This desert story from India is almost surely apocryphal. I heard it a year ago, but it has stayed with me. I heard it from the venerable Aruna Roy when she was speaking at the Pushkar Literary festival, in Rajasthan. She's given up her life of comfort to live and work among the people in that part of the desert. She shared this story with the audience to illustrate the sustaining power of hope.
In the western Thar desert in Rajasthan, life is hard. Many families face an acute shortage of food and water. One family of five occupied a small hut, among a cluster of similar huts. The father and mother were both itinerant migrant workers, and they barely earned enough to feed their three young children and themselves.
One summer, the drought was so severe that there was no work to be found in the village. So the couple made a tough decision – they decided to let the kids remain in their hut while they went to other villages in the desert to search for work. They knew that their neighbors would look after the kids until they came back.
Before setting out, the couple gathered the children. "You see this mud pot?" asked the dad. "It has laapsi. It is the only thing we have, but we can't have it now." Laapsi is a sweet wheat porridge dessert, and it is prized as a delicacy by those who reside in the desert. "I am going to dangle it from the hut's roof. When your mother and I come back, we will all feast on it."
Then the couple went away to look for work.
The three kids managed by themselves, with the neighbors helping out a little. Even if the neighbors wanted to, they couldn’t give much to these children because they didn't have much for their own family.
On some nights, the eldest brother would tell the other two, "We don’t have anything for dinner. We only have some water left. But look up there! When papa and maa come back, we can feast on that laapsi!"
"What does laapsi taste like?" his little sister asked.
"No dish tastes better than laapsi," her brother told her. "It will be so sweet and filling!" That night, the three kids sipped some water and went to sleep hungry.
This way, the kids managed to scrape by for several months.
Eventually, their parents returned. The kids were so happy in rushing to welcome them that they didn’t read their body language. They hadn't found any work. The parents had no strength left to do anything.
"Papa, let's have the laapsi now!"
"Kids, let's wait a few more days."
"No!" The kids were adamant.
So the father was forced to bring down the pot that had been hanging from the roof. Very reluctantly, he showed it to the kids. The pot was empty.
The laapsi that they had been dreaming about for months wasn’t there. Within a week, one by one, all three kids died.
Sometimes, when I hear someone expressing false hope I have this urge to contradict them. But remember this story and hold my peace. When hope is the only crutch someone has left, we should pause before kicking it away.
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