Saturday, August 14, 2010

Independence Day Special: Remembering A faceless Bhuj Tremor survivor

Chamon Handoli shows the way. Here, I should take a break from my journalism fable as also the previous subject I wanted to generate a debate on the Hindutva and various facets of communal conflict in the country. I promise I will come back to these issues – close to my heart any ways sooner than later.
But on the occasion of yet another Indepedence Day, let me try shake up the nationalistic fervour in all of us. But it essentially, humanitarian fervour!
The inherent resilient power vis-à-vis the economic recession and successful management of its economy and its democratic polity – with all limitations - has earned the country a respectable position in the comity of nations.

But my decision to bring a faceless Chamon Handoli here is to lay emphasis on individual virtues --- fast vanishing but so essential for the human race.

Chamon Handoli is no intellectual giant or philanthropist, as anyone would understand by the term. This is a faceless individual – victim of the millennium’s first natural disaster to strike Gujarat’s Kutch belt. In my later years since meeting this shy man not even posing to be a social worker, I realized that my curiosity factor if not love for Gujarat owes a lot to my meeting with him on that chilly January night of 2001. Just as the devastation left by Tsunami in December 2004 had created a concern for good Samaritans across the subcontinent, sitting on the safe lap of island city I shared this story with a few friends in Mumbai.
Here was a man, who could prove that how often the faceless victims can show the scribes, primarily the skeptics lot, that despite all odds there is a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. As I write few lines on him, today, August 15, 2010, I do not know where he is. Is he still alive? Could he join his family who parted ways for safety after the killer quake? But in a way, it is a kind of paying tribute to that great soul. And no day could be better than this?

Here was a shy man cherishing silence as his essential value. Following my over half-an-hour interaction with him, I could realize that greater part of his life has been of silence. His can be called a story in which his silence was never heard amid a world of rhetoric and big talks. What burnt in his heart will be perhaps never known but I ought to say that virtues of personalities like him should not wash away with the tears one could be shedding.

Perhaps I also sought to search the soul of Gujaratis --- as demonstrated by Chamon Handoli – when I covered post-Godhra riots of 2002 extensively and also subsequently penned a 200-odd page book ‘Godhra – A Journey to Mayhem’.
In retrospect and talking in first person, the profession of journalism has not only given me self-confidence and self-respect but it also took me to places and made me witness events – both happy and sad - many others would never get opportunity. Truly, post-Godhra riots in 2002 were foremost striking among them but visit to Bhuj and adjoining places three days after the killer quake that shook western India on January 26, 2001 was also quite a significant one. Of course there were fundamental differences between the two, one man-made catastrophe and the other natural disaster.
In introduction to ‘Journey to Mayhem’ (Samskriti Publication, New Delhi 2004), I have candidly admitted that due to my childhood upbringing in northeast India, I always took pride in mentioning that I hailed from the hotbed of extremism. Thus, I had a notion that by temperament, I was a tough man and could face any extent of human tragedies.

The anti-Muslim carnage had left me anguished on how human beings could be so merciless with each other whatever be the provocation; while the earthquake in 2001 had only made me feel so hapless about human vanity. Man is just a toy in the hands of nature and a lethal coquetry of nature like the earthquake only exposes his humbleness.
Assigned by Press Trust of India (PTI) to travel from Gujarat capital Ahmedabad, we had reached Anjar village on a chilly winter night. At first sight, we could not grasp the idea that a human civilization had been there only a few days back with all modern amenities from banks to concrete shopping malls. But everything had been razed to the ground as if a victorious army in a fiercely fought battle has ravaged the area. It all looked unbelievable and to recall that experience is similar to try penning a fiction.

There was very little the pastoral folk of the Kucth could do in the face of the merciless disaster, especially when there have been very little from the administration to harness alternative arrangements. Even the international aid and NGO support was still to reach the villagers.
In Anjar, buildings and other constructions had gone three feet underneath and only living beings across could be made out from howling of dogs. On the roadside near the entry point to the village were few tents local relief workers had put on and in a corner sat Chamon Handoli cross-legged on a broken cot.

Wrapping his face with an old “gifted muffler”, I was told later, to protect from icy cold breeze, Handoli was staring somewhere towards the stars blinking far off piercing the thick blanket of winter fog. As I said “namaste”, he looked out of place and initially refused to acknowledge the standard Indian way of greeting. But mercifully – for my job - he gradually opened up narrating the story of his village devastated in no time. “It all happened within minutes. My entire property is deep inside. I cannot recognize my house now,” he said narrating me how family – wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and grand children have been moved out of Gujarat.
In fact, his was only a family among thousands rendered homeless in the killer earthquake. As I listened to his tale and jotted down points on my tiny reporting pad with fingers shivering in cold, I recalled how only in the afternoon I had faxed PTI, New Delhi office an elaborate story of Kutchis, natives of Kutch belt, fleeing their homes.

