His father left Lwali decades ago, but M S Dhoni’s bond with his ancestral village remains strong.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, if Time is to be believed, is among the world’s 100 most influential people. He is ahead of all other Indians on the list, including Mukesh Ambani, Azim Premji and Aruna Roy. But back here, in his ancestral village, Lwali in Uttarakhand’s Almora district, his aunt, Madhavi, routinely lugs a 30-kg LPG cylinder on her back for over four kilometres on a tricky hill path that is wide enough at most places for two. If MSD himself came here on one of his bikes, he’d find no road to ride it.
Lwali, a cluster of about 35 houses, is about 110 km from the railhead at Haldwani. There are old houses with sloping roofs of slated stone; the ground floor is for cattle and people live on top. New houses are made of concrete and are flat on top. Terrace farms are fringed with fruit trees — pear, peach and orange. Off the village are thickets of pine and oak. Hay stacks have been put up on roofs and the fields. The path down to the village from Banjdhar, the nearest road, can be both steep and slippery, and treacherous during the rains. In some portions, it has almost disappeared because of landslides.
This is Lwali’s only link with the rest of the world — the only way to access basic necessities, including healthcare. “If somebody falls ill, the person is taken to the hospital up the hill either on horseback or in a doli (palanquin),” says Madhavi. But even that isn’t good enough on most days. “The 12-bed hospital has no doctors, nurses or technicians, even though it has ultrasound and X-ray machines, and provision for five doctors including a lady doctor,” says Gobind Singh Kunjwal, a member of the Uttarakhand legislative assembly, who belongs to nearby Jainty. In emergencies, villagers have to rush to Almora, about 75 km away.
Soon after the World Cup win, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank had announced a road to Lwali. This is not the first time such an announcement has been made. ND Tiwari had promised a road too when he was the chief minister from 2002 to 2007. “There have been several promises that Lwali would be turned into a high-tech village. Does this look like a high-tech village to you?” asks Hayat Singh Dhauni, a kinsman of MSD.
Has he got his surname right? “Yes, the name is Dhauni and not Dhoni,” says MSD’s uncle, Ghanpath Singh Dhauni. Dhoni, he says, was a mistake made in the school certificates which has not been rectified despite repeated requests and applications. From officials in the Almora government to shopkeepers and residents of Lwali and nearby villagers, everybody insists on calling the World Cup winning captain Mahendra Singh Dhauni.
Dhaunis are Khas Rajputs found in Uttarakhand and Nepal — natural recruits for the armies of the hill Rajas. Most of them are tall and strong like MSD. The village is almost entirely made up of Dhaunis. His uncle is a tall man with a small face that crinkles every time he smiles. A faded picture on the wall of the spartan house shows that his grandfather was also a man with long limbs. In the whole village, only one poster of MSD is visible and that’s in a house which is unlocked only when special guests, like MSD’s parents, visit. “He is present all over. It would be absurd to plaster his posters everywhere like Mayawati’s,” remarks a local.
* * *
In spite of MSD’s Gold-like status in the rest of the country, the only sign of development in Lwali are the dish antennae. “Almost every house installed a dish antenna after MSD started playing,” says his aunt. Power, thankfully, is not a problem here. Cellphone connections too came some two years ago. But there is no sign of the MSD-endorsed Aircel; BSNL, Vodafone and Idea dominate.
Pan Singh, MSD’s father, left Lwali 47 years ago in search of a job and landed up at Ranchi. (He retired from Mecon some years back as a junior employee and settled down at the Jharkhand capital.) Little seems to have improved since then. Lwali, which has a population of 250, is a silent hamlet where few young men are seen. “About 75 per cent of the young men from the village are gone,” says Hayat Singh Dhauni. Left behind are women, children and elderly men. “It is rightly said, ‘Pahar ki jawani aur pahar ka paani kabhi pahar ke kaam nahin aaye’ (mountains never gained from their youth or their water),” he adds.
Three of Ghanpath Singh Dhauni’s four sons have left the village. Two of them are studying in Dehradun. “MSD is helping with their education,” says Madhavi, their mother. The third son is working in Gujarat, and the fourth, who got married this year, is studying privately. He’s often out of the village to Haldwani in the hope of landing a job. His young bride, Deepa, stays behind to look after the cattle and work the fields.
