startling banals

13 December 2007

Homeless in Narmada

Rehengyaa Bongyaa Vasaave
He was one of the 500 tribal people from the Narmada valley who were at Azad Maidan in Bombay for a week in August 1999. Their villages were going to be drowned by Sardar Sarovar Dam. They had accepted the rehabilitation package of the Maharashtra government but received almost nothing. The week was spent in demonstrations, petitions, delegations, being arrested, meetings with ministers and secretaries etc. One day we stopped Bal Thackeray's speech in the Press Club. We kept a watch secretly and shouted him down from outside :D Those were the days of the Shiv Sena BJP govt when their dadagiri was at the height. I had a nice time and took the kids to see Marine Drive, Nariman Point, Colaba, Malabar Hill etc.

The day before they left, their leader Pratibha Shinde came to me with Lotyaa and Jiryaa Kaarbhaari. Both seemed to be near 40 - short, dark and of a small frame. I had heard the story of Lotyaa's family. His parents were no more. He had two brothers. All the years of displacement and struggle had devastated them. One of them had simply gotten off the train somewhere in Madhya Pradesh on the way to Delhi for a morcha and no one had noticed. The youngest - Rehengyaa Bongyaa Vasaave had gone mad and had been left in the Mental Hospital in Thane around two years back. We decided to go to Thane first thing tomorrow morning.

The next day, Lotyaa and Jiryaa were waiting for me. Moving about as a group is easy because traffic stops for a morcha and generally there are police accompanying with their vans and jeeps. But here I had to hold their small hands and cross the road between Azad Maidan, GPO and VT station (The subway work was still going on). They were barefoot. We sat in the local train and they looked completely out of place with their old clothes and turban. While everyone else was trying to occupy as much space as possible, they were sitting as close together as possible. But still with a bright and radiant smile - as if amused by all the people staring at them.

We reached Thane, took a ricksha to the Hospital and went to the office. It was spacious and well-shaded by very old trees and it was very quiet. I was expecting a horrible inhuman atmosphere like other government offices. But the staff, doctors and nurses were kind and helpful. They gave us tea! We learnt that Rehengyaa had been cured and was waiting to be taken back home for 6 months in the recovery ward. They had sent a letter to their village which either did not exist any more or the postman never went there. We had to wait for an hour for the official process. He came out and they cried in each others arms. They left the next night from Bombay Central station. Two faces in a sea of 500 others.


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