The dusk was just setting in and we were about an hour of walk away from Rabi’s home. Suddenly there appeared a huge crowd of people looking with astonishment across the stream. As we went closer, it became clear that it was a dozer which was used to first crack and then break the giant rocks with its especially designed metallic rod that apparently rotated dispersing the small pieces of rock first and eventually breaking huge chunks of it. Smell of diesel traveled all the way across the stream to reach our noses even as people applauded after every huge chunk of rock tumbled down to the stream.
I was definitely unhappy to see all this occurring in a village that was supposed to be far away from the life in the cities that depended on the technology and pollution even for mere survival. We began to talk and I argued that the money spent in that giant diesel-machine could have been diverted to the local people most of whom were unemployed or under-employed while constructing the roads that were far more sustainable and eco-friendly. The pace of construction might have been slow but …. That was how I thought the things should have progressed.
Rabi had little to refute but said it was impossible to construct roads overnight with human labor, which was what the people expected now that finally their area had got some budget for road construction.
“This reminded me of a bitter byproduct of the old way of executing development programs with solely human endeavor; though that is not how I want to counter your particular argument.” Rabi said, “There is a story interesting but very tragic that involves an incident I came to know when I was a child.”
It was as if we had found a magic wand that was going to help us ascent the last steep trail ahead before reaching his home.
“However tragic, please tell me that story right now, after hours of walking, this supposedly last ascent is more than bearable. We shall just sit in some Chautari, finish that story and then walk again.”
Though Rabi initially agreed to do so but later realized it was hard to finish our story without interference of one person or another walking along that trail most of whom knew him. We decided to keep that story for the night before going to bed even as a group of kids greeted him with surprise and affection. They were returning back from a small town beside the stream for some household shopping. They came along with us and it was easier to walk in their company as they chatted endlessly.
It was already dark by the time we reached his home that lay atop a small hill. This was my first trip to that part of Nepal and I was excited to search that new terrain for the unique beauty that is always carried by any rural part of this land; at least that was how I saw things before proceeding with Rabi during a short vacation from college. From what all followed after our arrival I realized even Rabi had become like a guest in his family after years of stay in the city. The surprise and joy in the faces of his parents was beyond description when they blessed him after he touched their feet. The home would be like during a festival for so long as he stayed and would be deserted like ever the day he left for his ‘new home’ in the city. It took me no time to realize that fact given my own experience back home.
After an exceptionally delicious dinner that was prepared for that special occasion, we retired to bed after a short chat with the parents who felt it prudent to let us rest before any serious issues could be discussed the other day. Two beds lay head-to-head there in the Veranda in the first floor that was called 'Bardali'. Rabi then started that poignant story.
“Few months back, I met with a face that I felt I had known long before. She was a girl about ten years or so staying in the orphanage where I had gone to collect some data for my research. Though I was sure I had not seen her anytime before, my intuition believed I knew her somehow. Her cute face with wide forehead, bright eyes, well-built nose and narrow mouth resembled strikingly with some other face that was too familiar for me to forget, someone intimately related to my childhood days. I got excused from the principal and went to that little girl to ask where she was from. She was startled and unwilling to talk at first but eventually we were talking as if we were friends known for long but separated for last many years.”
“The moment she told the name of the village where here maternal family stayed, her identity struck me like a blow. It was the same village of my maternal grandparents where I had also spent two years in a school before a secondary school was built in our own village. That village is closer to the district headquarters than this one and the kind of development that is taking place here now took place there long ago. The roads were built back then and we never knew of such a magical equipment that could open up tracks in such a difficult terrain overnight. People worked like ants back then setting up temporary camps to feed and lodge them that would move after a stretch of the road was built.”
“The life of that innocent kid was also related with that fateful development project.” The story now took another turn as Rabi continued with this twist: “Those days were harder for the villagers than now and money was very scarce throughout. You know the cash wealth of these people was built substantially only after there was boom in the gulf that attracted huge number of migrant workers. Before that ninety percent of the young men were employed in India mainly in manual jobs and that was barely enough for subsistence. There was no other direct source of cash income leaving apart the few teachers who taught in local schools. In this background came that project to build the rural road and the contractors soon discovered that the cash-strapped villagers would do the
manual and unskilled job for a fraction of what they paid to the regular workers who came with them.”
“Thus there was suddenly a sort of economic boom in the village. He or she who was able to carry heavy load of boulders up from the stream would get the money, the cash notes. The new found employment and the realization that it was inherently temporary till construction of that stretch of the road made the people compete with each other unnecessarily. This is where the young and apparently wealthy and handsome contractors managed to get some other favors from the young and beautiful girls and women in the village.
