Mangru Ram was the best “Gobar danda’ player in our group. Gobar danda or cow dung stick was a game, where a player (who was identified through a complicated route of pushing the stick nearest to the starting point) had his stick dragged along a distance by other players till he or she is able to touch any one who has not kept their stick on a lump of cow dung. If any other player is thus touched then the earlier player has to carry the stick (usually coated with all the filth of the ground) balanced on his head back to the starting point without dropping it. If he drops the stick before the starting point the game resumes again or else the new player’s stick is selected for the next round. Can’t find too much logic to the game, but 35 years back it was the most popular game in our group.
Our primary pitch check was to find out,which part of the ground had most cow dung before it got picked up (usually cow dung were picked up by other people to dry and used as fuel). Then we will find some Lantana sticks and the game started.
I don’t remember Mangru ever losing, it was as if losing was not an option. Generally a quite and genial boy, Mangru became a monster while playing Cow dung stick game. He will yell, fight, cheat but not lose. After the game, Mangru was a changed boy, normal, shy and apt to disappear to his house.
None of us knew where Mangru lived, even though we lived in a very small town in the central part of India. He never discussed his family, he was not in the same school as rest of us, generally his clothes were of smaller size than his good built body. We had asked him to play with us, when we had noticed him looking at our game, some months back.
Back in those days, birthdays were when we used to get a new pair of clothes, had a cake baked at home and few snacks bought from the nearest sweet shop, nothing fancy but it seemed more than enough then. I was eagerly awaiting for my birthday, which came during the summer vacations hence school friends were generally never around (having gone to their grandparents home or some other place).
That year, I wanted to invite Mangru for my birthday, more so because there was nobody else to invite. But because of the vacations we had not been playing, since most of group was out of town.
so I went in search of Mangru; having asked a few people around, if they knew where he lived. Someone vaguely pointed me to a locality on the outskirts of the town. I followed the directions and finally found him.
He lived in small hut with mud walls and roof made of bamboo sticks covered with dried leaves. There was only one room where his entire family slept and ate (one corner of the room had a small wood fire stove made of mud. I could see he was embarrassed by my appearance, but did not say anything (he generally never said anything until we started playing the game). I told him that it was my birthday the next day and asked if he will be able to come to my house for some sweets. He looked at his mother and then nodded.
I was happy that he had agreed because he looked very uncomfortable, so immediately got up to go before he changed his mind. He came with me outside, that is when I saw his father coming in. I had seen him before, a man of diminutive nature who used to come to our locality daily in the morning and evening.
Then it stuck me, it was he who carried the waste from our lavatory (those days we had toilets which consisted of one hole with thin walls covering four sides, and the waste used to just pile below to be collected and disposed of by someone). I had noticed this man shoo away the pigs and then pickup the waste, put it in a bin and carry it on his head to dispose it somewhere (I do not know where). All the families using the toilet collectively used to pay him every month.
Mangru noticed I had seen and recognised his father; but I saw something else, in his eyes, not embarrassment or plea for pity and not even joy of seeing his father, but something else which I could not understand then.
Mangru came to my birthday and we had a good time eating the goodies which my mother had prepared. Our family never spoke about Mangru or his family or his father’s job. Years went by, I went to different cities studying and then working, and I forgot that day as I have forgotten many happy days of my childhood, till I saw the newspaper today.
It was about the naxalite problem in our old area and about the killing of a top local commander of the area called as Mangru Ram. There was no photos with the article but I somehow knew it was the same Mangru; he had become a naxalite!
I suddenly remembered the look in his eyes on the day I had invited him for my birthday, and finally realised what it meant. It was a look of defiance, a look which said that he would never be like his father, the look said that he will find a way to grow up and not be like his father. The look also explained why Mangru never wanted to lose the cow dung stick game, he never wanted to carry any filth on his head as his father did every day. I am sure he never did that work even after his father’s death.
But probably life never gave him too many opportunities and finally he took the path which seemed the most defiant to the society at large. He probably lived his life like he played the game of cow dung stick, never wanting to lose come what may be..
PS: Manual scavenging was made illegal in India in 1993 but the practice still continues in many parts of the country and mostly people from so called lower castes only do it.
Naxalite problem still exists in many parts of the country and is considered the biggest security threat to India today.
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