Monday, January 10, 2005

Untouchability 1

First of all, Aliyah and I wish to thank all of our friends in Italy. Apparently, this blog is being spread far and wide there, and we feel privileged to share our thoughts and experiences with you. As previously noted, Aliyah is planning to spend a year in Italy beginning in September 2006 at the Smith College program in Florence, and it is comforting to know that she will already have developed a large friendship network, even if at this distance.
Secondly, thanks to the doctors who have volunteered to come work with LAFTI. As you know individually, we have put you off, asking you to come, but only beginning at the end of January. The Orissa medical team had its busiest day yesterday, and virtually exhausted all their available pharmaceutical resources. The most common complaints are coughs, dysentery, and skin diseases, and the first cases of malaria have now appeared. We expect these will likely get worse in the next several months. As the international aid agencies disappear (there are fewer photo-ops, and we saw very few of them in Nagapattinam yesterday - with the exception of World Vision, and the German, Italian, French, and Irish medical teams), resources will be increasingly taxed. Krishnammal is planning to work on coordinating medical resources with the local government, once the aid agencies have left the field.
Thirdly, we were pleased to see the LAFTI volunteers’ work featured in "Asian Age", and it is expected it will be picked up by "The Times of India". What apparently made the greatest impression was their highly respectful arrangement and cremation of the dead bodies found. I can say from personal experience that this respect for the dead is also apparent in their respect and care for the living. Yesterday, they worked tirelessly, not only in cleaning out another school filled with four feet of muck and sand, but then going house to house, clearing the houses of mud and debris, making some basic repairs, and referring on those who are sick to the medical team. I am honored to be a part of them, and their leader has now asked me to share our daily blogs with them.
Krishnammal "Amma" comes from an untouchable family. The commonly used term today is "dalit". Only rarely now does one hear the Gandhian term "harijan" – children of God – as it is thought to be patronizing. What she is considered now, being married to a man of higher caste, and given her work, is anyone’s guess, though I do know that her lowest class "patois" allows her to converse across all class lines, making everyone feel embraced and comfortable.
People often make the mistake from reading western accounts that the dalit community is without culture. This is far from the truth. Krishnammal shares the story of her grandfather, a literate man who, in the mid-to-late 19th century, traveled (on foot) to 108 different temples. While he was not admitted to any of them, he wrote a poem about each. The poems were preserved on palm leaves and saved by Krishnammal, though, sadly, they were destroyed when her mother’s house burned to the ground while Krishnammal was away at college. As Amma tells the story, the travel to the 108 temples was in preparation for a bull fighting competition, in which the winner was to receive three acres of land. Her grandfather won, and later divided the land among his three sons.
Her father remained illiterate, however, for which he forever blamed his grandfather, and soon the land was gone as a result of his own alcoholism. Nonetheless, every day after school, his children were forbidden from going out to play, but were required to stay inside and read to him from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two great Indian epics (and if they stopped, they were beaten). He also apparently forbid any of the children from helping with work on the land, insisting that his children would not grow up to be landless laborers. And then he beat them further when they were not first in their school classes. This abusive childhood was not without results. Among the 12 children, six of them later brought up by a destitute mother after the death of their father (the other six having died in childhood), there was one advocate, a very wealthy doctor living in Chennai, a government worker, and Krishnammal. Of the two others (younger, I believe), one was mentally handicapped, and the other, uneducated, ended up among the landless poor.
More than 90% of LAFTI’s 70-strong staff, and virtually her entire "army" of masons and carpenters, seamstresses and nursery school teachers – her army of compassion - are dalits. They regularly work 15-hour days, from 7 in the morning until 10 at night, and I have never seen them take a day off. Krishnammal tells me that, with the exception of her top administrative staff, she refuses to make "classes of appointments", and instead pays them all the same, though she provides extra for those with difficult home situations. Once hired, they almost never leave.
These are the lucky ones. While the term "untouchable" does not correctly describe the dalits, especially those in the cities (they may now be "touched" without "pollution"), for the most part they are still confined to the most menial occupations – sweeping, tanning, and, above all, agricultural labor. Their villages are often far away from the towns where the "caste people" live, and from the fields. In a good year in this part of Tamil Nadu, a man can expect to earn 70 rupees (around $1.70) and a woman 50 rupees (approximately $1.10) per day. But they have work for only 3 ½ months a year. The rest of the time they have to scratch to get by.
Yesterday, we paid a visit to "Maharani Krishnammal’s Petticoat Production Unit". I gave a little speech, congratulating them on their important contribution to the relief effort, and noting that they are now internationally famous, word of their work having reached as far as Italy, where groups are taking up their support. We took the obligatory photos, when a man came and begged Amma to come visit his village one kilometer away. We drove there, past rice fields in ruins from the flood, to a dalit village of 60 families. It seems that in addition to their hunger (on account of their normal labor having been disrupted by the floods and destroyed harvest), their houses are falling down around them. The government had erected some houses – dark, airless places – but the contractor had been remiss in mixing cement and sand in improper proportions, and, having made a financial killing, left. The houses are now too unsafe for people to go into them, and the villagers won’t even allow their few cows and goats inside.
