Vessels of Compassion (Aliyah)
I am not much of an optimist, and my feelings about the world sometimes come close to despair. I realize that these feelings are immobilizing, and when they come upon me, I have a few mental talismans to ward them off. The greatest of these is the thought of Krishnammal and Jagannathan, my adopted South Indian grandparents.
I once showed a photograph of Krishnammal to a friend, who said, “She looks like a very sweet old lady.” I responded, “She is the most beautiful woman I have ever met.” It was the absolute truth. Krishnammal shines with the light of spiritual beauty, a light that encompasses all around her. My father David Albert wrote in January when we were there helping with relief efforts near the town of Nagapattinam, on the southeastern coast:
"Once in the car, going to visit yet another village hit by the tsunami, she begins to tell us about her ongoing partnership, as she describes it, with the Divine. “When I do this work,” she says, “I understand that we have an agreement. I supply myself as the vessel from which compassion can flow. But the Divine has to supply the tools. Sometimes when we are down to our last rupee, and I do not know where to turn, I simply stretch out my hand (in my mind),” she stretches out her arm, “and it is provided for.” Her staff laughs, and nods. “It is not a miracle,” she notes, “and I am not a miracle worker.” “Yes,” I agree, we having had this conversation before, “Nothing is left to chance. It is simply a matter of fitting in with The Plan – even when we don’t know what The Plan is, exactly.”
My grandfather S. Jagannathan was born in 1914 in a small village in Tamil Nadu, to a fairly well-off, high-caste family. At the age of 17, he dropped out of college and joined Gandhi’s Independence Movement, beginning a life of nonviolent activism. Since then, he has worked in countless areas of India, and has spent much of his time in prison (in fact, the first time I met him, when I was three years old, he was in the Madras City Jail).
Krishnammal, in contrast, was one of 12 children from a Dalit (untouchable) family. She was the first Dalit woman college graduate in the state of Tamil Nadu, and at a very young age decided to devote her life to the betterment of the lives of impoverished women. Jagannathan and Krishnammal were married in 1950.
After India gained its independence in 1947, many Gandhians settled down and moved away from nonviolent action and satyagraha, but not so Krishnammal and Jagannathan. Between 1950 and 1994, through ongoing struggle, they acquired land for more than 11,000 impoverished families, giving them a measure of financial freedom. At first, Krishnammal and Jagannathan used the model of Vinoba Bhave, a disciple of Gandhiji, who walked from village to village asking for gifts of land, in his bhoodan (land-gift) movement. However, Jagannathan, and especially Krishnammal, created some remarkably innovative tactics that made the work of their organization, Land for the Tillers Freedom (LAFTI) more successful and certainly longer-lasting in Tamil Nadu than almost anywhere else.
Instead of simply asking for land and moving on, Krishnammal would stay in one village for months, living with the people she was trying to help, and organizing them. When she did get land, Krishnammal always insisted that it be put in the name of the woman of the family, giving the women security in case their husbands abandoned them or fell prey to alcoholism. Finally, defying the disapproval of the rest of the bhoodan movement, and even of her husband (though, as usual, he eventually decided she was right), Krishnammal began taking out loans jointly with the laborers to buy land, considering that, in the future, it would not matter where the land had come from, but only that it was theirs.
In 1994, after a great victory in the land struggle, Krishnammal began to turn her mind to building houses for her people, when she and Jagannathan discovered that multinational aquaculture corporations, backed by the World Bank, had begun to move in and take land to build shrimp farms. These farms, artificial tanks using a combination of salt and fresh water, with tons of chemical additives and antibiotics, were polluting the land all around them. Once-fertile rice paddy fields of an emerald green color unlike anything else in the world have became desolate gray-tan wastes on which nothing would grow. Drinking water is now unpotable. Skin and eye diseases have become rampant. Land that had employed 120 people in growing rice for their own subsistence now employs three in raising shrimp for foreign markets. Almost total unemployment is the result in many places. Fish catches in the sea have fallen massively because the estuaries where the fish breed had been destroyed. In seven to ten years, the land is no longer usable for shrimp farming, and an unrecoverable saline waste is left behind.
Jagannathan threw himself into the struggle with a determination unlike anything else I have ever witnessed. He organized protests and marches against the farms. He fasted numerous times, once, in 1998, for 56 days in front of the temple at Nagapattinam. He went to the Supreme Court of India, where, with a single lawyer against the shrimp companies’ 104, he won a judgment ordering all shrimp farms more than 500 meters from the coast be closed. However, the 1998 court judgment to date has still not been implemented.
