Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Moving into a community ... some errors made, some treasures found ...

The village became my home in 1995. I had resigned my job after working for three years as an engineer in India and abroad. After reading  Gandhi for many years and after spending a year at Narmada with the anti-dam struggle I came here. I wanted to live and work in a village. I had met Uma at the PPST meeting in Chennai in 1995 where she told me of her and Naren’s move to Venkataraamapuram in Chittoor Dt., A.P., ten years ago. Venkataraamapuram was their ancestral village.  They were doing farming on their lands. They were involved  in local concerns like dalit issues, farmers issues, land issues, human rights concerns and were also working towards self sustenance in  villages and on sustainable agriculture. They had chosen to stay away from the NGO model of work. Their paradigm was Gandhian. When they invited me to come and stay there and work with them I went. I had also felt that the NGO model was undesirable. For one thing, the struggle for change I felt had to come from within the community  and that the requirements for it  also had to be met locally for it to be sustainable and long lasting. NGOs operate on external funds.  Another thing was that being an NGO worker, I felt, would immediately make people respond with an attitude of ‘they are doing it for a salary’, and then chances of their wholehearted co-operation would become very unlikely. NGOs are now a well known concept among people. Despite Naren living off his own lands and income, and despite the immense goodwill, love and trust people had for him, still people would try to figure out where he was ‘getting money from’ despite all his assurances that there was no external funding. Some city friends coming, and especially a white man or a white woman coming, would restart speculations ! To them it did not make sense that city people would come to live and work in a village without a suitable incentive. 

For a year I lived with Uma and Naren in Venkataraamapuram. I was also teaching in the Varadappanaidupeta school in the neighbouring hamlet along with the local government teacher. Nagesh also came to this village on a similar search for a village to work in. We got married in May 1996. We moved into a house in Harijanwaada in June 1996, soon after our marriage. This round hut was vacant and the owner let us occupy it. There is no concept of rent here.  It was a very pretty village with little thatched huts painted with red mud and lime.

We had wanted to sustain ourselves on local income but it did not happen. We bought land where we did some farming, but we hired labour. The land brought some income, but our needs were higher given our occasional city travels, even if only by bus or second class train. But after we bought land people fully accepted that we were part of the local picture just as they were, and that we were here to stay. We became part of the local economy. We have also had fights   with our neighbour on land boundries and fences, in true village fashion!

Over time we became part of the community. I was seen a teacher as I would teach the children. Nagesh and Krishnamurthy, along with active involvement of Naren and Uma, took up the afforestation of our reserve forest with the local people under the Joint Forest Management (JFM) scheme. We also had our lands where we grew some crops. Over time patterns were established, in some ways different from our initial plans.

Initially our position was unclear. It was not our own village we had moved back to. Also, we had moved into the dalitwada. Even the fact that we had moved into a village meant we had to face questions. On the bus, I would be  asked why I had come to a village. And answers would also be suggested, “... because you married a farmer ? Why ? Was he a relative ?” A bank manager who had come to the village came home and he tried to put it in a context for himself, “Oh, a farmhouse ?”. Sudhakar Reddy of Vallivedu who has lands next to ours said with genuine concern, “Why did you get into farming ? Inputs are high, output is low.”  People finally decided that I had come to learn Telugu and had stayed on. They accepted that answer of Naren’s which he gave someone on the spur of the moment. My neighbours in Maalapalle advised me to get a cow and graze it. They felt that I had the time to graze cows and it would bring me income. My daughter also never understood why we did not have a cow, and why I did not go grazeing cows  daily like other mothers. I had many answers, but I also had no answer.

The harijans did not ask us to come and live there, and our move was inexplicable to them. The upper caste villagers did not like it, because it was not a done thing. They used to ask me point blank why I was moving there and if I knew I was going to live with a community that eats cows ! I told them that to me, a  vegetarian, their eating goats was as improper as the harijans eating cows. It made no sense to them. Then rumours were floated around that we were CIA! Then another rumour was started that it was inauspicious for the harijan community itself if upper caste people moved in there. Anyway, that year saw the best rainfall in many years, and those rains washed away those rumours.

