Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bhatiwara (concluding part)

Of ‘Happy’ness... and ‘Human’ness

And now, before I carry on with my ‘education’ story, I just have to talk about the people of Bhatiwara. Some of the most deprived people of our country ... and at the same time, some of the most generous and warm-hearted people I have ever met, worldwide.

In Bhatiwara, around 70 out of the total 75 families are aboriginal people - adivasis, many with an annual family income of Rs. 25000 or less. Some families have no belongings except the clothes on their back and a few utensils. There are no indigenous crafts or skills, and the adivasi people here have toiled on rich peoples’ land for meagre wages for years and years. Even those who have their own land leave that and go to work on others’ land – because they can’t ‘afford’ to spend the kind of money the land demands to yield good produce.

Shailu's house
Shailu...extreme right
When I see the extent of deprivation here, I start feeling guilty about everything – from my salary to the amount we spend on a Domino’s pizza. But what amazes me is how happy these people really are, contentment writ large on the faces of even the poorest. Take a look at Shailu, who sat around a bonfire with 5 other adivasi people and me on my first night up at the farm - and sang philosophical songs, to the accompaniment of the beats of a plastic container he had converted into a makeshift ‘drum’. And, now, just take a look at the house they live in – all six members of their family...

Nights at the farm are quite extraordinary, actually. The silence around is so palpable you feel you can reach out and touch it...and darkness for miles and miles around – except for the small bonfire burning in the courtyard, and the 2 solar lamps in the house.. in these near surreal surroundings, the words of their songs rang  out loud and clear...

Do dinaan ki hai zindagi, tu matt kar maan ghumaan...... yeh zindagaani kaanch ka putla - kankariyon maare phoot jaye, tu matt kar maan ghumaan...”

Songs extolling simple living, and living without too much ego and selfishness... and looking at them it appears as if they do abide by these guiding philosophies...

They go so much out of the way for you, you start feeling guilty.... they use up their entire week’s quota of oil and masala to try and make the meal they serve you meet your standards. I am supposed to be off masala, but I just don’t have the heart to refuse... and I think because the meal comes so much from their heart, I miraculously escape suffering any consequences...

At the school, one of the grade 4 girls, after just one hour of interaction makes me an impromptu ‘dil se’ offer – an invitation to come and stay over 1 day each at the house of her friends and herself... she seems totally serious, and I find myself actually considering the idea for a few seconds, before giving her reasons for not being able to do it.

Contrast all this with the kind of life most of us city people are familiar with – where everything revolves around conveniences and the ‘self’... even our philanthropy is a form of satisfying the self..

You might say ‘have less, give more’ is nothing new. Research clearly indicates that poorer people tend to be more generous, give a higher percentage of their incomes to charity etc. But still, nothing prepared me for the kind of warmth these people exude.... you just have to experience it... all I can say is, I am still overwhelmed.

No wonder I and other city folk who visit experience such total sense of peace up here...

And, now, a bit about animal behaviour at the farm – since the cattle and the two dogs and two kittens are a part of the extended household there. Julus, our young farm manager had recently got a pup from the village, a look-alike of a pup that had died earlier (and one which Ananya had simply adored). The pup’s mother followed the pup to the farm, and initially tried to lure it away with the promise of milk. When she did not succeed, she started walking up all the way to the farm (2.5 kilometres of a rough, rocky uphill path) to feed the pup – daily! She seemed to ‘realize’ the pup had a better future up at the farm.. and willingly gave it up, while still continuing to take care of it the best she could - without giving up the family or the village that had nurtured her... 

It’s strange, while humans seem to become less and less caring and more self-centred, animals continue to display such ‘human’ behaviour... :)

So, where do we go from here?

Well, this brings me back to where I started off – those difficult questions. There is no doubt that these are people ‘marginalised’ by the mainstream. The lives of their children are cheap, the infant mortality I have personally seen even in these few visits is alarming. The education system is currently just giving the children some proverbial ‘fish’ daily – till they are 14 or so. After that, there are no free meals, and they are left to fend for themselves – with no idea how to fish and spending the rest of the lives struggling to find fish from here and there. Simply put, the situation is bad.

No doubt, something needs to change. But the question is – what do you do for the people who are the most deprived... especially if they are so happy the way they are..

This part is going to come out very confused because that is how I feel. On one hand, I really want to see the children of Bhatiwara learn something useful – learn to fish. But is it possible to do it without affecting the basic fabric of that society? Let me try and explain myself. Right now, the people of Bhatiwara are marginalised, but content. The children play in the open air and shout and jump. They live in picturesque huts and are one with nature and animals. They worship women.

The ideal case scenario is if all this could be preserved, while giving the people a much better life, with healthcare and education of a reasonably good quality. What we DON”T need is the kind of ‘development’ where you come back 5 years later and find the men lolling about drunk while the women toil, the pretty white-and-blue huts replaced with unsightly cement structures, and families watching ‘Big BOSS’ on TV at night....

Even apart from these slightly hi-fi philosophical questions, there are concrete issues. Can any real change be brought about in the existing education system, or does a parallel system need to be set up? What kind of parallel system is feasible in these conditions? The village dynamics will be a force of its own to reckon with – I experienced a glimpse of this when I saw a few higher caste students waiting in the classroom till the adivasi students arrived and then asking them to sweep the room.

For any outsider to make any real change here is going to be tough, and to do it with all these conditions imposed, even tougher. But it will be difficult to live with oneself if we don’t try.

While speaking to the primary school kids, I tried asking them on several occasions what they enjoyed most in school. Something they remembered – some special memory. No response. Finally, one of the kids piped up, “26th January ke din mazaa aata hai... uss din humein kheer milta hai!” This induced animated responses from a few others too, and one said “Haan, aur pooriyaan bhi!”. A pause, and then, “Do do pooriyan!!” ... with a stress on the ‘2’ pooris part, as if that was such an unbelievably generous treat..

So obvious – what else could hungry children possibly look forward to? I felt humbled and stupid...

I left Bhatiwara knowing this is just the beginning of my journey. Though I plan to travel to many places over the next few months, this will be the focal point for me. I don’t know to what extent I will be able to get involved or do something for the people here – but to start with, I am setting myself a small goal – in a year’s time, these children will have something more than the memory of a good meal to talk about...


  1. Contentment is a false word unless qualified by a context. When their baby is dying, they are not content, are they?

  2. That is true, I guess.

    Still, most of the time I sensed a kind of peace and quietude in them that I have rarely seen in urban and semi-urban folk...

    It's possible, at present I am looking at them through rose tinted glasses... an outsider's romantic viewpoint... Abhi I am just sharing initial impressions.