‘These people gave up their homes so that I could sleep in comfort’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

It wasn’t just a mission to build a water tank. Most of the locals in Ban Pa Kluay, a little Karen village nestled in the dense rainforests of Thailand, north of Chiang Mai, had hardly received any clean water before our team arrived on a rainy July afternoon. I was part of a group assigned three weeks to construct two gigantic water tanks from scratch and provide the people with water. I was first inspired by my grandmother to sign up for this project. Over the years, I have travelled with her to various parts of India, and she was the one who taught me the concept of service, and respect for different traditions.

With the scorching summer sun for company, Paulauy became more than a home for me. This place, poorer than many parts of rural India, embraced us with great hospitality and love. I was stationed in a small hut on stilts that was clearly someone else’s house. As I walked in, I remembered seeing photographs and toys of a family that had recently vacated their home to provide us space to sleep. These people had given up their homes so that I could sleep in comfort. Heck! I could have slept in a tent pitched outside and it wouldn’t have mattered, as long as I could give them their home back. I knew more than ever that I had a duty towards the villagers, to provide them with the cleanest water possible.

The village inhabitants were mainly elderly people who worked from dawn to dusk on the paddy fields. Theirs was a lifestyle that can only be described as simple. The whole experience was extremely humbling, and I couldn’t help but shed a tear. The stark poverty of the village seemed shockingly disconnected with the rich, vibrant vegetation that surrounded us.

The first person I got to know in Ban Pa Kluay, was an elderly woman who was deeply interested in my work. I felt an instinctive empathy for her as she reminded me of my grandmother, or, as I call her, Ma. She had the same spark, joy and excitement for life that was made evident by her sense of humour and interest in everything I was doing. We communicated through gestures and a few words. It soon became obvious to me that, like Ma, she saw the future through the eyes of her grandchildren. Because of her, the work that I was engaged in became more of a personal mission.

Our first few days in the village were extremely trying. The well that the villagers drew water from was unimaginably dirty and their filtration process was to simply boil the water. Recently a small girl had drowned in that well. Our first week, we trekked 10 kilometres to the nearest clean water source, which was a small waterfall. From there, under the blistering sun, we dug trenches all along the road straight to the village. We laid down blue pipes and connected them to one another. And as the water started flowing through the pipes, I felt sheer excitement, jubilation and relief.

I knew this project was going to be physically challenging. We ate sparse food, had no clean water for an entire week and my hands and feet were covered in blisters. But constructing the massive tanks was the real challenge. I had to carry bags and bags of cement, gravel and tools uphill to the main site at least 6-7 times a day. However, I had no idea that this would soon become a journey of self-discovery as well. I overcame my phobia of insects and found a new resilience within me that I didn’t know I possessed.

Once we completed the entire project, people from neighbouring villages gathered around for the first few drops of water. This surreal moment, as I watched the water flow into the tanks, made me realise a very basic, simple fact that is often obscured by more popular problems of the privileged — happiness for many people in this world could just be one little drop of water.

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