I first met Sekirna soon after I arrived in Titmoh. She was a Muslim and lived in the village of Durgapur about five miles away. She had a very swollen abdomen and looked for all the world as if she was pregnant. It was a cruel irony for she explained to me that her husband had left her sometime back because she had failed to produce a child, and she was living with her mother. I was at a loss as to what I could do to help her. But she was very persistent and came to see me several times. Eventually I arranged for her to be admitted her to the government hospital in Giridih. This was my first experience of a government hospital in Bihar. The conditions in the hospital left something to be desired. The list of drugs I was given to buy at the chemist’s, which included antibiotics and anti-tetanus vaccine, did not inspire confidence in their standards of hygiene. However, the lack of facilities and cleanliness was made up for, to some extent, by the friendliness and sympathy of the lady surgeon who had agreed to operate. She removed a tumour weighing about five kg. There was considerable anxiety about Sekirna’s condition during the operation but she pulled through. I was surprised to learn that she had been diagnosed with abdominal TB at the time of the operation and so I commenced treatment for TB.
Of course Sekirna was immensely relieved to have her tummy back to normal size. After that, she was a frequent visitor and always brought something for us-some vegetables or fruit she had grown, or some cakes she had made. Once she invited me for a meal but at the last minute I was unable to go, as I had to look after a very ill patient. I felt bad not being able to let her know, imagining how she would have made a special meal and I had let her down. But she arrived later in the afternoon bringing the meal with her, neatly wrapped up, saying that she knew that something must have kept me back. I was touched by her faith in me.
I think that in spite of her position of a deserted wife and her misfortune, she had gained a good deal of respect from her fellow villagers-the women anyway-for her independence and enterprise. She used to bring patients from her village to see me. She took pride in her appearance and was always neat and clean. Her ears were adorned with rings all the way up their lobes.
About eighteen months after her operation, Sekirna started to have some pain again and I took her to a doctor in Madhupur. He said he could feel a lump and it appeared that the tumour was growing again. Sekirna was understandably very depressed. I came to know that a lady surgeon, Dr Pradhan, happened to be living in Madhupur at the time. She had been a leading gynaecologist in Calcutta and abroad. She was a small, frail-looking woman with a lovely smile that made the top of her nose wrinkle up. She related, in a very philosophical way, some of the tragic events of her life which included the death of her only child, betrayal by her family and serious illness.
Although the two women, Sekirna and Dr Pradhan, came from different worlds, one a poor, uneducated villager, the other a highly educated and accomplished professional, they had both suffered greatly at the hands of husbands, family and because of illness. Yet both confronted their misfortune with an amazing degree of fortitude and lack of self-pity.
Dr Pradhan agreed to operate on Sekirna and was able to use the facilities of Kodai Hospital to do so. She refused to take any money. While operating she discovered that what the surgeon in Giridih had diagnosed as TB had in fact been malignant deposits. Sekirna had cancer and should have had her ovaries removed at the time of her first operation. Dr Pradhan told me Sekirna would need radiotherapy in two or three months’ time. I had no idea how or where I would arrange radiotherapy for her and I was about to leave the village for several months. I began to question, rightly or wrongly, how much time and energy I could spend for one patient at the expense of my other work.
But she wasn’t just a patient now, she was a friend. When, I after a long absence in England, I returned to the village, I took her with me to Calcutta to the Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital. Of course she had never been to Calcutta before and the fact that she agreed to go showed her courage and determination to get better. Calcutta was exciting and daunting for her. In the hospital she was examined by some doctors who recommended another operation but it was too late to register her that day and we returned the next morning. We waited several hours to find out if there was a bed for her. We went again the following day and waited again with a crowd of other patients for more than four hours. It was the resident surgeon who made the decision about allocating free beds. I asked if I could see him personally. They took me to him. He was sitting back in his chair smoking a cigarette and, without a word, he wrote ‘regret’ again on Sekirna’s paper. He asked me to leave but I stayed. I started speaking in Hindi upon which he showed a little more interest and told me to go and see his superior. On the way down the corridor I met a pleasant lady doctor I had spoken to before and who had told me she used to know Dr Pradhan. She asked me what had happened, then took Sekirna’s paper from me and went back to the resident surgeon’s office. I heard an animated discussion take place for a few minutes. Whatever she said did the trick: Sekirna was in. Afterwards one of the other patients who had been waiting sidled up to ask how much I had paid. He assumed I had given a bribe.
