The lifeline – in Peril

lifeline-peril

Nitin sat in the car with a promise in his heart to come back soon. As it drove away, every time he looked through the window he saw his loved ones standing at the gateway. With every mile that he covered, the image of them become all the more blurred to him. It was difficult to leave behind the people who had all the time in this world to shower unconditional love upon him. While swallowing a lump in his throat he looked vaguely at things that were crossing by. On reaching the river bank, the newly planted saplings caught his attention. While watching them sway happily in gentle breeze off the Ganges, Nitin couldn’t believe that in a way he had played a stellar role in placing the newbies in their current location. He was imagining them in full bloom executing the role that has been assigned to them when their time comes. He felt happy to be able to deal with the herculean task of mitigating threats from different quarters and bringing everyone on one page with a lot of tact and perseverance. As a result, not just Ajit but a few more land owners and their sharecroppers had also agreed to grow fruits in their land near the river bank. During this time Nitin came across this aspect of human nature wherein one realizes one’s true potential only if pushed to a brink, left with no other choice but to stand up and deliver. But he was surprised to realize how his grandpa was confident about his abilities while he himself felt standing on a shaky ground.

He thought to himself, “What a phenomenal journey it was! My initial plan was so different from what it finally shaped up. Ironically, no matter how much one feels sure about future or plans for it, ultimately one has to toe in line with the designs of God. About three months ago, when my previous project was on the verge of completion, I was weighing between the two overseas prospects that I had, one in Egypt and the other in Cambridge as they seemed more challenging. But accepting an offer nearer to home wasn’t even in the race”, Nitin thought to himself. He leaned back on his seat and made himself comfortable in preparation for his travel back to the state capital. From there he has to leave for Varanasi as he had chosen to join Banaras Hindu University as a visiting faculty. Keeping his eyes closed, he sat introspecting over the chain of events that took place in the past which contributed largely in choosing to stay back in India for sometime, over going overseas. As the car approached airport Nitin felt very nostalgic as memories come flashing back because this is where it had all begun.  

 

About three months ago…

…As soon as the flight touched down the runway at Patna airport, Nitin’s heart skipped a beat. His excitement knew no bounds as this family reunion was long awaited. After collecting his luggage, he tried getting in touch with Sankar who has been their driver since a long time. Shankar was supposed to pick him up from the airport and take him to Simariya, to his grandparents’ home. Nitin had already started thinking about meeting his family. Especially his grandpa, who has been a friend, mentor and his greatest support since childhood. The urge to meet him was all the more significant after his recent brush with success, his first major accomplishment as an archaeologist. Failed attempts to get in touch with Shankar was making Nitin all the more restless. Strange are the ways of human emotions, for they signal the mind to act differently at different circumstances. Ironically, on one hand he had managed to stay away from his loved ones for years in order to respect his work commitments. But on the other hand now that he has come so near, he didn’t have the patience to wait for three more hours. How he wished to reach there right away.

He called his mother to know Shankar’s whereabouts. “Hello Maa! Where is Shankar bhaiya?”

“Nitin, he is with us. I tried getting in touch with you but your phone was switched off. We are on our way to Patna…with grandfather.” Nitin’s mother, Gauri answered in a hurry.

“Why, what’s the matter? What’s happened to grandpa?” Nitin bombarded a series of questions.

“This morning he was so excited and happy, he was really looking forward to meet you but about two hours ago he became senseless.” Gauri said.

“Oh!” Nitin couldn’t say a word beyond this.

“I think, we should be at our nursing home within an hour.” she continued, “In the meantime, why don’t you go home, freshen up and eat something. The journey must have been quite tiring for you.” Gauri said.

“No, that’s okay, I am coming straight away.” Nitin said, dismissing his mother’s suggestion.

“Is it serious? Will he became alright?” he asked with apprehension.

“Let’s hope for the best” Gauri answered quickly.

His mother’s words left him speechless as deep inside he could make out the gravity of the situation. Without wasting much time he hired a cab and proceeded towards his new destination – Lifeline nursing home. After so many years he was visiting the city where he grew up. As the cab took twists and turns through roads and by-lanes, the city presented before him its more developed and vibrant version, but unfortunately he seemed to register nothing. For sometime he was totally engulfed by his own thoughts so much that he couldn’t even notice that the cab had already arrived at the nursing home. He heard a voice repeatedly calling him.

“Sahab, sahab, your destination has come.” said the cab driver.

“Hmm, what?” Nitin said confused.

“Lifeline nursing home” the cab driver said pointing out his finger.
“Oh… okay” Nitin said getting back from a trance that he got into. “Sorry, I didn’t notice”, saying which he paid the cabbie and got out of the car.

Nitin looked around and thought to himself, “In my wildest of dreams, did I ever imagine that I would have to meet grandpa here, in this manner?”

Just then, he heard the sound of an ambulance siren, which gradually become louder and louder as the vehicle approached the nursing home. The sound pierced his heart making it to palpitate faster and he thought to himself, “Is grandpa in that ambulance or are they bringing him in a car?”

