After a long gap, my family and I returned to our village in east Uttar Pradesh this week. We had planned to come here in April, but the second wave of Covid-19 seemed imminent and I had stayed back with our daughters in Delhi. My husband had come to be with his father, who is now in his nineties. Within weeks, he had Covid in his village home and we had Covid in our home in the city.
The sandy banks of the Ganges in the districts of Ghazipur and Buxar, where floating bodies were first reported in June this year, is a few kilometres from our village. We often go there to leisurely witness the sunrise and sunset and cross the river by boat. We buy fresh fish, and sometimes swim in the river.
After we had been here for two days, I asked Islam Bo about the second wave as she had experienced it. Islam Bo is an energetic, elderly woman who seems to be everywhere and visits everyone. She is called upon when there are births and deaths and her contribution to village weddings and other functions is taken for granted. Islam Bo is my window to life in rural Uttar Pradesh.
Islam Bo spoke to me about the number of women’s bodies she had been called to perform the last rites of, before they were buried. She lowered her voice as she remembered the number of doctors who have died since the first lockdown in March 2020 had brought life to a standstill here.
“It was all so tense and fearful, we had no time to grieve,” she said. In my presence, she allowed her memories to return, even if that meant that tears flowed without restraint.
On the day we drove here via Lucknow, there was much excitement and action on the newly constructed Purvanchal Expressway that connects districts like Sultanpur, Azamgarh and Ghazipur to the capital city of the state. After six years of being under construction, the 340-km-long expressway was inaugurated by the Prime Minister this week. The hectic preparations for the event forced us to get off the expressway and drive on mud roads at various points that were being cordoned off to regulate traffic. “These inconveniences were a regular part of our childhood,” I shared with our children, who were bewildered by the roadblocks.
A day after the official inauguration, Akhilesh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party, led a rally on the same expressway. In the village, we heard stories from excited young men as they returned from there. Many wallets and mobile phones had been stolen in the crush of the rally. After we had empathised, we all laughed at the idea of how organised petty criminals seem to be in our country.
Over the years of being a daughter-in-law in this village, I have been taking photos of the extended family, our children growing up and the unmistakable changes taking place around us. I have an added identity here — I am Mirza Sahib ki bahu. Some images from my albums are embedded in my mind. Our youngest getting her curly hair combed when she was just as tall as the centre table in the inner courtyard, the children dressed up for a function but busy with their crayons away from the noise, playing with fallen flowers, examining spiders in the farm and other moments of peace, connection and discovery. Now I watch them, tall enough to wear my clothes, balancing their laptop on a corner of the roof, trying to pick up the wi-fi signal from a digital centre that is newly established by the Digital Empowerment Foundation in the centre of the village.
The most piercing visual change for me has been in my father-in-law over the last two decades. Papa was a somewhat distant figure in the early years — always smiling when he met me, but most often busy with others and organising district-level events. After he was diagnosed with Parkinsonism and my mother-in-law passed away, he has battled on valiantly, fully invested in events around him and continuing to encourage everyone else in their projects.
We start our morning with reading the news together. Papa reads the Urdu, Hindi and English newspapers, while I make do with browsing headlines and being distracted by my smartphone. In the evening, I take another series of photos of Papa sitting out in the verandah, silhouetted between pillars, waiting for his friends and village folk to join him.
Papa was a young man in 1947. He was here when India became Independent. His older brother stayed back in East Pakistan with his government job. Papa was the Gram Pradhan of this village for decades after that. He retired as the principal of the local inter-college here. He has known victories and crushing defeats. His presence gives me the strength to hope. The human spirit is resilient, it is designed to survive. The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning, wrote Sam Shepard. Evenings with Papa always remind me of this.
— The writer is a filmmaker & author. [email protected]
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