“Uttarakhand has the highest rate of migration in the country,” says Shekhar Pathak, historian, writer and academician. “More than 4 million people live out of the state.” What started as outmigration during the colonial rule, when many young hardy men from the area would join the armed forces, has continued to date. Government jobs are most coveted, followed by the armed forces. “If you land a government job, you attain God. It’s pensionable and there’s little to do,” says Lwali resident Balwant Singh Dhauni who works in the water department.
Pushpesh Pant, professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has been an “unwilling refugee from the hills” for the past four decades, says: “Reservations have blocked access to government jobs, and recruitment into the army has declined due to aspirants failing medical tests.” Those who can have migrated to Delhi, Mumbai or other places; the ones who are left behind often become frontiers for the mining or the alcohol mafia, he adds.
The post office, so vital to the “money order” economy of the hills, too is of little use now. Lwali residents go to the Nainital Almora Kshetriya Gramin Bank in Jainty to collect the money sent by their young men. “The post office has little work left. Some time back, it started selling Baba Ramdev’s medicines off the counter,” laughs Ghanpath Singh Dhauni. He cannot understand why the government wants to set up an ATM at the post office which few people go to anymore. Most villagers say that the government’s policies remain tangential to their needs.
“Had MSD grown up here, could he have achieved all this? He too would have ended up like us,” says Hayat Singh Dhauni wryly. If not employed, he would perhaps be working in the village fields which produce only enough pulses, onion and potato to feed the family.
* * *
The lack of opportunities may have driven Pan Singh away from Lwali but the emotional bond remains. The village remembers the last time MSD was here. “He came in 2003 for his janeu (sacred thread) ceremony,” says Ghanpath Singh Dhauni who is a Hindi teacher in the nearby junior high school but also teaches other subjects because of paucity of teachers. “As a child, he would come to the village frequently, often during summer vacation. The first time he visited was when he was one-and-a-half years old,” says his aunt.
Ganga Prasad Joshi, who retired as the principal of Inter College at Jainty and taught both Dhoni’s father and uncle, is confident that MSD will visit soon. “When his parents came to Lwali for their nephew’s wedding earlier this year, his mother pledged at the village temple that her son will come here soon. He will when he has a bit more time at hand,” says Joshi. “Dhoni’s mother, Devki Devi, also belongs to this area,” says Kishen Singh Negi of Kala Dungra, a village half a kilometre from Lwali.
MSD does not speak Kumaoni, a language that doesn’t have a script. “We speak to him in Kumaoni. He understands it very well, but he responds in Hindi,” says his aunt who gets to talk to her star nephew every few months. “His parents insist on speaking only in Kumaoni when they visit Lwali,” adds her husband. The Kumaoni language is under threat. UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger lists it as a vulnerable language. The excessive outmigration has affected the village in other ways too. Traditional Kumaoni houses, which have painted doors and parapets, like the one that was built by MSD’s grandfather, are hardly made these days. “Not only were these houses beautiful to look at, they were also earthquake resistant,” says Deepak Joshi, information officer, Almora.
Though Pan Singh and his children — MSD, his elder brother, Narendra, and their sister, Jayanti — live in Ranchi, for every big decision the family likes to refer to the family pundit in Lwali. “MSD’s janmpatri (horoscope) was made in Lwali. It was the family pundit here who named him,” says Ghanpath Singh Dhauni. The family also has a kul devi (family deity), whose temple is on a little hillock on one side of the village, and a gram devta (village deity). “When MSD’s parents visit, they offer prayers at both the temples,” says the Dhauni family. The traditional jagar festival is also held every three years, where the God or Goddess speaks through a chosen member of the Dhauni family. As of now, the chosen one is Dhoni’s distant sister-in-law, Leela.
But material comforts are few. The villagers have found their own ways of helping one another. “Whenever anybody’s going up to Jainty (6 km away and the closest destination for ration, fuel et al), he asks the neighbours if they need anything,” says Lwali resident Sundar Singh Bisht who is carrying 12 kg of wheat flour on his shoulder for a neighbour. “It’s not possible to make this arduous journey every day. We cannot afford to waste a trip.” Lwali residents routinely carry up to 50 kg on their backs up and down the slopes. “We have no choice,” says Madhavi. The terrain calls for patience and endurance — MSD seems to have inherited both the traits in good measure.