Very soon the ambulance zoomed inside and a car raced behind it. As soon as the ambulance halted near the emergency department, porter boys and nurses rushed towards the ambulance. After seeing his grandmother inside the car he immediately rushed towards it. Nitin opened the rear door and helped his grandmother to come out. He wiped her teary eyes and embraced her tightly and reassured her, “He’ll be fine.”

“Good that you are here, Nitin.” Lata, Nitin’s grandmother almost choked while she said.

In the meanwhile, his parents with the help of hospital staff brought Amarendra, his grandfather out of the ambulance. For a fraction of seconds, Nitin stood motionless on seeing his grandfather lying on a stretcher with a oxygen mask on. It was unthinkable for him to see his once robust grandfather in that condition. While they wheeled him off to the emergency unit, Nitin noticed his grandmother’s anxiety in leaving her husband’s side.

He quickly came forward and held her to say, “Grandma, let’s wait outside.” She gave him a confused look and blurted out, “But I think I should be around! What if he needs me… needs anything?”

“This is a critical moment, the medical team shouldn’t get disturbed. Isn’t it, Grandma?” Nitin said politely to which she nodded her head in affirmation. They both sat in the waiting area just near the emergency unit. He felt nervous as he had never faced such a situation before, where a loved one is hanging between life and death. Even though he wanted to break the silence and comfort Lata, he fell short of words. After sometime Shankar came there with some tea.

“Shankar bhaiya, what really had happened? I thought he was recovering.” Nitin asked while sipping tea.

“He was recovering no doubt, but… he was exerting a bit too much.” Shankar added.

“Exerting a bit too much?” Nitin repeated in a surprised tone as if to ask what does that mean.

“Quite recently, a team of social workers had come and approached dadaji to help them in their mission to save Ganges from depletion.”

“Oh! So, now the Ganges…” Nitin wondered. Instantly, his thoughts went back to the recently concluded project on the decline of Indus valley civilization of which he was a part.

“And how has grandpa been affected by all this?” Nitin inquired.

“He has been going around with those people, meeting different agencies in an quest for a change for better. And in this process he neglected his health.” Shankar said.

“And ever since the result of your research came out he got all the more motivated with this mission. Whenever I used to ask him why was he exerting so much as he had fully not recovered, he would say ‘Look, how Indus valley civilization declined. Aren’t we too sitting on a time bomb ticking slowly, leading us all to a catastrophe?’ This is not for me, this is for our future generations.” Grandmother added.

Meanwhile, every now and then Nitin was peeping inside the emergency unit from the small glass window that was fixed on the door in an attempt to evaluate the situation. Inside, the atmosphere looked quite intense and sombre. The medical team went about their course of action with a great sense of urgency.

After sometime, Mahesh his father, came out to talk to them.

“How is he, papa? Is he out of danger?” Nitin inquired.

Mahesh nodded. He looked quite tensed.

“Can pneumonia be fatal?” Nitin whispered.

“It can be life threatening for an elderly person, as they have other ailments too… so that makes things all the more difficult. Anyways, we have to keep him under observation before taking any decision.” Mahesh said.

“What do you need to decide?” Nitin asked in a confused tone.

“Whether to shift him to intensive care unit or a private room.” Mahesh replied while keeping his eyes fixed on his mother who seemed to be soaked in her own thoughts. He then went and sat next to her silently holding her hand. His touch made her to startle and question, “Oh, you! How is he?’’

“Maa, you don’t worry.” Mahesh said with a sigh and continued. “He’ll be fine, we are…” That’s when someone came to call him from the emergency unit. Mahesh quickly left the scene. His bewildered mother looked at Nitin with lot of questions in her eyes. Nitin overheard their conversation about grandpa’s deteriorating condition and their discussions regarding shifting him to the intensive care unit. But he choose to refrain himself from disclosing about this to his grandmother immediately. Deep within, Nitin was experiencing a cocktail of emotions, bubbling up to the brim but he had to keep them bottled up in order to portray a brave face and provide solace to his grandmother.

“He’ll recover, grandma.” Nitin said in a reassuring tone.

“Yeah. He has to… He can’t be leaving so soon.” Her eyes sparkled with tears but her voice had undeterred conviction.

Meanwhile, after evaluating his father’s condition Mahesh inferred that uncertainty loomed large. Therefore, he tried to convince his mother not to stay there, as the wait could turn out to be endless. But she didn’t budge to any of the logical suggestions that he made. To Nitin’s surprise, neither he saw her agreeing to visit her husband twice a day nor he saw any interest from her side to get preferential treatment in the nursing home.

“I am not leaving this place without him.” she said adamantly .

“What strength of character… I never knew that she was gritty.” Nitin thought to himself.

While Nitin watched his otherwise timid looking grandmother in admiration, Mahesh looked aghast at her firmness. In order to avoid an obvious tussle between both of them, Nitin looked at his father in persuasion to leave things to him.

“Grandma, people are there to take care of him.” Nitin tried to convince her.

“And how much do you think do they know him?” She asked right away. All his attempts to convince her were foiled by her rigidity. He couldn’t really understand her but choose to respect her stand.

