There are hundreds of men and women in India whose extraordinarily valiant deeds remain unknown — and unsung. One of them was Dashrath Manjhi, an extremely poor labourer at Gehlur village in the state of Bihar, who single-handedly chiselled through a huge mountain with just a hammer to create a road. He took 22 years to achieve this virtual miracle — and all for the passionate love he had for his wife, Phaguniya.

Manjhi’s role has been brilliantly portrayed by actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Similarly, the great Mughal emperor in India, Shah Jahan, built the magnificent Taj Mahal for his beloved queen, Mumtaz Mahal, whom he adored. Described as one of the ‘seven wonders of the world’, the Taj Mahal took 22 years as well to be built. Shah Jahan of course had an army of slaves and a treasury full of wealth to raise the marble mausoleum — where he and his queen are buried.

Manjhi had none of these. No slaves to help him, and he had to even sell his meagre possessions, including cattle, to buy the hammer and chisel. Such was his impoverished condition. But he had a will of iron that melted the mountain. A will that grew out of sheer helplessness when he saw his young wife, pregnant with a child, slip and fall down on the slopes of the mountain. She was carrying lunch for him, and the nearest medical centre was at Wazirganj, a good 80 km around the mountain.

Manjhi knew that it would take a good many hours to reach the hospital, the bad road making the journey even more difficult and time consuming. So he carried Phaguniya across the mountain, steering through hostile boulders and a punishingly rocky terrain.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the role of Dashrath Manjhi and Radhika Apte plays Phaguniya in Ketan Mehta’s biopic

But Manjhi could not save Phaguniya, though the child survived miraculously.

That day, Manjhi stood at the foot of the mountain in his blood stained clothes, looked at it and said he would tame it, wipe that snigger off its face, bring it down to its knees and demolish its arrogance.

Manjhi set to work with a kind of mad zeal in 1960, and cut a path through the mountain that shrunk the distance from his village, Gehlur, to the Wazirganj medical centre from 80 km to mere 13 km. As he hammered and chiselled through stubborn stones, Manjhi was ridiculed by fellow villagers and his own father. They called him a lunatic, and the village children pelted him with stones. He took all this with a pinch of rock, and stood stoically, never faltering in his dedication even once.

Director Ketan Mehta

He often told the people around him — those who were willing to listen to him — that he did not want anybody else to die for want of medical attention, the way his wife had gone.

In 1982, the path was complete, the mountain had melted.

Manjhi died in 2007, when he was 70-odd years. The Bihar government  gave him a state funeral, and as a just released movie on him, Manjhi– The Mountain Man,  tells us at the end “52 years after he had started breaking the mountain, 30 years after he had finished and 4 years after his death, the government finally made a metalled road to Gehlaur in 2011”. Till then, it was a mud track, broad enough though for vehicles to navigate through.

Sadly, when the man was labouring away, expending every ounce of energy in him, the administration took no note of his plight or that of his village. Rather, as the film directed by Ketan Mehta (who gave us socially provocative works like Bhavni Bhavai/The Tale of Life, Mirch Masala/Spices, Mangal PandeyThe Rising and Rang Rasiya /Colours of Passion) shows us  — albeit with a touch of fiction — government officials stole the money which was sanctioned to help Manjhi lay the road.

In many ways, Mehta’s film is also a powerful indictment of the corruption that prevails in India. It is also a heart-rending presentation of the helplessness of the poor and the downtrodden, who are also victims of caste violence and other forms of cruelty.

All this has been brilliantly portrayed by actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, whose ability to disappear into the character of Manjhi only makes his story not just hauntingly tragic, but one of immense resoluteness and rare commitment, which lead to the  ultimate triumph of the soul and spirit.

And, while Shah Jahan’s gleaming white edifice beholds the eye in a magical trance, Manjhi’s path acts as a remarkable road to recovery and wellness. Like the Biblical Mosses who held up his staff for the Red Sea to part to allow his followers to escape from the pursuing Egyptians, Manjhi gripped his hammer and the mountain split in two for a path so that men, women and children could flee death.  In fact, as the movie rolls into its second half, an ageing Manjhi begins to resemble Mosses, beard, headgear and all.

Mehta’s Manjhi may well create volcanic eruptions in a selfishly passive society — which cared little for Dashrath as he hammered away day after day.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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