Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Auspicious Day (Part 2)

More calls come in. It seems that one entire village is dismantling their homes. They are expecting not only to make bricks (they are first or second in line) or lay down the cement plinths, but to actually build their new homes in the next two weeks. This is an unexpected turn of events, and it is great to see the people taking initiative, and we will just have to figure out how to fall in line. Then a call from a feature writer from The Times of India – he wants an interview today. Under the best of circumstances, it could have been arranged, but we decide that will be better after we have pictures of the bricks being made, and the dismantled village.

Now all three cell phones are going full speed in the back seat, while Muttukumar negotiates Chennai traffic! It seems we can’t meet with Stalin, the soon-to-be Chief Minister as he has left his home, and his schedule is full, and he must keep his appointments. That’s fine, we’ll catch him in a week when we return. Meanwhile we are rushing, in a rush-hour-traffic sort of way, back to Chengelput so that Sathya can meet with the District Collector (the local governor), as he is supposed to help her build an expanded clinic.

About two-thirds of the way there (an hour and three quarters out of Chennai), we receive a call from Stalin’s personal assistant. Can we meet him at noon? It is 11:30 A.M. He really wants to see Krishnammal. Krishnammal says no, Sathya must get to Chengelput, as she is already 45 minutes late. Can we make an appointment for the 28th? Five minutes later, there is a call from the Deputy Chief Minister himself! He wants to discuss lorries and bags of cement. For a moment, Krishnammal considers dropping Sathya off, and turning right around and heading back into the Chennai traffic mess again. Reason prevails, and they agree to meet on the 28th. But, pleads Stalin, would she please come to a conference on housing (not to far from LAFTI’s headquarters) on March 3rd, to be presided over by the Chief Minister? YES! Fist pump! We are already plotting; she will have before and after pictures, a PowerPoint, some of the light green turbans (we’ll see about them), a fly-ash brick, and she will bring some of the women beneficiaries, the owners of the new homes, and make them available to the press.

Well, there is no turning back now. Krishnammal has been awaiting for this moment for her entire 83 years, or at least since 12 when she wrote her first appeal to her classmates to abolish the mudhuts.

We return home. She wants me to go take a nap. Actually, we both know that she is the one who wants to take a nap, but doesn’t like to admit it, so I go upstairs as if.

But not for long. We have more visitors. These rather local. The first has been “working for Dalit welfare for 25 years.” I respond that I have been working for Dalit welfare for 32 years. He says that all the Dalit panchayat raj presidents (you can think of them as local mayors) have appealed to the national government for greater inclusion of Dalit concerns in the 11th “Five-Year Plan.” I respond that there were funds for Dalits in the first Five-Year Plan, the second, the third, and so on and so forth, and Dalits even got places in the government as minor functionaries, but that is a rather useless approach (I am being very direct, and Krishnammal nods approval – I can get away with saying things that she can’t).

Anyway, I tell him when he is finished with social work, he can come to Kuthur, I will give him a turban, and we can build bricks together. That brings a few laughs from the others. But I give him a copy of The Color of Freedom as a gift.

With him is the gram sabha president of Olallur, where the adivasi slum colony is located. She likes the idea of joining me in my brickmaking. She wants to open a new village school, but she needs Krishnammal to work with a recalcitrant landlord to get him to sell the land for it. It is all in a day’s work.

We’re off! It’s time to go run around, and beg some more, and create a movement!
(And the day ends with our having driven five hours to our next location, having passed a sign atop a six-story modern-looking hospital, reading, “Test-Tube Baby Center” ?!)


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