The next few days were very critical for Amarendra as he walked a tightrope between hope and despair. Time and again Nitin was astonished to see that it wasn’t just the medical team who were helping the septuagenarian to come out of this ordeal, but there was someone else as well… his soulmate, his wife. Many a times when it seemed extremely difficult for Amarendra to survive this phase, she would sit next to him holding his hand or caressing his forehead gently, and immediately his vitals showed positive signs. It was as if her silent prayers, her resilience were steering their relationship through the tempest which had become hell bound to wreck their partnership of nearly five decades. Nitin was amazed to see how their contrasting personalities did not come in the way to the camaraderie that they shared. Instead, with time that made a way for them to develop into each other’s strength. He now understood why she was reluctant to leave her husband’s side.

During those difficult days, well wishers would often flock in from Simariya. It was from them that Nitin got the details of Amarendra’s involvement in the mission to save the Ganges. He believed that if his grandfather has put his hand in this work then there must be something about it. Since then, amidst his grandfather’s recovery concerns and running around at the hospital, he started gathering more and more information related to this topic as his mind constantly hovered around a thought… he feared that what ever happened with Indus valley civilization could become the fate of settlements in the Gangetic plains too. From the insight that he gained, he could make out that in a way the Indian subcontinent is blessed, because from her womb originates numerous rivers. These lifelines have made the soil fertile. As a result agriculture based economy could thrive, paving a way for it to become a cradle for many ancient but advanced settlements. After the downfall of Indus valley civilization, people migrated towards the Gangetic plains, slowly populating it along the flow of the river. Gradually, Vedic culture evolved followed by numerous empires emerging in the ancient cities situated near the banks of the very same river. Finally, making this land prosperous to the extent that it was known as the “Golden sparrow” the world over. In a way these perennial rivers flowing through the subcontinent were instrumental in elevating it to the level it had attained. Unfortunately, unable to withstand the backlash of mankind, these lifelines are depleting day by day.

“These assets might not be available eternally if not cared for.” Nitin would often think to himself. He could comprehend the power that a river possess. On one hand if it has an ability of a nurturer, the same river could create havoc for those it had nurtured once.

Finally, after days of playing cat and mouse with death, Amarendra regained his consciousness. On getting the good news his dear ones including Nitin came and surrounded him.

He smiled at Nitin and exclaimed, “Nitin! You have come! You are here?” he said with a tinge of disbelieve.

“Yes, grandpa” Nitin answered holding his needle pricked hand tenderly.

“When did you come?” Amarendra asked.

“Few days back” Nitin replied.

“And, since when am I here?” Amarendra asked looking here and there. He had a streak of restless as if his eyes were searching for someone in particular.

“I’ll go and find Grandma.” Nitin said hurriedly after sensing that it could be her that Amarendra was looking for.

As Nitin turned, he saw her coming in. Calm and composed, she walked towards Amerandra while the latter’s eyes firmly fixed on her.

“Indeed, he was searching for her…” Nitin thought to himself. They smiled at each other.

“Do you feel better now?” she asked fondly. To which Amarendra nodded his head slightly.

For most of them it went unnoticed but Nitin saw that his grandfather looked peaceful now. All these years Nitin didn’t have a clue that it is actually his low profile grandmother who has been a constant source of strength to his gigantically dynamic grandfather. Now, having observed them closely, he had some idea about the depth of his grandparents’ relationship. He realized that just because it is not displayed, real love doesn’t ceases to exist. On the contrary, with time it stops floating on the shallow waters which skirts the shores. Instead, with maturity it ventures further, diving deep into the sea.

Very soon Amarendra was shifted to a private room. Nitin felt nostalgic getting inside that room. Many years ago, after he had undergone an operation for appendicitis, he was recovering in the very same room. He was taken aback to see that the view from the window had changed drastically. It had once overlooked the Ganges but sadly now only a small portion of the river could be seen amid modern day jungle… buildings of concrete. Next couple of days that Nitin spent with his grandparents was unique as he was experiencing a complete role reversal. The smart and energetic man who had once helped young Nitin to put his shirt buttons correctly was being helped by the latter to put a shirt on his fragile body. Many a times, after failed attempts to get up from the bed Amarendra would stretch his hand towards Nitin who would quickly hold him tight and help to lift his body. During those moments, in a flash, memories of childhood days would pop in Nitin’s mind. Years ago when little Nitin was learning to ride a cycle he would invariably see a hand after falling from the cycle, it was the same hand that he was holding now. Those days of course those hands were strong enough to pull Nitin in one go. Fortunately, Nitin was able to witness this part of the life’s wheel as well.

While watching the morning sun popping out behind the high rises, three of them would often talk about things closer to their heart. One such narration made a lasting impact on Nitin. Years ago, just after Amarendra and Lata had got married the whole family along with the newly weds went for a pilgrimage to Varanasi. Back in their days, honeymoon was a western concept and had not caught up with the Indians. Instead, coming from the land of spirituality, they preferred religious tourism. Surprisingly, neither did they travel by roadways nor by railways. As the road-cum-rail bridge which stands erect across the river Ganges had still not come up.Those days waterways use to be an important mode of transport. Boat rides for as short a distance as attending a school across the river to as long a distance like sailing on a ferry boat from Kolkata to Allahabad was the norm.They had boarded a ferry from Simariya and for next couple of days sailed on the Ganges before reaching Varanasi. They started their life together on the very same journey which was an experience of a lifetime, especially for Lata as she had not ventured out of her village before.

