Kusmel, A remote village on the banks of the Mahanadi river in Jharsuguda district, bordering Chattisgarh, is in celebratory mode. The entire village is coming together to solemnise the wedding of their daughter, Soni Yadav, also fondly called the ‘Mahanadi girl’. But what is unusually endearing about the wedding is the girl’s affiliation with the village.
Five years ago, on a September morning in 2016, Sanyasi Kalo, now 52, found Soni covered in mud, lying on the banks of the Mahanadi. As Kalo rushed towards her, he found her gasping for breath and took her home. The villagers then took her to the nearest public health centre almost 10 km away.
When Soni regained consciousness the next day, she realised she was 80 km away from her home in Chhattisgarh. Then 18 years old, and working as a domestic help in Sarangarh town of Chhattisgarh, Soni recollected that she had slipped and fallen into the river on a visit to Chandrapur temple. She was found 12 hours later.
“I don’t remember what happened after I slipped into the water. I remember waking up in Odisha surrounded by people who saved my life. I knew this was the new life I had been longing for all these years,” Soni told this newspaper over the phone.
Soni was hardly five when her parents died. She moved from one relative’s house to another and eventually started working as a domestic help to provide for herself. “I did not want to return to the life I had been leading. Here, they (Kalo and Helia) were extremely considerate and caring when I was in the hospital. The love and care that I received here, I knew I did not want to give up on it,” Soni said. An only child back in her village, she is now an elder sister to three young brothers.
In Kusmel, Kalo and his wife Ahalya had also found what they had been longing for — a daughter. “Soni did not want to return to her house and instead wanted to stay with us. We have three sons and no daughter of our own. We always wanted a daughter….We felt complete after welcoming her into our family. She came as a blessing, having survived 12 hours of water current. She was God sent,” Kalo said.
“We first took her to her native place and visited the police station. She was not a minor and decided to stay with us and neither of the families had any issues. The police allowed us to foster her. Her paternal uncles and some members of the family continue to visit her,” Kalo said.
In the last five years, Soni has walked the path of becoming independent and confident. Though she never went to school in her early days, in Kusmel, she mastered the art of sewing. Today she stitches kurtas, blouses, masks, handkerchiefs for customers from nearby villages as well.
She also learnt Oriya for basic conversation with her family and villagers. “I did not like working as a domestic help. Here, I learned a new craft, a new language. I will continue to stitch and earn money. I also wish to open a small shop after marriage,” Soni said.
As Kalo and his family struggles due to financial constraints, the village has pooled in to organise the wedding, with the help of Jharsuguda MLA Kishore Mohanty who will perform the kanyadaan. The village has a population of around 1,500 people, mostly relying on fishing and contractual labour work to earn their livelihood. The wedding is scheduled for April 21 and is being planned adhering to strict Covid norms.
Soni’s marriage has been arranged by the family with Purushottam Yadav, 25, a native of Dharmajaygarh in Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh. A contractual labourer in Raipur, his family farms in an acre of land in the village.