Surprise Visit to Bihar

The flooding in India today carries us back to our experience in Bihar in 1967. We'd arrived in India after a memorable sailing with friends aboard a freighter from Holland via Africa, Burma, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Calcutta. We had an Indian train pass which was valid for two months, and boarded the train from Calcutta, destination Bombay (now Mumbai). The trains in India are packed; we luckily got a second-class ticket. (There’s also “fourth-class” hanging onto the sides and sitting on the roof.)

Seated across from us was a man with a restless creature with a long snout, on a leash. Curious, I asked, “What kind of animal is that?”“Oh, this is mongoose, my friend”, he replied in a friendly voice, “my bodyguard against cobras.” From him I learned the mongoose is the nemesis of a cobra. “I am a salesman”, he went on, “and travel often to places that have such snakes, so it’s good to have my mongoose with me. Family back home feel better when I travel, and so do I”. There was no air conditioning in our compartment. On impulse, we decided to forget about Bombay for now, and got off the train. We liked the look of the local people. The morning was still cool. We set off, having been told there was guest room at a farm within walking distance.

In no time we were in the countryside. A young girl walked behind two Brahmin bulls ploughing a field. She had a basket atop her head, and scooped up the dung left by the bulls, putting it in her basket. It got hot, no shade or trees in sight. Crows and buzzards flew overhead. We’d been walking along this dusty country road. There wasn’t a house to be seen, anywhere.

Then out of nowhere, a truck approached. “Where are you guys off to?”, said an English voice. We told them. “That’s in the other direction, this way you’ll be walking for hours! Hop in, we’re with Oxfam.” We gladly got in. And so, destiny connected us to the heart of Bihar. These Oxfam volunteers were intimately familiar with the local region and people; the nearest shelter happened to be their base. Oxfam was there to help the people build their own wells, so they could irrigate their land. “It hasn’t rained here for2 years”, said one. We could well believe it. I’d noticed the enormous cracks in the earth caused by severe drought. And currently in the news we learn of this major flood in that very region, an area at the mercy of elemental wrath. (Perhaps now, made worse by climate change.)