Our initial  equation with our neighbours was schizophrenic, though over time balance and comfort was reached.  Maybe the initial discomfort was only in our minds. Our consciousness of and guilt at being so well provided for compared to them brought its own confusions. In the beginning years, I had written “The daily routine was strenuous but that is not an issue. It is also very hard to have a help a home as to treat neighbours as servants can spoil equations sometimes. But anyway I never looked for a help at home. Initially the lack of privacy was quite disturbing.  People would drop in at all times. They are naturally friendly and social, and were also curious. They would bring all their visitors to see the strange non-Maala couple who had come to live in Maalapalle! And sometimes, when the visitors were too many, I would be shortspoken with them. That is not the local culture. People are very welcoming of whoever drops by, and they keep dropping into each other’s houses. Apart from the unaccustomed twenty four hour socializing, there was the fact that we had more, or rather ate better than them. So I actually wanted to hide from them the fact that we usually had with rice a dal and a vegetable, which was never so for them. Their meal was rice with a rasam or a chutney as the usual accompaniment. So I used to snap when I realized that they had seen my lunch. They themselves saw nothing wrong  in our food. It was only my defensiveness at being better off than them. We actually put up a high fence of coconut leaf all around the house when we first moved in so that people would not peer, and we kept the entrance away from the main road. As the fence disintegrated over months, my hypersensitiveness also decreased, and the fence was not re-erected. Over the years I have got more used to people dropping in, and also after my daughter came, tables were turned and I was very glad of any visitor, as it meant some default babysitting. Still, when people come in to consult Dr. Anand Rao when he came home, they invariably peep in to see what I’m cooking, and if its a snack like bajjis for the doctor , I get defensive and disturbed.”

Also initially maybe we had the subconscious attitudes of the wealthy towards the poor. Those early days we felt that whatever we gave people, only raised more expectations. We felt it only resulted in resentment from the others that we did not give to, and that there was not much goodwill at the end of any giving.

Today after living amidst them for ten to fifteen years, my understanding and assessment is very different.

Today I know that my initial reaction to them was due to my guilt at having more than them, and my guilt at my selfishness in not being willing to share it out with them. No villager has either of these traits, neither guilt nor selfishness.  Whatever they may be eating, they call out to others passing, “Come and eat with us.” This phrase has neither a sense of apology at too simple an offering, nor a sense of guilt at too elaborate a meal. For me it was never so spontaneous. I would calculate if there was enough extra food, and calculate the trouble of lighting a fire and cooking again for the next meal if I gave away the food there was. Simple hospitality comes simple only in the rural India.

Now I also know that culturally our ability to give of our time and space is lower than theirs. We were one of the first to get a phone, and when phonecalls used to come all the time from relatives asking for someone or the other to be called, I would soon get impatient and rude. Then I saw how others who got phones subsequently behaved.  They would call any number of people any number of times. They give with grace. When there is shortage of water in the village and someone has water supply, they allow people to troop in and out of the house to collect water, though the house gets muddied. I would be far more restricted in my accommodativeness. The difference between them and me was vast. They were bighearted and I was smallhearted.

Now I can also see my requirement of privacy was a very urban characteristic. I notice this when our relatives come and stay with us. They are subjected to village warmth. Villagers just walk in all the time to greet them and then they sit and settle down for a long visit! And I see our urban relatives get uncomfortable. The villagers welcome people dropping in anytime. If they are making special items like dosais or puris, they give what they can to whoever drops by. People keep open houses. If someone needs to grind or pound rice, they go to the neighbour’s house and are welcomed. The house could be a one roomed affair as Muneshwari’s, but they do not feel intruded on. They sweep up around the stone, and again sweep up after the person leaves. Muneshwari was making dosais in one corner of her small one roomed house when I went to pound rice and asked me to have some too. Days when she is not doing something else, she helps me in the pounding.

Today I see in them the desire to help and give. If they take what I can give them, which could be small sums of money, they also come home and give what they can without any sense of quid pro quo. Savudu Lakshmamma would bring a sapling or Sarojamma would bring a rose cutting. Nagarajakka would get me a quarter sack of groundnut just because I had casually mentioned to her that I could not get groundnuts anywhere. The women bring some tasty greens for me to cook when they go cow grazing. They get some sweets made at home on a festival day. When they come home to chat, they lend a hand in whatever work is being done.

From the beginning they treated us with warmth and like one of them. They would come home, sit on the chairs, eat with us, chat. But if we were going together on buses, discrimination would rear its ugly head. Ten years ago, the bus driver from whom we hitched a ride was very polite to me, and barked at Akkalavva. Today at the idli shop I am offered a seat, and Madhu is not offered one.

