Saturday, August 13, 2005


In this place night settles like molasses, no, jaggery, like gur. Like it treacles out of your parantha, so it drips down the sides of the rocky hillocks that surround the village. There is a power cut and the effect is acute. Now I know what is meant by "a sky carpeted with stars". The crescent moon lends the air a chilliness that heralds winter.

Yet below this celestial scenery, below the boulder strewn hillocks that seem to be outlined by a phosphorescent halo, perhaps of sun-baked rock and earth reflecting the moonlight, you know that not everything is as beautiful or magical.

Nights like these can be magic in the city.

As a travelling salesman for one of India’s largest selling periodicals I often wondered what it would be like to go off down the side roads of the main highways. Who lives here? What happens there? Idle thoughts of someone contented, paid handsomely, travelling in comfort provided by a generous tour allowance, as I zipped down the tarmac with hours to kill before my next sale.

The simile to jaggery may be apt for the night, but the truth is that no jaggery is available here. If it is, it comes from elsewhere and is usually not affordable by people who face drought because of no rain and a loss of income from too much rain. Between the devil and the deep blue sea. From the frying pan into the fire. There are so many similes for trouble in the English language.

This is the most backward district in the state. It is officially acknowledged that a large percentage lives below the official poverty line, the BPL. Poverty is a strong term in bureaucracy’s officialese. It is a good statistic and an index of how rich the rest of the country is. Percentages can make forcible statements.

Out here percentages mean nothing. The value of a percentile figure means the amount the villager repays the loan shark every month for the rest of his life, and if unfortunate enough to be deeply in debt, the rest of his children’s lifetimes. So that they can survive. Subsist. A slight percentage above mere existence.

Out here the meteorological survey’s percentage-of-rainfall statistics for the year mean that there will be less rain so it’s likely that the village will starve and be forced to migrate. Or the percentage could mean that there will be extraordinary rain, and good cash crops ruined because the skies will weep for the sad plight of the unfortunate people. The truth is that out here there has been no rain in the last twelve years.

Out here poverty is a figure in a nationwide census, in a United Nations handbook, in a World Bank presentation, in an election manifesto masquerading as a government campaign.

Out here I sit wondering about it all. I have willy-nilly become part of an NGO that takes sustainable development, and not charity, very seriously, and in the same spirit initiates and monitors the results of this work. Out here percentages don’t work. Splitting hairs is just that – hair splitting.

Social issues arise because they involve humans. Humans tend to make a mess of themselves, generally speaking. More so, humans lean towards making a mess for others. But not everyone. Some want to clean up the mess and others want to assist in the cleaning up.

Out here life has no clear-cut meanings. It is not an organised mess as it might be in urban centres. Out here life is a mess. You either take control the best you can or you become just another statistic. Another famine victim. Another penurious death. The sins of our forefathers weigh heavily on our souls.

Out here, when verdant pastures, lush vegetation, yellow fields of sunflowers dotted in black flash past as you drive by, the truth is, that out here, fallow land lies behind the picturesque scenery. Down the side roads never repaired since they were built. Off these roads, into unmetalled village roads, tracked by bullock-cart wheels and ploughshares. Out here is village India where the farmer sells his produce at a price fixed by someone he doesn’t know, will never see. Out here in gramin Bharat where the farmer buys at rates he can have no negotiation with. Out here where nature can be as bountiful as she is willful in her destruction.

I wonder where we are out here. Because out here is like no other place I know. Out here is wonder and beauty. Out here is the backbone of our country. Out here is extreme poverty aided by incompetence, by selfish disposition, by ignorance, by disease. Out here is as unreal as it is true.

I pass judgement. But who am I to do so? I too am another statistic. I can feel pity but they don’t need it. I can empathize but they can do without it. I can contribute but it is miniscule compared to their needs. I can justify it all so glibly.

This was written in late November 1998 while I was visiting a project of the NGO SAMUHA in Raichur district of north Karnataka. I have since learned that the village I spent the night in has finally got a public telephone. This was a collective decision taken by the village panchayat, which has an equal representation of men and women from every street in the village. The entire village must mutually agree and even one dissenting voice is considered significant enough to either delay, or cancel something that may ostensibly be for the benefit of the entire village. Majority votes have no use in their community.
(First published in The Statesman, Calcutta, Sunday Miscellany, August 1999)

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