to Punjab and Haryana to work in farms there. Others agree with him. "Elsewhere things work, but not here," they say shaking their heads.

Now the discussion takes a different direction. "Why don't you get together to teach your children?" we say. "The government is supposed to do that. Not us," they reply. Immediately there are more complaints against the mukhia. "He has taken all his relatives as para-teachers. Now who is going to make them work?"

As the conversation moves towards thinking about solutions, the crowd is curious. They think a new scheme is coming to the village. New people join. "Take my brother. He will be good." "Come and meet my wife. She is educated." "How much will be the pay?" "Will the pay come on time?" An aggressive young man in a lungi shouts loudly, "What is going to be the criteria for selection? It has to be done openly." The stage has been taken over by other men. A fight ensues. Two factions argue and accuse each other. No one has actually asked us what exactly we were talking about. They have just assumed that a new programme is going to be launched.

In the noise and commotion, we ask quietly, "Will anyone in the village come forward and volunteer their time to teach the young children who don't know anything?" A silence falls over the crowd. Incredulously, the aggressive young man wants to know "For free?!!!" People begin to snigger. This is not what they were all here for. Our suggestion does not go down well.

People walk away. Uncomfortable about listening to each other, unaccustomed to solutions that may need to be thrashed out in a group, and unwilling, as yet, to come forward.

Ragarpura

Almost a year ago, Ragarpura was in the news. Many boys from this village worked in the zari workshops in Mumbai. One day a child ran away from the workshop and telephoned his home. In the workshops where they worked, the boys were being treated very badly; one had been beaten so much that he could not even open his mouth.

In a blaze of publicity, the mukhia of Ragarpura arrived with parents in Mumbai to get the children "released". The process took a long time. There was a lot of paperwork. Different departments. Bureaucratic tangles. Finally the children arrived in Patna. In a widely publicised meeting in Patna, the speaker of the Vidhan Sabha promised the families substantial "rehabilitation" packages.

The boys returned to the village and resumed life at home. Their wounds healed. They began going to school. In a year, the boys have become taller. The good news is that none of the boys has gone back to Mumbai. The bad news is that there is no sign of the "rehabilitation" package.

The mukhia had made promises to the parents about "compensation" for the children's hard labour. Authorities in Mumbai and Patna debated and discussed who was responsible for signing off. Files, letters, phone-calls with no effect.

Meanwhile, the mukhia lost face in the village. Other people became powerful. New power brokers made new promises to parents. The whole issue of child labour and exploitation boiled down to money. Who was owed how much money, by whom and who was promised what. Some went so far as to say that childrens earnings had been taken away and there was nothing in return.

The boys come running through the village to meet us. Their shy smiles are so different from the frightened faces of last year. "Have you come all the way to meet us?" they want to know. The boy whose jaw was hurt can speak again. Their eyes have no difficulty in meeting our eyes. Although their families are poor, here there are places to run, to play, trees to climb and rivers to swim. We ask about their friends, and about their life in the past year. We bend our heads and listen. Overhead, the adults continue to argue and talk about money.

Back to Dumra

Night arrived suddenly. We cannot see in front of us. The path ahead is unending; navigation requires extreme care. We are hardly 10 kilometres from the Nepal border. A far away forgotten place on the map of India. Precariously we lumber through the night.

The headlights shine on. Ever so often, suddenly emerging out of the darkness, we see men and women and some children, sitting. They are drinking tadi — a liquor made from palm trees. There is nothing else to do.

Not even the moonlight can penetrate the darkness.

A series of photographs do not make a story. But pictures preserved in snapshots leave impressions. Impressions that compel you to think, to wonder and to worry. Despite the colour around us, these photographs are in black and white. They are stark and they are true. This too is India — my own country and my own people.