It was supposed to be a punishment transfer. In my case, I got it because I had just joined a government service. I was packed off to a remote village, high up in the Himalayan mountains. There were no tarred roads in the village. A dirt track linked it to civilization. A bamboo hut with a corrugated-sheet roof became my office cum residence. On records, I was the district-in-charge and had a staff of four who reported to me. These four were local villagers and hardly ever attended ‘office’. Most of the time I was alone in my office. I read books and listened to music a lot those days.
I was twenty-four year old and took all this as a challenge. There was no work as such. We were there to keep an eye on the village and its inhabitants. I would send out long reports to bosses in distant cities. To while away the time I went on long walks around the village. That was how I made a few friends – two shopkeepers and a beggar. The villagers were poor and the shops in the village stored few provisions. My radio operator knew how to cook. He taught me how to boil rice and make chapattis. That was how I survived during my one year in that village.
One day around halfway into my posting, I had to meet the District Magistrate who was visiting the neighboring village. I went for the meeting along with one of my staff members. It was a distance of about five kilometers. Over the muddy roads it would have taken about three hours. We took a short-cut. Walking through the mountain pass and stepping around massive trees we reached in about two hours. Needless to say, I was tired. My assistant suggested we rest for some time at the house of his friend.
The house was more of a hut with cracks in the mud wall. It was dark inside. By the time my eyes got accustomed to the light inside I realized that the family was having dinner. It was about four in the evening. People in the hills slept by six, so dinner was early. With no electricity and no money to buy oil for lamps, there was no point keeping awake after dark.
Without a word the lady of the house put out another plate for me. There was no table. The family – My staffer’s friend, his wife , the man’s mother and his four children were all sitting on the floor eating out of steel plates. The children were staring at me as they gulped down handfuls of rice mixed with a watery stew. As I stood there in my designer jeans , t-shirt and brand new sports shoes, I was acutely aware of their tattered clothes and the ragged condition of the hut. I did not want to eat. These people were poor. I was a tough for them gt enough to feed their children. Add to that an extra mouth to feed… I refused
“ Sahib, they would feel bad if you do not eat!” my staffer said.
I looked at their faces, they did not understand my Hindi and I could not speak their language. I could see that they looked offended.
I sat down on the mud floor and began eating. Silently we ate. Nine of us in a dark room as pigs ran outside the house. It was getting dark and I did not want to be late for the meeting. So I gobbled up what was plied on my plate. The second I finished the lady of the house filled my plate with more rice. I protested and she gave me another hurt look. She pored a watery stew and added huge chunks of some vegetable. The food was bland, it had no spices, no taste. All that it had was a pinch of salt to make it edible. Again, I finished off the entire plate. This time I covered the plate with my hand to prevent her from filling it again.
“We have to leave,” I said, more to the people in the house than to my staffer.
I thought I would give them some money but was prevented by doing so.
“They will feel bad. You are a guest in the house. Guests do not pay.”
I felt odd but thanked the people in the hut and quickly walked out. No one came out as I left. With two plates of rice in my stomach I was finding it difficult to walk but we had an appointment to keep and I returned to my world.
Over the years, I have seen and read a lot about acts of charity,generosity and kindness but I am yet to come across an incident which comes anywhere close to what I experienced in that hut three decades back. It takes a big heart to give when you have almost nothing of your own.