The Wrath of Progress
Copyright 2009 by Shivaji K. Moitra
Ram Sagar had been driving his colourfully decorated carriage through the picturesque country roads ever since he had been a young man and he was thoroughly content with his laid back life. There was no dearth of passengers who alighted from the trains that trundled up to the riverside railway station and limbered up towards the horse-drawn carriages which took them to their respective villages dotting the banks of the mighty Narmada. The hilly terrain interspersed with lush green fields of mustard and corn irrigated by the inexhaustible foaming white waters of the great river offered a treat to the eyes and a comfortable life for the five thousand humble people.
While reclining on his couch and waiting for the three passenger trains that halted briefly at the small station everyday he often glanced over the pages of the newspapers. He was aware of the developments sweeping the nation. Most of the news though didn’t really excite him while some proved incomprehensible to his simple mind. But a few stirred him up and made him wonder at the future. Among those was the news that the government was going to build a huge dam on the river. However, it didn’t concern him unduly until one day, when he read something that really unsettled him. They were going to begin work on the monster project shortly.
He wasn’t afraid though, for he believed that the colossus project wouldn’t be ready in his lifetime given the tardiness of the bureaucracy and the slothful progress of government projects. But he was wrong.
When the rains stopped and a pleasant chill kissed the evening air monstrous machines with grotesque arms and claws and their helmeted masters arrived from nowhere and set up tents. In the following days they climbed upon the machines and embarked upon their job. With terrifying noise and ruthless efficiency they mowed down the forests, gnawed at the earth like demons and flattened down the ravines. Then, with huge blasts they ripped down the hills and built roads and embankments. The frightening pace of their work unsettled Ram and made him wonder about the disaster staring the villagers in the face.
As the work progressed furiously, the landscape of the village began to change in ways both strange and ugly. The hillocks began to disappear under tons of mud and rocks and the pastures and rolling glades where the cattle grazed and the village boys played earlier began to be replaced by mysterious mountains of sand and mortar. The ravines were flattened and the gorges were widened with powerful blasts. As concerns mounted among the villagers about their fate they united to voice their protests and demands. Faced with imminent displacement they turned violent and vent their anger at the contractors and the local government. Ram Sagar watched in horror as regular conflicts between the protestors and police shattered the reigning peace and tranquillity and affected the agrarian economy of his village and scores of other surrounding villages. Soon rights activists, lawyers and politicians descended upon the place in hordes. And trailing them arrived the media people with their cameras and bizarre gadgets. They also brought with them the vices of the modern society.
Months elapsed, seasons changed and years chased one another as time continued its eternal journey. But neither the construction work nor the protests and meetings stopped. In fact, the concrete walls and embankments rose higher and higher at a fast pace.
One rainy afternoon as Ram crouched in a corner of the platform the Station Master strolled up to him and said, “Ram Sagar, this station will be no more; they’re going to relocate it some 30 kilometres to the north.” Ram Sagar gazed mournfully at the Station Master’s dispassionate face and asked, “Sir, are you sure?” “Oh yes, I’ve got the official news yesterday,” he replied gravely.
Nevertheless, the trains continued to chug into the station as usual and Ram Sagar continued to drive his passengers to their destinations. Eight years elapsed before one chilly morning when the trains finally stopped running along the tracks. Ram climbed upon the deserted platform and jumped down on the tracks. As far as he could see there was not a moving object over it. He sat down on the rails and began to cry like a child. Except perhaps those cows and goats wandering merrily across the unguarded platform there was not a soul to take notice of his dismay.
Notwithstanding the painful fact that the railway station had ceased to exist for all practical reasons, every morning Ram fastened his horse to the carriage as usual and drove up to the abandoned station like a ghost. It had become almost a daily ritual for him which he found very hard to discard so abruptly.
A few months later a police van with a loudspeaker mounted on its bonnet drove into the village and announced, “Villagers, the sluice gates will fall soon and you are going to drown like rats. Leave this place within a week.” The poor villagers realised they had lost the unequal battle for justice and survival. So they quietly but reluctantly left their homes and farmlands with their meagre belongings and their cattle in a procession of bullock carts. In the end only the very old, the crippled and the insane were left behind. But Ram Sagar was the lone exception. He decided to stay back, because the cascading river, the gorges cut in marble rock, the ravines, the dense jungles, the meandering dusty streets and the wooden bridges, everything was part of his life. He felt he could not adapt to a different lifestyle and survive at some other distant place. In any case, he knew he had no duties to perform, no obligations to keep; he was unmarried and alone.
On the designated day a serpentine convoy of hooting cars with flashing lights arrived and the Minister descended upon the village with his cronies, bureaucrats and a host of media people. After a brief ceremony watched upon by only the bureaucrats and the media the huge sluice gates were dropped and the river was allowed to flow into the dam. As millions of gallons of foaming water crashed into the dam enclosure at a tremendous speed the earth trembled and the peculiar noise of a hundred thunderbolt reverberated across the hills.
The rising water engulfed one village after another as it surged to submerge 40000 hectares of forest and arable land. When the water entered his house and floated his wooden cot, he jumped on to his carriage and tugged at the reins. The horse broke into a trot and then galloped along the street steadily climbing up towards the erstwhile station. But the rapidly swirling waters chased them all the while. It drowned everything in its way.
When Ram Sagar reached the wooden bridge above
a stream flowing below the hill he pulled the reins. Then he patted
and kissed his horse for the last time and set it free. Standing
alone on the bridge in waist-deep water he gazed wistfully at the
rising sea of water all around. Then turning his eyes towards the
setting sun he folded his hands to pray for the last time. None but
the crimson sky and the old priest of the Shiva temple atop the hill
were witness to his final moments.
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