It was while living here that I realized how really unskilled and dependent I was. And how much of a handicap lack of skills was, as money is no real substitute. People do their own chores such as fencing and  building. We needed to get such works done by others. And one cannot really delegate complete works as there is no professional service of that kind. And employer employee relationships can start souring some good neighbour relationships. But this was more our position in the beginning days. Now our relationships are far more mature and there is goodwill and mutual help and regard.

Living in a mud house, has meant a certain level of work on a continuous basis. There is maintainance of the mud walls and the thatch. The thatcher has to be chased. Nothing works professionally and to call people for work one may have to make any number of trips, as they simply promise to come and do not come. But the challanges of living in a mud house multiplied manifold when the baby came home and she took a fancy to mud. One had to constantly guard her against mud in a mud house, which was quite impossible and so quite stressful for the first year. Then the children all had scabies, and I was very worried my infant daughter would get it from them. Uma was upset with me, saying that I had insisted on living in Harijanwada against all advice, and now all such problems were coming up. But things got resolved when as per our ayurvedic doctor’s  advice I kept giving the child her baths in neem leaf decoction.

We lived for two years in a chutrillu, a small circular hut of eight foot diameter. We did not take an electricity connection though the village was electrified. Later we built a long, low roofed hut, a safaru, about as big as a small one bedroom apartment. There was the front room which had the Telugu story books and toys for all the children and an open shelf of our clothes. The children would study here, and we would lay our mats and sleep here at night. The next room was the kitchen which had a standing level firestove modeled on the lines of what I saw in Venkataramanna’s house. The village people wondered why I needed a standing fireplace, as they find sitting and cooking easiest. They kept persuading me against it, but I insisted that that was what I had got used to in urban kitchens. There was also an old  dining table there where I would do my reading and studying. The third room had a bed of granite built in, and was specifically our ‘guest room’ and the default store room. There was a pit latrine, and subsequently a proper low cost latrine in the bathroom. The bathroom had walls of standing granite slabs.  City people who came would marvel that we stayed in such a small place. Local people would wonder why we needed such a big place ‘like a cinema theatre’. We had divided it into three such rooms - and they said three families could easily stay there and it was true.

Compromises have happened in our own lifestyles. We got water to our house from a pipe from a neighbouring bore, we took an electricity connection and we built a proper low cost toilet with a commode, attached to a dry pit. All this was when we moved from our small round hut to the bigger safaru, our final house. These comforts were because we were expecting our infant daughter and also because we wished our guests and family to be able to stay with us for which we needed some basic comforts.  We had a pit latrine behind our first house. The first year there were very heavy rains, and the pit latrines were full of water as there was waterlogging in that area. With that as one reason, for a good part of the rainy season, we were staying in the upstairs of Naren’s house.  That was when we decided to build a proper low cost toilet. We always had our pit latrine even in the ‘safaru’, which was preferred, but there was a backup for the rains, and for guests from cities.

Compromise leads to further compromise! From believing in a sustainable lifestyle including no electricity at home, and from considering drawing water from the well as best, we actively helped the villagers in their effort to get a village bore and street taps sanctioned.

Living in a community makes one look at positions subjectively. We had pure theoretical positions, but had diluted them for ourselves. Then came of question of whether we could impose those beliefs on others without their concurrence. Once our infant daughter was coming home, we got piped water from a neighbour’s field as I did not feel I could singly be looking after her and going to the well. With that background, I felt I had to help the other village women when their felt need was also tap water. Also the world was changing. The well water had been going deeper and deeper with bores being sunk all around. Drawing water was becoming progressively harder. So we all went to Chittor and gave petitions and got a borewell sanctioned.

In the beginning years I was clear that I would not promote English. I have always seen as a basic problem the fact that English is seen as the superior language, and the person speaking English as superior.  I taught English to people like Chalapathi on specific request, but otherwise I had decided to only teach Telugu, and so learnt Telugu. But I discovered myself teaching my daughter English also to equip her to deal in the city. So I also started teaching other children English as they also deserved to be equally equipped ! Though I was always aware that in a larger sense one is playing into a self defeating process. Anyway of late I have been teaching English and computers to the children – based on many ‘practical considerations’.