“We sailed for days with only water all around, watching the sky touching down the river at the distant horizon, watching the celestial bodies paint hues on the clouds and water as they rise and set, the rhythmic sound of the oar as it rowed, freshness in the breeze, coupled with soulful food. It was… it was nothing but pure bliss.” Lata’s face beamed with excitement as she narrated. It was as if she was reliving those moments all over again.

“Was the water sufficient enough for a cruise to sail like that?” Nitin asked.

“Oh yes! We had enough water in the Ganges. Besides it was considerably clean and pure, hence we drank the same water.” Amarendra said.

“What? Without treating the water?” Nitin blurted in utter dismay. “These days Ganges has become so contaminated that it is not advisable to to take a holy dip in the river, let alone drink that water.” he lamented.

“But that was not the case in olden days. If you compare the lifeless water that you keep on gulping out of these bottles with Ganges water of yesteryear, the former wouldn’t stand a chance.” Lata said pointing at the plastic mineral water bottle.

Simultaneously Amarendra laughed out loud and said “From time immemorial we have believed in the purity of water of Ganga. This faith, of Ganges having cleansing and medicinal properties has been handed over to us by our sages and scriptures and now it has been scientifically proven that it demonstrates bactericidal properties.” After a pause he continued, “I remember hearing… the British voyagers would carry gallons of Ganges water to be consumed on their way back to England as it didn’t rot so easily. It is very unfortunate that out of ignorance we have taken this river for granted, abusing it to its current state. Calling it a mother or worshiping it is not enough… we have to care for it. The sad truth is that it’s depleting and we are not doing much.”

“Yeah, indeed it is depleting. From past couple of days I have been reading a lot about these things. It seems over the years, the garbage that have been dumped, starting from domestic sewage to municipal wastes to industrial effluents to temple wastes in plastic bags… the endless list of pollutants are choking the Ganges and other rivers to death. Besides, population explosion, urbanization and climate also has a role to play in rendering our perennial rivers a seasonal one.” Nitin said.

“Yes, we are now aware how the ancient civilization of Indus valley perished due to climatic changes, a repercussion of river Indus changing its course. Keeping that into consideration, now it could be Gangetic plains next.” Amarendra added.

“Alas! the river Ganges, life-line to millions of Indians has become an endangered river!” Lata sighed.

There prevailed a momentary silence in the room as they sat contemplating.

“Grandpa, so how is this problem being dealt here?” Nitin asked.

Apparently, there are issues in this regard to work upon. In order to cater the state’s development processes, the construction industry is growing in leaps and bounds. Therefore on one hand sand mining has become a regular feature near the bank of the river and on the other forest covers are fast reducing. Moreover, being a industrial hub of the state, this place boasts of many large and small scale industries. Effluents from nearby industries get discharged into the river.” Amarendra added.

“Primarily, food crops are grown on our land. Your grandpa is talking to Ajit, about growing local varieties of fruits instead of seasonal crops… Ajit is not quite convinced though.” Lata added. They have acres of land in their native village, which has been handed over to them from generations but they are not involved in farming directly instead they give the responsibility to Ajit, their sharecropper. The profit is of course shared between both the parties latter.

“Why? I mean… what’s wrong with cereals?” Nitin asked.

“It is not the question of cereals, but floods. This region is prone to floods. You must be knowing that Ganges is partially glacier fed and partially forest fed river, so ecological changes like global warming and deforestation along with other factors like pollution, sand mining produces a cascading effect on the health of the river. Trees are helpful in retaining excess rainwater, reduce the damage from floods and mitigate drought.” Amarendra clarified and then added, “If left to me, I could grow a forest because my family is not dependent on agriculture for livelihood, but Ajit’s is… commercially it wouldn’t be a viable option for him. That’s why I suggested growing fruits.”

By evening of the very same day, Dr Bhoomi, Dr Satish and Rajesh, the force behind Ganges conservation in this region paid them a visit. While Amarendra was overjoyed to see them and Lata approved their presence too, but Mahesh did not feel comfortable when they had walked in. He disapproved their presence, maybe because he was considering them responsible for his father’s ill health. Before falling severely ill, Amarendra was helping them relentlessly.

Amarendra asked them with a child-like excitement, “How are things proceeding?”

“Umm, Don’t think about anything else before recovering fully”, Dr Bhoomi said.

“No, but.. I am all right now.” Amarendra said in an upbeat mood.

But the way they looked at each other, Amarendra got a cue that things are not progressing smoothly at their end.

“Tell me what is it.” Amarendra insisted upon being told.

