Sunday, August 06, 2006

Cycle of Rounds

The cycle of rounds begins. The children are up for prayers at 6 a.m. It is a school day, but all the chores have to be done before washing up and heading out to the various educational institutions. The endless round of sweeping the compound and the road leading up to the Workers Home has to be accomplished, in complete denial of the entropy law that will cover everything with dust and leaves again by evening. Five of the boys lead the cows out to pasture. One goes off to purchase vegetables in the market with one of the workers. Tipu has run off with a sandal again, this time thankfully not mine.

My coffee appears. I am useless in these enterprises, but at least I am no longer an unusual source of entertainment, though the children will still gather around the computer and read aloud as I write. They read English surprisingly better than I would have thought, especially given that they are all educated in Tamil medium schools.

Each of the children has a story to tell, and I wish my Tamil were much, much better. This, of course, and over a period of 29 years, is not the first time I’ve had this thought. Perhaps when (if?) I get to retire? The reality is that, except for the language barrier, I feel more at home here than anywhere else in the world.

One of the girls – Jayalitha – (probably named after the former Chief Minister of the state, a retired film star – this tradition didn’t begin with Ronald Reagan) came to Krishnammal crying two evenings ago. It seems she has grown rapidly (I think she is likely 11), and one of her teachers made fun of her skirt and blouse, of the type worn by younger (or at least smaller) children. She needs to be wearing a churi dal – which consists of pajama pants, long overblouse that reaches below the knees, and neck piece. “Of course we will get you one,” says Krishnammal, “one outfit for school – the white and blue uniform churi dal worn at her school – and one for the rest of the time.” Yesterday she came in looking very proud, in a bright carmine pants and blouse set, with a chartreuse neck piece (the colors go together better than they sound).

Krishnammal tells me Jayalitha’s story. The father abandoned the mother and child before the birth. The mother would carry 50 lb. loads of cement on her head at construction sites to make ends meet, an activity she continued well into the eighth month of pregnancy. After the birth, there was no way the mother could care for the child and continue to work. I don’t know the entire process by which this happened, but eventually she ended up here. Lucky kid! Each of the children has a story like this, though most being the children of migrant laborers, they don’t even know at any particular time where their parents are.

Two days ago, all the children were taken to Dindigul – the market town - by some of the workers to purchase cheap plastic sandals. More of a status thing than anything else. Around the compound they are always barefoot (and so am I), but they are looked down upon at school if they lack footwear. Krishnammal complains that the girls have spent about 15 rupees (35 cents) each for “face powder”, which seems to be her word for any cosmetics. I remind her, and she agrees, that most of the hostel children are not going to grow up to be LAFTI workers (and certainly not Krishnammals!), so they must learn how it is to live in the larger world, and if a little bit of face powder gives them more confidence (given their disadvantages to begin with), it won’t be so terrible. I offer to buy Krishnammal some face powder, (I suggest we can share it), and she laughs.

There was a great moving and cleaning that took place yesterday. Apparently, all of Bhoomi’s books (some of them dating back to his high school days, and he is now 53) were stored at the children’s hostel while the roof of the Workers Home was being repaired. So they are all being carried back to his old room. Chests and large wooden boxes and bookcases are piled high. An old typewriter dating to the prime days of the British Empire! And out of the same room appears old-looking rattan furniture (which I know was purchased in 1998 by Sathya – prior to that, Amma and Appa didn’t even own a chair). And a few mattresses. Everything is being dusted and cleaned, perhaps for the first time in years. I think this is preparation for the gathering to take place here in a few days.

Krishnammal has another living sister. Unlike the youngest one, the doctor in Chennai, this one never left the native village of Iyenkottai, where she worked in the fields her entire life. She had nine children (one died in childbirth), most of whom I know. No doctors in this group. The oldest left school after 5th grade, and works in the fields. The rest are educated. They include an agricultural officer, a trucking contractor, several educators and school principals, my friend Shanmugam who is a sanitary inspector in Chennai (and who has chilling stories of food adulteration), and the youngest daughter, a polymath, with multiple and various degrees who works in educational administration in Trichy.

Krishnammal’s family is so very unusual. It really dates back to her grandfather, a poet (who wrote all his poems on palm leaves), who would travel to all the temples in Tamil Nadu and then be denied entry (he was, after all, a Dalit). This grandfather obtained some land by entering and winning a bullfighting competition. He didn’t educate his own children, and Krishnammal’s alcoholic father resented this for his entire short life. He forbade the children (while he lived) from touching the earth, and forced them to read to him and study around the table in their crowded hut during all hours of the day and evening. His instincts were correct, even if the drunken beatings he regularly administered to the children were, shall we say, unappreciated.

Krishnammal called at 6 a.m. this morning. Unsurprising (to me), they didn’t finish all the work until 11 p.m. last night. She won’t allow even a single document to go missing from the land-loan applications – it would be a cause of great strife if even one family were to be left behind because of a missing certificate or signature or registration. So the staff has been running to and fro to the fields and villages and local officials to perfect the job. It is almost impossible to overestimate what a massive undertaking this is. Veerachami has left for Chennai with the document mountain; Krishnammal will meet with the District Collector (think of him as the local governor) before returning by bus today. I think she is setting the table for the next request for land for 5,000 more families.

We shall just have to see. Meanwhile, two crows are playing with the metal dishes and pots, creating quite a racked. One hops over and steals Tipu’s food out of his bowl. I see my first blue parrot – perhaps it will rain today. I greet the children as they make their way off to school, about one third of them barefoot. Here comes Jayalitha, not wearing her churi dal. Some things I just don’t understand.


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