I was clear initially that charity is not the way to address any problem and that the community has to be motivated to take charge of its issues. But at one point I started giving a kilogram of dal to the school daily to be boiled and sauted and handfuls given to each child. Their usual food is rice with a spicy chutney and pulses were only very occasional.  I told myself that it was not exactly external charity, as I was part of the village. But I was unable to convince them to retain some milk from their cows for the children at home to address their health. Thus is the worth of charity limited.

When I first came I had theories on how the local skills should be incorporated in schools to give them validity and respect. We did some planting and farming in school. We did some pottery baking with the help of Muniamma who was Naren’s cook those days and was from a potter’s family. But soon I saw that it is a larger context that even the school is placed in. Those skills which are economically undervalued in society will stay undervalued The children enjoyed these activities, but its effect ended there.

We lived in a mud house and used only pots for cooking as we believed in the worth and sustainability of that lifestyle. We hoped that living it would also convince others of its worth. It did not. The potter himself does not believe in his pots, and uses aluminium vessels. The people have too many voices telling them of the worth of a more consumerist lifestyle for one little counter voice to have effect. And then we do have a concrete house back in the city, and we are wealthier. So is this act seen as non serious ? If so, maybe it is true. Also, with too many contradictions in our own lives, how much effect can we expect one point to make. Still we valued the logic and tried to follow it, and people respected that. But it used to be seen as, “Madam can afford everything – still see how simply she lives …” … Who knows – maybe it will have some small impact somewhere. Maybe it will not, but it will help us forgive our own excesses  …

Living here, I also realized how much more damage we unleash on earth compared to the village. Despite reducing our needs, we saw that the plastic garbage we generated was far more than that of any other family. I would buy tea and sometimes biscuits. I would buy far more of provisions – dals, sugar etc. than them. All this was prepackaged and therefore the plastic covers I would generate would be far more. And then I would also act ‘responsible’ and carry a cloth bag to the santa and criticize the plastic cover they bought there for their vegetables. While being the greatest generator of plastic waste, I would try to teach them how to be environmentally correct, and not litter plastic covers of toffees !

Outsiders make mistakes in their zeal, and may do more harm than good. We made many mistakes. When my daughter was small, I used to have a ‘birthday party’ for her, making sure I got a lot of gifts for all the children, thinking that it would be fun for them.  It was. I also used to bake cakes on my firestove for her and for the other children for their birthdays. But what I did not see was that I was building up a desire for birthday celebrations in them. I noticed it first when Nandini was glum in during my daughter’s birthday. Then it hit me with a bang when some people in the village started celebrating birthday parties with zest, buying small birthday cakes and hanging balloons. I cannot take the main blame for it and other factors like TV and city relatives were the main inspirations, but in retrospect I know that unwittingly I contributed to a process that I should not have.

Outsiders in a community come with their own notions, and often they are mistaken. And it is a very good thing that the community does not pay much attention to all the unsolicited, though well intentioned, advice given by them. During the gabbeyala dances, for instance, seeing it as local culture which needed to be encouraged I used to encourage the little girls to go to the upper caste village and sing there also. The local youth would object, seeing it as demeaning. Some years later I realized that the upper caste people now look at it as close to begging, and in that context going there is certainly demeaning! In the initial years I was also promoting millets. People did not take to it. Years later I reached the conclusion that given their tendency to vaata (a disease causing tendency in the body as defined in  ayurveda) because their very spicy and dry food, limited oil and ghee, and hard physical work, millets would only provoke vaata more. Millets needs to go hand in hand with more meat and ghee and oils, given their physical temperament. They themselves  told me that in the past millets were part of their diet and so was a lot of aquatic meat. That was, in retrospect another wrong process I had tried to initiate.

As I used to teach the children I was ‘madam’, though I tried to get the children give me any other more Indian names like amma or pedhamma. But ‘madam’ they named me and ‘madam’ I stayed. They named Uma ‘Umaakka Madam’. ‘Madam’, I suppose, is almost a Telugu word now. To the adults I was variously Aparnaakka, Aparnamma, Madam.


  1. Deeply moving and humbling Aparna. I hope this propels me on my own journey- different from yous though.

  2. Nicely written on the divide in thinking between the rural and urban.

  3. How many more compromises you made? this what happens to gandhian values slowly... its not practical in its original sense.....

    1. It gives a moral compass. And then we are able to direct our footsteps and go as far as courage permits.