October 3, 2004
Reshma’s coming to Nilgi was neither an accident nor a coincidence. Nilgi was a village easily avoided, set as it was at the end of a road, on the banks of the Krishna river. It wasn’t a village people casually passed through; if you came to Nilgi it was because you wanted to.
Only one real road led to Nilgi or away from it, whichever way you chose to look at it, and it was the pot-holed tar road connecting it to the nearest town, Shantur.
Perched on the Deccan plateau’s southwestern edge, Nilgi was far enough from the ocean’s moderating influence that its seasons were distinct. Summers here were hot and dry, winters cold and dry, and it rained incessantly for four months from June to September. The last monsoon rains had passed when Reshma came, painting the countryside in brushstrokes dipped in shades of green. Hills cast their viridescent shadow over deep-green banana groves, patches of uncleared forests and fruit orchards bursting with guava, pomegranate, and sweet lime. Stretching from the base of the hills were gently undulating fields of maize, jowar and groundnuts through which early winter sunflowers poked their impish heads.
It was a particularly beautiful evening when Reshma came to the temple, a kilometer northeast of Nilgi. The Krishna river, full and clear, glistened through emerald fields like a snake that has just shed its skin. The setting sun bathed the earth in a clean, soft light making the whitewashed temple walls whiter, the shadows in the twisting aerial banyan roots darker, deeper.
The village was gathered under the banyan trees outside the temple, men and women in separate groups. The elite sat on the stone platforms beneath the trees, the less elite squatted on the ground. The world’s problems were being sorted under the banyan trees that evening, just like any other evening – religion, politics, illnesses, local scandal, soured milk – and no one noticed the beggar girl.
Samar Chandar, the government employee, first noticed a movement in the shadows behind the banyan trees, too large to be a stray cat or dog. He stood up to look, and at that very moment Reshma came out of her hiding place. There was a lull in the conversation, moments of hesitation, before Samar stepped forward.
“Are you lost?” he asked.
“Looking for someone?” he pressed.
Blank-faced silence bounced off the earth.
And there she stood, a four-foot high figure, no more than eight, skinny and slight, clothed in a dress of indistinguishable color falling off thin shoulders. Two arms and two legs protruded from the oversize dress, twig-like and all angles. Long, black, waist-length matted locks of hair framed a small, oval face. The features were covered in grime, barely distinguishable except for the eyes, large and almond-shaped, the pupils black. And it was the eyes that captivated and disturbed the watching crowd. They were not the eyes of a child, sheltered and loved, fed on sweets and rocked at night. These eyes had known much pain. Not the pain a child feels when it falls or is scolded, but the pain fate should inflict, if it must, on an adult and not a child.
The gathered crowd held a hasty consultation and everyone agreed it wasn’t the right time for questions. Who knew how long the girl had walked and when she had last eaten? A beggar, they decided, with no real past and no future. But, even they couldn’t get away from the stench of the present. The smell of sweat and tears, of urine and dirt, of acid in an empty stomach and rotten food.
“Where can she stay the night?” Samar asked, looking around at the crowd, hoping for a volunteer, and seeing only puzzlement. “We cannot leave her here.”
“You have lived here four years and still don’t know the ways of Nilgi,” said a grey-haired man bent so low he spoke to the ground. “Anyone with no place to go, goes to the vada. Take her there.”
An acquiescing murmur from the crowd and the decision was made. The girl would go to the vada, the mansion of the Nayaks, the village landlords. It was the biggest house in Nilgi, with enough space so a beggar’s presence would not be too disruptive, or could be ignored if necessary.
It wasn’t clear how Samar ended up being the one to accompany Reshma to the vada, but as darkness descended and the air turned chilly, he found himself leading her to the only house in the village that would, could, have her.
Samar shone his flashlight on the dark footpath and the girl walked ahead of him, deftly stepping around loose stones and kikar thorns, silvery under the crescent moon. The screeches of the monkeys swinging in the banyan trees by the temple grew increasingly faint and when they reached the northeastern corner of the village, Samar turned east along a narrow paved road towards the vada.
