Friday, January 15, 2010

First in Class

First in Class

So today is the day for the receiving of the Ambedkar Award. Dr. Ambedkar was a great Dalit scholar (educated at Columbia University) and revolutionary activist during the days of the Independence struggle, sometime friend and sometime foe of Gandhi as he emphasized that there would be no independence for the untouchables and others among the poor and downtrodden unless protections were written into the constitution and law. In his later years, he advocated Dalits converting to Buddhism, earning the enmity of both Hindus and Christians (who saw easy pickings among souls to save) alike.

A car comes to pick us up. I am in the front seat, Krishnammal the back. The driver tells us that he is relatively new at this, which doesn’t inspire confidence, and there is no working seatbelt in the front, and no Hanuman on the dashboard. We spend much of the trip shouting back and forth across the din of traffic (I gather stories as always), we plot our next begging expeditions (more on that later), and the phone rings 20 or 25 times, with congratulations from friends, supporters, and families around the state. Once we are in more official circumstances, with assistance from a young woman staying with Sathya, I will take charge of the phone.

We are supposed to end up at the state government guest house, but it seems we have many errands to accomplish beforehand (and the driver who repeatedly gets us lost along the way, which, given the massive building expansion in Chennai, is not difficult these days.) First we are to visit small temples/meetinghouses of two currently popular spiritual savants, Swamiji and Amma, both from Kerala. Swamiji is a devotee of Hanuman, and we enter his hall, there is a large painting, perhaps 8’ x 12’, with a picture of Mecca, Hanuman, and Jesus, proclaiming that God appears in many forms and may be worshipped in many ways. Kerala Amma’s complex in Chennai is more traditionally Hindu. She seems to have spawned an empire of good works, together with Ravi Shankar (not the musician, but author of the “The Art of Living”.) Krishnammal asks me whether I’d like to light one of the small oil lamps. I decline (I don’t always), noting that I am walking in the Light (a Quaker expression) and there are lamps all around (I point to my heart, and then to all the people around the shrine.) This meets with a nod of approval.

Now we go from neighborhood to neighborhood visiting old friends, dispensing invitations, drinking coffee, and begging for more money for houses. It seems that every family we visit (none of whom are Dalits) have sons or daughters in America (or England) though there is at least one former Merrill Lynch executive who now works for Bank of America in Philadelphia.

We arrive, and there seem to be eight government underlings who are assigned to our discomfort. I am being unfair, we did get them to produce some letters in both Tamil and English that Krishnammal will use in appeals at the event itself. The rooms are far too cold, but none of the eight seems to know how to lower the airconditioning. They send out for meals, and food comes from Saravana Bhavan, which is very welcome! We cover ourselves in blankets (it is 85 degrees outside). We can’t move anywhere without being herded back by our guardians – they seem to think we will disappear at any moment. I meet one elderly official who has worked with Krishnammal for years, the Chairman of the People’s Commission on Atrocities Against Dalits. It make my pitch for a lorry. His wife asks why we can’t make bricks at the fly-ash site. I explain (to no good effect) that we have the brickmaking machine installed at LAFTI’s headquarters, which allows us to feed and, if needed, house everyone, that the villagers themselves will make the bricks, and that if, by some stretch of the imagination we were to install the brickmaking equipment by the power plant (an impossibility, of course), we would then have to transport the cement, the villagers, and the bricks, and set up a new mess and pandal (open-air building for camping/sleeping). She smiles sweetly.

And now it on the event, held at the giant government event grounds As we drive in, there are traditional dancers, and fire jugglers, and scores of drummers, and players of traditional instruments, especially the auspicious nagaswarm (a giant reed instrument), and people in festival dress of all kinds, plus hundreds of police (a note to womenfolk: I have never seen a class of people as handsome as Tamil policemen; there are Tamil policewomen too.) We make it to our next “holding pen”. Extended family and friends make their way past police to embrace us. Notable among them is Geetha Radhakrishnan, a tireless organizer whom I have met before, founder of the Union of Unorganized Workers (it makes more sense in Tamil) who works to try to protect the rights of day laborers, especially construction workers. They have been hit particularly hard by the rise in prices of basic living stuffs. Krishnammal’s niece Gowdhami is here from South Carolina. She is a doctor, and also has a daughter named Meera, born one day before my daughter. The two Meeras have never actually met face-to-face, but they have talked, and have known of each other most of their lives. Krishnammal gets invited to another award presentation, this time from the Russian Cultural Center of Chennai. (?!)

I go out to the pandal auditorium, which must hold several thousand people, and find the LAFTI staff! There are about 20 of them, 15 men and 5 women. Many hugs to go around – I have known some of these folks almost as long as I have known Krishnammal, and I expect some of them thought I would never be healthy enough or live long enough to see them again. We go back a long way, and I am still cursing my lack of Tamil, for I have so much to say.

The program starts, the award winners come out. It is rather like a very public “President’s Medal” ceremony in the U.S. The Chief Minister, who can’t walk or stand, is wheeled in on a very cushy looking wheelchair. He looks like a cross between a large bullfrog and Jabber the Hut, and his voice sounds the same. Each winner makes a short speech (in Tamil, of course). Krishnammal notes that her relationship with the Karunanidhi family goes back 40 years. When Jagannathanji was imprisoned by Indira Gandhi during the suspension of civil liberties, 1976-1977, he was joined by the Chief Minister’s son, Deputy Chief Minister, and heir apparent M.K. Stalin (yes, I know about the name; in the early 1950s before the Khruschev denunciations, Stalin was very popular among leftists in India and elsewhere in the Third World. Ironically, there is a faint resemblance between the two.) Stalin was tortured fiercely, and the other prisoners, led by Jagannathan, protested, while the two families together protested outside the prison, cementing their relationship. Stalin is sitting next to his father on the stage. Krishnammal asks for two things. In Maharashtra in central India, there is a new law requiring that all uncultivated lands be given to the landless – she would like to see this implemented in Tamil Nadu. Secondly, in the new government housing scheme, she wants 5,000 houses a year assigned to Nagapattinam and Thiruvarar Districts, under LAFTI’s direction. I prepared the document appeal. Krishnammal walks over and hands copies to the Chief Minister and to Stalin. (We plan to meet with Stalin on the 19th.)

At last it is over, Krishammal is given a shawl, a medal, a plaque, and a check for one Nano. She is mobbed as she leaves the stage, by LAFTI staff, and hundreds of well-wishers. Some shower her with more cloth, others prostrate themselves. The eight government employees are beaming – this, after all, may be the best experience they have in a year of work.

Sathya brought Nagaraj to the event. It is hard to imagine how overwhelming this must be for him. Three months ago he was living in an dog-inhabited alleyway without any parents or relatives; now his new grandmother is being feted as one of the state’s leading citizens. “She must have finished first in her class,” he says, “That is why she is being given the award.”

First indeed.


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