Odisha villages unite to rebuild infrastructure, lives post-Cyclone Fani, but healing will take longer for those who lost loved ones

Twenty-seven-year-old Prasanna Khuntia, and several others from Kendubari Sahi, a village in the Chanrapada Panchayat of Nimapara block in Puri district, are at the electricity office in Dighala on the road joining Nimapara with Konark. The residents of the hamlet have pulled in money and hired a tractor to carry electric poles to their village.

"It's been a month since power lines were completely devastated. The villagers are united, every family is contributing money and labour for the quick restoration of power,” says 24-year-old Managobinda Pradhan, a neighbour of Prasanna.

 Odisha villages unite to rebuild infrastructure, lives post-Cyclone Fani, but healing will take longer for those who lost loved ones

Prasanna Khuntia, second from left, lost his father on the day Cyclone Fani hit Odisha. Debi Mohanty

It is past 2 pm. They had left their village four hours ago and intend to return before the evening. “We will dig earth, install the polls and then the wires will be pulled. Hopefully, we should have electricity at best, in just over a week,” says Prasanna, who lives with his mother Bilasa, 62, a widow, his mentally challenged elder brother Aswini, Aswini’s wife Savita and their three minor children.

Prasanna's father Benudhar Khuntia, was among the 64 casualties of Cyclone Fani that battered Odisha last month. The most-affected Puri district alone accounted for 39 deaths lost in the cyclone.

On 3 May, despite the warnings on television and by the government, Benudhar had hoped, like the three cyclones in the last six years — Phailin (2013), Hudhud (2014) and Titili 2017 — Fani might pass off without causing much damage in his part of the world.

However, as predicted, an hour after Benudhar and the rest in the family had breakfast, and moments before, 8 am, wind started blowing and soon turned into a squall. The drizzle that had begun some thirty minutes ago, made way for heavy downpour. Even then, Benudhar believed all this would stop, soon.

He was wrong, though. Soon, the situation worsened. Trees started swinging recklessly, as if they would fall any moment. The intensity of rain and wind, increased to an unbelievably scary level.

Hours later, when the asbestos roof of their tiny storeroom gave away, Benudhar rushed out to protect his precious three paddy bags which the family would consume for the next four months at least. Last winter, he had harvested the produce from his 13-15 decimal land. Having realised that their small beetle vine would be razed to the ground, the marginal farmer, Benudhar, knew the importance of these grains, in the context of his family’s condition, in the days to come.

He was heartbroken to find the rain water pouring on the bags, so he quickly tried to put a polythene sheet on the paddy bags. That’s when a big stone supporting the wooden bar on which the asbestos rested, fell on him. Bricks followed it.

In the deafening sound of the storm Benudhar’s family members couldn’t hear what was happening in the storeroom, only a few feet away. They had closed the door of the room they were in to avoid the wind.

Minutes later, Prasanna’s mother Bilasa found Benudhar lying under the debris, motionless. She frantically called others, but no one could wake up Benudhar. Moments later, the neigbours rushed to her house. Some poured water on his face, thinking he had fainted. Other’s tried their bit, but Benu didn’t respond.

Outside, the cyclone was causing havoc. Yet, Prasanna and some other youths of the village, mustered the courage to set out on a treacherous journey and carry Benudhar to the government hospital, seven kilometres away at Nimapara. First they tried to carry him on a cycle, but the fallen trees blocked the narrow village road at every 8-10 feet. Left with no other option, the youths decided to walk the distance with Benudhar on their rain-soaked shoulders.

It took them four hours to finally reach the destination.

However, their efforts were of no avail and Prasanna’s hopes of getting his father back, alive, was dashed as the doctor, declared Benu, already dead.

By then, the cyclone had subsided. The journey back home, though was easier physically, it was more painful, mentally.

By the time they arrived, the evening had set in. While, everyone was crying aloud near Benudhar’s body, Prasanna was planning with his neighbors for the next tough job: cremation of his father. Word about Benudhar's death had spread around. Someone from the panchayat office stepped in and gave them Rs 2,000 for the cremation (dry woods) under the Harischandra Sahayata Yojana. Neighbours also chipped in with firewood and the cremation ended past midnight.

Everything happened fast before Prasanna could realise the effect. However, over these last four weeks, Prasanna has slowly understood the realities and also the gravity of responsibilities that fall on his shoulders. With his elder brother’s mental condition not steady for even any household job, it is Prasanna who will have to act as the family’s saviour. “Bapa aama paribara ra sabu katha bujhu thile, Mu khali bila-baraja kamare sahajya kare (My father took all responsibilities of our family. I assisted him in beetle vine cultivation),” he recalls.

Prasanna admits to have received the initial cyclone Fani relief of Rs 2,500 and 50 kg rice. According to his neighbor, Alekh Khuntia, the revenue inspector and some other government authorities had visited their village and carried out assessment of the damage. “The entire village has been surveyed by them. We don’t know how much time they will take to complete their job. They have to take into account everything (damage). It’s a humongous task,” believes, Alekh.

Prasanna informs that the ‘assistance of Rs 4 lakh as announced by the government for Fani casualties', reached his mother’s bank account, three days ago. “On Saturday evening (1 May), I found the amount (Rs 4 lakh) transferred on my mother’s account,” he informs.

Prasanna plans to build the house with pucca (concrete) roof and also save some amount for the future of his brother’s children. He also sounds his steely resolve to work hard and ensure the children a better and safer future. “My father was worried about the fate of my elder brother’s children. Pila mananka future aaga dekhibi (the children’s future is my first priority)," he declares.

However, it’s not as easy, at least for the time being. The emotional scars that Cyclone Fani has left on the Khuntia family are going to take longer to heal. For the entire family, life, as Prasanna, says with a choked voice, will not be the same again. “I can’t forget Fani,” he says.

Neither will the surviving family members of the other 63 casualties.

Updated Date: Jun 10, 2019 18:27:45 IST