The vada was removed from the rest of the village, a half kilometer on the eastern side, easily accessible while keeping a respectable distance from the common folk. Entering the twenty-foot high main gate, Samar noticed Guru, the servant boy, hanging oil lanterns on iron poles entrenched in the soil of the front yard. It was the second day of a power outage and no one could say when it would be back. It could be back in the next few minutes. Or it could be another day or two. Or longer.
“I am short-staffed,” the power station supervisor explained to disgruntled callers. “I don’t have an engineer here and am waiting for one to be sent from the city.” He, of course, didn’t mention that the quota of electricity meant for Nilgi was being diverted to a local politician’s mansion whose son was getting married. Nor did the supervisor feel the slightest twinge of guilt about accepting a lakh of rupees from the politician for this favor. Power for the powerful, was the supervisor’s motto and it had served him well. He had saved enough money from bribes so he could send his engineer son to the United States for a master’s program.
When Guru saw Samar stepping through the gates, a bedraggled little girl in tow, he stopped the lantern-lighting and ran in to alert the cook and head servant.
“Basu, Basu, Samar is here with a girl. She looks like a beggar.”
Basu, in the kitchen, sighed resignedly, annoyed at the interruption in his dinner preparations. Really, did people have no manners showing up at odd hours with strangers, vagabonds, and drunks? He was only slightly mollified when Samar greeted him respectfully, bending his head and folding his hands in a namaskar.
“What’s the matter?” Basu barked, wiping his hands on the towel always slung over his shoulder, even when he wasn’t cooking. “Who is this?”
He pointed a stubby finger at Reshma, cocking his head to one side. She disappeared behind Samar’s legs, tucking her head between his knees.
In that moment, Samar felt a sudden, unexpected tightening in his chest.
“She showed up at the temple earlier,” Samar said tilting his head back to where Reshma stood, her head still tucked in his knees. Then, more belligerently than he intended, “Everyone thought she should stay here but if it is an inconvenience, I can take her back and leave her at the temple.”
Basu marveled at how every government official he’d met was skilled at turning the tables, making you feel responsible for an unfortunate situation that was none of your doing. In the dim, flickering light of the oil lanterns, Basu looked at Reshma closely, hesitating only a moment before sending a hovering Guru to fetch the landlord, Raj Nayak, and his wife, Daya.
Guru hurried upstairs. Life had been dull these past few months and Samar and the girl were a welcome diversion. If he was lucky, the situation would distract the household enough so he could sneak out and smoke his stash of hand-rolled bidis. He was sure he was suffering tobacco withdrawal symptoms, not to mention how it was beginning to grate on his nerves the way everyone watched his every move. The constant questions – Where were you last night after dinner, Guru? Have you been smoking again, you monkey? Guru, you should know better than anyone not to drink, your father is a drunk.
“Samar is here with a beggar girl, dhani,” Guru informed Raj, addressing him formally as everyone did. “He says she needs a place to stay.”
“So let her stay,” Raj responded, glancing up distractedly from the book he was reading in the light of an oil lamp, Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.
“We should go downstairs, Raj,” Daya said, standing up from her chair.
Raj put down the book reluctantly. He understood the goings-on in his house were more important than Dickens, but Dickens was surely far more gripping. He had no idea, then, just how much Reshma’s arrival would grip him and the rest of the village. How it would turn carefully constructed lives inside out, like shirts discarded in haste, every seam and knot visible.
A few minutes later, Raj strode into the front room. Daya and Guru followed.
“What is the commotion about Basu?” he asked.
Another round of explanations.
“We don’t know her name,” Guru offered.
Daya walked up to the girl and knelt before her, resisting the urge to turn her head away from the stench.
“What is your name?” she asked tender-voiced. “Don’t be scared, you are safe here.”
“Reshma,” a small voice answered. Reshma, meaning silk. Soft as silk.
