Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I am Tortured!


Pinch me, I’m home!!! After three years, my wife’s serious illness, my heart attack, death, and subsequent resurrection, I’m home! Not Olympia, Washington, but the Gandhigram Workers Home, for me the most beautiful place of lived-in real estate on the planet.

Here are the magnificent Sirumalai mountains in the background to the south, where Hanuman dropped a piece of Mount Meru containing rare medicinal plants that he was bringing to Rama on Lanka. Here are the 300-400 fruit and other useful trees, collected from many parts of the world by Bhoomikumar. Here is the building itself, built with stones hewn from the mountain by Jagannathan’s and Rev. Keithanji’s own hands. The building is still a pale yellow on the outside, accented with red and orange bourgainvilla weaving themselves on the large trellis by the entrance. I have worked for more than 30 years at it, and I can say with reasonable certainty that it is impossible to get a photograph that does it justice.

The walls on the inside, both of the pandal open to the outside and of the interior rooms, are still robin’s egg blue. The broad posts holding up the crossbeams are now decorated with large, framed posters of Gandhi, Vinoba, and Jagannathan, which Krishnammal and I both think is somewhat of an excess, but the workers insist. There is a small table with a picture of Ramalinga on it, and a small lit oil lamp in front. This is the pandal where Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King once sat, eating dosas made by Krishnammal herself, before taking Martin on his one and only tour of abject Indian villages. The holes in the post that once held the swing on which Jawarhalal Nehru sat are still visible. Others, too numerous to mention, have come and gone. And, of course, this is where the Friends of LAFTI Foundation was founded.

And here is my room! On the right side as one enters the pandal; my bed is still exactly there where I left it three-and-a-half years ago. The new roof of magnificent red clay tiles that we put up about five years ago is holding up well.

No one asks me whether I have eaten; instead there is the magnificent feast prepared by Papa (“Baby”) the cook set out for us. She remembers that I take my rasam in a cup, rather than as a rice course itself. The furniture is a little rickety, as the good stuff (as I had previously made a mental note) is now at Sathya’s house in Chengelput. Mukumal (translated as best I can as “Mother of the Nose”) asks me if I have any laundry that needs cleaning. And here is my 30-year friend Worker’s Home Natarajan (we know so many Natarajans that such a title as this is a way to indicate which one we are referring to) is still here, still looking anciently wise and distinguished, and still caring for the 30 hostel children who live in the side buildings. They won’t be home from school until 4:00 or so.

I grab a quick, sweet nap on my bed (oh, it should have been longer!), and then explain my sunflower growing contest idea to Natarajan, which delights him greatly, and give him the seeds for the giant sunflowers (including some to plant around the large rock dedicated to Keithan’s memory), as well as a little under half of my smuggled vegetable seeds. The soil is so fertile here, and enriched by the manure from the Holstein cows (hope they don’t eat the sunflower plants), that I am sure they will have a good harvest. (The land around Kuthur is a little more challenging, and mostly suitable only for growing rice.) And then I go to the little khadi store and buy four jars of Gandhigram pickles – lime, lemon, ginger, and garlic (they are out of mango), which I will bring home and treasure – they cannot be obtained anywhere else in the world.

There are a few changes. Tipu the dog has a daughter here who looks just like her father. And there is a biosand water filter in the pandal. This is actually the first time I have tasted the water from one – cool and delicious. Someone here has called it “mineral water for the poor”. I get a picture of my drinking it with Natarajan; later, I will get some with the hostel children. Natarajan says the filter has been a complete success, and is especially appreciated in the hot season, when the water comes out cold.

We are on the edge of the Gandhigram Rural University (and they have been eyeing this parcel of land for a long time, but we are determined they won’t get it). To build the new highway, the highway department had to take out the little stores on one side; on the other, the road literally cut through half the store buildings, leaving them half-standing, and still operating. And the bicycle tree – so named because tires and inner tubes hung from its branches, advertising the services of the bicycle repairman and the availability of bikes for rent – is gone. I wonder where he moved after more than 30 years (and maybe many more) at the same spot. Ironicallly, the Internet Café that used to stand directly behind the tree, is gone as well.
The campus hasn’t changed much. We meet with a professor of Gandhian studies and a member of the Gandhigram Trust. The Vice Chancellor has already promised 5,000 bags of cement; we want 5,000 more to come from the community. The professor wants to spread the biosand water filters; I agree, but I want to train people from this community to build them themselves, as half the idea is that they should become self-sufficient. (The University is supposed to be a Gandhian institution, but you’d have to try hard to notice.) I will be meeting with our new expert Marimuthu to see if we can set up a training program. Meanwhile, I ask if the professor can bring other professors and have them make bricks with me in Kuthur? He is taken aback, and I believe he thinks I can’t be serious. I am.

OOOHHH! That smarts! I had a nice evening planned, an interview about George Willoughby (the professor thought I was George Willoughby, who he knew 25 years ago! – I take that as a compliment), and a discussion with an interesting young man from Bologna who I hope to entice to become Krishnammal’s traveling companion for awhile (he is interested). I was going to watch a magnificent sunset, watch the blue parrots and the kingfishers find their night resting places, eat a good meal, and sleep the sleep of an untroubled king. But NO, plans are changed: we are being called away to our next appointment, and are unable to return.

Goodbye, for now, oh, sweet home, and thank you for a precious three hours. I have gone through all of this, and I will return.

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11:49 PM, September 16, 2010  

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