Ramesh and Shenba were in boundless joy when they received the official letter from the Department of Poverty Alleviation, Government of India.
‘Shenba, only five persons from India have got this opportunity. This is a great recognition for your poem. This is the first time the Department has arranged for such an overseas study tour of this kind,’ said Ramesh beaming.
It was around the year 1994 when the poverty-stricken African nation Rwanda was witnessing its worst drought and ethnic strife which resulted in people dying en masse.
Shenba was upbeat about the visit to Rwanda, but was worried about leaving her breast fed little baby behind.
‘No, Ramesh. Our dear little Viji is more important than this opportunity,’ Shenba said having her priorities.
Ramesh finally came up with a solution. He said, ‘Okay, Shenba. I shall also travel with you and take care of our child.’
Shenba arrived at New Delhi. It was a good experience meeting Dr. Johny Edward, Secretary of the Department of Poverty Alleviation, Government of India, at an event organised prior to her leaving for Rwanda.
Shenba, a twenty-four year old poetess from Tamilnadu, Jharna, a journalist from Gujarat, Diwakar, a Maharashtrian artist, Rupa Kohli, a Bengali writer and Punith, a photographer from Karnataka, were attentively listening to Dr. Edward.
‘My dear young aspirants, all five of you are selected to visit Rwanda representing our country.
I have a request. Your reports on the dismal situation there should help the people of that country to get more assistance from other countries. Please observe how the tradition and culture of that country were ruined prior to ethnic strife and drought. Also note how other countries have had their grip over them. In addition, before returning, please find out whether the famine is the outcome of any of their Government’s wrong policies. More importantly, after your return from Rwanda, please use your creative skills to point out the omissions and commissions of that country so that our people can learn from them,’ briefed Dr. Johny.
The five were happy to see such a good-hearted officer with progressive thinking in our self-centered society.
Later, turning to Shenba, Dr. Johny Edward remarked, ‘Are you Shenba? Our minister liked your poem “Howl of the fox in the grave”.’
Shenba was on cloud nine. She recollected her poem.
Oh! Super Power countries!
You boast yourselves the most powerful;
Grabbing the riches of the poor counterparts,
you became rich!
Till such time comes, there is no poor in the world,
Your very bragging as ‘super power’ is but
The howl of the fox in the grave!
Later Dr. Johny gave them a ceremonial send-off to Rwanda like an elated king directing his trustworthy soldiers to the war front.
Alighting from an old plane in Rwanda, the five were awe-struck by the ghastly feeling, wondering whether it was a warfield or a graveyard?
On the first day, the five visited the spot. They saw people standing in queue even for a few drops of water and a few slices of bread. Among them were some weaker ones, who unable to (with) stand, swooned and lost consciousness. Others in the queue became eager to get the additional share of their fallen brethren into their kitty.
The weak cattle were lying with their heads on the ground. Oh! They were mere skeletons now, no longer livestock. Until now they were ‘just live’ yet remained as ‘stock’.
These were the heart rending scenes.… Rupa took photographs, Jharna jotted down notes in her laptop, Diwakar sketched, Punit videographed.
Unable to bear the reality, Shenba sat down in distress. ‘Shenba, don’t become emotional. Job first. Pity later,’ Punit said.
They then travelled by an old car and visited another village which was in a much more despicable condition. There they saw dogs, all frail and bony with no trace of flesh, barking feebly and announcing the arrival of these foreigners.
Some human faces from the huts meekly peeked outside anticipating some food from these visitors. These very people were also being watched by a vulture afar as its potential prey.
The visitors saw nothing but some dead wood, hot sands, and burning of dead bodies by a multinational company at a distance.
‘If the dead bodies are not burnt, the living bodies may catch up diseases, won’t they? That MNC is doing a marvellous job,’ said Punit.
Diwakar sketched a full picture of the burning process in just ten minutes. However, it flashed to Shenba about what was happening really there and she recorded it in her poem!
Bucks out of Bones
Why are these companies in such a hurry
To burn dead bodies?
Is it under the guise of burning the skin,
To make bucks out of bones?
There were many imported cars sporting big banners.
‘Rupa, we should talk to a few people here and record their sufferings,’ said Diwakar.
A local person who accompanied them translated their questions. Jharna, biting a chocolate, positioned her camera. Punit hid himself and drank a little water.
‘Why this drought? Why were there ethnic fights killing millions of people? How many days have they been without food? Why does not the local Government take the necessary steps?’ were the questions put forth by the other four.
Shenba neither liked to be there nor did she go away. She sat in a corner with a saddened heart. She was pondering over what Swami Vivekananda had proclaimed, ‘As long as even a stray dog of my country remains without food, my religion will be to feed and take care of it.’
Others thought she was merely emotional. Jharna took a photo of Shenba. Soon they called her, ‘Come on, Shenba.’
All of them moved to the next site. People were seen lying haphazardly in their huts. Rupa turned her face away to avoid seeing them. Jharna hesitated to drink water in their presence. Punit had already spat out the chewing gum. All the four got into their duties seriously.
Suddenly Rupa screamed, ‘Oh God! Come, all of you! Look at this horrible scene.’
Looking at it, Diwakar thought it was a ‘good piece for drawing’. Jharna hurriedly started typing on her laptop. Punit positioned the camera. It suddenly became dark. Was even the Sun God afraid to see this sight?
A woman with a puny body and disproportionately large head was lying on the ground, as if a skeleton was covered with a plastic sheet. Her baby, wailing for milk, was desperately biting her breast. Oh! The baby’s tender lips were smeared with B.L.O.O.D!
The baby was crying, but the mother was lying like a dead log, utterly helpless.
Looking at this from a distance, Shenba came running with a distressed mind. Seeing Shenba rushing, Rupa thought, ‘Oh! What is this “hyper sensitive” going to do now?’
Screaming and with tears, Shenba rushed to the spot, took the baby in her hand and placed it on her lap. She wiped the baby’s blood-stained mouth with a motherly caress. Astounded, the rest of the ‘live-skeletons’ there also opened their eyes wide and looked at this unbelievable scene. Unable to control her trembling body, Shenba turned to the other side and started breast feeding the baby herself!
The baby started gulping the milk. A drop of nectar in a desert!
Jharna and Rupa gently touched her shoulder in appreciation. All the four wiped the tear off their eyes. Punit opened his water bottle for the baby’s mother.
Rupa Kohli depicted the heartening scene through a beautiful Bengali poem:
Friend! You showed what a Living Poem is!
Great thought expressed in noble action makes great poetry!
We are accustomed in writing rhymes for story,
You taught us candid feeling makes history.