Monday, June 8, 2009

Meghwalon ki Dhani


"I take to work?" the rickshaw driver asked. "I'm going to the Veerni project, just up the road, same place as yesterday," I told him. After a few violent pulls of the starter cord, the three-wheeler burped to life and we were off.

The Veerni headquarters sits in an alley surrounded mostly by shops selling reproductions of Mughal antiques. Outside the front gate a Brahman cow sat drooling, lazily chewing its cud. I could hear, and smell, a few pigs foraging for edible trash in the empty lot across the street. The field team, whom I had met the previous day, was already loading supplies into the jeep when I arrived.

After a quick stop at a mango stall on our way out of town we continued towards the village of Meghwalon ki Dhani. There was Rashmi, the nutritionist, the driver, and three others whose names I immediately forget each time I am told. Two of my nameless coworkers are nurses while the third is more of an office guy (I'm not yet exactly sure what he does). Rashmi speaks perfect English. Office guy speaks broken English. The others speak Marwari Hindi, the language of Rajasthan.

As we progressed further from the city center it wasn't just the road that became more primitive. Pants were replaced by lengths of white fabric gently wrapped around the slender waists of turban wearing men. Rickshaws became fewer and in their place, camel-drawn bullock carts. The drive itself was very nerve wracking. The broken road was barely the width of our car. Our driver, as well as the other passengers, seemed unphased by the repeated games of "chicken" that our jeep played with huge, gas-guzzling lorries. I would watch in horror/fascination as these trucks bore down on us head on, until at the last moment, when I could see the squished bugs in the radiators of these monstrosities, both drivers would veer off onto the dirt shoulders, invariably jolting us out of sweat soaked seats. I very quickly came to appreciate the unwavering Hindu belief of instant reincarnation.

The landscape grew increasingly arid. Lush banyan trees shriveled into drab stand-alone bushes. Rock and dirt turned to sand and dust. The only trace of color seemed to be an occasional flash of opal as a peacock darted across the road ahead. As we curved around blind corners and twisted through small villages, did our driver flinch or slow down? Hell no! He rolled up his sleeves, wiped his brow, and parked his elbows on the car horn, confident that any man, woman, or bovine would have enough sense to get out of our way. I concluded that if we spoke the same language we would be very good friends, the driver and I.

An hour into the journey we suddenly took a sharp left and were no longer on a road. Ten minutes later, horn blaring and trailed by a cloud of dust, we rolled into Meghwalon ki Dhani. The purpose of our visit was to draw blood from participants in the anemia eradication program which was implemented six months ago. We set up a medical station in a small stone and mortar hut and soon, about forty women and children had congregated in and around the building. Awe-struck and wide eyed, some children curiously approached me while others hid between their mothers' legs, burying their innocent faces in colorful saris. Many of the women, in traditional Hindu fashion, hid their faces behind veils of silky, translucent fabric. It was not until the following day that I would learn that many of the villagers had never before seen a "foreignee."


Initially I sensed that some of the people there were wary of my presence, however, any tensions that existed seemed to be dissolved when I brought out my digital camera. The ability to take a photo and then instantly show the person the result made them giddy with excitement and soon they were elbowing each other for the chance to have their picture taken. More than a few people rushed back to their homes only to return wearing their best trousers or saris. There was one girl in particular who I could not stop taking pictures of. She appeared to be about ten years old, however, I am sure that she was older. It is startling how effectively malnourishment can disguise a child's age. She was breathtakingly beautiful, yet there was a sadness about her. She didn't smile like the rest of the children...I loved her for that. I resented myself for not being able to talk to her; for not being able to gain some of the relative wisdom that undoubtedly results from having lived a life 1,000 times harder than my own.


Amid the smiling faces, groping hands, and indecipherable chirpings of Marwari that enveloped me, a soft voice suddenly rose above the rest: "What is your good name, sir?" Before me stood a good looking young man who I presumed to be about eighteen years old. Not even five feet tall, his knees were bowed awkwardly to shoulder width. I would later learn that he was an unfortunate victim of polio, an archaic disease which has been eradicated in nearly every country in the world except for India. He told me his name was Dinesh and that, because he attend a school for the handicapped in Jodhpur, he was the only person in his village who spoke English. He asked me if I would like to see his home..."of course," I said, and we set off shuffling slowly down the village's only dirt street. "You see that man?" he asked, pointing towards an eighty-something year old man sitting cross legged under the shade of a thorny desert tree. "He is afraid of you. He remember British white saheb come loot village long time past." Cringing at this revelation, I smiled generously at the man, and said "Namaskar saheb (hello sir)" as I passed by. Before we reached Dinesh's hut, a young boy trotted up to us and said something in Marwari. "Your Veerni is time to be leaving," said Dinesh. "You see to my home tomorrow," he stated in a matter of fact tone, as I turned and began to walk back towards the jeep.

On the way back to Jodhpur our car blew a tire. I immediately jumped out and, ignoring the nurses' anguished pleas to remain in the car, helped the driver change the tire. I could have rid the entire country of polio and not gained the respect that I did with that small gesture. From that moment on the women of the field team, Rashmi says, have referred to me as "their son."


  1. Love the photos. They are almost as colorful as your descriptions.