A bridge. Made of mud and brick and some cement. Water is abundant here. Sides of the road, aglow with bright pink lotuses contrasting with the green of the wheat and the yellow of the mustard. Rivers are often full and trees huddle around the local pond like children do when discussing a secret. The seasons changed and the clouds rushed in. The bridge stays strong against the swelling of the water and then, suddenly, as if changing its mind, joins in the flow. An entire village cut off. Cell phone towers still work, fortunately, and information reaches a group of women in the next village that food is short. All day, they prepare. Then, they hitch up their saris to their waist. They join some of the men and wade into the cold cold waters of the river, walking with tentative feet to find the higher sand banks of the river. All day, they form a human chain, and soon, they reach the other side of the bank and deliver their precious cargo – the one they carried, on their heads, the entire width of the rushing river – hot bins of khichidi prepared that morning. So, with cold feet and hot hands, they do this every day till boats arrive to evacuate the entire village, made an island by the turning of the season.
A fire. In the mountains, still inhabited by ‘tribals’. The roads to these mountains are constantly being encroached by the forest, and livelihoods are eked out through the preparation of mahua and the harvesting of the tendu leaf. A woman from the mainland has arrived to conduct a meeting with a group of women. Education is high on the agenda and so are issues of domestic violence. The group chats long into the evening. And then the fire. In one of the animal sheds. Most of the animals inside escape. A buffalo is stuck inside. You can hear its pitiful bellows. The woman from the mainland is astonished that the group is just sitting and watching the fire. Soon, the rope tethering the buffalo to the shed burns, and the buffalo runs into the safety of the forest. The woman turns to the group and asks – why are we sitting here? Why can’t we douse the fire? Why are we not acting? The women look at her and ask – where is the water, didi? They contained the spread of the fire with mud, but could do no more. At dinner, when the woman drank the water she was served, it tasted bitter-sweet – scooped from the hollows of the ground and sieved through a sari. The buffalo died later that night of its injuries.
The physical distance between the bridge and the fire is approximately 30 kilometers.
And that, to me, is the geography of poverty – the mapping of abundance and deprivation. It is the visceral understanding that the poverty one experiences is dependent on the sheer chance of being born into a mountain or a seasonal island. It is the knowledge that the sometimes, 30 kilometers is an impregnable distance.