In times of pestilence and hunger

In times of pestilence and hunger

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

In a moving poem called’ Grandfather’ Jayant Mahapatra writes,

The yellowed diary notes whisper in vernacular

They spun the forgotten posture

The cramped cry that forces me hear the voice

Now I stumble in your black-paged wake.

He noted that his grandfather Chintamani Mahapatra, starving, and on the point of death, had abandoned his faith during the terrible famine that struck Odisha in 1866.

That was the start of the spate of famines three years running that were to lay the state devastated. The great Odisha Famine of 150 years ago resulted in the death of a million people, and it formed a ponderous start of formulating an official response to major calamities that had been occurring during the British regime in India. The Famine Commission Report of 1867 and the Indian Famine Code of 1880 were considered part of the relief and welfare measures that were formulated to address the countless human loss of lives caused by famines, food scarcity, starvation, epidemics and malnutrition. It was argued that such historical episodes, like the 1866 famine as well as the Paika Rebellion of 1817, should be viewed, in typical bureaucratese, as a ‘process’ rather than simply as an ‘event’. Process or event, or whatever caused which, the result has been suffering on a massive, sub-continental scale that can never be assessed or quantified in terms of suffering or trauma. Their effects linger for generations in stunted growth and debilities.

However, the real cause of the famine invariably lies in the state's indifference and insensitivity to the people's needs and its disregard for their institutions that used to, among other things, regulate the use of the environment.

For example, Kalahandi in Odisha was an agriculturally surplus district even up to the early 1960s and the people there used to grow two paddy crops a year and in some places, even three. During the Bengal famine of 1943, rice was sent to neighbouring Bengal from here. Recurring droughts in a district like Kalahandi, once considered Odisha’s rice bowl, certainly drive home the urgent need to rethink the centralised development protocols of the larger Indian state and its overall centralised planning.

These famine-prone districts in Bihar and Odisha had at one time been heavily forested. This humid green cover led to showers almost daily, keeping the region moist and cool. The monsoon in the region has not reduced considerably, but with the forests gone, the micro-climate has been altered totally.In Bengal, 30 years after that 1866 famine, a Muslim devotee, the landlord (zamindar) of village Eroani in Kaandi sub-division of Murshidabad, wrote a touching letter to Swami Akhandananda (Baba) to say that ‘their daughter-in-law had suddenly passed away and the bereavement had cast a gloom upon the family. If someone from his ashram would visit them at this time, they would regain their peace of mind’. Baba was very much moved and he said; ‘Ah, he is shocked very much by the bereavement in his old age. He saw me 40 years ago only once, during the famine of 1897, and still writes letters to me, in a literary style. Once he wrote, ‘I meditate on you; thus I train my power of mind.’ He is a wonderful type of devotee. He does not want to see me now. He writes, ‘The form of a young sanyasi is still embedded in my mind and that is enough for me. I do not want to see you old.’

During his itinerant, wandering days, this disciple of Ramakrishna, like Swami Vivekananda, was passing through Murshidabad when he saw a five-year-old girl, her head covered with a scarf, crying. She had dropped a few grains of rice she was carrying. He took the girl to a shop and bought her some grains. A few yards ahead he saw another girl in the same plight. That was the beginning of the Murshidabad famine. He abandoned all plans of pursuing the Ganga parikrama (circumambulation) and settled there to organise the relief work. That was the image that the Zamindar had mentioned, about a sadhu with a green bandana going all over the place day and night organising relief work. The Baba was to set up one of the biggest orphanages in that region.

The Bengal famine of 1943 has been well chronicled and studied in detail, primarily by Dr. Amartya Sen, but also by many others. In a graphic account of the conditions, one of them an artist Chittoprosad, in a book Hungry Bengal, had described his tour of Midnapur district during that time. ‘In the crowded railway compartment, the daily scenes on Calcutta’s pavements kept coming back in my mind – the procession of famished, helpless living skeletons that once formed Bengal’s village society - fishermen, boatmen, potters, weavers, whole families of them; the five corpses that I counted one morning in the short stretch of road between Amherst Street and Sealdah station; and all other gruesome sights which had become a part of everyday life in the city.

