For a brief moment, a humble, impoverished dalit couple from Bolangir district of Orissa, Lalita and Shyamlal Tandi, acquired national infamy. The press carried a series of sensational stories of how the parents had sold their girl child Hema for a f ew thousand rupees, and there was wide official and public outrage and anger. The opposition lashed out at the State government in the legislative assembly. Ministers scolded district officials. An embarrassed ruling coalition responded by requesting the speaker of the assembly to personally investigate the child sale.
In a few days, amidst a haze of dust, an impressive convoy of official white ambassador cars, with flashing red beacons and peremptory sirens arrived in the startled remote hamlet Kundaputula. The pilot jeeps led them to the earthen home of the guilty parents. The speaker, aided by members of legislative assembly, senior officials of the State and district government, and local politicians, threw a volley of questions at the couple. “Why did you sell your child?” they asked accusingly. The man, Shyamlal, squatting in a corner on his haunches, simply stared. Looking stunned, miserable and shamed, he was speechless in his defence. It was the mother, Lalita, who, weeping inconsolably, tried to explain: “None of us would have lived, neither our daughter Hema nor us, if we had not sold her.” She intoned repeatedly, “We had no other choice.”
But her interrogators were not at all convinced. “Just because you are poor, it does not mean you sell your child. What kind of parents are you?” Lalita sobbed in reply, “It was because we loved our daughter so much that we sold her. Do you not understand? We sold her because we loved her.” Not one among those who had gathered for a transient moment, like a flash in a film, in that unfortunate hovel, indeed could understand.
It was not so difficult when Shyamlal was still strong in body. They owned barely half an acre of an un-irrigated upland farm, and it bore for them most years just enough gurji or coarse millets to feed the family for at most a couple of months. But even this lifeline betrayed them in successive drought years. There was no regular work in the village, so they migrated for seven years to the steel city of Bhilai, in neighbouring Chhatisgarh. They were employed at a construction site, and built a makeshift home of piled brick walls and a stretched plastic sheet for a roof. Lalita laboured side by side with Shyamlal, and together they earned enough to feed their three children, and even set aside some money. Hema at that time was just a baby.
Their troubles began when the head of their elder, four-year-old son Harendra swelled alarmingly. The hospitals in the Bhilai steel plant were not open to migrant workers, and they could not afford the private doctors in city. So they returned desperately to their village. The doctors in the Titlagarh government hospital demanded such extortionist bribes to operate on the boy that they settled for the more modest demands at the Tukla village Primary Health Centre. The illness cost the little boy his hearing, and the family five thousand rupees of their savings.
Shyamlal returned to Bhilai, but presently fell ill himself with pneumonia. There were secondary infections and sores around his mouth and on his eyelids, probably because of malnourishment. He could not close his eyes, his fever raged, and he rapidly lost weight. Lalita was alarmed that she would lose him, so she decided to submit this time to the demands of the Titlagarh government doctors. He required several injections every day. The doctor wanted a hundred rupees for each injection, and when they begged him he brought it down to sixty rupees.
Alive and indebted
The illness ravaged his health, but he ultimately survived, debilitated, with recurring pain in his back, and unable to undertake hard manual labour as in the past. The family was poorer, this time by another 12,000 rupees. Their savings gathered over half a dozen years of uninterrupted family toil in the construction sites of Bhilai evaporated completely. Lalita had a well-off relative, Ram Prasad, also a dalit, but he was fortunate to get a government job in the office of the Block Development Officer. He lent them money to pay the doctors.
Since then, the couple looked for work within the village. People employed them for tasks like paddy cutting, wood cutting, carrying soil and grazing cattle. But employment in the village is irregular, averaging eight to 10 days in a month. There are sometimes two to three months a year when they find no work at all. And wages are half of what they get in the city. There is barely enough food for the family; it was impossible to repay Ram Prasad’s loan.
How did they manage with so little? How do they survive even today in their unchanged circumstances? The word they used when they explained to me was “control”, in English. “It is with ‘control’ that we live”. When they earn, they eat better. They regard a full stomach as God’s special gift, but one that He grants sparingly. On bad days, they mix a fistful of rice in a pot of water, and let it ferment overnight. This is the food for the entire family.
As their unpaid loan to Ram Prasad mounted, with no prospect that they would ever be able to repay it, he suggested one day that they give him their younger daughter in adoption, and in return he would write off their loan. Lalita insists that he made the offer in kindness, and that he had no daughter, and therefore wanted to raise their Hema as his own child. Shyamlal was still very sickly. It was the decision of the girl’s mother to accept her relative’s proposal. The transaction was recorded on stamp paper; the parents did not know what was written but they pressed their inked thumbs to the sheet of paper, and their daughter left their home.
Little is hidden in a village, and the news spread quickly. A child’s sale is always a sensational story. The first person who came to their door was a stranger they did not recognise. He was fat and dark-skinned, and he asked them about their daughter. They learnt later that he was journalist in a local newspaper. Soon the story spread to the newspapers in the State capital, and then the national press. Within weeks, a crowd of senior politicians and officials reached their homes, and asked them why they had sold their daughter. Latika tried to explain, but they did not seem to listen. They went away very angry.
Ram Prasad was jailed for illegal trafficking for 15 days. When he returned, village elders accompanied Shyamlal to his home to demand that he return the child. He refused, saying that he loved the three-year-old girl like his own daughter, and was unwilling to let her go. But they returned with policemen in tow, and Ram Prasad reluctantly gave in.
What happened later
Years passed since I had heard about this story. I decided to search for the family to learn what had happened to them after the child was restored. I found their hutment with difficulty. It had the oppressive odour of long, unmet want and settled sadness.
I learnt that the child Hema was dead. Within less than a year of her restoration to her family, she contracted jaundice. She was too malnourished to fight the infection, and died quietly. “If they had let Ram Prasad keep the child, she would have been alive today”, her mother said wistfully. “Ram Prasad has money to feed her. We have none”.
No one visited them then, or since, except the local policemen. They came when they heard of the death. From the threshold, they saw the corpse of the dead child and the inconsolable parents. They just bowed their heads and left without a word.