I am connected to Amma and Appa, as they are called by many (the names mean “Mother” and “Father” in Tamil) through my father, who met Krishnammal in 1977 at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Gujarat in western India, and decided to follow her home. She and Jagannathan adopted him as another son (they have two children by birth, Bhoomikumar and Sathya, both doctors) and I have always called them my grandparents. Jagannathan gave me my middle name, Meena, after the goddess of the famous Meenakshi temple at Madurai. I have visited their home three times.
My father edited a biography of Krishnammal and Jagannathan, The Color of Freedom, which was published last year, and we had planned to go to India in January to give them the book. My Dad planned to work on some other writing projects and I was going to study native herbal medicine. Two days before we left, the tsunami hit. For several hours, we didn’t know whether we should still go. Then, we got a phone call from my aunt Sathya, telling us to come.
While I was there, I helped with cleaning schools, helping guide news media from other countries, and generally recording LAFTI’s work in a blog (shantinik.blogspot.com) that was translated daily and appeared in Italian newspapers. The damage and sadness was extraordinary, especially among the poorest people. My father wrote at the time:
"It is almost impossible to describe the staggering concatentation of sight and smell that one meets by the seaside. Boats have floated over the tops of houses and crashed into other houses three blocks from the shore. The port itself is a giant tangle of broken boats, debris, and fishing tackle. Goats gambol over what had been houses. Entire streets are tangles of electric wires, chests of draws, and cast-off clothing and water packets. The smell is a mix of rotting seafood and rotting bodies. In one place, fishermen are arguing with folks directing excavation equipment – it seems there are bodies buried under several tons of fishing nets, and while some hope to get at the bodies, others believe there is some chance to save the nets (I frankly don’t see it), and don’t want to see the last representation of their livelihoods disappear."
“The land will not hold water any longer,” Krishnammal says, attributing the problem to the destruction of the green belt brought on by the spread of shrimp aquaculture. “Every year it is worse; first drought, then flood.” About the tsunami, she notes that many, many have died, and she likely knows the majority of them, at least in Nagai District. “What to do?” she says, throwing up her hands, “we will do what we have always done. There is no point in crying on the battlefield.” She doesn’t have to say more. Many of her workers have lost family members. She has 67 nephews and nieces, and at last count, perhaps as many as 360 grandnephews and nieces, and somehow she seems to know where they all are. And there are hundreds of thousands of people who call her “Amma” and she knows them all."
"There are ironies – so many! At Cuddalore, many more died than would have even five years ago, because only a fraction of the fishermen were at sea. Of all the fishermen who went out that day, not a single one suffered even a scratch. But the destruction of the local habitat, of the mangrove forests, had destroyed most of the fish breeding grounds, and the daily catch has dropped by as much as 80%. As a result, the fishermen have been rotating their time at sea, so as to prevent overfishing. What will happen now is anyone’s guess."
Tsunami or no tsunami, people need places to live. So now Krishnammal is building houses! Many people in rural Tamil Nadu live in damp, leaky mud huts that are washed away during the monsoon season. Krishnammal is organizing an “Army of Compassion” made up of local villagers to help others build proper brick homes for themselves, an entire village at a time. They will make their own bricks. In return, the army will live in their midst and Krishnammal provide food for all (so far, 703 houses are in various stages of completion, and they will continue until they run out of funds). Krishnammal does not know where the money will come from, but with her typical faith, she knows that it will be provided. Krishnammal identifies herself with the Tamil saint Manimegalai, who possessed a magic bowl, the achayapatra, that provides endless food to the poor. Amma keeps a little bag around her neck. She calls it her achayapatra, but she needs some help in filling it.
I feel honored to know these people. The thought of them is a blessing, and they fill the hearts around them with love. Krishnammal took us to a village of 200 atheists who swear that her prayers over a brick kiln in a low-lying area prevented the bricks from being turned to mud, though all around the kiln the land was flooded. Though I have never believed in saints, I cannot help but think the Spirit works through her more purely than through anyone else I know. Krishnammal and Jagannathan are the living embodiment of Krishnammal’s favorite prayer:
Arut Perum Jothi
Thani Perum Karunai
Arut Perum Jothi
Boundless benevolent shining light
God in-dwelling in that shining light
The light of compassion coming to rule the world.
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For a wonderful biography of Jagannathan and Krishnammal, read The Color of Freedom by Laura Coppo. (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2005.) If you purchase it through my father’s website www.skylarksings.com, all proceeds will go to the LAFTI house-building program. Pictures of the houses can be found at www.lafti.net. The events spoken of in this article are just the barest outlines of Amma and Appa’s lives.