Monday, September 1, 2008

Flood Devastates Bihar, India.

Watching TV news, one would be forgiven [yet again] for accepting that the USA is the centre of the universe.
Everything that happens there - or might happen - takes precedence over the rest of the peripheral world.
While we endure, ad nausea, the interminable reports on the mere choosing of the candidates for the US Presidential election, democracy itself is being undermined throughout the rest of the world and human rights are a vague aspiration on some cosmic wish list.

Hurricane Gustav is about to wreak havoc in America and we watch its path live on TV as it approaches New Orleans - not much coverage of the thousands of lives in turmoil in Cuba and elsewhere which have already been hit by its destructive might.

But what really shocks is how the ongoing floods in Northern India, and the chaotic devastation caused, gets the barest of mentions [if at all].

These pictures tell the story of the continuing misery there. Conditions are grim indeed and disease is now pandemic.

A huge dam was breached in Nepal recently which caused an enormous river to flood downstream.
This river becomes the Kosi in India and flows through Bihar where the worst flooding has occurred.

It is still unknown just how many people have died but it is estimated that thousands of the poorest villages containing perhaps over a million inhabitants have been utterly destroyed.
This has led to a vast epic transhumance of the
homeless, the likes of which are rare enough these days but even more rarely reported as it usually happens in Asia or Africa.

Anyone who has visited Bodhgaya - the seat of the Buddha's enlightenment - will have travelled across Bihar to get there and they will recall how poor and simple the people are in this region.

They still eke out a meagre living from the ancient dusty land all around the river which irrigates the fields. The river is therefore
considered sacred as, like God herself, the river brings the holy gift of life.

Now everything that is sacred and cherished by the locals must be swept up and saved from the wrath of the flood, and transported inland - a journey into the unknown that will be arduous and dangerous for a people whose lives have changed little since the era of the Buddha over 2,500 years ago.

Pilgrims returning from Bodhgaya usually bring many stories and images of the locality and the ancient people living around about - mostly Muslim nowadays. But nothing actually prepares you for the experience until you go yourself.

It is most difficult, therefore, for us to appreciate the great suffering and confusion being endured in the present upheaval there.

One can only imagine what truly lies behind these pictures.
But these people are resilient and full of life. Their survival depends on their innate ability to accept and adapt to a changing world.

We in the West could learn so much from the humblest farmer.
A 6 year old beggar met along a filthy dusty road could teach us a life lesson to open our hearts and minds, irrevocably and for the benefit of all beings.

A train journey across India, taking perhaps a few days to get to Bihar, can also be life-changing.
You encounter, at very close quarters, what appears to be all of humanity.
Many conversations are had and, at the very least, profound eye-contact is established with almost everyone who passes through your personal space.
Time appears to stand still.
You feel the hot air caressing your face as you gaze unfocused out the open window.
There is no glass between you and nature and, on the distant horizon across the wide open flat landscape, you observe the sun setting low - a saffron ball of light fading fast - and, in the middle distance, the silhouettes of trees, cattle, temple shrines, and jaded people sloping home to rice and dahl.

These are the ancients, living as they have always lived - the descendants of the Indus and the Aryan interlopers.
At various times they were Hindu, then Buddhist, then Muslim.
Even today they float votive offerings at the edge of the very river that destroys them and paradoxically brings the promise of new life.

In their hearts, they carry images still precious to them - Shiva, Buddha, Mystics like Rumi, Western logos like Coke, Nike, Nokia and the BBC World Service.

They are a proud people with strong roots in the
past, their minds accepting the present, yet with an eye on how to create a better future for themselves and others.

They are fondly and heartily remembered by those of us who have briefly shared their world at one time or another.

We hold them in our hearts at this difficult time.

I recall every detail with tremendous admiration and gratitude -

the man who gave me some peanuts from his pocket...

the teenagers who skipped around me examining my clothes and then scammed me for the price of a bag of rice...
the 10 little children who walked the path through their village with me - one tiny hand clutching each of my fingers and thumbs...

the fiery women, their hands and feet calloused, who hold it all together somehow...

the sacred cow snoring on the floor of the sari shop...

the goat who asked me to pull down from a high branch some lush green leaves for him to munch...

the lines of children leaving their apparent hovels and lean-to shelters, walking to school together in the early morning mist, proudly wearing uniforms that have been miraculously pressed somehow, and brilliant white white shirts that dazzle the eye...

the men whose daily struggle is lined on their brows and whose optimism sparkles in their joyful smiles...

a white-haired holy man who has renounced the world to wander without goal, barefoot and wrapped partially in a bleached cotton home-spun...

even the river itself, that accepts the offerings, the ashes from the funeral pyres, the excrement and the rubbish, the dirt and the grime from the clothes and bodies of all those who go there to wash - ever mindul that the very same river might one day destroy them.

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