Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Family of Compassion Reaches Out to Us All

The Family of Compassion Reaches Out to Us All
Kuthur, February 12, 2006

“Do you have an Appa and Amma in India?”
(Do you have a Father and Mother in India?)

Someone asked me this question at the MIDS/Workshop and then again when I met the students from the University of Wisconsin. I had been speaking about LAFTI and Amma and Appa. The answer is that of course I do. And so do all of us associated with LAFTI. Amma and Appa are Mother and Father for all of us.

The family of compassion, as Amma says, reaches out to us all.

As Amma tells me later,

“They must feel it is my home. Whenever anyone comes to LAFTI, no matter who comes.
Especially the Dalits. Eating together. That is the first thing we should do, eat together. Old people are neglected. I gave them food and bed sheets after the natural calamities. But first I gave them food. Oh my! We cooked 70 kgs of puli saadam (tamarind rice) to distribute to them before we gave them the bed sheets last month. They really needed the bedsheets but they also needed something to warm their stomachs and their hearts first. So I gave them rice.”

This is what the Japanese call the ikigai of Amma, the reason for living, in her case the desire to help others. Her energy for this purpose is inexhaustible. She is always fully dedicated to her work, rising often early in the morning to visit this or that village.

Amma asks us to share breakfast with her and then has me help her with a letter to the Collector. We print out the letter and add some photographs of dilapidated houses that have been taken with a gift from Amma and Appa’s son Bhoomikumar, a child psychologist in Cambodia. This has been a wonderful gift to LAFTI, enabling them to convey far and wide their messages of both despair and hope, to help the rest of us try to understand what is happening in South Indian society.

We get in the car and Mutthukumar, our driver, skillfully negotiates the newly-paved road to Nagappatinam. Amma and Mutthukumar spot a white Ambassador with a government markings and see that it is the Assistant Collector out on a visit. They pull along side just as the other car is headed towards Nagappatinam. The Assistant Collector is clearly very respectful of Amma, tells her to please come directly to his office, and then speeds away.

Entering Nagapattinam we see many signs for NGOs related to the Tsunami. There has been a large outpouring of money to help the victims, and, according to Amma, the sudden appearance of more than 70 NGOs in an area where LAFTI was originally one of the few operating. Amma has been involved with Tsunami relief work, but she is most persistent and committed to helping those whose tsunami has been ongoing, their treatment at the bottom of the society.

Today I have been helping with a number of petitions, letters to the Collector, the director of CARE, and various top politicians in Delhi, where Amma is going soon. All she is asking for are funds to help with building small, clean, comfortable homes for the Dalits. The politics of India is only slowly moving forward on issues like this. The most recent issue of India Today, February 13, 2006, the Time or Newsweek of India has noted that the cabinet reshuffle of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shows that, while the Congress Party manifesto is pro-backward caste, its ministerial representation is not. Of the 57 ministers selected, 33 are upper caste, 7 Brahmin, 6 Scheduled Castes (Dalits and others), 5 Scheduled Tribes, 4 Muslim, 1 Sikh, and 1 Christian. Simple math calculates the population of Dalits and other Schedule Castes as 20-25% of the population of India, yet this political representation is 11%.

In one of her letters, Amma writes, “The Great Tsunami, torrential rains, and floods mean no let-up in the suffering of the poor. The extraordinary sufferings of all the people is even more visited upon the Dalits, treated with extreme prejudice, denied their dignity as human beings by the severe discrimination of religion and the caste system. They are the permanent victims of natural and larger social calamities. Their position in the society has over and over again denied them the opportunities given to others. It is now high time for us to right the wrongs that have been done to them by this system of apartheid, to help the Dalits who have been devastated by social prejudices and natural disasters. This has been my work for 35 years with LAFTI, the upliftment of the Dalits.”

She strongly feels we must take this opportunity to remove the mud huts and build new houses for the Dalits. The mud huts are disgraceful, deeply affecting the social status of the Dalits. The living quarters should be decent, “with all modern facilities.” There are so many program to improve their living conditions, but in the view of Amma nothing has reached them. So she is going to Delhi to discuss with the Government of India, various politicians, Dalit leaders, Habitat and India Care.

”What is it”, I ask Amma later, “that keeps you going?”

She answers,

“It is the light, jothi, within. Everything is possible when you have faith in God. This is the maha-mantra I am giving to you, he said, that everything is possible. Yes, I am starting projects, everything, without having any money, any projects. I begin them, then know they will be carried forward somehow.”

Amma is now, she tells me with a wink, finding a special way to finance a project that is needed for the house building, setting up a small cottage industry for making ceramic moulds for toilets that will need to be installed in the housing that is going to be built for the Dalits. The need for this project is Rs.79,000, and Amma has dipped into Appa’s pension for Rs.60,000. Bhoomi has said that if LAFTI builds any houses without toilets that he will tear down the houses when he sees them! He has said strongly that it is very important to have the dignity that comes with proper hygiene. Appa wanted to use that money to go to his home village at the foothills of the Southern Ghats to donate a well for water for the people there. Now Amma will be waiting to get the profits from selling the first toilet moulds so that she can replace that money she borrowed from Appa! So it may take another two months before Appa’s village can get their well!

Amma’s answer, when asked what will happen next, after she and Appa are no longer with us, is that she knows who the next generation’s leaders are. She is not worried about the future of LAFTI and the Gandhian movement because of these committed, dedicated, and compassionate leaders. The first line of leaders are people like Veerachamy, Venugopu, Gandhi, Thamba, and Bharati. Anyone who has spent time at LAFTI knows these leaders and their singular devotion to Amma and Appa and the cause of upliftment of the Dalits. The second line of leaders are those village leaders from surrounding villages, and then the third line are all the other support people. There are many.


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