“Good news is, couple of farmers and landowners are showing interest in fruit plantation. Besides, our researchers are trying to figure out if Miyawaki technique could be used by the villagers as forest grows faster using this method or if inter-cropping could be more beneficial as it would be commercially more viable for the farmers.” Dr Bhoomi said diplomatically avoiding to discuss the negative proceedings.

“What’s Miyawaki technique?” Nitin asked with curiosity, finally breaking his silence.

“It’s a technique by which forests could be grown in a short period of time using indigenous trees. It was developed by Akira Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist.”, Dr Bhoomi replied.

Amarendra could see beyond what Dr Bhoomi was revealing so he asked her calmly, “Now tell me, what is it that you are not feeling good about.”

While Dr Bhoomi hesitated to speak Rajesh babbled out, “Even though a few industries have realized the necessity of an onsite effluent treatment plant, but it is difficult for them comply due to funds. So…” he continued, “And it is difficult to check sand mining along the bank of the river. They are using their clout to get away with things.”

“Hmm… Of Course, of all the factors that we are dealing with this is the toughest. Is this all that is bothering you?” Amarendra said, “When can I go back home?” he asked his son

“You have to stay here for sometime as you haven’t fully recovered yet.” Mahesh replied.

Thereafter, they sat silently. Amarendra seemed to be in a deep thought, “Nitin, for how many days are you still here? Where are you heading next?” he broke his silence with these questions.

“I have a few offers from various places… I am yet to finalize anything. I have roughly… fifty days before leaving, I guess.” Nitin replied.

For the first time during the whole conversation Mahesh looked really interested in something. Like any other Indian middle class father, he was not able to hide his exuberance he felt for his son’s success hence he asked smiling, “Oh! So, what are those offers?”

“I have…” Nitin was about to answer him when Amarendra interrupted by saying, ”Can you go with them and assist them in their work?”

“Me, Grandpa?” Nitin fumbled.

“Yes, you. Can you?” Amarendra asked again.

“What are you saying? Do you want my son to leave his flourishing career for your meaningless campaigns? How safe it is to get into all this? Ganges is depleting… what shall I do if it is depleting? How is it our concern?” Mahesh asked in a furious tone.

“No, no. He need not join us. I think we should leave”, Dr Bhoomi said, getting up quickly in order to stop the discussion.

“Mahesh, you are being rude to your father.” Lata said, displeased over her son’s behaviour.

Mahesh continued hysterically “And why do you want to grow fruits on our land now? None of us are coming back to the village to stay. Why do you still hold on to…?”

Amarendra looked at the visitors and said firmly, “No wait. You need not go anywhere.” then turned to Mahesh to reply very calmly, “Mahesh, try to look beyond the four walls of your nursing home. What kind of life are you leading? You don’t even have some spare time to think where are you heading or what is the purpose of this life…”

“Should we make a move?” Dr Satish said looking at his colleagues. They were all feeling awkward sitting there.

To which Amarendra signaled them to wait while he continued speaking to Mahesh, “If it has not bothered you before, then start thinking about it now. As per predictions, by the year 2030 India could face a major water scarcity. Around five hundred million people are still dependent on the Ganges… the river is drying during summers due to the decline of groundwater inflow. Interestingly during monsoons, a flood-like situation arises as there are scarce trees to help rainwater to seep into the ground properly. In future, these could affect food production and availability of water drastically. Think over this scenario, Mahesh. And, don’t dwell under an impression that you and your family won’t be affected by this.”

“Look back in the past, if an agriculture based economy like Indus valley civilization could crumble due to climatic changes and river changing its course, then this could happen with Gangetic civilization as well.” Nitin added.

“And, Ganges is not just depleting but changing its course too. We need trees near the banks of rivers in order to negate erosion and flooding. Unfortunately, this is the case with most of the rivers in India… they are in a pathetic state. I know, we can’t keep everything aside and jump into the cause but we shouldn’t miss an opportunity to do something which is well within our reach.” Amarendra said softly.

That night, Nitin stayed back with his grandfather. They both tossed and turned on their respective beds as deep introspection eroded sleep from their eyes and a strange silence prevailed in the room. Separately, they both were thinking about the episode that occurred in the evening. Even though Amarendra didn’t admit, but he felt disheartened at Mahesh’s behavior. On the other hand Nitin was pained to see his grandfather’s helplessness.

“In the past he has always stood by me like a rock, removing as many obstacles as possible that came my way. I know I can never repay that back but still… it’s my turn now ”, Nitin thought to himself. Nitin tried evaluating the prospects of going to Simariya even though he felt skeptical about his ability to contribute to the cause but he had blind trust on Amarendra’s conviction.

After ages, that night, he tried recalling a long forgotten poem ‘Manjil Dur Nahi Hai’ written by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, the national poet of India. Hailing from the same village as the revolutionary poet Dinkar, the stalwart and his poems created a huge impact on the personality of Amarendra. Nitin had lot of boyhood memories associated with this poem. Many a times Amarendra would quote the first few line of Dinkar’s verse when he saw Nitin demoralized in order to uplift the latter’s battered spirits. Nitin quickly went to his grandfather’s side and called out, “Grandpa, grandpa… are you awake?”

