On Republic Day in Delhi, we celebrate being citizens of the world’s largest democracy in many different ways. The glitterati have long boozy lunches in the sun, the children organise flag-hoisting in their local parks, and so on.
As I watch the sale of plastic tricolours reach its final frenzy, all I can think of is the family of carpetbaggers I met in Chhattisgarh early this month. Their worldly belongings fit into three small bundles; they’d never voted in an election or been to school or a mall or a metro.
When they lived, they existed on the unseen fringes of society. When they died, they died unsung.
A bunch of nomads from Jaunpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh spent their lives traipsing from village to village selling homemade medicines. I saw them walking into Chorbhatti village, about 10 children and three small bundles in hand. Two women walked ahead with long poles, while a man rode ahead on a motorcycle.
An hour later, when I passed them again, the poles and bundles had miraculously expanded into two tents. A pot was already simmering over a freshly made hearth. The children gathered around us when they noticed our interest, and a woman nursing a newborn called out to us, “Whether it is impotence or gas you suffer from, we have remedies for everything!”
All I suffered from, I said, was curiosity. They invited me into their tent, laid out with fresh straw. The head of the family was Rahim Khan, a traditional doctor who made fresh medicines for all sorts of ailments.
“We’ve been on the road for the last seven months,” he said, “and have reached Chorbhatti via villages in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.” He said villages of central India still welcomed itinerants and allowed them to camp.
“Since we always camp in fixed villages, people know us and throng to us for medicines,” Rahim said. A ready market and salubrious climate brought them back, year after year, to Chhattisgarh in winter.
His wife Fatima, the lady with the newborn, was his compounder. “I grind and mix all our medicines, their recipes would be worth lakhs to pharma companies but we’ll never sell them,” said she.
The couple had 10 children, ranging from newborn to 14. “Our eldest son is in Jaunpur with his grandparents. The others travel with us,” said Rahim. What about their education, I asked. “School is useless!” he laughed, “I just want these children to learn the tricks of our trade!”
Fatima’s face clouded. “But nomadic life can be harsh on children!” said she. They’d lost four children in infancy, the last one having died three weeks ago. “He just succumbed to fever,” said she. Did they take him to the hospital, I asked. “Hospitals don’t treat us, since we have no identification,” said Rahim.
“We just gave our own medicines but they didn’t work.” Just when Rahim was burying his son, Fatima delivered another boy in their tent. “Allah always gives back what he takes away!” said she.
“The nomadic tradition is centuries-old, yet people like you haven’t a clue about it!” The government could help, they felt, by providing hostel facilities for their children. “And if we at least had identification cards, we could get rations and go to government hospitals.” said Fatima wistfully. “Also, the government would be forced to recognise us.”
That is why as India displays it’s civic and military might this January 26, I’m haunted by the faces of those carpetbaggers from Jaunpur, just waiting for the country to acknowledge their existence.