No more than one minute after arriving each day we hear a voice project from the garden next to the men’s quarters.
“Nomoskar Didi!” he says, raising both hands to his forehead and chuckling when I return the greeting. Budhu marches towards us.
Budhu is the man in charge at the Leprosy Village. This has only been his role for a couple years; the last head man died in 2014. All the responsibility now falls on his shoulders. He is eager to sit and talk with us, and cares deeply about the well being of his residents. He reprimands us for not coming for a week; we’d been here nearly every day for two months, but were caught up with a wedding in the family. He calls Goya to bring two chairs. Standing under the dappled shade of a tree, an occasional ray of light draws our eyes to his striking grey hair. He looks pretty good for 67. He has more wrinkles from smiling than from furrowing his brow, and these creases deepen as he looks our way. If Tinku didn’t remember seeing Budhu here when he was a child, I’d have guessed he was ten years younger.
Like most of the residents Budhu arrived in his late teens or early twenties. All ages are estimates as this point, as noone has kept track. The ages I use are my best estimates from the research we’ve done. His home village is Bisri, in Manbazar district, 60 km SE of Purulia. He is the youngest of three children, all boys.
Joiram, seven years his senior, had developed a small white spot on his lower back in childhood. His symptoms included sensory loss, a telltale indication of Leprosy, so he was taken all the way to Purulia where they were able to confirm his condition.
In the year it took to finish treatment Joiram daydreamed of returning to his family in Bisri. But what would be there for him? His family would take him back, but others might fear him. Even without any physical disabilities he wouldn’t be able to marry. When a doctor approached him about a job opportunity, Joiram agreed. He would stay in the Uffmanpur colony nearby and work at the mission, crafting molds for new prosthetics.
He never expected his brother to arrive 10 years later.
When Budhu noticed a small patch of light colored skin on his hip it was so small that his parents dismissed it as a birthmark. Several years passed before it started to grow. When treatments from the local doctors yielded no results the reality slowly began to set in, and at the age of 22 Budhu, too, made the journey to the Leprosy Mission in Purulia.
As he settled into his new quarters Budhu was relieved to see Joiram’s familiar face come through the door. Joiram’s move to Purulia had been difficult back home. It felt like an organ had been surgically removed from the family unit without proper anesthetics, and seeing him now instilled a feeling of wholeness that he hadn’t felt since he was a boy. A tall man close to his own age followed close behind. Budhu had met him the week before; he liked his understated presence and how his whole face changed when he smiled. His name was Lalu Sardar, and he had biked 10 kilometers from a similar asylum, called Nabakustashram, to get here. Lalu and Joiram sat on Budhu’s cot and struck up conversation with his roommate. The window was open and a gentle breeze blew through, carrying with it the sweet laughter of young women.
Budhu glanced out the window, searching for the source of laughter. He’d seen the girls cutting grass in the compound before, working their way through the densely packed trees. More than once he’d looked over to see them looking back at him, then at each other, and back at him again. He was always the first to look away, blushing as the girls giggled. Today they were cutting grass all the way across the courtyard, but they were close enough for Budhu to see how nicely the sarees draped over their hips.
Budhu’s gaze didn’t go unnoticed by Lalu and Joiram, who urged him to go and talk to the girls. As he made his way over to them he was conscious of his every muscle all at once, each movement feeling inherently wrong and unsightly. Each step seemed to bring him further away, but somehow he soon stood before them, completely alone and effectively naked before their inquisitive eyes. He tried to keep his chin up as one girl took the lead in the inquisition. Where was he from, she’d asked, and how long was he going to stay. He answered each question obediently. She had completed her treatment and was physically unchanged by the disease, but unable to return to her village. Uffmanpur had expanded into Simonpur, which was where the three girls lived. They earned their keep by cutting the grass at the mission compound, and had been given some land for crops.
Over the next several months the grass outside Budhu’s window would be noticeably shorter than the rest of the courtyard. When she wasn’t outside talking to him she was with her friends, and he would occasionally hear a snippet of conversation float in through the window. Their conversations were naughty, talking much like boys when they see a girl… Budhu drew his closed lips back in a sheepish grin. What flattery.
A mission priest also noticed their attraction, and one day when Budhu and Lalu were chatting he came to pay a visit. Budhu and the girl were both from the Mahato tribe, which meant their marriage would be easy to arrange should he want it. He would be able to live in Simonpur too, near his brother, and work some land for sustenance. Life could be relatively normal for him. As Budhu gave pause to the idea the same offer was given to Lalu, but he declined as he’d already married a girl before he got sick. She hadn’t driven him out, but instead moved back in with her parents as they tried to make their marriage work through this sudden change of events. The priest left them and the offer hung in the air where he’d sat.
The girls implored Budhu to come and visit them when he was released from the hospital. “You must come to our home,” they had said. “Whether you stay or not is up to you, but you must visit us.” Budhu thought about the familiarity that washed over him when he saw Joiram’s face. He thought of the allure of the girl who cut grass, a gravitational force unlike anything he’d experienced. He likened it to the force you feel standing on the edge of a cliff, exhilarating and simultaneously instilling dread as you’re drawn towards the void that would surely lead to your death, should you lose your balance. Terrified of falling, of losing the rest of his family which had already suffered from losing his brother, Budhu stared at the spot on his side each day and waited for it to disappear. When he could no longer see it he waited for nightfall, and in the cover of darkness he walked out of his room and kept walking until he reached the bus station. He got on the bus to Manbazar and left for home, not looking back.