Samar felt a stinging behind his eyes. He remembered a little boy, no more than five, standing as Reshma now stood in a roomful of strangers. Being assessed, watched. Noted. Strangers who took the boy in not because they wanted to but because they had to. The boy’s parents, killed in a freak accident, were relatives. And what would people say if they didn’t do the right thing and take in an orphaned relative?
The bile rose in Samar’s throat.
“I think she needs to be fed first,” Samar said to Daya. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yes, yes,” Daya agreed. “Poor child.”
Daya summoned Bharati, the youngest maid, who led Reshma to the servants’ quarters by the kitchen. The kitchen women took over then, fussing over the bewildered child and Reshma submitted to their administrations without protest while they undressed her, bathed her, burned her filthy clothes and dressed her in an outfit Bharati had outgrown.
“Give her some ghee,” Sharada, the toothless roti-maker suggested, clicking her tongue at Reshma’s thin body, every rib a complete arc. “She needs fattening.”
Bharati added a dollop of ghee to the dal on Reshma’s plate before placing it on the floor in front of the jute dinner mat. The kitchen women hovered, watching Reshma shove the rotis in her mouth first, then the dal.
“Poor child, doesn’t even know how to eat,” whispered Chitra, an older servant who used to be Raj’s nanny when he was a boy. She wiped a tear with the end of her sari. “She doesn’t know to dip the roti in the dal.”
“Shhh, let her eat, Chitra,” Sharada said.
A silence settled in the kitchen as rotis browned over open hearths, eggplants charred, and the women watched the tiny, waiflike child eat as if it was her last meal. Or her first. Basu came in to tell the women to hurry with dinner preparations for Raj and Daya, stood at the door for a few moments, then turned on his heels and left. If dinner was late, it was late.
In the chaos and commotion, only Sharada had noticed the white birthmark on Reshma’s back, the size of a thumbprint, its edges uneven. She remembered seeing a mark like this years ago, when she was young, on the back of a boy who visited the vada.
From the vada Samar walked back to the temple, his footsteps leading him there without any conscious intention or purpose. The place was deserted, cold and dark, and he knew his wife was waiting at home with their dinner. But Samar wanted to be alone.
The simple act of Reshma hiding behind his knees had roused unfamiliar emotions in Samar, unsettling him. He wondered if Reshma had, unwittingly, declared her trust in him with that gesture. Or was it that Basu’s presence had sent her scurrying to hide behind the only pair of knees she could find?
The image of Basu caused Samar to smile ruefully. His bald head, his huge paunch, his short stubby fingers made Basu seem child-like, innocent even. But his loud laugh, his booming voice, abrupt, no-nonsense attitude could intimidate easily. Samar understood a little girl’s apprehension on meeting Basu for the first time, but he couldn’t understand his own emotions towards a beggar he had met a few hours ago.
Sitting under a banyan tree, Samar let the tranquility of the place soothe him. He was an atheist and didn’t believe that Lord Hanuman, the Hindu monkey deity residing inside the temple, was responsible for calming shot nerves. But even he couldn’t deny there was something mystical, powerful, even peaceful, about the place.
During the day everything was still and quiet. The aerial roots of the banyan trees twisted and turned like the gnarled hands of an old woman, creeping towards the soil, forming a thick trellis around the main trunks. Birds flitted in and out of the thick green canopy, squirrels scampered up and down the giant tree trunks, and monkeys chattered and screeched in the branches, swinging and munching on sweet, red banyan fruit. Sometimes, a snake slithered through the afternoon shadows, disappearing in the surrounding fields. In the morning, the sound of the pujari’s chants drowned all sounds. In the evening, the chatter of the gathered crowd and the call of roosting birds made the world outside disappear, as if the temple was the center of the universe, grabbing all its energy and taking it for its own.
Behind the temple, the land sloped sharply into the Krishna river, its waters calm in the summer and winter, turbulent and muddy in the monsoon. The villagers believed the temple stood like a gatekeeper, keeping the outside world outside, protecting them from monsoon floods that ravaged the surrounding countryside year after year. No one had the nerve to point out that Nilgi escaped flooding simply because it stood higher on the plateau.
