The small village of Gehlaur in northeastern India was separated from the rest of the world by a 300-foot mountain. This natural formation for generations kept the modern world at a distance. Any sign of modern life was non-existent. There was no electricity, hospitals, or schools to speak of. Just to meet their water needs, the women of the village had to make the journey over that mountain to get to the nearest river. In turn, the surrounding villages and it were considered among the poorest villages in all of India.
Dashrath Manjhi must have been a sight with his maul hammer and a chisel. He did not have a dollar to his name. He had sold off the few goats that he had owned to purchase these tools in the first place. Every day villagers would shake their heads in disbelief as he walked towards that mountain, the maul and chisel on his shoulder. It must have been hard on his son, Bhagirath. His father had become the butt of a lot of jokes and was considered crazy by a lot of the residents. “The crazy man going into his mountain.” Some even considered him a psychopath.
Yet, every day he went off to work in that mountain. The weeks and the months flew by and the seasons passed, and each evening the sound of his maul hitting the chisel could be heard echoed out, blow after blow after blow. Dashrath went from a relatively young man of thirty to an old man in his fifties, his face weathered by the environment, his goatee and hair wisps of white cotton candy and his body showing the wear and tear of constantly swinging that maul. What could drive a man to spend twenty-some years of his life hammering away at a mountain?
Dashrath had never had much. He had run away from home as a youngster to work in the Dhanbad coal mines, roughly 155 miles away. After a while he returned to his village, he married his wife, Falguni Devi. They had a child, a son, and he loved her with all his heart and soul.
One day, in 1959, when Falguni was returning from the river with water for the family, she tripped on a loose rock and she fell. It was not an uncommon thing for women to fall in the rocky, steep terrain. The pitcher she was carrying broke. More importantly, she injured her leg. It was a simple cut and she assured her husband she would as good as new.
But sometimes things don’t go as they should. Soon an infection set in. She spiked a fever and the wound got worse. Dashrath knew he needed to get his wife to a hospital. The nearest one was on the other side of the mountain. If they went over the mountain, it was an arduous journey of two miles. If they went around the mountain, it would be a several-day journey. She was too sick to make the treacherous climb over the peak and it would take too long to go around it. There was no way she could survive either trip. So, he helplessly watched his young wife, the woman he was supposed to grow old with, die. An experience like that that can destroy a man.
In his grief, Dashrath vowed to himself that what happened to his wife would not happen to anyone else. No husband, wife or parent would ever again have to endure this needless crippling grief. He was literally going to take on that mountain. Inspired by his love, he decided to carve a path through that mountain, and he was going to have to do it all by himself. This diminutive little man began hammering away at that mountain because he wanted a better life, “a road, a school, and a hospital for [his] people. They work so hard.” Not only would his tunnel make it easier to get medical attention and allow the people to enjoy some amenities of modern life, but no other woman would have to make that dangerous journey to get water that killed his beloved Falguni.
Dashrath quit his job working in the nearby fields. He traded away everything he had. He even moved his home closer to the mountain so that he would not waste time walking to and from the mountain each morning and night. What little money he made came from carrying the occasional traveler’s luggage over the mountain for them. He relied on handouts from people that took mercy on him. There were times he did not know where his next meal would come from.
Dashrath knew his friends and neighbors considered him a lunatic. They did not even try to hide such sentiment behind his back. Some of the men even questioned why he would want to make life easier for women. After all, women were made for fetching and carrying. He heard their mocking and laughter. There were times it was tough to endure. But it only steeled his resolve. He swung that hammer for twenty-two years. Each blow chipped off a few pebbles and shards of that giant rock formation.
Decades later, something strange happened. The people saw what he was doing. The taunts stopped. Some started calling him “Baba,” which means “revered man.” Others called him “The Mountain Man.” Many even started giving him what support they could. He had somehow, in all his efforts, become a hero and inspiration to the entire region.
In 1982, twenty-two years after he had started, he had carved a path well over 360 feet in length (imagine a football field, goal post to goal post), thirty feet wide (picture three elephants trunk to tail), and twenty-five feet deep through the most dangerous part of that mountain with just his muscles, a hammer, and a chisel. He did it all out of love for his wife. After he had finished this monumental task, he said, “That mountain had shattered so many pots, and claimed so many lives. I could not bear that it killed my wife.” Not just his village, but the roughly sixty other villages in the area, began to use the tunnel he had scratched through that mountain.
Yet, Dashrath was not done. He began knocking on every door he could. He wanted the road tarred and walked all the way to New Delhi, the capital of India, a journey roughly 1,120 miles, to present a petition to the government that not only the road be paved, but that a hospital be built in his village and running water be piped in. Think about walking from Las Vegas Nevada to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with the mere hope that you might be listened to.
If that wasn’t enough, he then called upon the Chief Minister of Bihar, the region Dashrath lived in, to ask that not only the path he had carved out be paved but that an entire road be built, to connect all the villages to the rest of the world.
Trying to honor him, the minister gave him five acres of land as a reward for all that he had done. Dashrath turned around and gave away the land to assure that the hospital be built there. He never cared about the money. It was not the reason he spent his lifetime slowly cutting a path through the mountain inch by inch.
He died five years before the road was paved. He never got to see the completion of all his efforts. Yet, isn’t that the way it is with love? Our movies and popular stories make it seem like people just hop and skip off into the sunset. Real love is hard work, sometimes harder than chiseling your way through a mountain. It can be brutal at times. Have you ever sat next to the hospital bed of a child you love? Held him or her when their whole world has been crushed because they have been called names or failed? Have you looked at a stack of bills you have no idea how you are going to pay? Have you ever spat acid words at the one you claim to love and tried to live with all the pain you have caused? Or heard those words directed at you? Somehow you have to forge a path through it all if you are going to make it work? You may watch the flame of life flicker and go out in the eyes of someone special to you and the silent sheet be raised! Chipping away at mountains seems easy by comparison. There are days when you love someone that you are so worn out that you don’t know how you have managed to put one foot in front of the other.
That love does not go away. It does not vanish even in death. It continues on in the lives of the people you have touched and their children’s lives and, their children’s children after that until you are forgotten, like the travelers on a road cut through a mountain. The only thing that ultimately survives is love. It makes ways when there is no way. Make sure to thank those people who have carved paths into your heart on this St. Valentine’s Day. Isn’t that what this holiday ultimately is all about?
Trevor Soderstrum is a Story City native who has been writing columns for about 10 years or so. He’s been all over the world and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He loves to share his stories.