Amarendra turned towards Nitin to find him recite the poem.

“Vah Pradeep Jo Dikh Raha Hai Jhilmil, Dur Nahi Hai

Thak Kar Baith Gayae Kui Bhai, Manzil Dur Nahi hai…”

(The lamp that you see shining is not very far away; my brother, why do sit feeling dejected! the destination is not quite far away…)

Amarendra hurriedly got out of the bed and joined him in reciting the poem. After they had finished reciting those lines, tears rolled down Amarendra’s cheeks as he was overpowered with emotions. Nitin embraced him tightly and said, “I am leaving for Simariya tomorrow morning. See you soon, Grandpa.”

– By Aradhana Basu Das

Power of One – Waste Management Crusader

Akshita painting

Many moons ago on a lazy summer afternoon, while spending time on the verandah of my childhood home, I saw an elderly lady roaming in the by lanes of our sleepy neighbourhood. I vividly remember that incident even though it’s been years since then. She was holding a sack with one hand near her shoulder while balancing it comfortably on her back. The piece of cloth which was wrapped around her fragile frame looked dirty and torn from several places. She walked barefoot, while her eyes fixed on the ground as if in search of something precious. While observing her I noticed that she was picking plastic bags, packets and other trash from every possible nook and corner. My curiosity multiplied several folds as I failed to understand her reason or need to collect those items from filth. Therefore, a volley of questions forced open the floodgate of my innocent mind.

”Is she alone, with no one to take care in her twilight years?”

”How could she walk barefoot on the streets? Is the ground not hot enough?”

“Is she not feeling dirty to touch the garbage?”

I called her once she was done with collecting trash from that area and asked her why was she doing this and that too at her age. She said she had none who could take care of her and she does this for a living. As I was moved by her plight I asked my mother if we could do something for her. My mother said maybe we could collect recyclable plastics and hand it over to her when she comes. I felt good as I thought in this manner we could do our bit to help the poor lady. Initially I exhibited great enthusiasm in collecting milk packets, plastic bags and other plastic recyclables for the old lady, but the zeal gradually dipped down and therefore after sometime it became my mother’s sole responsibility to collect the trash. But I always made sure to personally hand those over to the lady. This ritual continued for a couple of years until she stopped coming. Back then I had no idea what waste management was all about. I just tried to help her out of empathy. Surprisingly, after so many years while I retrospect, I am unable to recollect studying about waste management or for that matter plastic pollution at the school. It was only while pursuing my higher studies that I got a chance to learn about hazardous nature of different types of wastes and their management. Even though I was not ignorant about the issue by then, but still I didn’t have the knowledge of what exactly needs to be done at an individual level. In our country, issues like household waste management don’t enjoy the same status as issues like pollution or deforestation, may be due to lack of awareness. It is due to this lack of awareness we are not able to comprehend a larger picture.

Last year, when the schools reopened after summer vacation, gradually the euphoria surrounding green movement mellowed out but a handful of people still continued their tryst with the garden. During those days I realised, giving shape to the garden was difficult no doubt. But maintaining it was all the more difficult as weeding continuously was quite taxing. All this time while contributing assiduously to the cause of green movement, Ratna – one of the active volunteers, had researched about the issue which is closer to her heart… Waste Management. During those weeding sessions at the garden, she discussed about it extensively and she had plans of taking that up with the society’s maintenance committee. This is an issue which has created waves in western countries, but if we say in our part of the world it has started creating ripples that would be an over statement. But still I thought it to be another great cause that was creeping into our life having a potential to mobilise the society and turn it into a great movement. Amid talks with the maintenance committee at different levels, she brought home a stack composter/khamba for her wet kitchen wastes and started collecting other recyclables; especially plastics as they take thousands of years to degrade, thus creating a menace to our environment. As per the information she gathered, it seems first of all waste needs to be segregated into kitchen and dry wastes. Secondly, almost everything under the sun could be recycled thus increasing sustainability. From a piece of paper, to shampoo bottle, to masala packet etc everything could be recycled. Interestingly, if our wastes are managed efficiently, a lot of energy could be saved. Kitchen wastes when decompose in landfills generates methane, a greenhouse gas which is 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide (another greenhouse gas). Thus, by composting her kitchen wastes at home she intended to minimise methane gas generation. And also by collecting solid wastes and sending them to recycling plants, she was able to do her bit to reduce carbon footprint.

