Everything comes with an extra helping in Koinpur. The air has a freshness, a romance that you have forgotten it should have. The breeze barely rustles the leaves, but brushes your cheek with a gentle, welcome coolness. The hills are surprisingly lush with trees. On long walks, you're accompanied solely by the sound of your breathing. At night, the Milky Way streams across the dazzling night sky, a sight city dwellers have nearly forgotten. The mosquitoes strike the only sour note, though perhaps the way to explain that in Koinpur is to note that they bite with an especially energetic venom.
Koinpur should have been a hill station, the kind of place honeymooners moon about in. But no tourists visit this lovely spot nestled in the hills of southern Orissa.
We came to Koinpur after a morning spent trying to get a sick child admitted to a dismal hospital. It made for a depressing, exasperating day. Everything I had heard about the hospital was true, and yet it was worse still when we got there. And yet, too, in some ways it was just the usual. For there are so many things that are depressing, exasperating. Calculating politicians lead us up dead-end paths. Poverty demeans us all. College degrees need only be bought, not earned. I find myself longing -- as at the hospital that morning -- for an escape from dirt, apathy and corruption; longing for somewhere where those three words are not the first that come to mind.
So Koinpur: an outpost of an NGO that works in Orissa, and here, serves a few dozen Saora tribal villages scattered through the surrounding hills.
The coordinator the NGO had in place had earlier sold beer in Karnataka. He put his beer-taught marketing and management skills to good use in various Koinpur projects: a residential school for tribal children, a dispensary, a cane furniture factory, nurseries to raise saplings for reforestation and horticulture.
Health services came from a doctor, I'll call her Priya, trained in community health. She spent ten days every month there, coming away from a small dispensary she ran for the same NGO in another rural area of Orissa. She also trained health workers in basic principles they could implement among villagers. Some of these were villagers themselves, compensated in some way -- with the produce from a tamarind tree, for example -- by their neighbours. Others were paid staff, usually young women from different parts of the state. Some of the women ran small balwadis -- like day-care centres -- for kids whose parents were at work: at these centres, kids could count on at least one hot, nutritious meal in the day.
All of which were only the tangibles. Intangible, but very apparent in Koinpur, is hope. Signs of a better tomorrow.
About now, you probably think I'm going to praise the idealism, the heroic sacrifices, of those who live and work in Koinpur. Thank you, but think again. Vaclav Havel once wrote that we must all "live in truth." That's all. Forget about heroism and sacrifice, he suggested, just be responsible for your life and for those you care for. Havel's little lesson came to mind in Koinpur, and that's why I felt that hope.
Not that our first moments there offered any. We heard of a two-month-old boy, son of Malti and Deenabandhu from a nearby village called Bada Deula, who ... well, it happened like this.
He had a mysterious high fever; as always, there was no doctor to examine him at the closest Government primary health centre, a six-kilometer trudge away; a compounder there "prescribed" an expensive multivitamin tonic for the boy; like everything else in the world of medicine, it was unavailable at the PHC (besides, nobody knew to ask whether this tonic would help anyway); Malti and Deenabandhu asked a friend to make the two-day hike into the plains and back to buy the stuff; when the friend returned, the boy had died.
That was that. Simple. Life and death in tribal India, just the usual.
News came of a teenaged girl in another village, suffering from a boil on her hip. Priya got in her jeep, put us in the back and we bumped our way to the girl's home. She was in great pain, walking and sitting with awkward and shy difficulty. To lance the boil, Priya decided to bring her back to the makeshift Koinpur clinic. Travelling with this girl in the back with us, the journey seemed far more tortured than on the way out. One jolting hour over terrible roads in the back of a jeep was hard enough for us; we shrank from the thought of what it must have been like for her. But she bore it without a sound, with even an occasional smile.
At the clinic, here's how the operation went, as it was later described to me. Two of Priya's health workers held the girl down on a cot. Priya took a knife and cut straight down into the flesh around the boil, two slits four inches deep forming a "X". Then she slid a pair of scissors into the wound and separated the blades, tearing the inner flesh to widen the incision. When it was wide enough, she cut away the infected tissue, removed it and bandaged the wound.
No, the girl was not anaesthesized. Such frills of modern medicine have not yet made the ascent into the hills of tribal Orissa.
Forgive me if I made you wince. It was hard for me to listen to this account, not much easier writing those sentences. But Priya said the girl only whimpered once or twice, that's all. And here I was, the hardened city dude -- or so I thought -- feeling faint just hearing about this operation second-hand.
Yet I marvelled at the girl's strength. I marvelled also at the strength in Priya, who had to work in these conditions, deal with these situations, month after month, year after year.
Watching a rain cloud break dramatically over revered Mahendragiri, the highest hill around Koinpur, I wondered why so many people had chosen to work here. Certainly several would be better paid elsewhere. Besides, there were no telephones, no NDTV 24/7, no movie theatres. Most of the nearby tribal villages, like Bada Deula, are reachable only on foot, usually after tough climbs. Electricity is fitful. Mosquitoes abound. What is it that drew 50 people to Koinpur? Even the charm of the place might wear away after a time. What made it worth their while to stay?
For some, this was a job like any other. One that came with an opportunity to learn something new, see something different, yes, but still a job. For others, the work here included the chance to make a difference to a few people's lives. All together, they combined into an efficient operation that, yes, was making a difference.
Priya's unglamorous measures -- training health workers, preventive health practices -- had begun to pay off. Overall health standards in the nearby tribal villages were rising. People were driving up to buy furniture by the truckload from the cane factory, some from hundreds of miles away. (Here in Bombay, I know of a few satisfied customers). That and crops like cashew brought in additional income for villagers. The hills were starting to look forested again. The tribal school was searching for a principal/administrator when we were there -- I was greatly tempted to apply -- but had not suffered noticeably for the lack of one. 25 children enter each year, adding a new grade each time.
In my book, all this is the stuff of hope. As it is to several thousand forgotten, unknown Saoras around Koinpur.
But as the rain comes down off Mahendragiri, falling heavily, bringing a breathtaking coolness after days of heat, a small thought occurs to me. While Koinpur has brought a glimmer of better days to these tribals, it may just stand for much more than that. For a country fracturing on so many lines, dragged down by the weight of so many neglected problems, what's happening in this tiny corner of our most backward state might just be a model for lifting ourselves up, out and forward.
That, in the end, may be the greatest hope of all. Live in truth, said Vaclav Havel. It was happening in Koinpur.