Friday, June 03, 2005

Spinning Around the Axis (K. Saedi)

Monday 4th April

In the morning, Gina and I visited the town of Tiruvarur to look around. It had rained and the roads were muddy, but the weather was pleasant and warm. We visited the newly built Medical Centre and met with the physiotherapist who offered his services to LAFTI.

Brick factory

In the afternoon, Alexia, Gina’s niece arrived and we were driven to Porkalakuddi Village where LAFTI has a brick and cement making factory and a ‘Feed Unit’ for its micro-credit scheme. The rain had destroyed all the bricks which had been molded and left to dry in the sun, but fortunately those already kept in a shelter for baking had survived.

Bricks destroyed by rain

Due to the rain, the mat weaving class had been moved to the Feed Unit in Porkalakuddi. The classes had started only this week and the girls in groups of four were weaving mats, which would take three days to complete. According to the instructor, by the end of the course, each person would be able to weave a mat on her own and complete it within two days. This activity is offered to young women and considered a skill that would be used by the villagers, and not necessarily towards gaining employment.

Mat weaving class

On our way back, we visited the 160 acres of public land LAFTI had obtained from the government, and cleared and segmented by LAFTI’s local workers and villagers, ready for distribution to 160 families in the area. In the evening, Amma told us that the land prices had gone up from 10 to 30 thousand rupees per acre. However, the government provided 50% in subsidies, and the rest was borrowed from the bank as a five-year loan with 4% interest. A typical harvest can bring 6,000 rupees (8,000 in a good year), giving each family at least 5,000 rupees after expenses to live on and repay the loan.

Tuesday 5th April

Amma and Sathya

It rained all day so no one could work! It turned out to be a great day for Gina and me. We had breakfast with Amma and Appa, and their daughter Sathya who was visiting us. They talked about their personal experiences, of meeting Gandhiji and fighting for freedom and uplifting of the poor. They recalled how Sathya asked them each time they returned from their travels if there were no more hungry children, so that they would not have to go away again. Whenever she sat down, Amma read books on Shiva and Rama (in English) that Sathya had given her. She said they helped to remind her about how to see God in everyone. Shiva had practiced different religions (initially worshipping Kali), only to find that all led to the same thing. Through their stories she could discipline her mind to focus on itself, stop wandering and remain quiet and calm. She felt restless and disturbed by the suffering of others but it led to thoughts e.g. from mud to bricks, which started the chain of events to the present housing programme.

Appa maintained Gandhiji’s principles of freedom and independence through self-sufficiency: “Spinning cloths to stop the importing of textile; abolishing untouchability; and learning Hindi to stop the education that maintained slavery.” he told us in eloquent English! He described his form of meditation, based on movements and sounds, “The hand is spinning the wheel around the axis and the mind is on the axis. The big wheel turns the small wheel and in turn, the spindle that makes the sound. Meditation without action is hard, as the mind wanders but the action of the hand helps the mind to focus and remain on the axis (representing Rama) and the sound of spindle (calling to Rama).

Wednesday 6th April

It was raining again and we sat down to a leisurely breakfast. An old woman and her grandson came with an invitation card (in two colorful pages) for Amma and all LAFTI workers to attend the ear piercing ceremony of the grandson. Amma was concerned about the amount of money spent for the occasion but consoled herself that the relatives' gifts may bring some compensation! She told the story of this family after they had gone: the boy had been very ill and was not thriving as a baby. Amma paid for his medical care and after six months, the boy was able to walk. Later, LAFTI gave the family an acre of land and built them a house; the older sister was also admitted to the girls' hostel. One day, Amma was visiting and saw the mother and grandmother sleeping outside. The grandfather and the husband were both spending the money earned from the cultivation of land on alcohol consumption. The women had protested, but they were thrown out of the house. Amma pointed out to the men that the house and the land were in the name of the woman. They left on that day, and the husband never came back; he is reputed to be drinking and gambling. The grandfather died after six months. The women have worked hard and they have earned money and the respect of the Dalit community (there is also a hierarchy amongst Dalits and the poor are not respected!) Now the boy is in 6th standard and they can afford having a big ceremony for him.

“Dalit people are very proud,” Amma told us. They come to her for help when they are in need e.g. when there is too much rain and there is no work for them; she was expecting people to come for rice today as it has rained for a few days. “When they work and earn money, they won't even look at me if they see me on the road!” After the tsunami, a woman used to come to collect rice whenever in need. She was a ''bonded laborer", and told Amma that she was paid 50 rupees per month to work for the landlord. When he was selling his land, he gave her an acre for her services. However, her husband suffered from tuberculosis, and she mortgaged the land for 3,000 rupees to pay for his hospital treatment, but to no avail and he died. She was a laborer again as she was unable to re-pay the mortgage. Amma got the money from Sathya and paid the mortgage, and the woman was free and able to work for herself again.

One day, her son was hit by a motorcycle as they were crossing the road on their way to LAFTI and his leg was fractured. The police wanted him to go to the government hospital so that they could make a criminal case against the motorcyclist; this would have meant a long delay. Amma wanted him to get immediate medical attention and had him admitted to a private institution. They wanted 45,000 rupees to which Amma agreed, thinking she would explain the circumstances later. The boy received appropriate treatment but the entire amount was demanded before he would be allowed to leave. LAFTI paid 10,000 rupees and another 10,000 was paid by a tsunami relief NGO. She asked the hospital for time in order to collect more money but they refused to let the boy go home. She could not understand how “so much studying and research to develop expertise had ended in practicing medicine without an iota of compassion for human suffering”. At the end, a total of 32,500 rupees were paid in order to release the boy. Amma approached World Vision for reimbursement; they agreed to contribute 7,500 rupees, but wanted credit for the whole bill!

Thirupanikottur Village

After breakfast, Amma took us to see a Dalit village after the rainfall. We drove to Thirupanikottur. During the floods in October to December 2004, the walls of the mud huts had been eroded and some huts had been completely destroyed. The ground was waterlogged in some places after the recent rain. The villagers gathered around us and were anxious to show us the extent of the damage to their huts. Amma wondered why they were resigned to live in these conditions, and did not ask LAFTI to help. She promised rice to some families. A grandmother whose daughter had been killed by her husband three days earlier was extremely distressed. The villagers had tried to console her but to no avail. The husband had gone to the police afterwards to give himself up and was in custody. The grandmother was now looking after her grandchildren, a 3-year-old girl and a 7-month-old boy. Amma was thinking of bringing the family to live in LAFTI’s premises and to help them cope with their traumatic grief.

After lunch we joined a song and dance programme at the boys’ hostel. It was a great event and we joined in the dance! Amma stayed up late and we sat down composing a letter to supporters updating them on LAFTI's tsunami activities.


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