The Picnic with a Story
Kornelius had no plans to join the college picnic that morning in January 2014. He just could not afford the fee. A close friend, with a load of pocket money to spare, paid the extra Rs.300 (app $4.00) and got him on board. The annual picnic serves as a breather between the intense period of academic activities with projects and examinations. With the harsh winter gradually wearing off in this busy town, Siliguri, at the foothills of the Himalayas, the college Staff felt that January 15 would be the ideal date for the picnic convenient for all the faculties.
Kornelius Hembram, 18, was fortunate to get on to this graduate (BA) course in English Honours in this prestigious and popular700-strong college in West Bengal that caters to a wide range of social groups. His family, who were Santhals residing in the Malda district also in the state of West Bengal, India, about 250 km away from Siliguri, earned their livelihood by farming. The Santhals, the third largest tribal group in India belong to the Austro-Asiatic family whose migrations go back to pre-Aryan times. They have established settlements in Jharkhand, their considered ‘home’ state, and in other states in India like Assam and Odisha, as well as in Bangladesh and Nepal. In earlier times, they hunted game the traditional bow-and-arrow way. The animal sanctuary craze drove these natural skills underground, but the Santhals survived on forestry, fishing and agriculture. They integrated into broader Indian society and culture contributing effectively towards India’s development and progress without losing their identity and values. At one point in history, they had to fight the British colonial power as well to establish their rights and their existence.
Kornelius’ parents, using their own limited resources, tried to keep pace with the growing aspirations of an emerging India. They too wanted the best for their children and had put together their savings to get him through high school. He did them proud by scoring over 70% in the state Madhyamik (Class 10 –end of High School) exam. The stringent evaluation systems used in some states in India are sometimes equated in other states (or indeed outside India) at a much higher value, e.g.as A Grades in the ICSE (Anglo-Indian equivalent exam) or in the IGCSE (UK equivalent exam) especially in progression or employability terms. So, in reality, Kornelius did brilliantly and showed he was capable of higher academic goals.
However, it was a different ball game passing the entrance procedures at Salesian College, Siliguri, affiliated to the University of North Bengal. Kornelius qualified in the academic tests but nearly stumbled when faced with the financial requirements. Fortunately, the college selection committee had a backup fund to support deserving students who show talent and ability. A college club, Savio Youth Centre Society, more than willingly offered to pay his college fees for his second-year studies as his application to study and his achievements were impressive.
The Fun Day
The students at college go through a range of activities, including drama, music, dance and creative projects in addition to their academic work. Yet they need more than the typical day-off or academic break to re-charge their batteries. The annual picnic is possibly that outlet when they can literally let their hair down and enjoy a carefree and fun-filled day. The college authorities always do a careful spot choice keeping in mind that these motivated college students have the opportunity to experience an outing that is both entertaining and refreshing. The idea is also to give the students a chance to meet up with students from different departments in an atmosphere that offers a reasonably free social interaction. It is important as well that security concerns are addressed and basic facilities are provided at this once-a-year outing.
The 500 students out for the picnic that day were off to two different destinations, not really far apart. One group of around 350 students went to Sevoke, an hour’s drive from Siliguri, a little town on the River Teesta while the other group went to Panighata, a village not far from Sevoke. One of the Lecturers, Father James, took charge of the first group, where Kornelius was, and headed for Sevoke. Mr Peter (another Lecturer) also assisted with the first group, while the other group was led by Father George (the Principal).
The River Story
The River Teesta is the lifeline of the Indian state of Sikkim, flowing through almost the entire length of the state. It originates in the Pauhunri glacier, nearly 7,000 metres high (23,000 ft) in the Sikkim-Himalayas and gathers momentum and bulk as it takes in water from three rivulets flowing into it at this point near Sevoke. In fact, it was originally called ‘Trisrote’ (Three Streams). While generally providing a verdant Himalayan and tropical vegetation along its path, in its ‘monsoon’ moods it has also caused incalculable damage to the surrounding villages with floods. The river then forms the border between the states of Sikkim and West Bengal before joining the River Brahmaputra as a tributary in Bangladesh.
The rivers in India besides being among the largest in the world are also some of the most unpredictable especially after the peak monsoon seasons but can also be quite a problem off-season if dam and barrage controls along their tributaries or rivulets are not properly regulated. The Brahmaputra and the Ganges, two of the largest rivers in India, belong to this category.
