Human Dignity Defined

January 26, 2001 was a mild, sunny day in the city of Bhuj. Jaya had sent her two young boys off to school and her husband had gone to a factory where he was employed as an electrician. Later that evening the family was going to visit her brother’s family to celebrate the second birthday of his son. Joyfully, Jaya prepared some food for the occasion, drawing water from the pump outside the house. Suddenly the ground broke like shattered glass and Jaya saw her house, the homes of her neighbors, and everything else in sight swallowed up by the earth.

The great earthquake in the western state of Gujarat, India had begun and Bhuj was at the epicenter. Weeks later, when the death toll was final, the official count would be 19,727 souls. The property damage would exceed five billion dollars. Ninety percent of the homes in Bhuj were destroyed and in the capital city of Ahmedabad (pop 4.5 million), more than 50 multistory buildings collapsed, killing hundreds of people.

Jaya ran to the house of a neighbor where she heard screams. She was able to free her neighbor and baby from some bricks and timbers. Only then did she hear the crying and suffering of hundreds of others. Hours later she would realize that her life had been spared only because she was outside at the pumping water when the quake began. After instinctfully pulling several people from their homes she thought of her boys and ran to the school. The building had completely collapsed, its concrete walls and roof smashing the children. A few had survived, but most were buried among the stones and mortar. Jaya would soon learn the devastating truth and before the day was done she would hold in her arms the lifeless bodies of both of her sons. Her husband had been crushed to death by a machine he was repairing. She was later to learn that her oldest son had survived the initial shock but had been killed during an aftershock when he went back into the school to save his younger brother.

The disaster teams arrived with tents, food and water. The dead were creamated, their funeral pyres glowing in the winter sky. Jaya’s sorrow was incomprehensible, but she struggled on. There were no jobs and she was a widow; not an enviable state for an Indian woman. The months dragged on but somehow she got up every morning, day after day.

Six years have passed since Jaya’s worst day. Jaya has relocated and now lives in a little village near the city of Rajkot. The local Rotary club has built small, attached houses for the families of many earthquake victims. The village is located adjacent to an industrial park, where Jaya and others have found employment. Her home consists of one small room and a small toilet block. What her little house lacks in amenities it makes up for in cleanliness. She pays a small portion of her income toward the eventual purchase of her home. While grateful for her little home, the hurt of losing her husband and boys is forever within her. She is alone now and it is unlikely that she will ever remarry.

A television journalist from Austrailia has come to the village to do a follow-up story about the survivors of the great Gujarat earthquake. They interview Jaya’s new neighbor, who has a son with multiple sclorosis. The film crew have been complaining to their Indian hosts who are members of the Rajkot Rotary Club. Their accomodations have not been what they have grown to expect in most places they’ve visited. They’ve all gotten sick on this trip and they’re jet-lagged and tired, looking forward to getting back to their families in Austrailia. As professionals they do their jobs, but they are grouchy, to say the least.

Many in the village have lost family members, but Jaya is interviewed because the loss of her entire family is extraordinary. As the Austrailian television crew interviews Jaya, they become immersed by her story. Curt, a large, hulking fellow who serves as the crew’s cameraman, has been particularly gruff on this trip. He didn’t want to come to India and has looked forward to nothing else but getting back to Austrailia. As Jaya tells the story of the loss of her husband and boys, her relocation to the small village and her gratefulness for her small home, Curt tears up. India has finally impacted him. He asks one of the local Rotarians if he can give Jaya 500 rupees. This is only about $12 US dollars, but for Jaya it is a week’s pay. The Rotarian encourages him to make the gift, and the crew withdraws to give Curt a private moment with Jaya.

Knowing that Jaya’s material possessions consist of just a few dishes, a small bed, and a tattered photo of her husband and boys, Curt hands her a 500 rupee note. Jaya smiles at Curt and thanks him. Then she says, “Curt, I am so grateful to Rotary for making it possible for me to live in this nice little house. Please give the money to Rotary so that they can help someone else.” Curt knows that he will abide by Jaya’s wish and for the first time he isn’t worried any more about Jaya.

Emerging from Jaya’s house with red eyes and a smile on his face, Curt gets in the van with the rest of his crew and they start down the road. He looks back at the smiling, frail woman dressed in her little sari, waving goodbye. As Jaya’s form fades in the rising dust, the big fellow looks at his fellow Austrailians and says, “Gentlemen, today for the first time in my 45 years on this earth, I learned what human dignity is all about.”

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