The 100th post for the year 2009
It must have been Oct/Nov in 1988. We had got the 5 acres of land at Hosahalli from the Government and had just managed to fence it. We were having prolonged monsoons and we decided to take advantage of it. Our group (the 28 children and I) decided that we would plant trees in the Hosahalli campus all along the fence. We went to the forest department and got around 2000 saplings of all kinds. These children were extraordinary. They brought different implements from their homes and started clearing the campus of all shrubs and weeds. It is difficult to believe what an energized set of six-to-eight year olds could achieve in a couple of weeks. They had cleared up the campus of the shrubs and managed to stockpile all of it to serve as fuel for our school kitchen for the next 3-4 months. Apart from that, they had also dug up small pits to plant our saplings. Of course, Marikala was their commander in chief! Every evening, he would proudly take me around the campus showing me the fruits of the days work. I was indeed overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of these children. No wonder, these children even today fondly talk of those days, when each one of us was inseparable from the school that was to emerge there many years later. There are so many stories and so much to feel nostalgic about! Even today, when we meet, our conversation somehow drifts back to those old days…
After about a month or so, we had managed to plant all the saplings. Every evening that I would spend in the school, the children and Mari would talk about how one particular goat was wrecking their planting operations. They would plant and water in the evenings only to come back the next day to find out that this enterprising goat had managed to make some of the plants, its breakfast or lunch.
Mari then had a bright idea. He offered to come early and catch the goat in the act. One day, he went early and did exactly that. When I went to the campus that evening, he proudly showed me the ‘culprit’. He had tied it to a tree and told me that it belonged to Jadiya, a Jenukuruba tribal who was our neighbour. This goat was the last remnant of the attempts of the Tribal Development Department to pull him out of poverty. Mari told me that we should wait, as Jadiya would soon start looking for his goat. Around an hour later, Jadiya came to me asking for the release of his goat. I tried explaining to him that the efforts and aspirations of our children were being chewed away each day by his goat and he had to do something about it. He had a simple solution – we buy the goat from him or better still, we learn to protect the plants better. One thing led to another and pretty soon we were having a heated argument.
In the heat of the moment, I lost my control and without realizing the implications, burst out at Jadiya that the ragi (millets, the staple food of the tribals) his family was eating for the last one month was what we had given him. Why, the saree that his wife was wearing was also given through us by the Shankaracharya of Kanchi! For one moment, there was a deafening silence. Jadiya spoke nothing and turned away in disgust. He returned a few minutes later and threw a saree at my face. What he told me was a lesson that I have never forgotten. He told me that they had eaten up the ragi and could not return it, but he could definitely ask his wife to give back the saree. More importantly he told me something every development worker needs to remember. He told me that he and his family had survived even before we came there. They would survive even if we were not to be there. Poverty meant nothing to him. He told me that poor he may be in an economic sense, but he and his community were rich in their sense of dignity and self-esteem. He said he partook the ragi and saree not with the feeling of a beggar, but with that of one receiving a gift from a friend and brother. Even this fight, he told me, was in this spirit. But now that he knew he was only a beggar in my view, things were different. He could no longer keep the saree and could no longer engage with me with the same feelings as before.
How miserable I felt that day! Deep down, I felt that I was still full of the ego of the ‘giver’ and never realized how much of a difference it made. Communities do not like to receive, however poor they might be. They need help though, but it needs to be done in a way that is not dis-empowering and does not rob them of their dignity and self-esteem. It needs to be done in a spirit of partnership and love. The poor can never be mere numbers – they are people who need opportunities more than the doles. They need our understanding more than our sympathy. Will the ‘development world’ listen?