The Sand-Banks and the Dam
The morning started off brilliantly for both groups, with the pleasant bus ride and then the informal pleasantries that help to form little posses that generally tend to wander off to exchange news and college gossip. The Sevoke group encamped on the banks of the River Teesta which had wide sand-banks with large rocks and little dry islands in the middle of the river at that time of the year. With low rainfall in the winter months, there wasn’t an exceptionally large flow of water in the river. In spite of the scorching sun, the cool breezes added to the pleasant atmosphere full of happy chatter and fun. However, at around midday, after about two hours that the students had been at the Teesta, the situation suddenly took a dramatic turn.
Before the picnic, the planners had checked out the feasibility of the location with the authorities in the Sevoke area, including the controllers of the upstream dam nearby. They had got the all-clear for any student activities on the bank. However, without informing even the Police authorities of the area, the controllers of the dam sluices suddenly decided to release water either because of pressure building up in the dam or because of requests from the users of the water downstream.
Whatever may have been the reasoning of those in charge of water controls, and apart from the fact that even the Police authorities were not informed about plans, our bunch of students were totally unaware of the gush of water flowing towards them almost like a tsunami. However, Lecturers James and Peter noticed the speed at which the levels of water were rising and issued warning calls especially to the students on the sand stretches in the river to move away to the safety of the higher sand banks on the sides. Gradually all the students got the message but two girl students who had wandered off a bit further failed to hear the initial warnings. By the time they realized what was happening the water flow had almost become a giant wave. At first these two girls rushed for safety to the top of a large rock. However, the water-flow soon became a massive power and eventually washed the girls off their perch.
The Agony and the Suspense
The two girls were soon engulfed and it was agonizing for everyone watching the two of them being sucked away in the water and finally disappearing. James attempted to reach out to them with bamboo poles and ropes from the safety of the side banks but the sudden rise of the current was too powerful for the girls to grab the lifeline thrown to them. The horrified onlookers looked on helplessly, just praying and hoping that someone would do something. It would appear, in poetic more than in dramatic terms, that ‘time’ was the better gambler over ‘fate’, as something happened. ‘Time’ would appear to have stood still and to have recorded one of its most incredible moments.
Nothing can really prepare us for desperate times or for emergencies. Plane crash and sea-wreck survivors, and injured victims of terrorist attacks, usually have stories to tell that they themselves cannot truly explain. The fact is that no amount of training can save human beings when the odds are stacked against them. However, human survival instincts combined with personal skills, ingenuity, quick thinking, courage and daring have often rescued people from disastrous situations.
For our second-year student, Kornelius, this was his moment. He had not planned it. It just happened. All that was human in him pressed the ‘emergency-button’ and he swung into action. He acted instinctively. He had the presence of mind and the practical intuition to run downstream along the bank and then plunge into the raging river close to the point where the two girls were floundering. From that point on it was just Kornelius all the way: fighting to save others while trying to survive himself. In those vital moments all the tribal skills he had acquired in forestry, fishing and swimming just fell into place. For the bystanders it was painful agony watching the two girls disappear. For Kornelius it was just focus and action even though his wildest dreams may not have thrown this up ever.
Though not very tall his sturdy build had to take the brunt of the challenge he never imagined he would ever face. He kept forging ahead in the raging tide trying to spot the girls. As soon as their heads surfaced he swam towards them struggling to grab them as they kept sinking due to the water they had taken in. Kornelius, however, drew from his reserves and kept holding on to them. In just about fifteen minutes, he brought them both out, one by one, to the safety of the higher sand bank to everyone’s relief. Saving the first girl wasn’t too difficult as the adrenalin rush was strong, but it took a lot more power, determination and effort to save the second girl as he was nearly exhausted with the energy he had used up.
Kornelius had not planned on being at the picnic that day but his presence made the difference that mattered. The girls were first given artificial respiration by the college first-aid team. The Police, as seems to happen in all dramas, then turned up, before the ambulance could, and rushed the two girls to Dr Nayak’s Nursing Home nearby.
Kornelius when asked why he threw himself so selflessly into the rescue, perhaps aware that his own life could be in danger, said quite simply, ‘I just wanted to save my fellow human beings in danger. I somehow knew I could. ….Someone had to do something. …I don’t think I did anything great.’
Actually he did. The College thought his quick thinking and his rescue were super-human. His mates just can’t stop talking about their quiet hero whose actions spoke more eloquently than his words. The two girls will have a lifetime to tell their grand-children how someone they didn’t really know gave new meaning to their lives. Paul Olaf Bodding (1865 – 1938), the famous Norwegian anthropologist who pioneered records of Santhal social history in India would probably have put Kornelius on a pedestal, a model for Santhal youth. Kornelius is indeed the pride of his family, the glory of his college and the star for young people today.
[Story and facts from Fr George T, Fr Nirmol G, Wikipedia] Edited by T.D’Souza for TRODZA-240315