Maa mujhe inter tak zaroor padana,suna hai uske baad log engineering ki taiyari kar sakte hain (Mother,please keep me in school till Class XII. I have heard one can prepare for engineering entrance after that).
Kajal Kumari (10),a Class III student,would often tell her mother Malti Kuwar this. Malti would reassure her,telling her of course she would,even if it meant she had to work in more houses as domestic help.
Kajal was a keen student,adds elder brother Rajesh,never missing school. Perhaps they now wish this wasnt the case. Perhaps she could have missed school that day of July 16. Perhaps she would have survived the Gandaman primary school mid-day meal tragedy that killed 22 others.
Rajesh,who dropped out of school after their fathers untimely death to support the family,shows the toy car and necklace that Kajal bought just two days before her death. The family has disposed of the rest of her belongings,but these two they find hard to let go.
Bijeshwar Mishra laments the poverty that forced his brother Harendra Kishore to send his sons Rahul (9) and Prahlad (5) to a government school. With Harendra away to Gaya to perform their last rites,Bijeshwar recalls: Rahul always liked policemen and hoped one day to wear the uniform. Prahlad,though only five,hated people getting drunk and would often talk of destroying countrymade liquor factories.
One thought keeps gnawing at the family members though. That Rahul and Prahlad wanted to miss the school lunch that day,but with the women of the house busy in work,they were sent back for the mid-day meal.
Akhilanand Mishras five-year-old son Ashish was popular among the village boys,who called him Pandey and would gather at his house almost every afternoon before heading out to play. There are other memories that come back to Mishra now,about how once Ashish was hit by a cyclist and immediately came and said he would like a job in which one can keep a pistol. A plastic mug kept in the boys room reminds Mishra of how he disliked milk but would use the mug for only health drinks.
Claims of good governance in Bihar by the Nitish Kumar government mock at the family now. Mishra asks why the Chief Minister couldnt have used an air ambulance to take the ailing children to Patna hospital. He is so concerned about his hairline fracture thumb (Nitish was not seen for several days after the tragedy,apparently on account of this), Mishra remarks. He should know how villagers live! Air-lifting children would have made him a special CM.
Baliram Mishra has got rid of all the photographs of his son Roshan,8,but for one. He keeps it carefully hidden from his wife lest she break down again. My son was a bright student. As I am disabled in my right leg,Roshan would talk of becoming a doctor and treating me, he says.
Baliram could not provide a separate room for him,but Roshan had an exclusive corner to himself where he would sit on the ground to study. A sky-blue shirt he loved to wear is all that remains in the house as a reminder of the boy now. The family is yet to even properly grieve as Roshans elder sister Neha (11) is still at Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH) recovering.
Ashu (7),son of Bali Mahto,a daily wager,loved wearing white and had gone to school in shorts and shirt in that colour on July 16. Perhaps it had something to do with his hopes of becoming a pilot. He would get excited at the sight of aeroplanes and helicopters in sky and would watch them till they disappeared, says grandmother Sunra Kuwar. His cousins show the bat made of bamboo that was his favourite.
Ashu and brother Mantu would mostly bring their mid-day meal home. They dont know exactly why but that day they made an exception.
Shankar Thakur,who has a small barber shop in Gandaman villages Dharmasati market,laments that his seven-year-old daughter Baby was the only one among nine schoolchildren of her neighbourhood to have gone to school that day. She did not like missing school,says Shivji Thakur,her uncle. As a tractor was coming to plough the field,most children stayed back to see it. But Baby went, he adds.
Money a constant concern,Shankar is back at the shop now. However,often when he picks up a scissor,he remembers how they were all excited about the new primary school in the village,and that Baby wanted to be a teacher and that she did not like him cutting hair for a living.
Satendra Ram was proud of how son Rahul (10),a Class III student,impressed the family with his English sentences such as,he recalls,I live in India. Rahul loved school and English and wanted to be an engineer,and Ram had enrolled him for English and Math tuitions. I had been thinking of changing his school but there were few options, says the father.
Over 30 per cent of Gandaman youths are migrant workers in Punjab,New Delhi and Gujarat,and Ram was in Ludhiana when tragedy struck on July 16 a thought that still haunts him. My son did not like my working away from him, he says.
Vinod Mahto,another migrant worker,remembers the time he had taken daughters Arti and Shanti to Ludhiana. The nine-year-old and seven-year-old are both dead now,along with brother Vikas (5). As a father,I hardly did anything for their studies. They died when they had just started to dream, Vinod cries,leaning against his thatched house. Sandhya (18-month-old),his only remaining child now,runs to her mother on seeing the camera.
Ajay Yadav,who lost his daughter Dipu (5),says the tragedy had taught him that one should always keep ones family where one lives. Ajay is also a migrant worker.
Meena Devi,the school principal who has now been arrested,is a neighbour of Teras Yadav. Owner of a small provision store in Delhi,Teras says he always wanted his children to study. Among those who died were Terass four-year-old daughter Khushbu,who had gone to school with elder sister Reshmi (9). Teras also lost his nephew Anshu,who used to live at his maternal place just so he could study at the school.
Tragedy also struck at the house of the school cook Pano Devi,who lost her children Suman (11) and Rohit (5),while her daughter Nisha (5) is still in hospital. Pano too hasnt been discharged from PMCH yet. Ruby,Pano Devis eldest daughter,says her mother had only taken up the job recently. My father does small jobs. She wanted all of us to study and become good human beings. The 14-year-old stays at her maternal uncles place in a neighbouring village to study.
Ramanand Yadav recalls that daughter Kajal (6) pestered him to buy books for her,as the school had delayed providing them. She finally got them on the fateful day, he says. We have stopped dreaming now.
Raju Sah is dreading July 29,the day his son Shiva would have turned 7. Shiva would have surely called his friends and distributed sweets, he says as wife Sanju cries inconsolably.