As I could not abandon Sekirna in the hospital, the problem of finding someone to visit her and keep an eye on her now presented itself. I had been given a couple of addresses by a Quaker friend a long time ago. I made my way to one of them expecting it to be a woman but in fact it turned out to be a man! He invited me in and we talked. He said he knew the director of the cancer hospital and I should have contacted him earlier. During the Course of our discussion, he mentioned someone he knew called Shomen who worked in the villages outside Calcutta. I was interested and took the phone number. After several attempts I managed to make contact. (At that time Calcutta phones were so bad that a death memorial to them had been erected by way of protest!) As luck would have it he was in town and I was invited to supper-they would send a car for me! I had grown unaccustomed to such luxuries. We had an interesting conversation but I was very tired and supper didn’t arrive till eleven. Amongst other things he had been involved in wind pump research, something I was very interested in. Three had already been set up which worked, until they were blown down that is. I didn’t manage to find a visitor for Sekirna. On that occasion but I learnt a little about wind pumps.
The next day I had breakfast in the hostel with a Japanese boy who had just had the rare privilege of an audience with the Dalai Lama, but had then had all his travel notes and address book stolen (such are the highs and lows of life in India it seems). I then set off to the second of my addresses. The lady in question lived in a big, old, rather dilapidated Victorian building and was having a bath when I arrived so I sat and sipped tea in a large, dimly lit room amongst numerous cats. She was middle aged and turned out to be of a friendly disposition and we were soon engrossed in conversation. She said she would introduce me to a couple she knew who were working in a Samaritan group in Calcutta and lived in the compound of St Paul’s Cathedral, the big church in Chowringhee. We arranged to meet there in the evening. These people were most welcoming and without hesitation said that they would take responsibility for Sekirna and visit her every day. They invited me to supper before which they said a little prayer for Sekirna’s recovery and afterwards took me back to my hostel. My efforts to help her had brought me in contact with middle-class Indians devoted to trying to help those in need through the implementation of socialist principles and innovative technologies in one case and Christian love in the other.
I returned to Calcutta a few days later, just before Sekirna was to have her operation, and found that my new friends had indeed been very kind to her, even buying her a new saree. After visiting time, I went to see her doctor and he told me I needed to buy some blood for her. He didn’t explain things very clearly and disappeared. I waited and waited. I tried to go upstairs to the ward again but the doorman at the base of the stairs stopped me. He was standing there with a bunch of keys like a jailer. Frustrated and weary, I decided to make a dash for it. I waited for an opportune moment then tore past him up the stairs as fast as I could. I had to get to the second floor and would have made it but for someone coming from the other side. The doorman had pursued me and grabbed me roughly. That was too much. I swung my umbrella at him-and collapsed in tears. A nurse came to my assistance and a crowd gathered. Sekirna was very upset. I collected the blood samples, took them to the blood bank outside the hospital, paid for the blood, bought some medicines and then returned to the hospital. In the meantime the ward master had come. I explained what had happened. He called in the doorman and berated him for taking his guard duties too literally. I quickly shook his hand by way of forgiveness and fled.
Sekirna’s operation was an ‘open and close’-the tumour was inoperable. The surgeon said that she did not have long to live and that he was surprised she was still so well. In fact she lived another eighteen months.
She was not happy at home and spent long periods with me in my little house in Madhupur. When she felt well enough she cooked and swept and washed. She enjoyed joining in my activities and the comings and goings; she wasn’t shy with strangers or cowed by officials. She had had no education but she was very intelligent and eager to learn. I think maybe those months in the Mad Pad were the happiest in her life; I sometimes heard her singing. She had had a tragic life. Sometimes she would relate at length incidents of her past and talk about life in her village. Most of the male population there, including her two brothers, made some sort of livelihood by thieving-in particular, cutting down trees from the jungle illegally and selling timber. Her father had died of cholera when she was just beginning to crawl. Her brothers had not been good to her and her mother, under their influence much of the time, used to give away her food and belongings to them. I regretted very much that I couldn’t understand her language better and all the details of the stories she told me. She was a very strong person and refused to be brought down by her poverty or her illness. She stood up for herself and, on one occasion, had enlisted the help of the village mukhia to reprimand her brothers. Even with me, she was not averse to stating her opinion and asking me for money when she needed something. In spite of all that had happened to her, she was not a sad person: she had a lovely, beaming smile and a great sense of humour.
From time to time her health deteriorated, and she would be in pain and vomit. And then she would improve and her appetite would return again. She started taking a herbal remedy called rhanonjoot which she had been told might cure her. I was sceptical, naturally, but had no qualms in providing it for her. I used to buy it from a herbal medicine shop in Madhupur. There was always a crowd of people at the shop. An elderly man sat surrounded by a large assortment of dried leaves, bark, seeds and twigs, and he had an enormous old book he referred to which he told me used to belong to his grandfather. The antique nature of the man and the book gave the makeshift shop a certain gravitas.
Sekirna never gave in to her illness but at the same time, I think, underneath, she knew that she was doomed. Once we were caught in a thunderstorm when she was accompanying me part of the way home from her village. I was scared of the lightning falling around us but she said she wasn’t scared because she knew it was her illness that would kill her.
