Saturday 4th March
We are mostly in good spirits although clearly suffering from sore feet, blisters and aching joints at best; at worst a few are putting a very brave face on sickness, diarrhoea and extreme joint and body pain. We decided to stop short of Shivpuri today, where we were supposed to stop for the night. Walking up the national highway with little shade and the constant drone of approaching trucks belching out their fumes into our eyes, ears and mouths makes it difficult to chat for the most part. The quiet moments, when they do come, are a relief and a chance for everyone to encourage and support each other. The pace kept up by the majority is far more than a walk, the word ‘march’ is far more apt; imagine you are walking almost as fast as you can without breaking into a run – this is the pace set by those at the front, and everyone does their very best to keep up and together as the padyatra moves through this area.
Shivpuri is a big town of several hundred thousand people where we plan to do a press conference, Bhopal Express film screening, photo and poster exhibition and stimulate discussion – this will all have to wait until the tomorrow now.
Many hobbled into the gurudwara, our home for the night, with feet swollen and aching with the sting of walking on bandaged blisters in the heat and the dust. A cup of hot chai and a rest was long overdue, ladled out into small bowls by the young men of the gurudwara. Gulab Bai, who had been walking so well until today was visibly heartbroken she was helped into the big square room that was to be the women’s sleeping place for the night. The men were just next door in a similar room. The truck pulled up just outside like a huge and comforting security guard and many of the marchers laid down and were quiet almost straightaway, exhausted from the exertion; Jagarnath was one – he’s the oldest marcher – he’s 90 and a real juggernaut! Today though he is weak from diarrhoea and badly aching joints.
Those of us that have the energy tend to each other’s feet, easing the fluid out of blisters, applying antibiotic and antiseptic cream and massaging aching joints and keeping an eye on people with sickness and diarrhoea.
Just as the last light begins to fade altogether Rachna shouts that food is ready. Initially nobody moves – after a few minutes of summoning up the strength, we start to drift over to the kitchen and eating area in small groups. The light is dim inside and people are mostly quiet as they recharge on some simple subzi, dahl, chaaval and roti. The rotis are especially good.
It’s about this time too that the wind starts to get up – it’s like a series of miniature tornadoes whipping up the dust and bits of rubbish, so much so that anyone stepping out of the resting rooms is immediately cold and blinking from the dust, sheet lightning and rain. Satish then calls out to a small group sitting just inside to help with securing the tarpaulin over the truck; this is urgent as not everyone has got their things out for the night. To add to this urgency the power goes out and now no one can see. It’s almost pitch black and there are only three or four torches among the group – immediately a few of the younger padayatris leap up and try and pull the tarpaulin back over the truck, no easy task as the wind has got stronger by now and it’s properly raining rather than just spitting – an unusual storm for this time of year.
A meal and a rest definitely gave some of the padayatris a last blast of energy for the day. Some hover around the few phones being recharged, anxious to talk to their families back in Bhopal. Others perform a little ancient magic on one of the padaytris who is very sick and unable to keep even a sip of water down. A local doctor is also called and arrives into a circle of women who are massaging his hands, arms and feet. The women are strong in their movements which offers some relief, as well as a little ancient magic! Just as the doctor has finished prescribing his cocktail of antacid tablets, antifungal and anti-bacterial tablets, as well as a tablet for stomach pain, he begins to feel better and sits up.
The wind has now died down and the rain has stopped. It’s relatively still and quiet as we begin to settle down for the night. The waxing moon is beautiful and bright as are the many stars – there’s little light pollution out here. The sound of the trucks fades into the distance as voices all around become quieter and slower, although some cannot stop coughing, some cry out in their sleep and one or two it seems call out all night.
Sunday 5th March
Morning seems to come in fits and starts as we wake in the darkness; some lie where they are for as long as possible. The first light rouses the last few and everyone starts to roll up their bedding, gather their things and move outside to where the truck is parked. A quick cup of chai and we are off. Gulab Bai managed to raise a smile from the back of the truck as it moved off even though her left knee was giving her so much pain. She had company though from three other women, also unable to walk this morning.
The first hour of walking is pacy, cool and relatively quiet on the highway. It’s a single lane each side with a dirt track a little less than a metre wide on each side of the road where most of us walk, although some find the flat surface of the road a little easier. When the trucks aren’t thundering past we can hear the birds and feel some of the peace and stillness of the ancient countryside we are walking through. The sun soon starts to get hot though and so we rested under the shade of several trees before we got to the outskirts of Shivpuri.
By this time the group was walking all together with the truck just a few metres ahead. One of the supporters rode in the back of the truck to get video shots of the group approaching the town; a couple of the marchers emerged from the back of the truck before it set off again with a Bhopal – Delhi Padayatra 2006 banner for those at the front to carry.
Quite a few of us handed out information sheets to those who come forward to see who we are – some curious, some surprised but most eager to support us once they realise how far we have come and how far yet we still have to go. We started to chant our six demands of the national government with Rachna on the loudspeaker, which got louder and louder as we battled with the noise of the traffic in the middle of the town.
We reached the dharamshala, another place where anyone can go to get shelter for the night, in the midday heat, exhausted and with many new blisters. It’s not all bad though, some of the padayatris health has definitely improved and most are in good spirits as they look forward to an afternoon of discussion, showing the photo exhibits and speaking at the press conference planned for later on. Unlike the Sikh gurudwara, we will have to cook here so as soon as we arrive the team assigned to this task for the day swing into action: some carry logs in for the fire, some bring big bags of vegetables, as well as a huge sack of flour and several massive pots. A small team begin the not inconsiderable task of turning all this into a hot meal for everyone. Others grab the chance to take a bath and wash clothes – what a relief, the washrooms are clean and private – luxury compared to yesterday!
While the cooks are busy working their magic the rest of us gather for a general meeting where any and every issue can be raised and discussed. In this meeting we took another roll call of everyone on the march as some have left and some have joined. We also wanted to be clear on how many of the group are affected by contaminated water only (18), how many by the gas only (5) and how many by both contaminated water and gas (16) for the press conference this afternoon. The group has seven supporters marching with them making the total up to 46. Among other things it was decided that those among us that are too sick too walk should go to see a doctor at the local hospital and on their advice should remain with the march or go home for their own good and also that of the group.
The meeting finished just as food was ready and unlike last night people almost leapt up to enjoy their first proper meal of the day. All was quiet for a short while as people sat around in groups sharing plates of big, well-cooked rotis and fiery vegetable curry.
The photograph and poster exhibition was being set up as people began to gather for the press conference at 4pm. This went really well apart from a sudden and hard downpour where everyone had to run for cover; all the local press were there including two regional TV channels.
The day’s work for most was over. Some went through the medical kit, checking what we had and what we might need in the coming days, others slept, some played cards, others chatted and some met to organise and distribute upcoming responsibilities and tasks. There’s still a long way to go!
Older entries from beginning of the march
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