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I am sure she must have been the only one from our society to start composting kitchen wastes and that too showing dedication in collecting recyclables to the extent of rinsing plastic pouches (from food takeaways) and keeping them aside. In spite of this, my prior experience with the green movement (as by this time I had understood what power within one person can do) did not allow me to doubt her potential to bring about change. Even a small step taken by an individual is important as it could bring about a significant change in the mindset of the society. As by seeing one individual taking the unusual path, many like minded people could get inspired to walk the same path. She had already taken the first step, thus paving way for others. According to the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: ”A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

As Ganesh Chaturthi was round the corner and lot of residents were expected to participate in the celebration, Ratna thought of promoting waste management awareness by staging a skit with the help of resident children. For days children rehearsed at Ratna’s home. She along with a few others suggested the Ganesha committee to go for eco-friendly idol instead of plaster of paris idol as the latter produces a menace to water bodies after they get immersed. Meanwhile she had prepared and laminated a few pictorial charts related to the segregation of wastes, so as to circulate the pictures in various whatsapp groups within the society. On her request, the committee agreed to put a stack composter/khamba near the Ganesh pandal so as to make manure by composting flowers which were offered to Ganesha. And later the manure could be spread in our gardens. She volunteered to bring the composters. As we too wanted to bring home a composter, we accompanied her in order to bring the composters together. As per one’s family size one can choose the size of the composter, but we went for a big one. One set of stack composter comprises of three terracotta vessels. Which should be placed one above the other.

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We were coming home with two sets, so there were six vessels in all to load in the car. A couple of them were placed in the dicky and rest others had to be adjusted on the rear seat of the car. I vividly remember our journey back home. The earthen vessels took the side seats near the windows while Ratna sat in the middle of the rear seat, right on the edge with her son on her lap. I quickly clicked couple of pictures, and she sportingly obliged me with a smile. I don’t have an idea how she managed to sit like that for so long. While coming back home, I wondered if they were feeling claustrophobic, being packed from all around with no space to breath. We asked them repeatedly, if they were alright, and to my surprise, the smile on Ratna’s lips was able to belie the discomfort she was in. I was awed by her humbleness. After some time I sat silently as we drove back home… watching the branches of the trees crossing by, the clouds wandering in the sky, while watching them… slowly my thoughts too drifted to a situation which involved Ratna and her sons. During the green movement days by any chance if her kids missed out the morning session at the garden, she made sure that they made up for it later in the day. Very quietly, three of them tilled the soil, weeding a patch of land under the scorching sun. They just went about with their duty without being noticed by most of us. Honestly, it would be incorrect if I say I didn’t take a leaf out of her book in parenting. I wonder if these virtues of discipline, dutifulness, punctuality and humility were due to her upbringing or due to her association with armed forces. The age in which we live, we are habituated to see the world around us preoccupied with the notion of self projections. If one meets a person who is not shouting from the rooftop and going about the task in a low profile manner, this certainly comes as a sweet surprise.

The skit on waste management was conducted on eighth day of Ganesh Chaturthi. While Ratna anchored the act, the children nailed it in conveying a strong message regarding eco-friendly idols, and the need for waste management, landfill menace, plastic pollution and health hazards due to plastics through their short but informative act. After the skit, Ratna took to the center stage and delivered a thought provoking speech.

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“Ladies and gentlemen hope you enjoyed the skit. Could we please have a round of applause for this splendid performance.” The atmosphere got filled with loud clapping and cheering. After a pause, Ratna resumed again. “I think the kids were able to create an awareness about the hazardous nature of plastics and the need for recycling them. So I need not go deep into that but all I would like to tell is that please keep this in mind – Earth is the only planet which is presently habitable for human race and other living beings. Colonising somewhere in outer space still seems like a distant dream. And even if that becomes a possibility, is there a guarantee that our children’s future family members would be able to make it to a safe place? So for most of our children and their future families this planet is the only place where they can live. It would be quite unfortunate if our future generations have to face the consequences of our irresponsible behavior. Obviously, we don’t want them to suffer due to our ignorance and recklessness. Besides we could save our resources by adopting sustainability principle, i.e., by reducing, reusing and recycling our wastes. So dear residents, please start segregating your wet/ kitchen wastes and dry wastes. This is the first and the most important step. If it is feasible for you, you could use a composter at home just as I am doing. I had a word with one of the organizations which collects trash and send those to various recycling units. Every alternate Sundays, they are expected to send their representative to our society. We can give away the recyclables, especially plastics to them. Let us all join hands in the mission to hand over a better earth to our future generations. I request you to spread this information to others in the society. So two weeks from now we will all meet near the central park with our trash. Thank you.”

Ratna left the stage amid roars and cheers. As we were getting late for dinner, holding my little one’s hand I quickly left for home. Somehow, Ratna’s words were hovering in my mind, striking me where it hurts or matters the most… my child, her future family. I pledged to do whatever I could, even if that meant walking an extra mile, so as to leave my child comparatively a safer and healthier place to live in. After that Ratna did not sit quietly. Instead, she mediated a few meetings between the residents and the organization which was suppose to collect our recyclables. Apart from this, she along with a few others campaigned and conducted meetings with the women folks at their residence, so as to spread awareness for the cause. Besides, she repeatedly showed her stack composter/khamba to the interested residents at her home and discussed and demonstrated how to do composting so as to spread maximum awareness.

