One of the worst things about my job is the tears. Grown men and women breaking down.
You can handle kids' crying. They scream their lungs out, they whimper until something distracts them. They sniffle, their faces contort, and all of a sudden, they stop. But how do you handle an old man's tears? How do you handle the crack in an adult voice, sentences disappearing into illogical whimpers of protest?
Weeks after the Varanasi trip, two things have stayed stuck in my head. One, is the weeping of old men and women. At least four of them broke down, without warning, leaving me tongue-tied.
Manni, the grandmother who still climbs trees, braves broken ankles and survives by making pattals. Her legs tremble now, she said. And she wept. Her daughter lost a child to malnutition, but was dry-eyed. In the Musahar hamlet, the women don't have the time enough, tears enough, for buried children; almost all have lost one in its infancy, or two or four. They cannot afford to keep accounts of regret.
Mullain, father of Kanhaiya who is now dead. Former weaver. Father-in-law of Bhagini. Dependent on Bhagini, who makes about Rs 25 a day, washing dishes and sweeping other people's homes. I asked them how they live, and he said, "We live... eat two days, don't eat two days." I made the mistake of asked his opinion on the weavers' situation. His voice trembled. "Think? What should I think? What should I say?"
Nirhu. Sixty-five years old. Former weaver. Lost two young sons... to illness... to weakness... to malnutrition... who knows? The elder one was about thirty-five and a father of three himself. The younger one was about twenty-five, and father of one. Now, Nirhu must support all these children. How? "I dig in the groumd. Work on construction sites. In brick kilns" And his voice trmebled. "My eyes are gone.... Within 8 months, I lost both sons....my back has been broken by their going." And after a pause, I asked, "Are you okay?" He said, "Okay? Well, I'm not ill at the moment. I suppose I am okay."
Chamila, Nirhu's wife. Who has lost two young sons. She also goes to work on construction sites and brick kilns. I squat next to her, near the earthen stove. A small fire is lit. A pot is simmering. What is cooking? Potatoes. And what do you eat that with - rice? daal? "There is no daal, no oil, no chillies, no haldi. What daal?" And she started to weep.
I left that village feeling sick at the heart. And then I walked into the other thing that is stuck in my head. A swimming river of stars.
I hadn't seen fire-flies before, not in such glory. Not at such proximity. Here, in this village where there was no electricity, where my own step on wet mud sounded loud, here, I step almost into the centre of a shimmering, invisible web of pin-pointed light. Like restless, warm diamonds. Like crystals of live poetry. Like having the stars laid out in my path, at my feet.