A Letter to the Resident Indian Community in America
Greater moments in my life…
There have been many great moments in my life, each greater than the next, it seems. I have been blessed to be in the company of Mahatma Gandhi, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Shri Jeyaprakash Narayan, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King (when they visited our Ashram in Gandhigram in Tamil Nadu, India), to name some of the luminaries who have inspired me to lead a life dedicated to the uplift of the landless poor, particularly women.
It was 1942. Atop the Palani hills, we were assembled for the evening prayer in the presence of Mahatma Gandhi. Surprised by the presence of a young women (I was just out of college), Shri Rajagopalachari, then Governor General of India, asked, "Who is this girl, sitting close to Gandhi?" Dr. Soundaram Ramachandran, my godmother, one of the first women doctors in India and the daughter of TVS Soundaram, the Henry Ford of South India, replied, "She is my daughter!" Following this was the evening prayer in which I sang the lead prayer-song. What could be a greater moment in one's life?
A few days later, at a public meeting in the city of Madurai, I was on the stage with Gandhiji, the huge crowd surging towards us, when I saw a young man trying to manage the crowd that was getting too close to the dais and who in the process was being jostled and pushed. I was not aware then who he was, nor that I would meet him again in Gandhigram, and fate would bring us together. Then, the year was 1950. We had decided to marry only in a free, independent India. The close associates of Gandhiji - Shri Ariyanaygamji, the doyen of basic education; Shri J.C. Kumarrappa, the Gandhian economist; and Shri Ramachandran, the founder of Gandhigram Rural University - were all present as Shri R. Keithan, a practicing Gandhian who left his American church to join Gandhiji in the freedom struggle, solemnized our wedding with a simple garland of handspun yarn. What a memorable occasion! Shri. Jegannathnaji, my would-be life-long partner not only gifted me the wedding-saree, handspun in 48 days on his chakra (spinning wheel), but gave to me a life-path of dedication and suffering that continues to this moment. We both walked with Vinoba Bhave in his long march for 14 years all over India, appealing to landlords to voluntarily donate land for the landless.
Another great moment was when I could distribute one acre each to 10,000 landless families through a peaceful nonviolent transfer from landlords to the landless poor in the Cauvery Delta region, an area where 44 women and children were burnt alive in retaliation to a request for a higher wages on Christmas Eve 1968. Great, too, was the moment when Jegannathanji and I, after three long years of hard work, could relieve the sufferings of women in rural Bihar state from exploitation and bonded slavery, by distributing 24,000 acres of land to them in the august presence of Shri Jeyaprakash Narayan.
There were moments of recognition and rewards. Shri Jegannathan and I were honored with the Jamnalal Bajaj Award (1998) and Bhagwan Mahaveer Award (1996), given by Shri Rajiv Gandhi and Shri C. Subramanium, respectively, for our lifelong commitment to the cause of the landless poor. I was awarded the Padma Shri as well (1989) and both Jegannathan and I were nominated twice for the Right Livelihood Award (2004, 2006), the alternate Nobel Peace Prize. In the year 2005, I was one among a select group of women all over the world who were jointly recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is equally a great moment to meet you all, either in person, or in cyber space, to share my story and vision for the rural poor in Tamil Nadu. It is a shame that our brothers and sisters in India continue to live in conditions worse than a pigsty, and I am determined to change all that. The greatest reward is to see the divine light shining in the little huts of the poor, and I am happy that you all will give me a helping hand in my mission. I am visiting the U.S. not only to receive an award from the OPUS Foundation but also to bridge the hearts and minds of dedicated young professionals, business-people, and Indian communities in America with the downtrodden women in rural India. Swami Vivekanada came to Chicago to attend the World Congress of Parliament in 1893, and his address to American citizens sowed the seeds of Vedantha in the West. My sons and daughters of America, I am here to meet you all, bringing goodwill and greetings from the women of rural India who toil day and night in the soil to produce food for us all, but still go hungry to bed in mud huts, for whose cause I have lived all my life!
I seek the blessings of Ramalinga Swami, whose Graceful-Divine Light (Arut Perum Jyothi), and Greater Compassion (Thaniperum Karunai) has guided and blessed me all my life, for the well-being of each and every one of you, your family and friends.