Sunday, August 06, 2006


I wake up this morning to a very cool breeze. The Workers Home is already a buzz of activity. The girls from the hostel are sweeping the enclosed pandal as they do every morning, and the surrounding areas. If you leave anything uncovered at night in your room, in the morning it will be covered with a fine layer of dust, your own body included. One girl is mixing cow dung and water, and spreading it at the entrance to the Workers Home, creating a harder, less dusty surface for people entering. Tipu the absurd Pomeranian has stolen one of my sandals, as he seems to do for all preferred guests and visitors.

Roles at the Workers Home are somewhat difficult to define. My morning coffee is given to me by a student completing his masters degree in chemistry, but who goes off to tend one of the cows, but not before asking me if I have any laundry for him to do. Krishnammal has made it quite clear in no uncertain terms that I am not allowed to do any of my own this trip (we have had rows about this in the past), and my slight guilt about this matter is assuaged to some extent by the fact that there is a somewhat severe water shortage, so it makes sense to do all the clothes together. And since I had no “official” duties to attend to yesterday, I wore my shorts all day, so there isn’t a lot to wash. But I am waiting for the water to kick in from one of the wells before taking my morning bath.

Gandhigram is located between two small mountain ranges. To the north, usually just seen as a kind of magical silhouette are the Kodai Hills, rising at their highest to 7,500 feet. To the south, much closer, are the Sirumalai mountains, some 4,000 feet high, and home to the tiny but wonderful Sirumalai banana and all kinds of medicinal plants. It is said that the Sirumalai have their origin in the Indian epic the Ramayana. Rama asked the monkey king Hanuman to treat an illness from which Sita was suffering. Hanuman flew to the Himalayas but promptly forgot what the plant looked like, so I brought an entire mountain – Mount Meru – back to Rama. On the way, a piece broke off and formed the Sirumalai range, which is why it is covered in medicinal plants. One change I have noted from 25 years ago is that then, every evening, hundreds of women would return from the Sirumalai with their headloads of twigs and branches, both for cooking fuel for themselves and for sale. Krishnammal thinks this foot traffic has now been banned through the university campus, but doubts that it has, in fact, stopped, simply being rerouted.

It hasn’t rained in six months. Usually by now, some smaller rains would have turned Gandhigram into a magnificent garden spot, with the bourgainvilla at the entrance to the pandal bright in pink and orange flowers. But they are few and far between. Every day toward evening, dark clouds float in from the north and west, and it feels like rain, but none has come. The blue and green parrots that I know and love are absent, as the sunflowers haven’t come up. On the way to Madurai, I had seen irrigated fields of thousand of sunflowers waving their heads proudly in the breeze, but none here. There are plenty of myna birds flying low in pairs as is their wont, plenty of crows, and the ubiquitious Indian magpies.

This is clearly a special day. It is Sunday, but after prayers, the boys and the headteacher/warden of the children’s hostel head out to the fields both north and south of the Workers Home. Sebastian, one of the Gandhigram workers whom I have known for almost 30 years, explains to me that they are planting some 1,200 trees and plants: mangoes, jackfruits, neem (important for medicinal uses), coconuts, tamarind, guavas, grapes, tapioca. They seem to be convinced that the rains will be coming. Actually, Sebastian explains, the boys work in the fields every Saturday and Sunday morning, when there is no school, and it is considered a pleasure activity. I help some of the boys use some abandoned tiles to build little walls surrounding a few of the trees so that when the rains come, or there is irrigation water, the water will be retained around the base of the trees.

There are five wells at the Gandhigram Workers Home, three of them with compressors, but the water table has been becoming deeper and deeper as the university drains more and more of the water away. Friends of mine at the university have told me they can no longer keep their few cows or goats for milk, as there is not enough water to maintain them, and drip irrigation for kitchen gardens doesn’t work very well when there is no water to drip!

All over India this pattern is being repeated, but often with much more severe results than are felt here. As water resources are drained away to the cities, industrial plants, and, of course, to the pesticide-laden Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, the agrarian sector fights for its very survival. Just as my nickname here is “Mr. Rice and Rasam” (in remembrance of the days in 1977 that I ate nothing but rice and the South Indian hot pepper watery soup as that is all Amma and Appa had to eat), so I have taken to calling Krishnammal “Mrs. Drought-Flood”. Every year come the appeals – there is too much water or too little, and the people are starving. But it is hoped that, with LAFTI’s land reform efforts, the formerly landless will come to learn how to manage their most precious water resources.

Krishnammal and Michi, the Japanese prawn researcher, headed off in the jeep this morning at 4 a.m. to Kuthur. Krishnammal hopes that all the documents will be completed and ready for her signature, Michi will go off to visit several abandoned prawn farms, and they will return in the evening by bus. I am using the day to catch up on my writing and correspondence, and to prepare notes for a speech.

I have been invited to address a group of professors of Gandhian studies in Madurai on August 8th. The title of my talk will be “The Purpose of Education”. The speech will be one line long: “The purpose of education is to learn to treat each other better.” Then I will stop…and then explain how, in the very teaching of high school history in the West, we work to ensure the lesson will not be learned. It would actually be a rather dangerous lesson, once one gets beyond the simple niceties.

Our gathering here of LAFTI’s leadership, and international supporters August 9th through the 11th looks like it will be very well attended. The jeep will carry LAFTI workers from Kuthur. Folks will be coming up from Madurai with David Willis, including several translators. Peggy Burns and Randa Blanding will be arriving. Bhoomikumar is coming in from Cambodia – I spoke to him just this morning. We will have a wonderful crowd, and, if nothing else, we will all be employed convivially cutting vegetables for the sambar.


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