After two weeks the recycling guys came at the appointed time, to collect our trash. While walking with the recyclables towards the central park, a strange nostalgia overpowered me. After so many years I could feel the same enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment that I felt during my childhood days, while handing over plastic bags to the old lady. While glancing at the bags I realized that over the years our plastic usage had increased manifolds. I could see so many packets in the sack which were used to pack different items. The packaging of food items have changed over the years. When we were kids, the local grocer would use old papers and jute strings to pack things. I remember my mother and grandmother stitching cloth bags out of old and used clothes, to be carried by my father and grandfather to the market. Those days we did not have online grocery stores sending us vegetables in separate plastic bags. Instead, vegetables of all kinds would come in a single cloth bag to be segregated and kept in the refrigerator later. Years ago, neither the spices came in plastic packets nor juices came in tetra packs. I remember the grocer used to pack pulses and other items in paper pouches which were handmade out of used papers. But slowly, the polythene bags replaced the paper pouches. Interestingly, our previous generation reused every ounce of resources that were available instead of throwing away things instantly. And recyclables were kept aside to be given to the scrap collector. Ironically, the world has come up with the concept of sustainability or waste hierarchy, i.e., reduce, reuse and recycle. But our progenitors without knowing much about the three ‘R’ had adopted a lifestyle which implemented the same.

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Once I reached the stall, I figured out that around only 20 odd families had come down to give away their trash so far. Strangely, after all the effort that Ratna had put in, the turnover was very low. May be their mind was still bogged down in the narrow by lanes of present. Thus, they couldn’t fathom an obvious catastrophe in future. As a result, they thought this activity of segregating and bring wastes to the recycling van to be an unnecessary affair. But Ratna, as much as I could study her, is certainly not one of those who would give up easily. The biggest challenge that posed in front of her was to convince people to segregate their kitchen wastes from the dry wastes and come down to the recycling stall. For the next couple of months, she came up with one innovative idea after another to lure as many people as possible into this. Every time, she would surprise me with her courage to proceed alone with minimal support. She brimmed with resolve and optimism which helped her to bounce back with one innovative idea after another. She excelled in understanding the situation and was able to read the resident’s mind and accordingly chalk out her next plan of action. For instance, she understood that if children were made the target audience, they could be moulded easily as their young impressionable minds would be more receptive. After all, it was their future that we were talking about. In Spite of her busy schedule, she managed to take out time to plan and make arrangements for for events that she wanted to conduct. Of course, a few people helped her. But honestly, their support was just like a few drops of water in the ocean. But I never found her complaining. Instead, she acknowledged whatever help she received and moved on. On some days, she would arrange for an open air film show for the kids. The film depicting the ill effects of plastic in our lives, water bodies aquatic life etc. Then post film session, she would again tell the children what to collect for recycling and also asked the children to inform their parents about the same. There were occasions when she would conduct painting competition having waste management as a topic or conducted cleanliness drives on weekends for interested grown ups and children. Which was then followed by breakfast for the children, sponsored by the green movement fund.

To me, involving children in this mission proved to be master stroke for her as the children were able to understand the need to dispose plastic in a better manner and inculcate the habit of sending them to the right place. I have heard about instances where children acted like her, holding a pen in a similar way as she would hold a microphone while talking, talking like her while playing pretend games. She became an inspiration, a role model for many children in the society. A few children without feeling awkward, at the drop of a hat, would pick up plastics from common areas and throw them in trash cans. Interestingly they were the same people who had a habit of throwing chocolate wrapper on the floor, at their home. Ratna was able to influence and mould them positively. Hopefully, these children would be able to resist feeling awkward or inhibited in doing the same thing when they grow up.

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The numbers definitely increased after all the efforts that Ratna had put in. But it was still a long way to go. The state government in the meantime had started taking segregation of wastes more seriously. As a result, we were given instructions to strictly adhere to segregation and disposals of wet and dry wastes. Actually, it becomes practically difficult for the garbage pickers to manually separate these wastes if given together. It is such a shame for us as a society if we are insensitive to the plight of the garbage pickers. Moreover, we don’t even realize that we are sitting on a time bomb which would explode anytime. Already scientists are confirming that we are heading into a mass extinction comparable to the ones which made Dinosaurs extinct. The difference this time is – this event is man made. Meanwhile Ratna had met the municipal commissioner at his office to ensure the authenticity of the claim of correct waste disposal/ management by the government. On her request, the commissioner had send the medical officer to engage in informative discussions with us about the health hazards and other issues. After all these efforts that she had taken, now we need not come up to the recycling van. Instead, we could give away the segregated wastes at our own door steps as the garbage collector would bring separate baskets for our wet and dry wastes.

In these few months, she was able to accomplish substantially. Ratna has no intention to sit on her laurels. Instead, her trials and tribulations with the cause still continues. Her contributions are priceless. Even though she struggled to hold her ground, she never gave up. She took up an issue which did not have much takers but still fought hard to uphold it. She never waited for a whole lot of people to support her (even though she would have loved it that way), but she did not hesitate to embark on a journey less preferred; with her conviction and strength of character to give her company. In other words, her initiative was able to create ripples locally, and maybe someday these ripples would become bigger waves thrusting their way to virgin shores. Many of us would say that Ratna is an exception. But honestly, each one of us have the same inner strength and indomitable spirit which could help us to rise to the occasion and achieve what the soul strives for. We just have to tell ourselves “to arise, awake and stop not till we reach our goal”.

– Aradhana Basu Das