Wish to thank you all for your condolence messages on the passing away of our maai : Mrs Ramrati Devi whose inspiring journey to protect her land is inspiring. It has been an honor to work with her and share some of the most interesting moments with her. She was my mother though not biological. My biological mother passed away in 2013 and candidly since in 1984, I did not have much time to spend with my mother whose own struggle for life was valiant and strong. In my life, the biggest influence have been women as I grew under them. My mother nurtured me and all my sisters were elders. Here in the community work, we had numerous inspiring stories of struggle and successes.
Maai was one such story but most inspiring because the relationship with her became like mother and son though she would call me Sir jee. it was not a work relationship but a relationship where she realised that it impacted society positively. She was so energetic that even at this age of about 80 years, she would be running here and there. Her biggest worry was her land which she fought and got legal right after nearly 10 years of court battle. It was difficult but she used to walk about 35-40 kilometer district headquarter in Deoria to meet her advocate to get the things done. Many times, she never had the money yet from selling woods and doing work.
There was this fear because most of the time Mushahars and other marginalised people lose their land for petty loans that they take from local moneylenders and it becomes huge with heavy interest rates and compound with late payments. We heard that the local moneylender who had given her loan wanted his money and threatened her that he would take her land. She was coming to our Prerna Kendra as usual on 29th November morning for her ‘morning tea’ as most of the village elders would routinely sit and discuss things at tea. It was surprising but many times she would go to her daughter’s place so we had no such thing in mind that she was stopped in between by the moneylender and threatened her with land. It came to our notice that the loan of about Rs 60,000 was taken for her daughter in Gopalganj. The moneylender was forcing her to give the money back or allow him to take her land. Maai returned to her home and sat at her bed. She was under deep distress and could not drink tea. She was just thinking how to do it but just some moment later the moneylender and his grandson came to their home too and perhaps abused her and intimidated her. These are normal tactics though so far everybody has kept quiet as people fear speaking against powerful people. After that she was double perturbed. Her granddaughter brought a morning meal for her. In the villages people dont have the concept of breakfast and lunch. They do take their morning meal of rice dal and then go to work and eat meals in the night when they return.
She fell on the ground as she tried to eat her first morsel. Her head continued hanging. Her son Ramchandra tried to speak but realised that something serious had happened. He came rushing to us and informed us that Maai is not eating and not speaking. Our Colleague in the Prerna Kendra, Ms Sangeeta and other local activist friends arranged her to a private hospital about 4 kilometer from the village. At 2 PM she indicated that she wanted to go back home and we all felt that she might come back to normalcy so she was brought back home. Her condition was not great but doctors gave her some medicine. After two days, I suggested our colleagues take her to Deoria District Hospital so that the people can feel that they are being taken care of. Friends in the hospital had told her that she is in the last stage and there was no point in referring her to anywhere because of Covid hospitals are still not functioning in full capacity. She was unconscious and therefore it was decided that she should be brought back home where on morning of 7th December Maai passed away.
It was a difficult time for the family. Maai’s son was in distress. They had not informed us about the cause of maai’s ailment. We actually had felt that may be, there was some internal dispute in the family that might have resulted. No one was in the family when Maai died. Her daughter who had taken the loan had left for her home a couple of days back. She could not stay for a couple of days more.
Most of the villagers of Mushahar basti had gone out that time as Mushahars are mostly landless communities and they actually have to go out to work and earn their livelihood. They don’t prefer agricultural labour because of lack of wages but the brick kiln work where they get a substantial amount. We decided that Maai should be given a descent and deserving fare well so that people remember her contribution.
As you know, our villages are the ‘den of casteism, feudalism and superstition’, as Baba Saheb Ambedkar had said long back. In the villages, death or happiness among the marginalised is a highly localised issue. It means there is no social interaction between different communities. If Musahahr is dead then none care. Only Mushahars have to think about it. There is no bondage. In the dominant castes, they share a common bond on death and happiness but among the marginalised, none of these so called dominant caste come and join. The Brahmin will only come to extract his money for performing the rituals which they do half heartedly in these places. Women are out of bound and mostly confined to home for crying and weeping. So, we decided to give a new direction. We said Maai’s last journey must pass through her land which she fought for and protected life long and then to Prerna Kendra where she worked and lived more than 12 years. We made numerous changes through our basic habits. On our National Days, it became a rule that the National Flag would be unfurled by village elders and a number of times it was Maai who did it. Initially she was not confident but after some time, she became a proud Indian, who would come early in the morning with her absolute white Saree to unfurl the national flag.
At the Prerna Kendra, our colleagues and friends paid her last respect. Simaran and Riya had grown older in front of her. They would be speaking to her during the day. Sukat Bhai, Muneeraka, Pauhari who have been with her at our Prerna Kendra discussing things paid their last respect. Simaran performed an Arati and garlanded her body. I can say, I was immensely proud to see Sangita Kushwaha and Riya become pall bearers of her mortal remains. There was Harikesh who lives in another village but stood up with us in these hours, who took Maai to hospital and took care of her, too joined in the last journey to the bank of river Khanua.
For the last 15 years, I have been watching the river Khanua whenever I visit here. I am fascinated by rivers and birds and that is one thing which made me attracted to this place. Maai’s mortal remains were consigned to flames here without any brahmanical rituals. We all saluted her and remembered her smile, her struggle and her zeal to life. For the urban audiences, it might not be a big thing but for a community which has often been accused of being careless, drunkard and isolated in a dusty corner of the river, this was a proud thing. Maai’s life and dedication has made them truly proud and for us it was our solemn duty to respect the woman who gave us so much of joy , a feeling of being her own and inspiration to continue our work with the community.
Thank you all for your messages of solidarity.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist. Twitter @freetohumanity