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 THE OLD WOMAN  

 – Dr C K Mathew, IAS (Retd)

I was District Collector of Bhilwara in the mid 1980s, about twenty-five years ago. One of the sacred duties of the Collector is to listen to, and resolve, the grievances of the people, who complain to him, mostly about apathy and alleged corruption of officials in the government system.

A frequent visitor then to the durbar of the Collector was a simple-minded old woman, about seventy-five years old: she was barely articulate and muttered inaudibly about some land she had once owned, now forcibly occupied by an influential neighbour. She had been visiting the Collector’s office for years, and everyone used to dismiss her off as slightly cracked but harmless, with nothing to do, but make vague complaints. On each visit she would thrust a paper at me, which I used to dutifully mark down to the Revenue section “for necessary action”. The Collectorate staff did show pity on her and would ply her with tea and biscuits. I was told she would spend the night at the local mandir, where she would be given a place to sleep and a couple of rotis for dinner, before going back to her village the next day.

One day she decided she had had enough and took things into her own hands. It was late evening and I had left my office to get into the car to go home. She suddenly appeared out of nowhere and stood in front of the car, refusing to let me and the car pass unless I had heard her out. A small grinning crowd gathered and I was so embarrassed I had to get out of the car and invite her back into the office room. This time I realised I had to do something or lose face. She had forced me to act. I thought it better to nail her lies rather than postpone matters further. I asked the Sub-Divisional Officer to visit her village, some thirty kilometres away and report to me the real facts within a couple of days. I also directed that the District Women’s Development Officer should accompany her, so that she had someone to confide in and interpret her odd dialect.

Two days later, the truth came out: I was astounded to know that her story was indeed correct. She had had been the owner of some fine agricultural land, which had been forcibly taken over some years earlier by the village landlord, in connivance with the local Patwari. And for the last seven years she had been complaining to all the powers that be, but to no avail. Things moved fast thereafter: the encroacher was evicted, and the land formally handed over back to her, the patwari punished.

She came back to see me a week later. She was wearing a broad toothless smile and new clothes and looked radiant in her joy. But that’s not the end of the story. I was told that she requested for an audience with the Panchayat and announced that as she had no one at all in her near family, she would, after her days were over, donate the land she had fought for so fiercely and for so long, to the village Mahila Mandal so that other helpless women like her would have some succour in future.

She was true to her word. Some months thereafter, I moved on from Bhilwara to other assignments. I got word later that she too had moved on and had left behind the land for the Mahila Mandal. The women folk in the village constructed a small building on the land and vowed to keep her memory alive, by providing help to neglected women like her in the village.

I realised then that this simple woman had taught me a lesson: that those in authority have to heed those who have none, who have no voice. It is a simple lesson, but one that we so casually ignore every moment of our pampered lives.

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