Monday, September 15, 2008

Bihar Diary-IV: Love and Loss

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Bihar Diary-IV: Love and Loss

Don't forget Bihar's human tragedy.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

I spent a week volunteering in relief efforts in flooded regions of Bihar.

The abrupt shift in Kosi's course in Bihar has flooded farm fields, submerged villages, drowned people but it has, so far, failed to snuff out the romance in the life of "perhaps 18 or 19-year-old" Mr Tuntun Kumar (middle in the picture), a "flood victim" at a relief camp in Purnia's spanking new Aastha Mandir.

Despite the catastrophe unfurling around him, Mr Tuntun Kumar remains lost in the thoughts of Mrs Archana Devi, his "perhaps 16 or 17-year-old wife" who is still struggling to survive in her marooned village.

Though Mr Tuntun Kumar and Mrs Archana Devi married last year, during phagun, their union was to be consummated in the October of 2008. Till then, Mr Tuntun Kumar, a handsome lad with a pencil-thin moustache, was to continue living a bachelor's life in his village, Borarahaha. While Mrs Archana Devi would stay on in Ratanpatti, a hamlet around 10-minutes away from Bororahaha, if you are riding on Mr Tuntun Kumar's Rajdoot motorbike. (Both villages, I was told, are in Madhepura district)

But nothing works as it should.

On August 18, the 'barrage' in Nepal burst open. On August 20, the sarpanch in Mr Tuntun Kumar's village warned of the approaching waters. On August 22, as the sun was shining, Kosi river "suddenly appeared" and like a fuming Kali devoured everything in sight: trees, grains, cows, goats, wells, temples, huts and people.

Mr Tuntun Kumar's family – his parents and two younger brothers – clambered atop their house and helplessly watched as Kosi took over their 10-acre dhaan ka khet. The river snaked inside the huts and wrecked beds, bartans, sandooks and, most unfortunately, all the crops stored in boras. The shock of the loss, amounting to half-a-year worth of earning, around Rs 50, 000, made Mr Tuntun Kumar forget Mrs Archana Devi – for a while.

She soon returned to haunt him. But there was no contact with her village. Was she safe?

Nobody knew.

After spending two days on the roof with the water showing no sign of receding, Mr Tuntun Kumar's family decided to escape. They left behind the buffalo and the father ("otherwise who would take care of the buffalo?") and waded for seven kilometers in 4-feet of water.

All over, the farmlands had disappeared. The stately trees had bent down, their top branches looking like forgotten watchtowers. Dead cows floated past. Did Mr Tuntun Kumar fear the snakes? "I feared for Archana Devi," says he. "I had no idea of her whereabouts."

The dry terrain was reached at a place called Bhangaha. A further 10-minute-long walk took them to the highway at Mirchi Wali Chowk where a Tata Balero carried Mr Tuntun Kumar, his mother and brothers, 50 kilometers away, to this refugee camp at Purnia.

It's been more than a week now. A cooking gas range has already been dispatched to the father 'back home' who is still there on the roof "milking the buffalo and cooking the khichdi".

However, a complete silence from Mrs Archana Devi's village remained a constant source of anxiety. "Tuntun wouldn't even eat properly," says Mr Anil Kumar, a fellow refugee. "My wife has a beautiful voice," Mr Tuntun Kumar says. To hear that voice, he would repeatedly call on her mobile phone but the line remained dead at the other end.

Then came the afternoon of September 6 when Mr Tuntun Kumar again dialed; again expecting a dead-end. But magic -- Mrs Archana Devi's phone rang and Mrs Archana Devi herself picked up.

"Hum kub milenge," she said in her familiar "meethi voice". "Wait for the paani to go down", Mr Tuntun Kumar replied. "Phir mil jayenge."

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