Samar wondered how long people’s faith in Lord Hanuman would last. The shimmering Krishna which had nourished the village for thousands of years was soon going to swallow Nilgi. Whole.
That is why Samar was here. To give people the bad news.
Four years ago, a dam constructed downstream from Nilgi, had made the area upstream vulnerable to floods. The dam had been sanctioned more than four decades ago; the plan was to build a wall across the Krishna, creating a backwater reservoir that would submerge 86 villages and store enough water to irrigate an arid region three times the size.
At the time, everyone supported the project – the government, the World Bank, and the Indian people. The only opposition came from the residents of the 86 villages who knew the government would cheat them of their rightful compensation.
The 86 villages needn’t have worried about the dam’s immediacy as diligent architects took more than a decade to draw up plans and, by then, most of the project’s funds had disappeared in the fancy houses and expensive cars of politicians. The incomplete project became a subject of contention for every politician at every election. Six years ago, the governing party, knowing it was likely to lose upcoming elections, made a strategic move promising to track down whoever had embezzled the dam funds and proceed with the project. The party was re-elected and, to give them due credit, began the dam’s construction right away.
The construction, though, moved at a sluggish pace interrupted by thinkers and environmentalists questioning the benefits of a project conceived more than 40 years ago. Further, the people in the 86 doomed villages were now more aware of their rights and refused to abandon their homes and livelihoods until they were adequately compensated. The elected politicians wrung their hands in despair. They hadn’t planned for compensation. Or rehabilitation. The government was, to put it simply, stuck.
Then, a very smart, young, newly-elected politician came up with a brilliant plan. He suggested completing the project in two phases – in the first phase the dam wall would be shorter than initially proposed and the backwaters wouldn’t submerge the 86 villages. Of course, there might be occasional flooding during an abnormally heavy monsoon, but couldn’t that happen even without the dam?
Then, in a few years, the dam’s height would be raised to its originally planned level, submerging the 86 villages. By then, the politician promised, the government would rehabilitate the people living in the submergence area. And with this irrefutable argument, a shorter dam was built.
Except, the dam caused flooding even at its reduced height. “Impossible,” an elected official responded when people blamed the dam. The flooding was because of aggressive farming practices.
“Forests are being cleared and fertile topsoil eroded,” the elected official said in a press statement. “The rainwater, instead of being sucked by the soil is draining into the river, flooding villages every monsoon.”
Besides, the press statement concluded, there was no compensation for temporary flooding. Compensation was due only if your house and land remained underwater all year around.
Seasonal flooding caused by negligent, greedy farmers versus permanent flooding caused by the dam.
To somewhat appease the people, the government began a Displacement and Rehabilitation Program, sending officials trained in submergence and rehabilitation to the 86 villages. And that is how Samar came to Nilgi four years ago – as a Displacement and Rehabilitation Officer to help people build new lives after submergence.
Samar, initially, had a two-year contract in Nilgi but at the end of it he asked to stay longer and his boss agreed, wondering, idly, why anyone would want to stay on in a tiny, doomed village. But for Usha, his wife, and Samar, Nilgi had been an escape from their own troubles. Coming here had smoothed the wrinkles in their marriage, lessened the pain of childlessness, and soothed Samar’s childhood demons.
Reshma’s coming had unhinged Samar, somehow. In the distance, across dark fields, he could make out the tall walls of the vada’s tower, the outline of the squat, sprawling main house. Reshma was probably asleep by now, in the room by the kitchen in the main house.
Or not asleep, Samar thought to himself angrily. If her demons are anything like mine, the ones that afflict helpless orphans, she is probably wide awake.
Samar watched as the lights in Nilgi went out one by one. Only a few households were still up and he knew one of them was his. Usha was probably beginning to worry and Samar stood up determinedly and began walking home, to his wife and his dinner
As quickly as the village woke every morning, it died every evening. Lamps stopped burning by 10 p.m. and the only sounds were the village dogs barking and the grunt of wild boars as they dug for roots in nearby fields. Far in the darkness, a jackal howled, a sound mothers used to scare their restless babies to sleep.