Saap apne vish se nahi marta, phir man ke peedaon se dar kya
(If the snake doesn’t die with its own poison, then why should man be fearful of his own mental pain)
Deepak Yatri’s life is filled with such nuggets of wisdom; in fact, knowledge is the main protagonist in his life. But this isn’t the name he was born with, nor was his outlook what it is now.
In March 2015, Deepak, 25, was visiting Harda in Madhya Pradesh with a group along with the NGO- Pravah, an NGO he was working for. The NGO takes students to villages to sensitise them to the caste system that still exists there. At a temple, he saw people of a ‘lower caste’ saluting the gods from outside, and not attempting to enter the place of worship.
Deepak, who belonged to the Jha community, a high Brahmin class from Maithili, never had to worry about these things. He was deeply affected by the discrimination, and as he stood in front of the temple, he took a vow to call himself Deepak Yatri, inspired by Baba Nagarjun, a renowned poet who was a ghummakad (traveller).
Nagarjun logo ki zubaan likhte the aur main wahi likhne ki koshish karta hu
(Nagarjun writes words of people and I try to do the same.)
Born in Baitha village in Bihar’s Madhubani district, Deepak’s journey isn’t one of personal tragedy or rags to riches, rather an open book of interpretations.
His father owned Baitha bazaar, the biggest mandi (marketplace) that sold rice, potatoes, and onions, and Deepak was born after two sisters.
“Main bahut mannat maang ke paida hua tha (My parents prayed a lot for my birth)” says Deepak. He admits he was a spoilt brat.
His father fell ill with Hepatitis B, but that never affected Deepak’s upbringing. He remembers being brash, rebellious, and stubborn as a kid.
That trait stays with him today also.
“Mujhe log rok nahi sakte. Agar mujhe koi bolta hai ki kuch mat karo, toh mujhe usse karna hi hota tha (No one can stop me from doing anything. If someone says I can’t do something, then I have to do it).”
And, this has reflected in Deepak’s life more than often.
He never wanted to go to school. His father had only completed his matriculation exams and his mother was uneducated. Seeing his stubbornness, his father hit him and dragged him to school. But he was resolute that he’d never go to school. His family even thought that he was possessed.
But this boy, who refused to study, and abused his parents, even having the audacity to hit them, changed all of a sudden, leaving everyone bewildered on why the change had happened.
Deepak narrates the incident that changed his life. One day, his uncle’s brother-in-law came to teach the students of the village. Deepak was sneaking around in the area, when the man reprimanded him saying the class wasn’t for idiots and the uneducated.
For the first time ever, Deepak endured the reprimand without reacting.
“Maine apne andar soch liya ki ab mujhe padna hai (I decided then and there that I would study).”
Deepak went on to graduate high school with distinction, surprising everyone who had given up hope on him. Books, he says, were the major reason for his transformation.
His tryst with philosophy
“Mai sochta tha ki aage kya padhoon ki logo ke vichar hi badal du. Mujhe famous hone ki badi chaah thi. Mujhe bhi bhagwan banna tha.” (I used to think about what I should study to be able to change people’s thoughts. I wanted to be famous or maybe a god man.)
Deepak was already enamored of philosophy. But, he was told that only ‘mad men’ learned philosophy. Mad men, who turn the night into day and the day into night.
Ignoring it as lack of knowledge, he continued to pursue philosophy from Madhubani, and then went on to study journalism at one of the country’s premiere institutions Jamia Milia University in 2012.
When we ask him, what going to a big city such as New Delhi was like, he laughs and says, “Meri talafoos theek ho gayi.” (My dialect became better)
After completing his journalism degree, Deepak worked with various social and news agencies. In 2013 he got dengue fever, which turned out to be an opportunity in disguise.
When he returned to his village to recuperate, he was told that there was a new IAS officer Mithilesh Mishra who had been posted as the Superintendent District Officer (SDO). Hearing about Mishra’s laurels and goodwill, Deepak visited him, with a petition to construct a library. Deepak says, there was only one reaction from the SDO “Karna hai toh khud karo.” (If it has to be done, do it yourself)
That was the only challenge he needed. A committee was formed comprising seven members from the village, but the questions were the same, “How will the books come? Will people ever give money for the cause?”
But Deepak was clear that they would beg if they had to. The drive was launched and within 15 days ‘Saroj Pustakalya’ opened with 20 chairs, four tables and three cupboards. The initiative was taken to the villagers and everyone started contributing for magazine subscriptions and books.
The SDO, who started trusting Deepak, would send his car to help him commute. He recollects,
“Log kehte the, yeh pagal ho gaya hai. Badabada raha hi. Log jalte bhi the ki Laal batti ki gaadi mein jaata hai.” (People used to say, that I’m mad. People were also jealous that I was travelling in the SDO’s official car.)
The villagers had written Deepak off, thinking that it was the hunger for power which had corrupted him.
But Deepak didn’t stop there or get affected. The library still seemed like an incomplete project. The only thing missing were children attending the library. Relentless in his drive, he organised events to take kids to the library. This was accomplished by making teachers believe in the importance of a library system.
Moreover, he replicated a similar model in two other villages –Damodarpur and Barba.
His social efforts continued as he cycled around Darbhanga for five days to spread word about the depleting lakes of Bihar as a part of the Smile internship. This was as a part of his internship with Pravah where he mobilised the youth to take more responsibility in society.
But his social work didn’t stop there, and he was also selected for the Gandhi Fellowship later. Deepak was deployed in the Churu District of Rajasthan to improve the conditions of the schools.
Strong in his conviction, Deepak didn’t even shy away from cleaning the toilets at these schools. Yet again, he embarked on a Jan Chetna Yatra across Churu District touching the lives of 5,000 people by creating awareness around water and sanitation. However, the management of the Gandhi Fellowship wasn’t supportive of Deepak’s awareness drive and he lost the fellowship.
Today, Deepak doesn’t make enough to cover his basic needs. He joined Maithili Lok Rang (Mailo Rang), a theatre group that promotes social issues, helping the firm with script writing. The firm shut down three months ago.
Soon, he resorted to writing for the Hindi publication Pakhi, but his debts were eating away his salary. He says that there were times where he had only Rs 10 in their pocket causing him to go to Pragati Maidan just to borrow some money from Prakash, the founder of Mailo Rang.
But by October 2015, he quit Pakhi too and doesn’t have a job today.
“In teen mahino mei maine zindagi badi kareeb se dekhi hai. Mere paas chahe sirf dus rupaye hi rahe, par mai theek hu (I’ve seen life closely in the last three months. I might have only Rs 10 in my pocket, but I’m happy).”
Out of curiosity, I ask him how he can afford to come to the yatra. He says Prakash has helped him immensely by paying for the registration and the tickets to Mumbai. Deepak is immensely grateful to him.
Moreover, as we look around his berth, he tells me that everything except his clothes are crowd sourced. This includes the bag he is carrying his clothes in and his sleeping bag.
And as we close the conversation, I realise that the biggest takeaway to Deepak’s talks isn’t just the way he has lived his life, but rather the fact that he still has a smile on his face even when he has close to nothing.
Deepak sings, his carefree voice breaking the chugging sounds of a train, making people forget their worries.
He says he would like to do a cycle trip all across Bihar.
“Marne se pehle hum apne zameen ko dekhle.” (At least before I die, I should see my homeland).