Every time I go to Sihora deep in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, I come back to Calcutta plagued with impressions... musings... and, indeed, more questions.
This time two incidents impacted deeply on me. One, I was trying to help a Sister of the Ashram who is in-charge of the Gram Jyoti school in Bhatiya village, convince a girl from the village to re-attempt her class 10 examination. Sister was deeply involved in this venture - for, venture it was. And the other was visiting a school in village Pan Umariya which is a few kilometers from the exact center of India.
She was a bright girl, this teenager from Bhatiya village, and she would be able to pass, second time around, we were sure. So, we started talking to her, bent on convincing her that she would be able to do the examination. She was very hesitant. A failure, we told her, was not a stigma or something to base one's life view on - it was just a stepping stone. An examination was a matter of luck and okay, once unlucky, she would surely do well this time. Sister was going to make sure she had a tutor, she would be living in the Ashram hostel, so she would not be burdened with any housework... and on and on and on, we reasoned....
Then we started on the other issues.
What all I found during this endeavor had me completely foxed. This was what I came across-
Why should the girl go to school? She belonged to the Kol caste and girls from this caste never even went to school... wasn't it enough that she had done up to class 10, never mind that she had failed? She was required to take the goats to graze and when the building contractors from the big cities came around, she would be needed to go with her family to the building sites where the women and girls carried bricks. It was some income for the family. Another angle was that studying would place ideas into her head and it would be difficult for the family to get her married. The argument Sister put up was that if she was literate, when she got married, she could gradually start a small balwadi for the children of the village and this would raise her stock in her in-law's house. What Sister told me was that the longer we kept her in school, by that much more she would be able to enjoy being a child. At home it was work, work, work from morning to night - looking after the younger children, getting cow dung to coat the floor of their hut and the yard in front, cooking... we all know there is no end to housework. But a young girl? Where was her free time? And even if she had any, she had no access to books or magazines. The only source of entertainment was either Doordarshan TV in some lucky person's house, if and when the beams reached this forgotten village, or more often than not, it was gossip in someone's courtyard.
Why do I say forgotten? Because I really do believe that we in the cities, we the privileged, have really no clue as to how this other half of us lives.
Look at the women. They still wear the ghunghat. They fully accept the fact that they are second- or third-class citizens. The men have it all. They are the gods right next to the Hindu pantheon. These women don't begrudge the men even that! It's one of those indelible facts of their lives. The thought of questioning this would never enter their heads; rebelling, nowhere on the distant horizon. While many of them want better things for their daughters, educating them still scares them. Is it because their daughters would start to question a society where questions were not appreciated, indeed, where they would be condemned for asking? As it is they were doomed to a life of drudgery. Would education really make them free or would it add to the curse of being a woman?
I look at the villagers - men and veiled women with their children, often babies, and sometimes with their old parents/relatives - waiting for buses at the main bus stand in Sihora, or standing on the roadside, hoping the bus to their destination will stop and pick them up. Routinely, they are abused, pushed around and yelled at. Full families with their bundles are squashed into seats for two and God help them if they even utter a murmur. In the rare event an auto comes their way, you'll find them and their various-sized bundles in crowding every available space including the driver's seat. The auto drivers are a little more accommodating than the bus drivers and don't abuse and yell. But is this a dignified way of traveling? It's the same in the trains as in the buses. They crowd into trains often not knowing which compartment they are getting into and if they by mistake get into a reserved compartment, the Traveling Ticket Examiner doesn't hesitate to beat them, push them out and of course curse them. In passenger trains, it is only marginally better. But, like the oxen they are, they quietly and stoically put up with all kinds of bad behavior, telling themselves only that this is their fate and well... theek hai, we'll adjust and manage. This is the part that always makes me cry - how they take the blame for everything, accept everything, even the most despicable behavior on the part of the 'educated', 'citified' people - who, incidentally, think they are the 'bade log' - without even once questioning or retaliating... stepping back and realigning themselves to poorer and more pathetic conditions. WHY?
