06 Feb 2017 13:50 IST

When a mountain became a molehill

We are embraced by madness. Embrace it back and be inspired

Some of you may have seen the film, but most are likely to have missed it. It tells the story of a mountain man. No, he didn’t climb mountains; he chiselled his way through one.

I haven’t seen the film myself, but the other day, a young management student reminded me of the person who inspired the movie. The young man was talking about the quality of determination, one of the core values of the Olympic spirit, and it was in this context that he quoted the example of a landless farmer from Bihar called Dasharath Manjhi. Does that ring a bell? And if I have mentioned him in these columns before, please forgive the repetition. His story bears retelling, in intimate detail.

I remember reading about him in the newspapers many years ago. The report said a certain Dasharath Manjhi had been chipping away at a mountain in Gaya district in Bihar ever since his wife died in 1959. She had been very sick and he had not been able to reach her to the hospital in time from his village because the hospital was on the other side of a mountain. There was not even a dirt road going through it. By the time he conveyed her over the 70-km regular road that went around the mountain to reach the hospital, she had passed on.

When Manjhi was done with grieving, he promised himself that no one else in the village would suffer the fate his wife and his family had, simply because a mountain lay between their village and the hospital. He picked up a hammer and chisel, and set to work. The year was 1960.

For 22 years, he hammered away at the mountain with his chisel. People laughed at him. People said he was crazy. He paid no heed to their taunts. He didn’t care. He kept at it, night and day, night and day. In 1982, he finally put down his implements. He had managed to clear a path through the Gehlour hills, a traversable path. The hospital was now a mere one kilometre distance from Manjhi’s village.

You could say Manjhi was mad. He was. He was mad with anxiety. He was mad with grief. He had a mad idea. He was mad to think he could cut through a mountain literally with his bare hands. He was mad to attempt doing it. He was so mad he made the impossible possible — in the words of that beautiful song from Man of La Mancha: “To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe / To bear with unbearable sorrow / To run where the brave dare not go”… Mixed in with the rocks and mud of the once-unpassable mountain are the blood, sweat and tears of Dasharath Manjhi’s impossible dream.

This is what, I believe, Ketan Mehta tries to bring to the big screen in Manjhi – The Mountain Man, released in August 2015 — at least, I hope that is what he tried to do. Manjhi died in 2007, long before the film was made. Not that that would have made any difference to him. He had already reached his “unreachable star”.

I think we could all do with a bit of Manjhi madness. Small people, or big, ordinary or powerful, it we could drink from that fountain of passion that will propel us toward that extra long mile for the right cause. Too often is it too easy to throw up our hands because we are shackled to helplessness and despair. We look to those with position and clout to pick up the gauntlet on our behalf. Indeed, we expect it from them.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe it is easier for the empowered, maybe it is even the duty of the powerfully placed, to lead the way. But that’s an expectation that belongs in an ideal world. And we know only too well that our world is not ideal. Therefore, the small and the insignificant too must lend a shoulder, even if she or he has no mind to wield a hammer and chisel.

We can look to nature for inspiration — the magnificent anthills constructed by tiny termites and rebuilt by them every time they are broken or razed to the ground, or the delicate nests woven by the baya birds, or a little peepal sapling growing from a crack in the wall. Or we could simply look at the Dasharath Manjhis of our world.

Do you have a Dasharath Manjhi in your neighbourhood?