I know something about such stories. They thrill me, they give me goose pimples, and then they fill me with despair. Because they are also a commentary, says Dilip D'Souza about one such story.
Hi, my name is Bhanuprasad. I'm 28, and I live in a remote village called Lakhanpur, in the central part of the state of Chhattisgarh. I want to sketch for you a scene I was part of, one day about a year ago.
I'm drenched. I'm with nearly two dozen fellow villagers and we're all drenched, and that's not just because it is raining steadily, heavily. No, we're soaking really because we're all crossing a river together, wading across its 80 metre width on foot and the stones underfoot are sharp and the water is up to our shoulders and necks and, in places, is flowing fast enough to make us stumble on the stones.
I worry about us stumbling. Because what we're doing together is, we're ferrying a string cot across the river. On that cot is my wife, Sarita, and two other people.
Imagine, finally, that it is past midnight, so dark that I cannot see the person next to me.
Would you blame me for thinking, somewhere in the middle of that river: what the hell am I doing? What did I do to get myself into this situation?
Though I know just what I did, of course. Sarita is pregnant for the first time.
Only a few hours earlier, I had come home through the unceasing rain, drenched and hungry. Sarita was cooking dinner for us. She was rolling chapattis, I remember, when she felt the wetness on her legs. Her due date was still 2 weeks away, so she didn't think much of it. But when she felt some more wetness, she turned and shouted: "Listen to me, it's the water! It's the water! Go get Rajmani!"
Rajmani is our village health worker. I found her at home and together, we ran back to Sarita. Rajmani examined her and said: "It's going to happen, and very soon!"
Soon after that, Sarita's pains began. She pushed and panted and pushed some more, and at about 9:30 that night, our first born, a wailing little boy, was born. But there was no time to stop to look at him. We knew we were expecting twins, so even after he was born, Sarita had to keep pushing. Rajmani encouraged her, Sarita pushed some more, and this went on for over an hour. But our second little baby just would not emerge.
By 11, Sarita was exhausted and couldn't push any more. That's when Rajmani said, "We have to get her to Ganiyari!"
Ganiyari is where the JSS hospital is, two hours away when it's dry. So when Rajmani said the word, my first thought was, the river! It's been raining nonstop for weeks now, the heaviest monsoon we've had for 30 or 40 years, and the Maniyari river is full like I've never seen it. To get to Ganiyari, we have to first cross the river. What will we do?
But we'd have to answer that later. Now, Rajmani pulled out her phone and called the doctor, waking him up at home. I could hear his voice in the phone, saying, Go get several of the villagers! Use their help and get her across the river. I'll arrange for the ambulance to meet you on the other side.
Rajmani looked at me. It was hard to leave Sarita, but we both raced out of the house and around the village, knocking on doors and waking up several neighbours. In 15 minutes, about 20 of them were assembled outside. Sarita lay down on a cot. With her were two others: My son who was already born lying beside her, my son who was struggling to be born lying inside her. We lifted them and started the trek to the river, about 2 km away. It was close to midnight and pouring. It was completely dark.
We reached the river. The villagers waded into the water and formed two lines that stretched to the other bank. We passed the cot from hand to hand overhead, all the way across. Everyone was shouting instructions, but I could hear Sarita's voice, quietly murmuring prayers.
On the other side, the ambulance was waiting. It took us well over an hour to reach Ganiyari. A little after 3 in the morning, they did an operation. Our second son was born.
***All right, now I'm Dilip D'Souza again. This is a true story. It happened on a rainy Thursday night in September last year. Five days after that, on the next Tuesday afternoon, I was at the same Maniyari river, wading across. The rain had slowed over the weekend, so the water was only thigh deep, sometimes up to my waist, but it was still swift and about 50 or 60 metres across.
Somewhere in the middle, struggling to keep my balance in the current, wincing with the sharp stones slicing at my bare feet, trying to follow instructions and not look at the flowing water so I would not get dizzy, carrying two heavy bags on my back, but at least I wasn't helping ferry a cot with a pregnant woman on it in the middle of the night -- somewhere in the middle of the Maniyari, I asked myself, what the hell am I doing.
And then I thought of Bhanuprasad and Sarita.
I had met her in the hospital in Ganiyari the morning after her sons were born, lying in a bed in the ward and smiling weakly as she recounted what had happened. I thought, what a fantastic story. What an affirmation of life and the human spirit. What a testament to courage and willpower and the goodwill of neighbours.
And yet, and yet. Having heard several, by now I know something about such stories. They thrill me, they give me goose pimples, and then they fill me with despair. Because they are also a commentary.
For Lakhanpur and many other villages in that part of Chhattisgarh, a weekly outreach clinic in a village called Bamhni is the only access they have to health care. That, and their village health workers, trained in the basics of health.
Both the clinic and the training sessions are operated by the hospital in Ganiyari, itself started and run by a doctor's collective called the Jan Swasthya Sahyog. It is the only hospital in a vast area, attracting patients who travel, sometimes, 200 km to get there.
Every Tuesday, a jeep brings the Ganiyari team -- doctors, technicians and training staff with plenty of equipment -- to Bamhni. In the dry season, they simply drive across the Maniyari river bed. When there's been a spell of heavy rain, the jeep stops at river's edge, everybody wades across and walks the rest of the way.
That's what we did when I went with them that Tuesday.
And we had to make it across that day, because the previous Tuesday, the river was so swollen that, for the first time in eight years, the team had to turn back and the clinic did not operate. Patients who had come to Bamhni on foot and bicycle, from as far away as 25km, had to wait a week for the next clinic.
Two nights after that, Bhanuprasad and several of his friends from Lakhanpur carried his pregnant wife over. There's a commentary there, I promise you.
***Why am I telling you this story? Partly, it's because I think about the only thing I'm any good at is telling stories, and trying to tease out their larger lessons.
Which might have once been a strange thing to say, because I'm a trained engineer and computer scientist, and I think I wasn't bad at software. But I'm a writer today, and I'm sometimes asked, usually with a wrinkled nose: Software? Writing? What happened, dude? Yet to me, it always seemed like a logical transition. The skills I learned in computer science -- thinking clearly and precisely, getting to the core of things -- serve me well in my writing. Or at least, I like to think so.
And so this story. Because this is why I write what I write. Something about the story itself, about its lessons, about learning more all the time about where I live, about that strange bond between goose pimples and despair, about the realisation that India shining is uninteresting, but India real is absolutely the most fascinating country in the world -- about, above all, finding ways to give you who listen to me stuff to think about: something about all that touches me somewhere deep.
And I don't know why, but in the middle of a river with the water up to my thighs, struggling for balance, I think of those things.
Dilip D'Souza delivered this talk at TEDxCharminar in Hyderabad recently.
For earlier columns by Mr D'Souza, please click here.