When her condition took a turn for the worse, my friends in Madhupur advised me to take her home. They said I shouldn’t let her die with me in case the police accused me of murder in order to extract a bribe! I didn’t take any notice of this crazy idea but it did seem best for her to die with her people. So, one day, when the end seemed near, I arranged for a tonga and took her home with some provisions and painkillers saying I would pay for someone to look after her. I went to see her the following day and stayed for a few hours. I would have stayed longer but a crowd of villagers gathered which made me feel awkward.
The next day, in the evening, Manan arrived in the village for the first time. We cycled over to see Sekirna in the morning. She was in a bad way and hadn’t slept that night. But she was still talking and insisted we have some coffee (something she had acquired a taste for while staying with me). She expressed her gratitude to everyone who had helped and befriended her, and apologized for any mistakes she might have made. We gave her the last of the only two precious vials of morphine I had been able to buy and, within a few minutes, she was sleeping. We slipped away. When we returned we learnt that she had died without waking. We turned to make our way back down through the stream and up the other side. As we paused at the top of the slope from where you could look down on her village in one direction and over the fields and homesteads towards Titmoh in the other, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I felt so bad thinking of all her suffering, her unfailing loyalty and my inability to save her. Most of the five years I had been in the village, I had known her. At that moment, her death seemed to symbolize all the failures and contradictions in my struggle to find a meaningful role in the villagers’ lives. Manan did not say anything but passed me his handkerchief. After a few moments, we set off again.
You can see the little copse where she is buried from the train. Many times I have looked out of the carriage window as I passed by and wondered what we could have achieved together if she had lived.
Trial and Tribulations
Lalchand was a basket-maker. He had no land, as we understood, and made his living from making baskets, winnowers and other items out of bamboo. Amongst his children was a little boy of about seven. One day his clothes caught fire and he was badly burnt on his chest, arms and hands.
We put the whole family up in the clinic room next to the health centre where we lived. At first Lalchand seemed to be a pleasant, helpful fellow. We used to give the family food and employment when we could and treated the little boy’s burns each day which took a good deal of time.
After a couple of weeks they moved to another part of the village and came for dressing each day. Now that the burns had started to heal, Somra, the health worker, took over the dressing. I was surprised to learn that Lalchand had begun to say unpleasant things about us. He also said that Somra did not clean the wounds properly, and that he had tricked us and had money on him all the time. I also heard that he had stolen and sold a bicycle in his village, and this was the reason for his itinerant existence. Maybe, I now thought, this explained why things had disappeared while they were with us in a way they never had before.
One day Somra asked him twice during the morning to bring the boy for his dressing but they did not show up until Somra had gone home for lunch. I told Lalchand they would now have to wait. At this he started shouting at me, ‘So you call that helping the poor?’ At first I thought he was drunk. But he was not. I felt very angry and said he should be careful what he said.
When Manan returned and heard what had happened he went to see Lalchand and gave him a gruelling interrogation, asking him what he meant by ‘working for the poor’ and why he thought we weren’t. Lalchand must have been quite shaken but, undeterred, he arranged for the local panchayat to bring a ‘case’ against us alleging that Manan had attacked him and, in the process, knocked out some of his teeth! He managed to find a few villagers including Rameshwar, a Santhal, to support him. Rameshwar had been a loyal friend to us but, unlike other villagers, he had expected something special for himself in exchange and may have felt aggrieved. Manan and I were so sickened by this turn of events that we seriously considered closing down the work and leaving. But finally we decided to face the situation.
The ‘trial’ was to take place at another village. Many villagers put on their best clothes and went off to witness the drama. The proceedings were presided over by the local Jharkhand leader and tribal chief, Likham. It so happened that Manan had previously saved his life when he had suffered a severe and terrifying bout of haemoptysis (coughing up blood) as a result of TB. However, Likham took his position of arbitrator very seriously and this was unlikely to influence his judgement in regard to a dikoo (outsider). The two sides gave their version of the events. Manan had made an account of everything we had provided for Lalchand and his family. It came to Rs 400 (at the time the health workers’ monthly allowance was Rs 150). Likham then asked Rameshwar what time of the day it had been when Manan had struck Lalchand. Manan wondered what the reason was behind this question. Rameshwar replied that it was evening. At this Likham asked him how, in the darkness, was he able to see Lalchand’s tooth fall. Rameshwar was cornered and the ‘trial’ was over! Lalchand was asked to touch Manan’s feet by way of penance, but Manan would not allow it. It was decided we should recommence treatment. The burns had by now become infected and purulent.
It is difficult to understand Lalchand’s behaviour. It was a lesson to us that the poor are not all good people (just as not all rich people are bad!) and that kindness is not always met with gratitude. Years later we learnt that Lalchand decided to turn his hand to snake-charming to earn a living. He caught a cobra and kept it in a basket. After some time he opened the basket to take it out and it promptly bit him. That was the end of Lalchand.