Right to Life dharna (Day Two): Songs and a reunion of the padyatris who a year ago set out for Delhi

February 21, 2007
The day began as each day in Bhopal typically does – with a piping hot glass of chai. Before the sun reached its zenith, trucks overflowing with the residents of gas-affected and water contaminated communities reached the Tinshed. There was singing and dancing, accompanied by the rhythmic beats of the dhol.
Songs directed towards Shivraj Singh Chauhan reverberated amongst the hundred or so individuals sitting under the tent that will soon be a familiar sight for the police watching from a distance. Yes, the police watch us, a group of four or five men on a constant vigil from their shack across the street. In the evening they came by the tent as we were working on poster making for the upcoming rallies. “Come, sit!” someone from our tent quipped, “have something to eat.”
“No thanks, we already ate,” the khaki-clad man responded. Rachna retorted with a “You ate and you didn’t even bother to invite us?”; being civil never hurt anyone, and as was the case here, can make a potentially hazardous situation into a source of amusement.
A reunion of the Padyatris was another reason to sing in pitch-deprived harmony. A year ago, fifty-five brave individuals – male and female, young and old – walked 800 kilometers to ask the government for what had been denied to them for twenty-two years. Twenty-two years.Think about how long ago that was. What were you doing twenty-two years ago? Would you be where you are today if your children were born handicapped? What if the water you drank turned a sickly copper red after it came out of the hand pump? It didn’t matter if you could sing or not- you did it anyways and joined in the single voice that passerbys heard. A voice that didn’t need a language to be understood.
Once the trucks left with the people they had brought, the few that
remained chatted amongst themselves and the youth worked on
poster-making for the rallies that would follow. Someone would write
the slogans and others would paint them with an assembly-line-like
regularity. The people that came later in the night also helped with
the posters, and the last one was finished after dinner. They demanded
proper medical care, pension, and jobs, among other things. A few were
in English, but most posters were made in Hindi, the black and red
letters boldly popping out of the thin brown cardboard. “22 Years is
Enough,” they screamed.
About twenty-five people remained to spend the night, one of whom was Rajbai. She is a widow who moved to Bhopal about a year ago. Within three months of drinking the poisonous water in the Chola Mandir community, she developed severe pain in her thighs, the kind that made every movement from standing up to walking a form of self-torture. “What can I do,” she complains, “my son can not walk properly, because one of his legs is deformed. I am just an old woman and can not even lift five kilograms now.” Her weathered face looks tired, yet she goes on. “We get only one hundred and fifty rupees from the government each month but the medicines and massage oils are sixty rupees in themselves. How do they expect us to live on such a little amount of money?” So why is she at this sit-in, what does she want from the government? The same thing thousands of other in similar situations are demanding: economic rehabilitation. “Give us money, or give us jobs” is her plea to the Madhya Pradesh government.
Despite the pain she lives with daily, Rajbai manages to join her fellow females in more singing as the evening ends on the more light-hearted note of wedding songs. Yet even though the words are different the message is still the same. Through their words and movements, the women are speaking to themselves, to each other, to people whose deaf ears they are trying to reach: “We may be poor, we may be sick, we may be tired, but we have the right to live.” The right to live with clean water, with jobs, with healthy children, things many of us take for granted. The right to be happy, even if it is by singing about a girl telling a boy to stop teasing her. The laughter makes people forget about harsh realities they would rather not dwell over.

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