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Making A Difference, On A Path Less Traveled

Posted: April 22, 2020

For the village folk, she was like a daughter they never had, a friend they could trust. They treated her with unadulterated love and respect, they looked up to her.

The fourth winner of our April 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Preethi Warrier.

“Get up! Time to go.” the hoarse yell jolted her back from slumber. She struggled to stand up; two nights on the icy jail floor had rendered her feet and body numb.

She noticed Shibu as she approached the Daroga’s table. He looked tired and worn out, it wouldn’t have been easy to secure her release.

As she signed, she could feel the Daroga’s eyes dig into her face and body. She threw him a steely glance before walking out with Shibu. Furious, the Daroga spat his parting remark.

“Next time you attack an officer on duty, I won’t be so lenient.”

Out in the sun, she hurriedly grabbed Shibu’s hand, “Tell me how Pihu is, that was a massive blow she received the other day. All for refusing to accompany that cop to the forest office.”

“Relax. She is a strong girl, she’s fine. After you shoved the cop and they arrested you, the angry villagers mustered enough courage to fend off the forces. But wait, did they assault you in prison?” Shibu clenched his teeth when he saw the marks on her cheeks.

“I’m okay. They realized they couldn’t hold me for too long. He attacked a minor and I pushed him to the ground. He had to vent out his anger in some way. Don’t worry, I slapped him back.”

“You won’t change.” Shibu sighed as he handed her an envelope. She tore it open, as he began driving down the dusty rural road.

She had guessed it right, it was her mother and she sort of knew what was coming, “Papa is very sick and unfortunately it’s all thanks to you, his favourite daughter. I was dead against you getting overly educated, I knew it would make you disrespectful and conceited. But he supported you and how did you repay us? Walking away with a boy, of a different caste and religion. You live with him under the same roof and you are not even married. Come what may, I hope you know we are ashamed of you and please do not return. It’ll make him worse and I can’t lose him. You are dead for us.”

She put the letter back in the envelope and stifling a tear, she enquired, “Any news about Nandu?”

Shibu remained silent, keeping his eyes steadily on the road. She understood as much.

She couldn’t believe her story with Nandu was seven years old already. They had been classmates and lovers since their first year in medicine. Handsome, scion of a wealthy business family, he had everything going for him, but Nandu was a socialist. A staunch enemy of feudal laws and capitalism, he spent hours reading and preaching Marx. Though not a huge fan of any ideology, she admired the massive following Nandu garnered with his magnetic personality and speeches. He was offered a youth leader position in many political parties, but he refused. He believed in serving those who really needed him, in putting his degree to actual use, rather than pursuing to a comfortable bureaucratic career.

And she on her part, stood beside him all the time. Even when he, with some young friends of his, left the city to serve the impoverished tribal colonies in the jungles.

“Aren’t these villages in the Naxal belt? Is it safe?” She had her doubts.

“You have no idea about their sorry state, they need education, teachers and doctors. I want my voice and my work to reach every corner of this country, because as long as they aren’t uplifted, our nation won’t be. I wish to understand what they really want, why they pick up arms. And I can’t do this unless I live with them. But I won’t force you, whatever be your decision, I will always love you.” Nandu had promised.

So strong was his impact, her heart had melted, and she set out with him.

Words couldn’t describe the situation she had witnessed. She couldn’t believe there were such downtrodden pockets in the country, in this century. Their clinic was a shanty with no proper medical supplies. They cooked and slept in the shed they called Aspataal. There was one single dilapidated toilet for the entire village, and open defecation was the common norm. Fortunately, the so-called clinic had one for emergencies.

The power would fail often, the water supply in the common hand pump was scarce. More than half of her patients fell ill and died of diarrhoea and malaria. She couldn’t believe she had been so blind in love that she had defied her parents to follow Nandu.

Nandu on the other hand was living his dream, fighting for his cause. He spent his evenings educating the villagers about their rights, their freedom. He gathered the youngsters, encouraged them, gheraoed corrupt Babus , questioned the police…In spite of all the warnings that came his way, he was unfazed. His ideologies and principles stood strong and he was creating a wave of revolution amidst the village youth.

But all hell broke loose when a minister’s rally in the village was disrupted due to sudden explosions. The minister’s convoy was targeted and an army jeep was blown to pieces. Many innocent jawaans lost their lives. The naxal attack had been pretty sudden and alarmingly violent. The police left no stone unturned to nab the guilty. Every house in the village was combed, many young men were rounded off on grounds of suspicion and as the one person who had often demonstrated against the law, Nandu was arrested too. The village was in a complete mess for days, there were no weapons found, but the police circled the streets all the time.

All through the night, she had pondered and finally made her decision. She had to leave. Nandu’s presence had been her only motivation but now with his disappearance, she couldn’t go on living in this hell.

She heard a soft knock; she hesitated at first. But then she lit a candle and gently opened.

“Doctor Didi,” there stood a young tribal woman with her little daughter. “Could you hide her here for the night?”

She ushered the mother and daughter in, it was pitch dark outside.

“Why, what’s wrong?” she had managed to pick up a little local language.

“They took my son, he’s all of  fifteen. Trust me didi, neither he nor his friends are naxalites. We don’t even know what naxals look like. Nobody here carries weapons, but the police invariably suspects us. I don’t know if we’ll ever see our son again. But sometimes, when these people camp outside in huge numbers, they carry off our daughters too. It happens didi, many a times, when some rich landlord celebrates, or when some bureaucrats stay at the forest office… our daughters are called to serve food and liquor. They don’t want women our age, they insist on taking the younger ones.”

