‘Water bearer…,’ someone shouted.
A large wooden barrel on wheels pulled by an aging bullock rolled through the gate. The compound in front of the bungalow was completely covered by a palm-leaf thatched pandal, almost an acre of flat ground hedged by Datura bushes. The shout was picked up by others and a crowd of hundred odd young men and women materialized around the barrel, with a medley of earthen pots and aluminum buckets.
‘Hussshhhh, Jyotamma is coming,’ that was enough to make the unruly crowd fall into an orderly line. Jyoti is their mother, their sister and the light of their lives. Her husband was the Executive Engineer presently in charge of the masonry works of Nandikonda Dam. Once the dam is built, the parched lands of Palnad would turn green with three crops a year feeding millions of hungry mouths in the country, no wonder the project was called a Modern Temple by none other than Nehru then Prime Minister of India. The people presently living under the pandal were among the thousands of volunteers from Palnad who had come to lend their hand and they were from a cluster of villages where Jyoti’s father, Pedda Reddy was a farmer and landlord.
Five years had passed since the day Rajah of Muktyala visited at the village on a backbreaking tour covering thirty thousand miles and thousands of villages. It was he who had explained to every villager the importance of the project. He had also contributed an incredible amount of fifty five thousand Bristish pounds as a matching contribution to the expenditure of the Government of India towards it. And, that was not enough, he had mobilized thousands of volunteers, skilled and unskilled, to help the building effort.
Pedda Reddy had assembled the entire population of the villages at the local temple during the Rajah’s visit and had made all of them swear that at least one member from each family would volunteer. Other than Jyoti, his youngest child, he had two sons. The younger of the two, was leading a team of three hundred odd volunteers and the entire cost of their food and shelter was borne by the family. When Jyoti’s husband was transferred from Hospet, she had taken up residence at Macherla, and as a result the lives of the volunteers had improved dramatically. She had arranged for the putting up of the pandal at her home and had even built a kitchen with pit-stoves to feed those hardworking men, every day for the last few years.
‘Where is Chinnanna?’ she enquired presently, asking no one in particular.
‘He’s gone in the morning, the first shift isn’t back yet,’ someone answered. ‘Isn’t it late?’ she wondered aloud…
‘How will he take the news?’ The only thought in Jyoti’s husband’s mind was about her father.
He was looking through the telescope installed at the river-view bungalow. It looked like a gigantic anthill with over thirty thousand workers carrying stone and cement up a crisscross of wooden ramps reaching the sky. It was the largest masonry structure the world had ever seen, in volume, it’s larger than all the pyramids of Egypt put together.
Then it had happened…
One of the ramps had begun teetering for what felt like an eternity… but they held. The ramps were designed in vertical sections to minimize loss of life just in case of such mishaps. But falling objects and stampedes caused by panic had always resulted in deaths which were in most cases avoidable. It was only after his jeep entered the Kamala Nehru Hospital, did he realize that the tragedy had hit much closer home than he had expected.
His wife’s brother was on the causeway below the dam, getting his team aboard its transport, a lorry organized by the contractor, when he had noticed the commotion and the heavy stones descending on them at the speed of a hailstorm. He had hardly time to shout a warning and push a few men nearby to safety, under a ledge that acted as an awning, before a falling stone wrapped in a gunny sack found its unfortunate mark.
As they neared the village, the women standing on machans chasing birds with their slingshots in the outlying millet fields were the first to know of the tragic news. Their shrill cries of grief reached the village, well before the cortege of trucks. Pedda Reddy stepped out to see what the commotion was all about.
‘Naannaaa… Chinnanna…’ when he heard the ominous words from his daughter, he crumpled against a pillar that supported the veranda. He stayed that way, wordlessly. His wife, his companion for thirty long years was not spoken to. He had no words of comfort for the shocked wife of his son with a baby in arms, or his grandson six year old unaware of the tragedy that had struck him. Condoling words from a steady stream of friends and family had not elicited any response, not even when the misshapen body of his son was consigned to flames.
Finally it was time to leave for his daughter and her husband. She stood before him with her six year old nephew, son of her departed brother, hiding in the folds of her saree. ‘I’m taking him with me to Macherla, the town has better schools,’ it obviously was her decision and she wasn’t asking for any permission.
Behind the dry eyes staring at the empty sky, his mind was afire with guilt. Wasn’t he to blame for his son’s death? Wasn’t his word given to the Rajah of Muktyala the reason for his son to toil far away from the safety of home and invite ill fate? But… he wasn’t alone. And, it wasn’t the only mishap. Like him there were many fathers who had lost their children and children who lost a parent, to what end? A thin film of tears blurred his vision as he nodded and opened his arms to beckon his grandson.
‘He must see the project his father had built.’ were the first words that escaped his mouth in a long time.
Jyoti rushed into his arms. They stood there, the trio, the old man who had aged visibly in the last few days, the young woman who had finally found a measure of comfort in her father’s arms and the child who was yet unaware of the goings on but thrilled though about the idea of going to a big town and an exciting future. Their sacrifices were like small drops of precious water falling in an empty bowl in the hope that one day soon it might fill to the brim to quench their thirst.
‘When are you leaving?’ he asked shakily holding the face of his little grandson in his calloused hands. ‘Tomorrow?’ Jyoti answered but it sounded more like asking for permission.
‘Hmm… there’s not much time…,’ he had decided, ‘I must gather the volunteers.’ Jyoti was aghast. ‘After all this, you still want to send men there?’
‘Yes, I have made a promise to the Rajah that every family sends one man. I’ve lost a son but I still have another,’ he said trying to sound as impassive as possible, ‘and so… you must take your elder brother with you to lead them,’ turning his face away to hide the anguish the words had caused.
Yet a teardrop escaped his eye to drop at his foot and was absorbed by the parched soil of Palnad… but not quickly enough for Jyoti not to notice.
Rajah Vasireddy Ramagopala Krishna Maheswara Prasad of Muktyala was the driving force behind the building of the greatest masonry dam that had shaped the economy of modern Andhra. To influence the dissenting governments and to convince the influential dissenters he had toured the length and breadth of the lower Krishna valley, meeting the people from every walk of life and explained the benefits of the project, earning him the sobriquet ‘Project Prasad’ from none other than Nehru. The story goes that when the committee appointed by the government was not keen on visiting the site due to its inaccessibility, he had mobilized local men and his money to build roads through the jungles of Palnad. It was estimated that he had contributed his entire privy purse of over fifty five thousand pounds to the construction of the dam matching the grant of the government. More, he had inspired thousands of men, future beneficiaries of the project, to contribute their skills and muscle willingly to the building effort.
Nagarjuna Sagar: It was called a ‘Modern Temple’ that had heralded green revolution in Andhra converting the dry lands of the lower Krishna basin into a rice bowl feeding millions of mouths. The newly independent country was short of resources but not resolve, and the project matched the aspirations of Telugu people then. Ninety thousand workers in three shifts toiled eighteen hours a day for over ten years to make the dream come true. Thousands worked without wages, many lost their lives, their limbs and livelihoods, for the singular purpose of bequeathing a brighter life to their generations next. The world was witness to the building of the greatest monument of modern India. Today, it stands as a living symbol of Telugu ambition, determination and their ability to build from scratch.