June 24, Monday, started off like any other day for Dr Ramesh, who lives with his family in Kanuvai in Coimbatore. Until it wasn't. His world changed forever with a single phone call that informed him about his wife’s death in a terrible road accident. Ramesh remembers leaving his work midway and running to the spot.
The image of Dr Ramesh, in a pale orange shirt, sitting in the middle of a road with swollen eyes besides the body of his wife, soon went viral in Tamil Nadu. The bike that hit his wife Shobana’s scooter was ridden by men under the influence of alcohol.
Dr Ramesh, along with hundreds of men, women and children from the nearby tribal villages, sat on the road demanding justice for Shobana. The road roko caused a traffic blockage on the road which connects Attapadi in Kerala with Coimbatore city, forcing district administration officers to come in person and meet the crowd. The TASMAC outlet, from where the men had started off with their bike, was closed the next day as per the RDO’s promise.
Days after her death, Dr Ramesh and his young daughter Sadhana, who was injured in the accident, are trying to come to terms with a life that Shobana is no longer a part of. However, the father says – and his daughter agrees – that they have no animosity towards the men who were driving the bike on that fateful day.
“The problem is not them,” Dr Ramesh tells TNM, “The problem is a broken society which is becoming almost incapable of giving any morals to the people. This broken society must be rebuilt.”
A doctor who chose to work in tribal hamlets
Dr R Ramesh is a medical doctor by profession and an enthusiast of sociology, anthropology, history, literature, and nature. Soon after his graduation from Madurai University in 1989, he set up a small clinic at his house in Kambam, Theni district, and then left to Idukki district in Kerala to serve people from the tribal hamlets. “I used to go to tribal villages by choice to serve as a doctor there,” he says. Though he served as a doctor, his search for his cultural roots brought him to Chinna Thadagam valley in Coimbatore district.
“I was roaming in that region studying the place and its features with a friend when I reached the Attapadi valley. It is a lovely place sandwiched between Vellingiri hills and the Nilgiris. The day I reached here, I told my good friend who had accompanied me to this place that I am settling here,” he reminisces and says that he didn’t know anyone there but just relocated to Anaikatti, which lies around five kilometres from the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border.
Meeting Shobana, and living with nature
Two years after Dr Ramesh moved to Jambukandi in Anaikatti, he met his wife to-be, Shobana.
“At first sight, I thought I had met my partner,” he recalls fondly, and adds that theirs was a simple wedding in the presence of his mother and a camera. “It was just us and our love and affection. It was a small ceremony and then we announced it to everybody that we were married,” he adds.
The couple were blessed with a daughter, Sadhana Devi, soon after, and the family of three spent their time traveling and documenting nature. “We three – my wife, my daughter and I – have visited several caves and other spots to study and document the place, the flora and fauna etc,” he says, adding that before his wife died, they we were working on a project to study the Noyyal river, from its origin in Velliangiri mountains to the point where it joins Cauvery.
“Simply put, we were living like the thalaivan and thalaivi (hero and heroine of Tamil literature), close to nature, as envisaged in ancient Tamil literature,” he says.
On June 24, Shobana and Sadhana Devi were on their way back to Kanuvai after paying rental advance for a new house they had planned to move in. The duo were traveling by scooter, and as they neared Jambukandi pirivu, the scooter was hit by two men on a speeding bike coming in the opposite direction. Thrown away from the scooter on impact, Shobana died on the spot while Sadhana suffered injury to her leg.
“The impact was so heavy that my wife’s neck was twisted in the process as the helmet gave way to the forces,” Dr Ramesh chokes as he recollects the incidents of that evening.
Dr Ramesh says that accidents are common on that stretch of the road, more so since there was a TASMAC outlet – a government-run liquor store – right on the side of the road.
The people of this area have protested many times and made the officials shut that TASMAC down. But within a few days, it is reopened using clandestine methods. Even if the shop is closed, there are parallel networks here to distribute liquor for higher prices,” he alleges.
Dr Ramesh blames the government and the society for this social evil. “The society is totally broken. People these days are moving away from their roots. It is such boys who killed my wife,” he says.
Life after Shobana
Dr Ramesh prefers to call the road roko a reflection and not a protest. “That was not a protest. A protest is a conscious activity. What happened that day was a reflection after seeing my wife dead,” he says. It was only after RDO’s intervention things returned to normal on that stretch.
“After RDO went, I pled with the villagers to accept my wife as their daughter and asked them if she can be buried in their land. They wholeheartedly agreed and she became the angel of the forest, the place where Chinnathambi used to live,” he laments.
The path forward, in his words, is one of no animosities.
“My daughter said this to me two days ago when I told her that her mother was no more,” he says and reaffirms that he harbours no ill-feelings towards the men who killed his wife.