“But why do you let them go? Don’t your husbands do anything?” she interjected mid- way.

“Huh, didi, my husband would sell us both off, for a bottle of foreign booze. But then Mahua’s husband was a good man. When they took their daughter away, he fought. But these landlords, they have their goons who carry guns. Mahua’s husband was shot down, nobody protested, their daughter was dragged away never to be heard of again, and Mahua committed suicide. We all went to the police, some Darogas are good, they try to help. But Darogas change often, they go away. The landlords stay and we are left to face their wrath. So isn’t it better to keep mum and try saving ourselves?” the woman spoke matter of factly.

She couldn’t help but notice the void in the woman’s eyes. Her teenage son had been taken away from her, perhaps forever. She and her daughter lived under the constant fear of being molested as the man of her house lay wasted somewhere. But there wasn’t a tear in those eyes, just cold determination, to protect her daughter. And the woman had confided in her, had considered her worthy of trust; she couldn’t disappoint that mother now.

She had then unpacked her suitcase, as she had to pick up from where Nandu left.

For the next few months, she had been busier than ever. On Sundays she traveled to the town to purchase some essential medicines, newspapers, books and sanitary pads. Evenings were dedicated to mentoring the young girls about menstrual hygiene and sex education. And creating awareness among the womenfolk about their rights against domestic abuse or marital rape. She conducted family planning lectures for both men and women, with some help from Shibu, a young medical intern, who happened to be Nandu’s follower. She roped in the teachers of the school as well, to encourage girls’ education.

Together, they collaborated with other Gram panchayats and successfully got a few functional toilets in the village. Her routine included visits to the police station, to enquire about Nandu and the many teenagers who had gone missing. Many a times she was met with hostility, but even a little information brought a smile on some mother’s face back home.

In spite of her parents’ rejection and Nandu’s disappearance, she smiled more often now. For the village folk, she was like a daughter they never had, a friend they could trust. They treated her with unadulterated love and respect, they looked up to her. She could definitely take pride in helping those poor souls, changing their lives for good.

It wasn’t all hunky dory though; amidst all the responsibilities, she missed life in the city. She had friends back home, she needed an occasional drink, junk food, movies, internet. She belonged there, she couldn’t go on like this forever. Not to mention, the frequent scuffle with the police and goons, thanks to which she had landed in lock-up today. And she couldn’t be more proud…

Plus, she was doing it all for Nandu and she would await his return, he would be so proud. It had been almost six months, the police claimed he was in the town prison, but how long could they hold him? There were no particular charges or evidence against him, so there was no reason to torture or God forbid, kill him in jail.

Today, as Shibu drove her, she offered a silent prayer for Nandu, his safe return.

But then she suddenly remembered, “Shibu, remind me I need to post that request today. Once the permission is granted, we could start off that little cottage industry. Those women are pretty good at handicraft and they could win some financial independence too.”

Shibu braked suddenly; she saw they had reached the national highway.

He looked at her straight in the eye now, “Nandu won’t return. Don’t panic, his parents bought his freedom almost two months back. From what I heard, he’s trying to leave the country for higher studies. So you certainly don’t need to wait for him, apparently he buckled under pressure. If only he was as strong as you. See, I’ve seen you weeping for him, spending sleepless nights. You don’t need to endure this anymore, you have done enough. I’ll drop you at the railway station, apologise to your parents, go back to where you belong.”

Her eyes welled up, but she wouldn’t cry, not anymore, not for anyone. Shibu was right, she had to return, get on with her life. They were at a junction, a right turn towards the city, and a ten minute drive, and she would be at the station.

“Fine Shibu, I’m going back.” She spoke loud and clear. “Turn LEFT.”

*

Editor’s note: If she had survived the Holocaust, and lived to this day, Anne Frank would have been 91 years old, on the 12th of June, 2020. Would she have realized her dream of becoming a published writer? Maybe. Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl is one of the most riveting pieces of non-fiction literary work we have. What makes it so compelling is the fact that the writer was just an ordinary girl in her teens, writing about the ordinary things of everyday life in extraordinary circumstances and died at sixteen.

In July 1942, Anne’s family, along with some of their friends, went into hiding from the Nazi persecution of the Jews. They remained hidden in the Secret Annexe (as Anne calls their hiding place in a hidden area of her father’s office building). They were helped from the outside by loyal non-Jew friends, who kept them supplied with food, essentials and news. Sounds so much like the lockdown we’re in right? Except it was much worse – they were discovered in August 1944 and taken to a Nazi concentration camp.

Anne’s diary has its last entry on 1st August 1944. In the 2-odd years that they remained hidden, she wrote all her thoughts and experiences – the good, bad, and the ugly –  in a diary that she received for her 13th birthday, from her father, Otto Frank. Miep Gies, the lady who was one of their helpers, found the diary along with other papers after their arrest, kept it safe, and handed it over to Otto, who returned after the war as the only survivor.

So much of what she writes is about hope for a better life ahead, “after all this is over”. Hope, to slightly misquote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers living in every heart. Let’s look beyond this stressful time, shall we?

The cue is this quote by her: “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”

Preethi Warrier wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations! 

Image source: shutterstock

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