Krishnammal promised that, if they agreed, they would be the first village in her food-for-work housing scheme (see below). She explained that while the government did not place any value on their labor (the contractor having brought laborers from the outside), she knew how hard the dalits can work, and that they are likely to take more pride in houses they are able to build themselves. She also is sending rice (and sambar) in the interim until the work can be taken up, in February. "Normally," she says, "I would require the villagers to pay for the house foundations themselves, but this is clearly impossible here." She will bring her "1001" volunteers" and, together, they and the villagers will rebuild the entire village. And while the work is going on, there will be a common mess, and the volunteers and the villagers will eat together, something unheard of in a dalit community. "I am beginning this effort without any money for it," she says, but that is the way I always begin. My partner – God – in the form of all of our friends, will provide for us." I gulp - it will be a heavy burden. Aliyah promises to go back to Smith and raise money for a "Smith College House". (She is already trying to figure out ways to come back this summer, and continue the work that has been started.)
We wind our way back to the port and market area of Nagapattinam. The government has done a pretty good job of leveling the streets, and digging out the thousands of tons of debris. Now it looks like rather like Florida did after the last hurricane (a week ago, it was much, much worse.) Dusty, though, which is not helping my cough one bit.
The workers have thus far found 68 people – dalits - in the neighborhood of this fishing village who were overwhelmed by the tsunami but have received no aid whatsoever. They live only about 400 yards from the main village that has been adopted by World Vision, but for some reason, World Vision hasn’t "found" them. This morning, Krishnammal and part of her staff, with Aliyah in tow, have gone out to find others in the same position. "The government and the aid organizations can’t help them if they don’t know they are there. This is something we can do that they can’t."
Aliyah and I are dropped off at the orphanage we visited four days ago. I bought two cricket bats and a bunch of balls, some ring tosses. We bring some extra clothing, especially for the girls (they had complained they had no changes of clothing), and 30 of the petticoats. I make it clear I don’t want any photos, or presentation speeches, or thanks, and I don’t want to decide who gets what – the staff can decide that. They are extremely appreciative both of the gift, and the spirit in which it is presented – they have been assaulted by the media seeking "the horrible plight of the children affected by the tsunami" for days, and they need time to establish a routine free of the tv cameras. The children remember our last visit and are happy to see us. I suggest to the headmistress that the boy I spoke with last week – one Rajkumar – be explicitly asked to be in charge of ensuring the toys are shared. I had the impression that he might actually be rather forward and perhaps bully the other children, so rather than have him claim the toys for himself, he should be in charge of efforts to ensure fairness, She is delighted by the suggestion.
In front of the orphanage is an Indian man from Hyderabad who has spent the last 17 years in New Jersey, but who returned last year "to transform living conditions in India". He is much of a dreamer, without anything concrete to show for it. But he has now encamped in front of the orphanage, and when they need anything, he goes out and finds it, paying out of his own pocket, for needed drugs, or soap, or whatever. He even recruited a very fine teacher. "The government will provide these things, of course," he said, "but it will take three or four weeks. The children can’t wait."
The children can’t wait.
Below is Krishnammal’s appeal:
An Urgent Appeal from Amma
Dear friends,
I am of humble origins. I am very familiar here in India with the lives of people living in small squalid huts, their sufferings, and their struggle for survival. The oppression experienced by these poor people - and I was among them - was strongly impressed upon my mind even as a young child.
My mother lost her husband, my father, at the age of 32, leaving her and the children without land, or any other source of income. Hers became a desperate effort to maintain her family. Even today, I feel very close to her suffering.
The idea of serving the landless poor started at a very young age. My only prayer was to study, and equip myself to work for the uplift of the most downtrodden people. Fortunately, I became the first woman among the dalits ("untouchables") within my community to study at the local school. In those days, there was no local newspaper. I used to draw pictures of a small hut, and explain the suffering of the people, and send it to all educated youth throughout the entire district, hoping to awaken their minds and develop within them a commitment to service.
Throughout my life, I have been lucky. My prayers were answered. After graduation in 1952, I was privileged to be able to join Vinoba Bhave, as we walked from village to village in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, obtaining gifts of land for the landless.
But something remained burning in my heart. The wretched, airless mud huts were damaged every year by rain. Generally, the landless dalits live outside the village in low-lying areas. They have become so habituated to their suffering that they hardly pay attention anymore.
There was a woman living in a small hut near here that I couldn't get out of my mind. After heavy rains last year, I couldn't sleep, thinking of the awful conditions of the mud hut. In the early morning, I went to express my feelings to her. She laughed, and replied, "This is not much suffering. When the water comes in, I place vessels to collect the water as best I can. It is the best that can be expected."
I am now 78 years old, and have been working continuously to better the conditions of the poorest of the poor for more than half a century. But I am thirsty. So to try to satisfy my thirst, I select some huts every year and turn them into decent living quarters.
But it is not enough. My hunger and thirst is so great I must take up my housing program on a mass scale.
People around the world have been so kind to take part in supporting tsunami relief work. I feel like meeting each and every one of you who has helped to express my gratefulness for your kind hearts and solidarity with the suffering people.
The tsunami was a very tragic event. Many lives were washed away, leaving so many families in distress. We must be with them fully. At the same time, I want to appeal to you, my dear, dear friends, to take up the problem that is so disturbing to my mind and heart.
I wish to do something magical. I want to take paper and metal currency, from all over the world, and turn it into decent, living quarters, with tile roofs. Each house costs approximately $1,200 U.S. We would love for you to save up and contribute an entire house! But if not, perhaps a roof ($250). or just the tiles ($150), or the rafters ($100). a verandah ($50) door way ($35) , or a window ($25), or even, for the children, a single brick (5 cents). ,
I am planning to engage 1,001 volunteers to build the foundations, and with your contributions, we will begin to see an end to the squalid mud huts.
And I will sleep much better!
Sincerely yours,

Krishnammal Jagannathan (Amma)

(Contributions can be made through the usual channels: in the U.S. through Skylark Sings or the Gandhian Foundation; in Europe, through Overseas.)


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