Thursday, 15 September 2016

A biography !

 (Radhika Rammohan)

Village visit - Sankaranthi 2014

"Come to the village", my friend Aparna would say to me, practically every time we met these last 2-3 years. I came across Aparna and through her, the village in the early days of setting up reStore. Her husband Nagesh used to wander in occasionally with harvests of wild Jamun, and she arranged for tamarind and dried alma powder processed by the village people, for sale at our store. She loves children, and often invited Ananya and me to their home, where she and her daughter, Turiya (now 13) would tell us about the village and its people. "The village" and its characters became part of our regular conversation.

Aparna has lived there for over 15 years, and recently taken to spending more time in Chennai. She learns Ayurveda from a doctor here, Nagesh is doing a research project at IIT and Turiya is engaged in a variety of learning activities for which part-time urban residence became necessary.

In the early nineties, after a degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalo
re and working in the IT space for a couple of years in India and the US, Aparna decided to search for connection with the core of India. "Go to a village and live among the people", Gandhi had written. So she did just that! Seeing an article on the Narmada Bachao Andolan she wrote a postcard to Medha Patkar. Medha promptly wrote back and there started a life's journey among India's resource-poor and marginalized. Traveling and working in the valley for a year, Aparna came across many activists and among them were Narendranath Gorrepati and his wife Uma Shankari, both post-graduates from the Delhi School of Economics, now questioning the basic paradigm of development, and living in Naren's ancestral village of Venkataramapuram in Chittoor District, AP. She moved there and spent a year, subsequently choosing to settle in the nearby Dalitwada, the Harijan settlement of the panchayat. Initially, it was a statement of protest against a separate village for the "scheduled caste", but years later she realized that neither did the people of Dalitwada culturally and otherwise *want* to live along with the caste villagers!

These pictures capture a few glimpses of friends at Dalitwada and some insights into their stories. Over our short visit I saw some of the happiest people and truest examples of "community". As I was dropped off at the end of the village, and enquired hesitantly about "Aparna's house", a cheerful old man beckoned to follow him and walked us through his own backyard, to the end of the next street to her place. Kids enter and leave her home at will. They borrow various modest playthings like a punctured ball, a battered aluminum "kitchen set" and a few old books, sometimes with permission and other times with "information"! At frequent intervals, one of the young mothers steps in for a dose of ayurvedic medicine for a child with a stubborn cough, or stomach ailment.

The area has experienced drought, a rapidly falling water table (taking bore wells to 600 feet depth), top-soil loss, poor access to training and relevant education, and severe decline in viable livelihoods. The people rear a few cows, goats and chickens, and a few have small landholdings. Hence Aparna and Nagesh are doing what they can in terms of raising funds for the most needy:

- one of the resource poor families of the village - Easwaramma and her two grandchildren whose one parent has abandoned them and the other been killed. She herself suffers poor health and yet brings them up with wisdom, affection and care. The children Kaavya and Sasi are both bright as buttons and seeing their cheerful faces one can hardly believe the trauma they must have gone through. All this is testimony to the true community of the village. The funds being raised are primarily for healthcare and for their general expenses -- this family has no income source except a small quantity of milk sold from the only asset they own - a cow. The grandmother in physical pain or 12-year old child have to take the cow grazing daily.

- livelihood generation especially for a few young women whose husbands have abandoned them due to drunken ways. Some of them have young children and are housed in their parent's or relatives homes, but not able to maintain even the basic necessities.

- Annapurna gathers, cleans, dries tamarind and wild alma powder for sale in the city. But her income from this is very minimal and the orders for Amla powder are not in large quantity.

- Aparna is trying to set up a small ayurvedic clinic in the village, for a more holistic approach to health than the expensive and chemical-oriented allopathic pills dispensed in nearby villages and towns.

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