His eyes are moist and red. The rage in his eyes is clearly evident as Rameshwar Mahto, 55, seethes with anger. His disheveled look says it all.
Mahto has lost three of his five grandchildren to the killer meal at Gandaman village in Saran district on July 16. The fourth grandchild, Kajal Kumari (8), is recuperating on bed number 12 in the paediatric intensive care of the Patna Medical College Hospital (PMCH).
"Hang the culprits," says Mahto in a sudden burst of anger, as this reporter asks him about the tragedy. "The school meal is a sham," he adds.
The tears in his eyes that he had resolutely held back until now spill over. "I have lost three of my grandchildren and I do not know whether the fourth will survive," says Mahto.
While Arti Kumari (7) and Vikas Kumar (3) died in Saran on July 16, Shanti Kumari (5) succumbed at the PMCH the following day.
As Mahto sits next to the body of Shanti in the ICU, an insensitive constable walks in and asks him to arrange a pushcart. Shanti's body has to be taken to the post-mortem unit, some 200 metres away from the paediatric ward of the hospital, before it can be handed over to him.
Mahto explodes - "Pehle to hamar bachcha ko bacha nahin paye, aura ab kehten hain ki hum thela mangwayein ta ki aap uspar cheer-phad kar payen. Yeh Hindu dharma hai? (First you could not save my grandchild and now you want me to get a pushcart so that you can dissect the body. Is this Hindu religion?)." The cop beats a hasty retreat.
Shanti's body lay in the ICU for over two hours before the hospital administration found a trolley to cart it out for post-mortem."Three children gone Saheb. Not one. What's left?" he asks.
Mahto had stood as a diligent attendant, first to Shanti (5) and then Kajal (8). But having been handed over Shanti's body the same evening, it was a Hobson's choice for him to either stay back with Kajal or go back to his village for the last rites of Shanti. He chose the latter, leaving his daughter-in-law, Sanju Devi, to fend for self and an ailing Kajal at the hospital.
Destiny has been cruel to the Mahtos. Even in the face of such adversity, Sanju found she was alone. She did not even have the comfort of her spouse, Ashok Mahto. For, tuberculosis and irregular medication has rendered him bed-ridden for the last six months at the village.
It cannot get any worse for the Mahtos. The only solace they can now draw upon is in Kajal's recovery, hoping she returns home.
Even if she does, the scars of the tragedy will still run deep in the family.