My draft from Nanicharai hamlet had begun: “Holding a six month old baby in arm Miraben sobbed as she prepared to leave home for nowhere. This is what the black Republic Day tremors have done to her and thousand others in the Kutch region. Alive for a predicament they could hardly visualize even few months back when the region was limping back to normalcy braving the summer drought”. Those who willfully decided to migrate included businessmen, government servants, agriculturists and probably people from every known social stratification. With shutter down at his factory, salt worker Ason from Nanicharai village, around 25 km from Anjar, told us that he had little choice other than leaving his grounded house and the hearth. It was a double pathetic condition greeting the citizens.

The Gujarat government’s inability to reach out to them had all the reasons to provoke the natives. The complaints kept pouring in from every corner on the way authorities were responding to the crisis. Satya Narain Bansal was a well-to-do businessman forced to hound out of Gujarat. Halting at a roadside relief camp in village Nanicharai, he had told me ventilating his anguish: “When international relief and rescue teams could reach Kutch, we fail to understand why Gujarat government was sleeping for days”.

Speaking to Chaman Handoli, I wondered how someone in his position could be still optimistic – after days that a few human lives could still be saved from underneath the debris. But there was inordinate delay in clearing the rubbles.
With rubble scattered around and clearing work either going notoriously slow or confined only in urban and accessible pockets, over 80 per cent of Anjar and the walled city of Bhuj still provided some hopes to the citizens that their near and dear ones could be alive. But amidst all these anxiety Chaman Handoli was in his best form of courteousness and upholding the value he cherished despite the tragedy. He simply shocked me when he said after the quake his brother went missing and he thought the fellow could be underneath the debris. Yet, he offered me a pouch of water out of a few left on his cot by volunteers from the near by tent.
My PTI bosses, especially the CEO Razdan had rightfully advised me not to eat or drink carelessly as apprehension of epidemic was not ruled out. “I like this fellow, I don’t want him to die,” Razdan had told a colleague while I was taking instructions from him.

Naturally, I hesitated to take. Handoli again insisted saying in chaste Hindi, “Pani Peelo Sahab, nahi toh mere gaon ka Bura hoga (Please drink a little water Sir because as a guest if you do not accept that, it will befall bad omen for my village)”.

Any Indian in normal course of life must have heard and uttered these words numerous times. But to make such a remark given his state of mind – missing brother, separated from family and everything worth property ruined – was not easy. It was not easy for Handoli either as second after as I gazed towards him, I saw in the half moon night and focus of a petromax light - tears rolling down his cheeks.

Sitting back today, as I key these lines, I recall reading somewhere in a fictional work ‘Children in the Moonlight’ written by a Nagaland-based IAS officer E T Sunup. “God made the moonlight neither bright enough for the day nor dark enough for night. This is kind of unreal”.

My vanity of being from a tough profession and hotbed of extremism – that is the insurgency-hit Northeast was exploded.

It was not easy for me either to listen to the man or face him eye-to-eye. I was to experience a totally “unreal” kind of situation where in despite all odds a helpless man had not forgotten his values and more importantly still thinking so strongly about his village. As I quickly turned back taking his leave to rush towards my parked vehicle, only feeling haunting me was --- what was really left to bring worse for his village.

It was already devastated and all hopes lay under the debris. But Chaman Handoli’s spirit and his faith in Indian value system or his rustic culture refused to be shattered! On the backdrop of this spirit, it was painful when we heard that natives were stealing away the blankets from various relief camps or picking up more than one (blanket) unmindful of hundreds of others who lay shivering unprotected.

In next few days, we had other stories to file like hoarders taking advantage of the liberal distribution of relief materials. Local people constantly fed in allegation to the scribes that an unholy nexus thrived between officials and voluntary workers only to add to the problem.

Appreciating the dimension of the problem, the Bhuj police set up was also geared up and DIG A K Singh also had made an announcement to deal sternly with unscrupulous elements.

Subsequently, in 2002 when media lambasted anti-Muslim riots; Chief Minister Narendra Modi took up the cudgel on behalf of Gujarati pride (sic) and retorted more than once that it was the same kind of people trying to defame him (for the riots) who had described Gujaratis as “blanket thieves”. Ironically, I was to cover all the incidents; allegation of theft of relief materials, the riots and also Modi’s outbursts “against the media”.
In this context, I ought to say that when I had asked Handoli why he did not desired to have a blanket. His reply was equally moving; “I am okay with my shawl. They can give blankets to others”. Such was the spirit of share and care of a Kutchi or a Gujarati. But in 2002 when riots broke, the good Samaritans had done a vanishing act fearing backlash with hardly any social workers seen around for days in and around Ahmedabad.

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