Just as Planned
While waiting for the formal Award festivities to begin, Krishnammal received a phonecall from our good friend and supporter Dr. Kamran Saedi – “Karmi” as he is affectionately known here. Karmi was Bhoomi’s graduate school professor in psychiatry in London many years, and having heard repeatedly about Bhoomi’s remarkable family, decided to take a trip to see for himself. He has been hooked ever since. As Krishnammal was engaged in some begging negotiations which could not be interrupted, I took the call.
I met Karmi in Stockholm at the Right Livelihood Award ceremonies last year, and together we went out to have a scrumptious dinner at the home of some Iranian friends of his. (Karmi is originally from Tehran.) We got to talking about the poetic character of the Farsi language. While living in Iran many years ago, I had once learned that to say “I will go with you,” one would say something like “I will follow you into the desert on the back end of a camel” or some such. Karmi opined that the more common expression would be to say, “I am your donkey.”
Since this is essentially what I do when I am with Krishnammal, I asked her whether there might be some similar expression in Tamil. The best she could come up with is, “I will follow you around like a dog.” I totally massacre it in my pig-Tamil (I just don’t have much an ear for it), but when people ask what I am doing here, and I begin by butchering this expression, it never fails to bring a smile, especially after Krishnammal translates back into pukah Tamil.
Putting the humor aside, it is rather apt. Like a dog, I don’t know where my master is going, nor when, nor whether I will be permitted to follow along. There are fits and starts, backing and forthing, and changes of plans that a dog knows nothing about until they actually occur. This IS the plan for a dog, and in that sense the plan is always accomplished, even if to an outsider it might seem quite random. If you were looking down on the earth from Mars, wouldn’t that be exactly what human activity looks like? Perhaps dogs are simply loyal extraterrestrials?
Who can say?
At any rate, plans for me changed at the Awards event. It was thought that I would join the LAFTI staff in the post-Ayappa van, and make my way down to LAFTI headquarters in Kuthur. This was to happen in the morning. Little did we know that, having made an 8-hour journey to Chennai for a three-hour event, the staff would turn right around and return to Kuthur that night without me. Krishnammal was unaware of this as well. They simply had too much work to do in this critical period (more on that later), and somehow something was lost in the communication.
Krishnammal, meanwhile, had a dream that she was supposed to meet a certain landlord in Chennai to make a deal for 200 acres, and expected me to go along as her good luck charm. (All her dreams are inhabited by land and houses. There is one cabinet secretary of rural development who welcomes her to his office but says she doesn’t have to say anything – he knows why she is there – land and houses – and so she can sit down and take a rest.) The meeting that she tried to set up fell through. That was fine to me. It’s not like I lack anything to do.
But Krishnammal and Sathya were to leave in the evening on a train to Madurai for a wedding in the family (and at which Krishnammal would do more begging – I helped her package up the materials). It didn’t make sense to send me to Kuthur only to return within 24 hours, and another train ticket to Madurai was impossible. Fine with me – I have a load of writing and reading to do, a vacation from my dog-following incarnation would do me good, and I am admiring the three cows from the verandah. It would be a good two days, until Krishnammal’s lieutenant Veeraswami would join me and we would prepare for our meeting about restoring prawn farms with the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation.
Krishnammal goes off to the train to meet Sathya; I go to bed. Next thing I hear is Tipu the Pomeranian whining at 2 a.m., he misses Krishnammal. Then I dose off for awhile, and I hear Sathya’s voice downstairs on the telephone. It seems the National Health Institute has called a special meeting for two days in Chennai, and Sathya needs to be there. Plans changed. (So I probably could have gotten on the train.)
That’s okay. I stumble down the stairs and into my chair. Daimani the cook rushes out with my morning coffee. I take a sip, is it coffee? Then another. I ask Sathya – is this coffee or tea? Turns out, with Krishnammal gone, a Daimani has decided to play a trick on me. She atones with two cups of coffee in rapid succession. Nagaraj is on the verandah and, it not being a school day, is busy copying Krishnammal’s biography in Tamil from the Awards program.
Last night, I struck up an acquaintance with Peter, a Christian Dalit friend of Krishnammal, who actually brought them Nagaraj. Hearing that I plan to make a trip to the famous Vedanganthul bird sanctuary not far from here (though further than I thought – maybe 25 kilometers), he offers to take me, and Nagaraj, and we make a date for this morning.
We reach the bird sanctuary which is fabulous – filled with storks, hornbills, ibises, spoonbills, and the like, all nesting. Nagaraj gets to look through a telescope for the first time, and I tell a story about the parliament of fowls, and we identify the Chief Minister (the one perched the highest.) I learn from Peter that he grew up a Catholic, went to a Catholic theological seminary, but now considers himself an “independent Christian” who believes that to follow Jesus is to do good works. He and his wife (a lawyer) have founded a children’s and community center very close to where Nagaraj had lived. Among their good works is that they take in academically gifted girls from the Dalit community, house them and send them to college. They are also training the girls to run the project themselves, with the hope that they will take it over (he has plans to start a program in a tribal area some distance from here, all with the beneficence of a small Italian charity.) We took about the continuing spate of attacks – rapes and house burnings – against the Dalits. Nearby, one Dalit young man was recently beaten within an inch of his life for walking down the main street of the village.
We go to Nagaraj’s lane. I inquire of Peter whether this will offend Nagaraj, or remind him of bad memories, and I want to make sure not to embarrass him, but no, this was his home and these are his friends and they now go to school together. Nagaraj stands proudly by his former home, and I take a picture. All the houses are made of mud and straw with leaky thatched roofs, some with entry ways only three feet or so high. There are pigs running between the homes, and the expected dogs. Since it is very low-lying, in the rain it must be a sloppy, muddy, abysmal mess. All the women have gone begging (that was Nagaraj’s mother’s occupation), the men nowhere to be seen, leaving the older children behind to fend for themselves, but taking the younger ones along to raise the take. On a good day, they will earn 60-100 rupees ($1.45-$2.10), but it will all go for the men’s alcohol. Nagaraj, it turns out, has a 14-year-old brother who is already an alcoholic, and, of course, no prospects. Anyway, what Peter has done is to forbid the women from taking the children with them, and provides them with food, a bath every morning (they are filthy, and had been subject to various skin diseases, until two Dutch volunteers spent three months cleaning them up and nursing them back to health), and some very basic education (as previously noted, Krishnammal has now enrolled them all in the Ramakrishna Mission School nearby.) One of the former beggar women, who looks like she couldn’t be more than 14, has taken charge of all the children (about 25) in the daytime.
Peter says that Nagaraj is about “60 per cent back”, and indeed Sathya says that three months ago he was silent, withdrawn, and depressed. Well, if this is only 60%, he is one powerful little boy.
We return home. Velmuruga, all-around handy man and who is employed to take care of Appa Jagannathanji, shows me that after only three days, my cucumbers (from my Thailand seed pack) are already sprouting, as are the zucchini from the Florida seedbank (ECHO – a fine organization, look them up on-line), and even a few of the Titan sunflowers (we planted a few more this morning.) Sathya brings me a custard apple.
I know why I am here.