Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Krishnammal left me behind at Gandhigram so that she could go complete the document mountain at Kuthur. She left at 4 a.m., saying she would be back late that evening.

I knew there was no way that was going to happen, but I didn’t mind staying behind. Jagannathan felt reassured that I was here (or so Krishnammal says, though I actually don’t know if that is true); what is most definitely true is that he likes to know that the work is going on, even if going on without him. In one of his better moments, he laughs that he is now retired. I certainly didn’t mind having the day to catch up on my writing and correspondence, and just to bask in the glories of Gandhigram. Rain or no (I felt exactly nine drops yesterday, and made jokes about the “navaratnam” – the nine jewels, conforming to the nine planets, and also to a very famous piece of South India classical music), the mimosa tree outside the Workers Home is blooming, there is now one orange flower on the bourgainvilla. There was a wondrous gathering of clouds, some thunder, but the blue parrot I thought I saw turned out to be a blue-winged Indian whoopoo (I can tell by its call), and so we will have to wait for rain for at least one more day.

Krishnammal returned the day after at 8 p.m., grinning from ear to ear, and spent the next hour regaling me with tales. “I arrived at 8:30 a.m., and promptly we went to work. All 50 workers were ready for commands. We tore apart all 1,010 applications, and checked each for accuracy. Muniyan (the accountant) worked with Gandhi (the communications officer) at the computer, entering the data as I signed off on them.”

“We found some applications from women over 65; they needed to be replaced. Vengopu, the administrative officer, kept track of each acre of land and every application, sending workers on motor scooters or jeeps into each of the villages for signatures, or more information, or to village officers for statements of attestation. It was Sunday, but everyone worked all day – we kept the government officials hopping. We weren’t going to lose even one acre. The only unhappy people seem to be the Communists in the villages; they do not approve when we provide people with land.”

“I didn’t eat all day. And I’m not sure that anyone else did either. At 11:30 p.m., the last names and data were entered into the computer. Veerachami missed the train to Chennai; he got on a bus with the mountain of documents. Then, first thing in the morning, I called on the new District Collector (the local governor); he said come by at any time. He is still wrestling with and trying to keep some semblance of order with the tsunami aid agencies; they have money, but they really don’t do any work themselves, so he is very pleased to see me because if I say I will do something, it will be done. He promised to provide tractors for the first plowing, and to help obtain seed and other agricultural implements.”

“Then I had to bring up an unpleasantness. Two years ago, a man posing as an aid organization, blackmailed one village into giving him some 200,000 rupees (roughly $4,000) to keep the land. When I confronted him (in his new house built with the proceedings), he promised to pay it back. He went to the village, and made out a check for 100,000 rupees, but didn’t write in the name of the beneficiary, so the banks wouldn’t cash it. The Collector immediately called in the chief of police and is now dealing with it.”

“My army of compassion is on the march. I have now sent away 120 landlords that held the people in bondage. If I send away another 120, the people will finally be free. Yes, there will still be problems and setbacks. We still have to deal with the prawn farms that cause so much misery. And I still want to build houses; we must abolish the miserable mud huts. Some of the men still drink. We still are not caring for our old people and the sick; this work must be taken up. But without land as the basis, there is no future.”

There was more, but she was so breathless, and so filled with stories, and Tamil sayings and maxims, an occasional song thrown in, that it was hard to get it all down, other than to say that next week she will visit the Chief Minister, invite him to the villages, and then ask for land for 5,000 more families.

Veerachami called. He hasn’t slept in two days. But the joy in his voice is palpable. “They keep asking for you, Amma, and they are calling you the Mother Theresa of the Tamils (more on that later). I simply said I am Tamil Amma Theresa’s emissary. And they accepted the documents.”

I asked about the value of the land. “In a good year, there will be two rice crops, and one of lentils, yielding approximately 20,000 rupees (roughly $450). In a poor year, one rice crop and one of lentils – 14,000 rupees. But the people will not work the land all year round; we are starting small village industries. And,” says Krishnammal, “it leaves plenty of time for them to do all the things the people here do – useless politics, and the like. But and this is the most important thing, they will no longer starve, and they will be free.”

There is a great round of cleaning happening at the Workers Home. Pictures are being cleaned, bathrooms being scrubbed, floors swept and wetted down, fans being repaired, cots set up (for the foreigners coming – I suggest to her that they can choose their own accommodations at the Krishnammal Hotel, she doesn’t have to plan absolutely everything.) The workers coming from Kuthur apparently like to sleep outside, by the hostel for the migrant children. Beginning at 6 a.m. this morning, she has everyone organized like worker bees (she being the queen bee, of course). My second cup of coffee arrives at 7:30 (rather than 10, if I have it all) – she can barely contain herself (“I can’t sit in one place,” she whines at me, with joy in her face), and this 80-year-old woman, carrying mattresses and cots from room to room, is shining like a beacon.

It is a great victory indeed.


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