Saturday, January 15, 2005

Bricks 2

My rationalist friends, or at least those who don’t know me very well, think I am a member of their tribe. I don’t go out of my way to disabuse them of the idea. I know how to marshall evidence, sustain an argument, am relatively skilled in the rhetorical arts, and I haven’t cut myself using Occam’s Razor any time recently. In fact, when I am in their company, I would probably be perceived as one of their leaders, full of myself and of data, seeming even to myself to be a no-nonsense kind of guy. I talk a good game.
I tend to wear my religion rather lightly in my day-to-day thinking – though heavier than I used to, perhaps as a sign of advancing age. I am inclined to look for rational explanations for natural phenomena when I can, and when these don’t work for me, I usually ascribe it to my lack of understanding and the slow pace of evolving scientific consensus rather than to supernatural forces. I don’t try to find God in the tsunami, and am troubled by explications of volcanoes and earthquakes and hurricanes as repayment for sin. It is nice once and awhile to imagine that evildoers get their come-uppance, but I have seen too many bodies of dead children, too many orphans and too much anguish on the face of the living to believe that a loving God could supply a punishment so disproportionate to these poor ones’ sins. I apologize to those I risk offending who might think otherwise, but it just doesn’t work for me. I see great beauty in nature, and great power, and great brutality, but I am no pantheist.
I look for the divine in the inner workings of the heart, and when I look hard enough, I am rarely disappointed. The trick is to remember to look! Or so has been my experience. I am quick, and am learning to be even quicker, at throwing rationalism aside when confronted with improbable acts of courage, selflessness, and conviction.
But I was not prepared for this.
Krishnammal took us this morning to the village of Aathur, some 10 kilometers from Kuthur, at the request of the village headman who came last night, and insisted she come to help them celebrate the most important of the four days of the Pongal holiday.
Aathur is a desperately poor village of 110 families, all dalits. There isn’t a temple in the village, or a shrine, or even an altar, for the people of Aathur are all atheists, and have been for several generations. The men wear either black neckclothes, signifying their membership in the Dravidian (DMK) political party, or red ones, for the Communist Party-India (CPI), both of which hold to atheism as central tenets of their political platforms.
After the path for the jeep wore out, we walked to a low-lying area at the edge of the village. There, stacked 12 feet high, perhaps 20 feet across and 80 feet-long, was a mountain of red bricks. Through the help of a translator, we came to know what had transpired. Krishnammal had invested 100,000 rupees, and all the villagers several weeks of labor, in making 150,000 bricks, in preparation for replacing the miserable mud, thatch, and burlap-bag huts with houses, once the January harvest had passed. When the bricks were piled high and ready for baking, a kiln was created -- the mound was surrounded and covered with wood that would need to burn for three days to allow the bricks to harden.
The village leader invited Krishnammal to light the flame at 10 o’clock in the morning, on October 1st, 2004. First, she stopped and gave the traditional prayer – "Arut Perum Jyothi" -- of her guru Ramalinga, he of the Divine Light in every living thing:
"Boundless benevolent shining light
God in-dwelling in that shining light
The light of compassion coming to rule the world."
Late that afternoon, several hours after the flames were lit, it started to rain. Heavily. So heavily in fact that all the roads were washed out. Krishnammal sent out a messenger, fearing that all the work had gone for naught. The messenger couldn’t reach the village, as it was surrounded by water waste deep.
Finally, three days later, Krishnammal was able to get to the village of Aathur, hoping to console the villagers. And then she saw something astonishing. The village was entirely covered with water on all sides. But the low-lying area, where the bricks were baked, was absolutely untouched by the rain, and even by the swirling floodwaters. Not a single brick was ruined.
Two hundred atheists – men, women, and children – gathered with us today to commemorate this miracle. They testified that the rains came on all sides, and the flooded fields in the area still testify to this fact. The last several months have been cruel to them – floods have meant no harvest, no harvest means no employment, no employment means little in the way of food. They are close to starving, but they have come to Amma, not for food, but to ask for her help in ridding themselves of the mud huts
The bricks are there. In February, Krishnammal’s army of compassion will descend on Aathur, institute a food-for-work program as the villagers purge themselves of the mud huts that have been their bane for centuries. In addition, through an unexpected opportunity, Krishnammal is about to be able to distribute 150 acres of land to the village of Aathur, to families who have been landless or bonded laborers for as long as they can remember.
A lot of them – while still wearing black or red neckclothes – told us they have taken to celebrating the Divine Light.
I have no way of making any rational sense of this – I have seen the bricks and surrounding area with my own eyes, and interviewed the villagers myself. I do know that much of what I see around Krishnammal is "impossible". Aliyah has taken to calling this "the place where the impossible happens". I do know that what I see continually here is the triumph of the human spirit. I leave the connection to the Divine to the theologians.
"How can you start up this army of compassion," asked Jagannathan this morning, scolding Krishnammal, "You don’t have enough food for them, or the necessary equipment, or enough money for brickmaking, or cement, or wood, or…."
Krishnammal laughs him off. "We can do it. We will do it," she says, "I know deep in my heart we will be provided for."
She could have been thinking of the Divine Light. But, dear friends, I believe she is referring to you.
The village headman says he no longer eats meat.


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