Saturday, 5 July 2014

Moving into a village - many learnings.

In youth there was anger. At seeing much richness side-by-side with poverty. Richness itself seemed wrong. My own belonging to the privileged class was a matter of self abnegation.

Then there was the routine path ... engineering studies, the working of a couple of years, the resignation to do more meaningful work which would address the injustices. A year of groping in the dark, and feeling completely lost and alone - and then a newspaper article about the dam on Narmada, the vast submergence and the struggle. I wrote to Medha from the newspaper address, and I got a postcard promptly from her suggesting I come to Baroda and that there is so much to do. I took a train, and there life opened out, as there were so many people who had quit their jobs, and made such concern their sole purpose. In solidarity there is much comfort.

After two years there I decided i should settle down in a village, and work from that base on issues of village self-sufficiency, swadeshi. From there I went to the village which became our home. A village of gentle people, and entry made easy by Naren and Uma, much beloved by the people, who introduced me as their friend and relative. Mentored and befriended by them things fell in place. My husband Nagesh also came 'looking for a village to live and work in', after similarly studying, working and resigning. Naren and Uma were one of the 'villages' where work was going on - organic farming, dalit issues, farmer's issues, land reforms, swadeshi. They did not wish to have an NGO, but chose to work as members of the community. All ideas were in sync.

The dream was Gandhian - to live in a village, earn a local income, live as one of the people, and from there initiate changes ... a few things happened, many did not. But a beauty unfolded. I used to teach the children. We were doing some organic farming. I practised a little ayurveda. We tried to discuss various issues in the village. We took up afforestation with the people under JFM. We made some mistakes, we made some about turns. What I got from the village was infinitely more than what I gave ... I rediscovered India, and its anchorings.

There was anger in youth. Now even that anger is there only sometimes when I see gross insensitivity in the face of suffering. but then the words of my neighbours echo in my ears, "It is our duty to act, having taken the birth of a human". "It is our dharmam we have to follow". "What another does is his karmam". " What we do is because of the thought that god gives us. Without that thought we can do nothing." Their generosity which enables them to give away rice saying that god will provide for the next day, if he wishes to, is the India I have understood.

As years opened out   

... 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 “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 Munneshwari’s, but they do not feel intruded on. They sweep up around the stone, and again sweep up after the person leaves. Munneshwari 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....

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