An ode to the villager who moved a mountain

An ode to the villager who moved a mountain
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First Published: Tue, Aug 28 2007. 12 05 AM IST
Updated: Tue, Aug 28 2007. 12 05 AM IST
There is always something surreal about encounters with genuine love in our times.?And so,?perhaps one should not be?surprised that our?mainstream media,?ever in a hurry to break the most graphic,?the most sensational story of the day, paid scant attention to one of the?noblest lovers of our times, a poor landless?labourer from Bihar,?Dashrath Manjhi.
Manjhi belonged to Gehlaur, a poor village in Gaya, one of the most backward districts in Bihar. He was married young to Faguni Devi who, like all other women in their water-scarce village, spent half a day fetching water from a distant river. It was a hard life and frail Faguni, a mother of two, had to leave early in the morning on the tedious errand. The women had to traverse a long and unbelievably treacherous path which involved squeezing through a narrow and dangerous crack in the mountain that separated their village from the rest of the valley and the river.
One day Faguni came home empty-handed, bruised and soaked to the skin, deeply distressed as her pot broke when she slipped on the torturous uphill journey back home. Moved by his wife’s tears, Manjhi vowed he’d create a road through the mountain to make life easier for Faguni.
“I thought afterwards,” he told our correspondent in Patna years later, “will I be able to complete this task, all alone with no one to help me? Maybe I should pray for divine help. Then I thought to myself, had the gods not chosen...to let the mountain stand in the path of the villagers all this while? Why should they help my wife and me now? Let me do what I must. It’s my wife, not a goddess, who needs my help.”
This was in 1960.
The villagers, when word went around, laughed at Manjhi and said he was nuts. Why spoil womenfolk, some said with a wink. After all, hadn’t generations of women fetched water from the other side? What was so special about his wife? Women were made to fetch and carry, weren’t they?
Manjhi was unmoved. With a mallet and a chisel in hand, he worked the hill for 22 years and, at last, in 1982, single-handedly managed to cut a 3km road through the mountain.
Fate had not been kind to Manjhi. Midway through his project, his beloved Faguni was gone, leaving behind a physically challenged son and a daughter. The daughter was later married but lost her husband, and returned to her father with three children. This was Manjhi’s family with whom he lived till he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and brought to Delhi for treatment at the behest of the chief minister. He died a few weeks later.
What made Manjhi so different from the average villager, who is quite incurious about his rights or the state of others in his area? Faced with apathy from his fellow men, with his wife dead and two motherless children by his side, most men would have resorted to raging and ranting, but these were not emotions Manjhi expressed often. A good tarmac road to his village remained his magnificent obsession till the end. In February 1973, having completed the dirt road, he started on foot for Delhi, walking alongside the railway tracks, to meet the President of India and request him to get the road paved and connected with the main road to the valley. He reached Delhi in April 1973 but unfortunately could not meet the President.
A year ago, when Nitish Kumar was sworn in as Bihar’s chief minister, a much older Manjhi was one of the first to call on him. His request was the same, that the road to his valley be connected directly to his village and the forest department be asked to waive its long-standing objections, for the road was to be created through a protected forest zone. The chief minister is said to have issued the orders then and there, but unfortunately Manjhi will not be there to see his dream come true.
All his life, this unassuming villager from Gaya lived through the chaos that is Bihar, but instead of giving way to pessimism like so many others, he dreamt dreams few in his situation would dare to dream. And he sought help only when he could not carry on the work. He was ignored most of the time, yet he never blamed the system. He carried his simple dignity, the first target of all tyrants, like a magnificent robe around him, and did not give up approaching Delhi and Patna till the end of his days, so that the common man may be able to lead a life less troublesome.
In this world, but for men like Dashrath Manjhi, the fabled common man or aam admi would remain just that, a fable. Manjhi worked neither as a donor or a stakeholder, but as a husband, father and a fellow citizen, as someone who does something noble just because he feels he has to.
A year before he died, Manjhi told our man in Patna, “I never thought I was doing something great for which society should honour me...The government gave me land which I have yet to get. But I have no problems with that. I only want a hospital to be built on it, so the villagers can get treatment when they need it. That’s all.”
We do not really know what quality it is that can make genuine love sprout between a man and a woman living in the kind of squalor Manjhi and his wife did. All we know that it was not just hormones. Nor did Manjhi ever abandon his project. He may have had only his own two hands and a crude mallet and chisel for support, but he was capable of a love that can literally move mountains. He lived most of his life in darkness, dwarfed by a mountain, but when he finished, there was light.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor,?Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at theotherside@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Aug 28 2007. 12 05 AM IST