THE DEATH OF A BOY
By Jon C. Jenkins
Sikroar is 35 kilometers east of New Delhi on the Ghazibad Meerut road. We had been doing the development project there for about three months. I personally experienced it as a difficult assignment. It wasn't so much physically difficult although there was plenty of that. We carried water from a well, cooked over a coal stove, slept in a room without windows on charpoys (a bed of strings on a low wooden frame), bathed with cold water, used a pit for a toilet, and were cold most of the time.
Even our family was under assault. Jean Paul had been run over by a bullock cart in December. Michael was less than a year old and for some unknown reason loved eating the dung floors of the house. We kept shuddering about what disease would emerge. Maureen and I were losing weight, looked drawn and were tired much of the time.
The difficulty was really spirit. I knew we were to leave soon. We were not going to leave anyone to replace us. The usual initial excitement of the project launch had been ruined by an angry dispute with the administrative staff in Bombay. There were serious questions about the appropriateness of the location and our ability to fund the project. The project director's wife refused to move to the village and was in the process of leaving him. One member of the staff had been in Maharastra on special assignment for the past five months, visiting his family every five or six weeks.
From the very beginning Sripal, a youth of the village visited us every chance he had. He was 12 or 13 years old. He was quiet. He seemed to like to just sit and listen to the staff talk. He would just smile and listen.
He would arrive at breakfast or before and if there was no school leave after dinner. He would do anything, care for the project staff children, help with construction, and help with cooking. He wanted to learn English, he said. Really, he just wanted to help.
One day, in despair over doing anything helpful for the village, I was digging the foundations for the new community centre. I heard a scream and loud talk from the boy's house. I went to find out what had happened. The Sripal had run to the village from school to help with the project. He stopped at his home to tell his mother where he was going to be. He said he didn't feel well and collapse at his mother's feet dead.
The herbal doctor was called for and pronounced the boy dead.
His mother did not believe him. She wanted to go to Ghaziabad and have an MD confirm it. We had the only car in the village, so I said I would drive her. The mother and father, the Pradhan (village leader), the herbal doctor, three other people and the corpse were crammed into the ambassador. I drove the 10 kilometers to town and the doctor. The boy was taken up stairs to the doctor's office while the herbal doctor and I waited in the car.
We talked about the grief of the mother. When the boy was two or three, he had been diagnosed as having a congenital heart defect that required surgery to repair. The doctor knowing they were poor also said it was possible that the boy could live a happy normal life even without the surgery. The family didn't have the money and didn't want to borrow it. So they lived for the next 10 years in fear and hope that all would be well.
The family returned to the car in a few minutes. The boy was dead.
The mother now wanted to go to Delhi to the heart specialist who had originally diagnosed the boy. She knew he could help him. She had heard that hearts could be transplanted and even if the boy was dead he could be saved.
The herbal doctor said no, it was not possible; the boy was dead. The husband tried to comfort her. She insisted we go to Delhi. The Pradhan ordered her and the rest of us back to the village. Sripal was dead.
We started slowly back as the woman screamed all the way in protest at the injustice. By the time we reached Sikroar she was prostrate.
When we arrived, the whole village was out at the side of one of the canals that ran through the village. Several village elders took the body. It was wrapped in linen. A band began playing. Two or three men were digging in the canal. The boy was carried to the side of the water. The priest spoke and performed a ritual. The boy was lowered into the water. One man put his foot on him and another covered the body with brush. Dirt was piled on. Another ritual was said. The burial was over.
Sripal was too young for his spirit to be released in the funeral pyre, so he was returned to the waters.
We walked to the family's house. The mother, Bugwan was carried. The women of the village crowded into the house and the men sat in the courtyard.
When Bugwan arrived, two or three women screamed and cried in grief until they were exhausted. Before they could pause in their anguish, others would start. Sobs and cries went on into the night. Whenever Bugwan came to consciousness, the shrieks rose to a height of intensity.
The men sat in small groups and speaking quietly told stories of how the boy was. He was a good student. He cared for his family. He never got in trouble. He was gentle and kind. Several times his father expressed his pride in the boy's work with us for the village. For three days we mourned the boy. We delighted in his gifts to the village. We celebrated his life.
I thought again what more could a boy do to help.
- 24 Apr 2007