Rupa was the youngest daughter from one of the poorest family sustained by a widow and was strikingly beautiful. By the usual standards she was already past the age of marriage but because of the poverty that was only worsened with the marriage of her elder sisters, her mother had been unable to find proper groom for her. In response to her awkward position in the society she sought solace in the company of the kids who were much less offensive to her. That is how I befriended her during my stay in my grandparent's home though she was much older than us kids. Indeed she was the only grown up to appreciate what we did as kids that annoyed everyone else. Even now I feel her character was never in doubt before she succumbed to that catastrophic relationship with one of those young contractors.”
This part of the story reminded me of the many lives of the women ruined by their illicit relationship with the fascinating young men from army and police that could be heard here and there.
He continued: “For a few days there were rumors that the the two were seen awkwardly together while he was supposed to be supervising the work and she was supposed to be carrying the boulders up form the stream. The gossip became universal within a few days and she was placed in very difficult position as the disgrace that she was about to bring by messing up with that unknown person was sure to taint the image of that village itself.”
“A day before I was to leave back for my village for newly established grade 9 in the local school, news came that the two had eloped from the village and the rumors were confirmed. Not everything after that came to my knowledge for months or years and I almost forgot about that grown-up friend of mine who had stepped upon the minefield and was lost forever.”
Everyone was asleep now as we kept talking at low voice. Likely those were days after the full moon so the less-than-full moon just appeared in the east above the mountains that were shaped like a fish-tail. Our years together in the campus and association with the organizations that looked after issues of women and children had made us both much more sensitive to such issues than others. Both of us were sad now remembering that tragic turn of events.
After a short pause he again continued: “After about a year and so, I again went to my grandparents in that village but this time I was welcomed there with the saddest news that had come to me ever. Rupa had been found dead few days back in mysterious circumstances; that too few days after giving birth to a girl child. There were rumors that she was killed and the Postmortem examination was done. But no one was arrested or punished as far as the villagers knew.”
“Soon after she eloped with that deceptively young man and they came back as a married couple, it was known that the man was already married with at least one woman back home; no one knew how many of them were there in reality. Everyone knew she was going to suffer heavily in hand of that lecher. But none was able to do anything to alter the order of things. Neither was that the first incident in which the
poor and naïve women fell in the trap of men who thougt polygamy to be their right.
This particular news was serious and everyone in the village was aggrieved. As usual, people recounted with enthusiasm how good and altruistic she had been throughout her short life even though the poverty and misery of her family forced her into the disgraceful act. The premature death of her father was pointed as the cause of the disarray in which the family had fallen now with terribly depressed and incoherent mother of her waiting for her death in that hut.”
Rabi took a huge sigh before continuing from which I guessed worse part of the story was still about to come. "After that i became even busier and i had no time to inquire more about that issue. My visits to grandparents also became far less frequent after i left this home to adopt the new quasi-home in the city."
"So a lot of thoughts came to my mind that day afer seeing that innocent child in that orphanage. Her resemblance with Rupa made her look even more poignant though almost every child in an orphanage usually has similarly tragic history. When i asked her how she ended up there, she told she was brought there by one of her uncles apparently for a visit but was never taken back and she had not heard of that uncle or any known relative ever since. She was unaware of even who paid for her stay and education there in a grim-looking school attached to that structure. When she asked who I was, i told her i was one of her remote uncles and loved and cared about her very much. i also added i would be coming frequently to meet her now that i knew where she was.
'Every child here gets a couple of visitors every week or so except me and my friends ask me why none comes to visit me. i find no answer to that.' she told me in a deeply worried tone.
'Don't worry dear, now onwards, i will come' i reassured.
i had almost turned to leave when she gently tapped me and asked in a small muffled voice," Uncle, can you please write your phone number down in my note book so that i can call you when these people hurt and beat me beyond limit? Would you please come to my rescue? Even my friends who are older and stronger beat me and i will die of all this if i stay here for longer." The tear drops now began rolling down her cheeks and even i had to sweep aside my tears to clear the blur that had set in my eyes. i could not tell anything but just held her in my arms and swept her tears when she murmured again: "can you please just tell those demons that you are my own uncle and you will come regularly to visit me in the following days?" "Off course my dear kid" i replied and left with a huge lump in my throat, not knowing what and how to tell this little innocent kid who had lived with so much misfortune. i barely managed to keep her words when i met with the stern-looking warden and walked as fast as i could forgetting about the data that i was supposed to take on that day."
None of us uttered a word for a long time. I knew the story was over for now and we had to be asleep now that we were tired so much walking up and down the slope throughout that day. But this much was sure: this was going to be one of those nights when i wished i could fall asleep but sleep was the last thing to grip me. Everyone in the village was asleep; only the moon that was now about to disappear behind the margin of slate-roof of the house as the sole witness of that story.
(this is the first part of the two-part series.)