This woman, ”says the anchor, pointing at an emaciated mother dragging a child by the hand and holding another in the crook of her arm, “has walked 12km to escape the flood in her village.”
You find it hard to believe. How could this wisp of a woman have made her way through the swirling flood waters with two whimpering infants and walked 12km to a rescue boat? “Mother Kosi may have chosen to save this one,” the kind man helping her onto an inflated rubber dinghy says by way of explanation.
In a land where fact and fiction cannot be easily separated in life or in literature, scientists, psephologists and economists will often warn researchers and the media about a certain variable called the “lie factor”. Several erudite media critics in the English language dailies have criticized news channels for sentimentalizing the core issues of relief and rehabilitation and wasting footage on men playing drums and singing devotional songs for propitiating an angry Kosi Maiyya.
But why should people who grew up in a land fed and made fertile by this mighty river for centuries, not trust her more than corrupt governments that slept over the silting of the barrage and sat haggling over diplomatic niceties and payments to Nepal while the waters swelled?
People living in the Himalayan valley and its foothills strongly believe that mighty rivers and mountains that have irrigated their fields and protected them from hunger, must have strong personalities of their own like any stern but reliable guardian. To them Mother Kosi, like the Nanda Devi peak in the central Himalayas, is an ugra (fiery) virgin goddess who protects all those who nestle lovingly in her lap, but if they offend her, she will turn revengeful and nasty. Mother Kosi, the affected said again and again to the media, was miffed at the paap (sinfulness) in the system and seething at her natural path being blocked and forcibly altered by embankments, and so she finally decided to break them and go back to her natural bed some 120km away. Their explanation does not seem too far from the truth, especially when we see solemn and plump politicians surveying the ravaged areas safely from the skies. Some rule Bihar, some ruled it once but today sit in the opposition. One of them is seen chewing betel leaves and boarding a train, then watching the flooded areas from an aircraft, and finally trying to wade his way to his constituency and failing. “The chief minister must answer for this tragedy and the disastrous state of flood relief operations so far,” he thunders.
Cut to the chief minister in Patna. He looks suitably grim and says the size of the tragedy is too enormous for him to indulge in petty politicking. The Kosi barrage has a long history of neglect by successive chief ministers of the state including those who are now cabinet ministers in Delhi. They had chosen to ignore regular flooding of the Kosi region for a whole decade. If the flood is now a deluge it is they who should be blamed.
Anchors and scribes double up frequently as people’s representatives. “Look at the chiwra (beaten rice flakes) being distributed to the affected in the relief camps,” one anchor says. “Is it fit for eating ? Would you eat it?”
An emaciated man clutches his packet to his chest. “Babuji,” he says into the cameras, “when one has been hungry for days, you’d even chew leaves and nibble at hay to stay alive.”
Once upon a time, people here faced the annual floods with great dignity and courage and coped with moody rivers and mountains with love and respect. Mountains and rivers surrounding their villages were often named after ornaments because it was their water and the rich soil they brought from the hills that had created a prosperous and civilized area full of scholars and sages. Here Buddha would visit homes of cowherds during floods and spend nights with them out in the open convinced that the respected Mother river, even if it came to their hut, would just caress them and go back. A famous poet, Vidyapati of Mithila, when too ill to go to the riverside, beseeched Mother Kosi to come and carry away his ravaged body and she changed her course to oblige the poet. But today, people facing the floods look dazed and clueless. Their rivers must now rely on the water resources department and hydel engineers to keep their paths clean, and they don’t. The locals turn away from questions about the water flow, like the driver of the train to Madhepura who, when asked where he was going, mumbled, “I don’t know.” There are no scientific answers, no profound comments. Only wretchedness. The litany of woes is only broken when anchors take an ad break and the screen reverts to showing mouth-watering food and beverages, white goods and cars, iPhones and Dish TVs. Floods thereafter feel unreal.
If you really want to touch the heart of the matter, like Gandhi did or Buddha before him, to understand why and how at moments such as these some show an awesome courage and compassion while others act like animals and loot and kill and molest, you’ll need to switch off the TV and step into a darkness that is Bihar today.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan.
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