Bolpur (Birbhum): Approximately two decades after her mother was branded a ‘witch’ and nearly lynched by her neighbours, Churki Hansda is now working to save lives in those same tribal villages in West Bengal’s Birbhum district.
The thirty-year-old Santhali woman, who used to work as a daily wage earner pre-lockdown, now drives a rented Maruti Omni van to ferry oxygen concentrators to Covid patients in Birbhum’s villages that do not have easy access to hospitals. From delivering oxygen concentrators to fixing and refilling them for the Covid patients, Churki does it all.
A graduate from a local college, Churki lost her job as a private tutor at the beginning of the pandemic last year and took up work as a daily wager, sharecropper. But even that means of earning was gone when the West Bengal government imposed another lockdown in the wake of the second surge in Covid cases in the country.
Not one to give up, Churki associated herself with a social welfare group running a care network for Covid patients and started ferrying oxygen cylinders and concentrators to villages.
She was about 10-years-old when her mother was branded a witch by the other villagers and the family driven out of their home. “I am haunted by nightmare of that every day. But it disturbs me when I see those villagers gasping for breath. So, I thought I would not take revenge, but rather set an example by saving lives. My mother is my driving force,” Churki told ThePrint.
Fear of being infected — and passing on the disease to her family — troubles her every day, but she continues her work, mask in place.
The day her mother was branded a witch…
Churki’s mother wanted her daughters to study — a dream that Churki now has for her younger siblings. But for Churki’s mother, the dream had scary consequences.
“People in tribal villages do not want girls to go to schools and colleges and study. They see it as a bed omen. They almost killed my mother, because she sent her daughters to school. So she was branded a witch,” Churki told ThePrint.
In a typical case of witch hunt, often reported from Indian villages, Churki’s mother was blamed when a young boy from the village went missing. “My mother was an easy target, because she seemed abnormal to the others in her desire to educate her daughters,” explained Churki.
Badly beaten up, she had to be rescued by the police from being lynched, and spent two weeks in hospital with broken limbs. The family’s home was ransacked and they were driven away from the village.
For the next few years, the family moved from one village to another, unable to settle in one place because of the ‘witch’ tag. Finally, they settled in Bandh Nabagram, a village 10 km away from the town of Bolpur, and built a mud hut on a small piece of land that had previously been used for cremating the dead. The villagers do not go there any more and no one disturbs the family.
Through the many upheavals in their lives, Churki held on to her mother’s dream. “I am the eldest among my four siblings. I want them to study. My younger sister has completed her Masters in History, but is yet to get a job,” the 30-year-old told ThePrint.
Monisha Banerjee, a school teacher who runs the Covid care network with which Churki is associated, is all-praise for her strength.
“Her tragic life made her resilient and really strong. A village girl probably cannot even think of what she does. She is fearless and with an extreme will power to help others,” she said.
A day in Churki’s life
Churki had learnt to drive a few years back while working as a domestic help for a family in Kolkata. But it’s negotiating the uneven, muddy village roads in her old van that has given her confidence behind the wheels.
The sole earning member in the family of six, Churki begins her day at 8 am, cycling down 10 km to get the van from the owner. She then drives down to the community centre in Bolpur from where she picks up the concentrators, carries them to the refill centres and then ferries them to the places where they need to be dropped.
As demand for oxygen went up during the second Covid wave, Churki worked long hours, often making four to five trips every day to remote villages with her van that she calls “oxygen on wheels”.
Despite being a frontline worker, who not only delivers oxygen but also comes in contact with Covid patients, she is yet to receive even the first vaccine dose. Without a smartphone, she does not have access to the CoWin platform. She has enrolled herself and her parents for vaccination with the local hospital, but has not received a slot yet.
At home, she lives in a small separate space in her mud house, to minimise the risk of infecting her family. But despite the fear and difficulties, she hasn’t stooped caring for the patients she serves. Rather, the suffering she has seen in others has made her more keenly aware of their need.
“I have seen people struggling for breath and dying in the villages. But still there is resistance to hospital treatment. They think they will all die if they go to hospital,” said Churki, adding, “I have taken my van and picked up oxygen cylinders late in the evening to reach a village that is 50-60 km away from my house.”
But for the most part, the pandemic has worn thin the close-knit village society, she said. “I have seen how people distanced themselves from each other. No one comes out to help another. For villagers, Covid is a disease that brings shame. They do not want to talk about their symptoms and illness until they start gasping,” she said.
The spunky young woman dreams of buying her own vehicle, but given the hardships that she is used to, immediately wonders, with a laugh, if that is too much of “demand from life”.
“I barely manage two meals for my family. I can only dream of owning a van. I don’t think I will ever be able to gather that big an amount of money. But I am happy with the rented one too. I earn about Rs 5,000-6,000 from the organisation that provides the cylinders. The service is free for the recipients,” she said.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
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