‘It was a difficult job to get into the boat at the Panchmile Ghat ferry on account of the crowd of destitute which had collected there. Most of them were potters. We saw a number of them picking out grains that had dropped on the mud from a passing cart. As soon as I got down from the bus a girl of six or seven threw herself at my feet’. It was the same story everywhere. Starvation, mass migration, and sale of children seem to be the order of the day. That book was banned by the British.

Reporting on the migrants trekking to their villages during the current lockdown, two intrepid media persons narrate almost the same kind of stories, in as graphic detail. They describe of the stoicism of the young families and the unfamiliar landscape and the response of the local people and the script has not changed over the decades despite all the developments and advances that had been made, the strides the country had taken. The substance remains the same, and the plight of the potter and the weaver is the exact replica of what the Baba saw or the artist had sketched.

But is not all bleakness alone. There have been redeeming and heartwarming episodes also in the current scenario. The thanksgiving motorcycle ride that the Delhi Police conducted around a gurudwara in Delhi for the wonderful work they had been doing in sheltering and feeding about 50, 000 migrant workers for a whole month has been touching. As also the showering of petals from helicopters on the heroic work that the medical personnel have been doing without caring for their own safety or their families has been equally moving.

Irrespective of who is at the helm or what kind of strategies had been chalked out on the sixth floor of the red sandstone building of the Raj edifice or at the ground level to tackle this pandemic, it had always been the rural and simple village folk that had rallied to the help of even strangers in times of calamity.

The migrants who had been on the road for weeks on account of the lockdown that had been imposed all of a sudden must certainly have been fed and sheltered by complete strangers on the way to their villages. Despite all the cynicism and callousness and the occasional explosion into violence that we are witness to, and the mischief played by warped minds, Col. Sleeman’s impression of the Indian countryside noted a century ago seems to apply even now.

This British soldier and administrator, best known for his suppressing of the organised crime gangs called Thuggees in the 1830s, recalls that in the famine of 1833 in Bundelkhand he had seen at Sagar, ‘mothers as they lay in the streets unable to walk, were holding their infants, and imploring the passing stranger to take them in slavery, that they might at least live – hundreds were seen creeping into gardens, courtyards, and old ruins , concealing themselves under shrubs, grass, mats, or straw, where they might die quietly, without having their bodies torn by birds and beasts before the breath has left them. Respectable families, who left home in search of the favoured land of Malwa, while yet a little property remained , finding all exhausted, took opium rather than beg, and husband and wife , and children died in each other’s arms. Still more of such families lingered on in the hope till all had been expended; then shut their doors , took poison and died all together , rather than expose their misery, and submit to the degradation of begging. All that I have myself known and seen and, in the midst of these and a hundred other harrowing scenes which present themselves on such occasions, the European cannot fail to remark the patient resignation with which these poor people submit themselves to their fate and the absence of almost all those revolting acts which have characterized the famines of which we have read in other countries – such as the living feeding on the dead and the mothers devouring their own children. No such things were witnessed in Indian famines. Here all who suffer attribute the disaster as its real cause, the want of rain in due season; and indulge in no hatred against their rulers, superiors or the more fortunate ones in society who happen to live beyond the range of such calamities. They gratefully receive the superfluities which the favoured are always ready to share with the afflicted in India, though their sufferings often subdue the strongest pride, they rarely ever drive the people to acts of violence. The stream of emigration, guided as it is always by that of the agricultural produce flowing in from more favoured countries must necessarily concentrate upon the communities along the line it takes a greater number of people than they have the means of relieving, however benevolent their dispositions; and I must say that I have never either seen or read of a nobler spirit that seems to animate all these communities in India on such distressing occasions.'

Mahapatra’s poem ends this way

The imperishable that swung your broken body,

turned it inside out. What did faith matter?

What Hindu world so ancient and true for you to hold?

Uneasily you dreaded toward the centre of your web.

Nothing much has changed; neither faith, nor the cruelty or harshness of the elements. You are resigned to your fate and trudge your way to the dreaded unknown.