I Double-Dog Dare You…
Recently some government officials came to the Leprosy Village. Budhu Mahato, being responsible for everyone’s well-being, was who they’d come to address. The officials said that they would knock down the men’s quarters and build a new building for them. They’d come to run this idea by Budhu to see what they could do.
After hearing their proposal Budhu walked away for a moment to gather all of the villagers, and soon their group was assembled before the two government officials. Budhu stepped forward:
“Ok, now go ahead and shoot us. After that you can do what you like.”
Alarmed by this turn of events the government officials asked in bewilderment,
“Why are you speaking this way? We want to do something good for you!”
To which Budhu replied,
“You told us one year ago that you would make two bathrooms. The cost of that project is very minimal. Now one year has passed, and you cannot make even bathrooms! Now you are telling us that you have to break this house down, and then you will make a new house. In the meantime we’ll all die! It’s better if you shoot us now and then take what you like.”
They were speechless. Now that he had their attention Budhu suggested that if they’d really like to do something, then they can re-build the house across from the kitchen which is badly broken. If that building were repaired then they could stay there while their own quarters were fixed, and when both were done there would be a place for visiting relatives to stay, or for others to stay while more quarters are repaired. Right now with the work that is being done they’re not as bad off as they were. If our work were to stop tomorrow they would have problems, but most would survive. It would be better1 than being homeless.
Budhu is right, too. Breaking something is easy. Fixing it is harder. As we’ve found ourselves, projects are usually much more complicated than they seem at the outset. Once the building is broken, when will the government money come? What if the government were to change2? What if a different government officer is elected? What if the money is approved, but the officer in charge decides it’s needed more at his home? Corruption is just part of the system here.
In addition to politics, Bengali culture doesn’t help. Budhu joked the following day that if someone says they’ll come tomorrow, that means 3 months later they’ll come. If they say they’ll come a few days from now, that means they’ll come back in a year. Maybe these officials will come back. Maybe they’ll fix the other building. Time will tell, but history has shown that the government is afraid to take on these projects.
They’re happy, too, that we’ve taken the initiative. If corruption can be understood as “human nature” – and it can, really, because every country without strict preventative laws and repercussions can be a case study on corruption in public service – then we take some solace in knowing that guilt, too, is part of the human condition. Even corrupt officials are human beings after all, so maybe our work will do a little bit to shame them.
When the officials asked Tinku why he’d taken on these projects, his answer was simple: What if these were your parents living in these circumstances? How would you feel? You wouldn’t be able to sleep. In our houses we have good rooms, warm clothes, and all the basic necessities to life. You could never justify allowing your parents to live in these conditions while you went to sleep under your solid roof.
We will continue working here. And we will continue seeking assistance until the job is done. If at the end of the day the village has better facilities, and people in the government gain some humility, then it will have been worth it.
There is an election coming up. Soon candidates will come to Tinku to ask what they can do for him. Since he’s responsible for the success of so many people in nearby villages politicians know that his opinion holds water. When they come Tinku will dance the dance and see if he can get anything to come of their pledges. He knows better than to count on them, though. He sat down with residents last week to instruct them accordingly: If he comes to the village with a politician, they are to listen attentively to what he’s saying. They can nod their heads, smile, and thank them for their help. But, when they go to cast their vote, they are to forget everything Tinku said and cast their vote for who they like and who they feel good about. In this manner we try to find outside help without banking on false promises.
Another reason for insufficient government funding of Nabakusthashram is the bridge that’s being built just down the road. This bridge will create a direct route between Purulia and the steel factories across the river. It will also change the landscape here as sleepy villages become affected by a busy road. However this construction creates another motive: They want the land that this village is built on.
The bridge is being built on government land, and almost immediately after it reaches our side of the river bank the road goes right past Nabakusthashram. They want to build more industry infrastructure on this land. It’s a convenient location, and it doesn’t help that until recently the place almost looked abandoned. It would have been easy to forget about their existence.
The Bridge Contractor
While Nabakusthashram holds its ground a new stretch of road will be made around it. In 2014 one of the contractors from the bridge project wanted to widen the junction where these two roads meet (see above). Rather than deal with the purchase and transfer of land to the right, he decided to cut branches off the Peepal tree.
In our last post we mentioned how the Peepal tree is sacred, and the village worships it to provide protection and prosperity. Well, one day this contractor started cutting branches off the old Peepal tree without asking. The old Prodhan (head man) saw this and was alarmed, but he didn’t know how to stop it. Watching in horror from the stool on which he sat, he started praying for something to stop this man from cutting the tree. 8 days later that contractor dropped dead. He’d had a stroke.
Stay tuned for a story about the power of their prayer… and what happens when it becomes a commodity.
1.Their building, while flawed, provides some shelter from the elements and also from animals. Snakes are a big problem here, and rats, too, are infamous for being able to chew on the toes of lepers without them noticing – the result of damaged nerve endings. A rat wound can easily lead to infection which, if not treated properly, can spread. In the worst cases wounds like this lead to amputation of a limb. Proper housing and even a simple mosquito net provide some shelter from these dangers.
2. The last election resulted in a big change in West Bengal. Their new leader was the first in 34 years who wasn’t communist. You can still see hammers and sickles on the walls of people’s homes in most villages. This Marxist emblem, combined with innocent use of the term “Aryan” unrelated to Hitler’s regime, and the most hated symbol of the 20th century turned on its side decorating walls as a symbol of peace and well-being, make the streets of West Bengal a strange sight for an American like myself.