I just finished reading the incredible story of Dashrath Manjhi, also known as the “Mountain Man,” who devoted 22 years of his life to a singular task — carving a 100-meter path through the Gehlour Hills in Bihar, India using nothing but hand tools. It was not an act of madness nor a desperate attempt at seeking fame or of breaking some world record. Rather, it was an act born of tragedy, fueled by love and a genuine desire to help his community.
Manjhi was born into a community called the “Musahar” who are generally regarded as the lowest among the castes in their particular state. They are not allowed to own land. Ninety-nine percent of them are illiterate and their main meal consists of roots, snails, or rats. The word “Musahar” literally means “rat eaters.”
They lived in a small village surrounded by a range of mountain hills called the Gehlour hills. In order to travel to a nearby town which was supposedly only a few kilometers away, one had to take a circuitous route that extended that short distance to around 55 kilometers.
It was in 1959 when tragedy struck. Manjhi’s wife, Falguni Devi, was traversing a particularly treacherous path on the mountain when she fell and got injured. Manjhi had to take the long road around the mountain to the nearest doctor, who was around 70 kilometers away. Because of this, Devi did not receive timely medical treatment and passed away.
He was so moved by the senselessness of her death and did not want anyone else in their community suffering her fate. So he took it upon himself to do something about it, probably knowing full well that a nobody like him petitioning the government for a road would be even more futile than digging through the mountain with a spoon. That is not what he actually did but it was close. He took a hammer and chisel and began chipping away at the mountain.
And so from 1960 to 1982, he would work as a farmhand, helping farmers till their fields. In his spare time, he would chisel away at the mountain. At first, everyone thought he was crazy and they laughed and jeered at him. But as time went on, the villagers saw how serious he was and they pitched in to help him in small ways (they were very poor, after all) like bringing him food or giving him a little money to buy new tools.
When his work was done, he had carved through a path 110 meters long and 9.1 meters wide, and he got rid of around 7.6 meters high worth of mountain. His efforts effectively reduced the distance one had to travel from 55 kilometers to just 15 kilometers. The government later on recognized him for his efforts, building a 3-km metalled road, as well as a hospital, and named both after him.
There are many lessons one can glean from Manjhi’s life — of hope, courage, perseverance, duty and so forth, but what struck me most was his singular focus and dedication on completing a task he had started, no matter what the odds. In a world where we are so used to multitasking, where we do many things at the same time (and often finish very few or none at all), he threw himself at a single task and achieved remarkable results given his meager resources.
Manjhi breathed life to the principle that if one wants change, one has to start with oneself, to the best of one’s ability. Jesus said that anyone with faith as small as a mustard seed could command a mountain to go jump in the sea, but I have not seen anyone do that with even a clump of dirt. Manjhi has shown, however, that if you want to move a mountain, it isn’t enough to rely on some sort of faith magic that many televangelists are selling. The only faith one needs, rather, is the faith in one’s ability to effect change in one’s community.
In the words of Edwin de Leon, who wrote an article in the Inquirer called “Is A Secular Church Inevitable?” (which has since been blocked by Facebook):
“Sorry, but there is nobody ‘up there’ to change anything. The sooner humankind accepts this, we will be more at peace with ourselves knowing that our destiny depends on us alone and not from any prescription from ‘ancient literature.’”
Amen to that.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.