Memories of another Ramzan
Posted August 31, 2009on:
This is the month of Ramzan. The month of Ramzan always reminds me of an evening in another month of Ramzan long ago.
It was the rainy season. The Machhu dam had burst and inundated Morvi, one of the most beautiful towns in Gujarat. In no time the water level has gone up as high as 24 feet, but it did not stay there long. As Morvi is perched on a hillock, in 10 or 12 minutes the water had gushed down to the river below, leaving smaller animals like goat and dog and calf dangling from the electric wires or stuck in the minarets of the mosques while hardly any creature had survived on the surface.
The government, headed by Babubhai Patel, promptly started cleaning up operations in the town (there was scarcely any one to be rescued or waiting for relief). But more than the government effort, it was the dedicated work of the hordes of voluntary organisations that put the devastated town somewhat in a shape in a couple of weeks. Keshubhai Patel, a senior member of the Babubhai Patel cabinet, was all the time there to coordinate the work of the voluntary groups. All these people were staying at Rajkot, some 70 km away. They would go to Morvi in the morning by buses, trucks, cars or other vehicles and return to Rajkot by night.
I was assigned to report on the aftermath of the destruction. I, too, had to depend for my up and down journey to Morvi on buses or lift from some one. Reporters in those days did not fancy hiring taxis.
For my return journey one evening, I took lift in a minibus. About 25 persons were sitting huddled on the floor of the vintage vehicle, with its seats having been removed. They readjusted themselves to make me perch on a small wooden stool placed near the seat of the driver.
The inside of the minibus was filled with the same nauseating smell as pervaded Morvi town — a concoction of the gases emanating from the dead animals and human beings, the mud, the slush and the perished commodities such as gur, vegetable oils, grains, etc. Feeling like retching, I jutted my nose out of the window. But the same smell outside. It was only after the speeding minibus had left the town and its surroundings behind that I was able to breath somewhat comfortably.
Now I looked at those whom I had chosen to travel with. They were men aged between 25 and 55 — sweating and looking exhausted. They were wearing only khadi baniyans and pyjamas; one had just wrapped a towel round his waist. Some had their masks still on. All were withdrawn.
There were no badges pinned to their baniyans. So I asked them and came to know that they were the volunteers of the Saurashtra Rachanatmak Samiti. They were teachers, farmers, shopkeepers or employees of government, semi-government or private organisations. Whenever there was a calamity, they would take leave (if that be the case), pool up their resources and rush to do the relief work. They would undertake whatever work was needed to be urgently done. In Morvi, they were assigned disposal of the dead – both human bodies and animal carcases. Those in the bus had acquired a bottle of some perfumed hair oil — their strategy to counter the odious smell in Morvi. Otherwise they were khadi workers given to simple living.
In all, they were about 130 persons from various parts of the State. But they had only this vehicle at their disposal. Their other colleagues followed them in government buses, trucks or whatever means they could avail of. The last member might be reaching Rajkot sometime around 11 in the night. The next morning they would again start around 6-30 for Morvi in the same manner, about 25 persons huddled in the minibus and others managing otherwise.
All the 130-odd workers of the Samiti were staying in Rajkot at Vallabh Kanya Vidyalaya hostel building. When they reached their destination, they would find their dinner ready. In the morning the inmates of the hostel started working in early hours to prepare nashta-cum-lunch for the volunteers. The men in the bus talked touchingly about the affectionate care that they had been receiving from the inmates of the Vallabh Kanya Vidyalaya.
As the minibus sped on, the men inside started “kirtan”. It was over in a few minutes. They fell silent with abstract looks in their eyes. Then one of them started narrating jokes. There was what appeared to be a forced laugh. Again silence. Then another person narrated some story. It was followed by a prolonged silence. Again “kirtan”. Silence. Jokes. Silence. “Kirtan”. Then more silence. It appeared as if the human bodies – of old people, robust young men and women and small children — were dangling before their eyes and they were trying to ward them off but not meeting with success.
Suddenly, someone shouted: “Rahimbhai, the nullah has come”. The minibus came to a halt. Two persons — Muhammadbhai and Rahimbhai — went towards the nullah to do the “vazu”, the ritual washing of the face, hands and legs. As it was the month of Ramzan, these two persons did not take even a drop of water during the day.
The “vazu” over, Muhammadbhai and Rahimbhai sat down to offer “namaz”. One of their colleagues from the minibus carried some bananas (brought specially for this purpose) for them while another carried a brass tumbler of water from the small tank kept in a corner of the minibus. They had their ïftar”. Meanwhile, someone lighted an ägarbatti in front of the framed photograph of a Hindu goddess placed in the bus.
The minibus moved on again. The men inside started “kirtan”, Rahimbhai among them. Muhammadbhai was on the steering wheel.