They know there is a government in Delhi - but at best it is hazy in their minds. The State Government is more real. But then, here again it is the maai-baap phenomenon and they accept without question any rubbish that is dealt out to them. Any rubbish. It isn't that there aren't reasonable and understanding politicians, but they are too few and a few years into the game of politics, they look sleek and well-fed having accumulated ill-gotten and not-earned-by-the-sweat-of-their-brow wealth. They then take the place of the maai-baap in their villages and the story instead of being rewritten, goes on as before, getting more and more entrenched into the psyche of the people.
No one cares. Because, if anyone cared, the first thing they would look into would be education. Okay, literacy first. To go to school is something that is a given especially for boys and now slowly and increasingly, for girls at least till class 5 or 8, and in very special cases class 10 and 12. Naturally these children would go to the Government schools. Here it is not surprising for anywhere between 50 and 100 children to be packed into a classroom. Since government teachers have it good, pay wise, often seeing the size of the classes they are given to teach, they prefer either to stay in the staff room, or go to class and conduct a charade of a class. No one can teach such large classes effectively - not even the most well-meaning teacher can. Worse than this is their curriculum. No one has given a thought to what their curriculum should be. So we have children who know only their local dialect going to school to learn English (of all subjects), Hindi (which for all practical purposes is also a new language), Maths, Social Studies and Science!! While I would argue that it is important to study, I would also contend that what they study should be tailor-made to their needs and their abilities. What is the point in studying things that they neither identify with nor understand? As it is, I've seen that though they get all the textbooks, what the teacher teaches from and what they study from are the guide books. If you happen to look at one of these, your heart will sink to some place below your shoes... it's that bad and that sad.
Moving to Pan Umariya. The Ashram has started a Gram Jyoti school there. The Sister who is the Manager for their main school in Sihora took me to this school. The happiness of the children to come to school, their eagerness to study a curriculum that is totally unsuited to their particular needs - which is to lift them up from their present state to a higher one by empowering them - is heartbreakingly commendable. But, what happens next? Is there a college where they can study further? Are they equipped to take up a professional course in case they cannot go on to study further?
English! Oh for our colonial hang-up!! I was going through the English textbooks of some of the children in the hostel the Ashram runs for children from far-off villages. In their innocence and eagerness they wanted me to teach them to speak and read and write English. How to tell them that it takes a lot of time to even understand the basics coming as they do from a totally non-English environment? While going through their text books, I could hardly believe what I was looking at - poems, stories, extracts from books... totally, totally disconnected from anything they could even force their mind to imagine, let alone get around their heads. And as for the grammar... what were they going to do with degrees of comparison and kinds of verbs, for instance, when they didn't even know the words or what went into the construction of a sentence. I couldn't connect anything to anything, simply because these texts have no relevance in their context. Yet, they instinctively know that if they want to 'go ahead in life' they need English. Shouldn't texts for these children be specially designed and worked out? The most elementary concepts were alien to them. Pronunciation, non-existent. Handwriting, a nightmare - simply because they could not connect the letters of the alphabet with anything within their ken. They were symbols to be drawn. I asked them how their teacher taught them. They said the teacher taught them from the guide. I glanced at the guide and all my years as a teacher went up in smoke... For one, there were so many, many mistakes and for another they said she taught the lessons from the guide in Hindi and made them recite and learn up 'by heart' whatever they couldn't understand. Imran Khan tied our fascination for English to a form of neo-colonialism. I fully agree with him. The damage this language has caused is incalculable. Yet, it needn't have, if it had been taught as a foreign language before being made the language of instruction and study.
I don't even want to venture into what goes on in their examination system.
If education is to make our brothers in the villages more knowledgeable and thus more responsible citizens, it is better to first address them where they are and slowly lift them up. But, as everything else in our country, it's a win-win for those who have stakes in the trade... never mind the children and never mind literacy and certainly never mind education. In fact it is better this way because they remain where they are and we are where we are and the twain will never meet. The caste system and class hierarchy is intact... No threat to anyone....
Yet, look at what they do without any kind of education - they are taken to build the most beautiful and modern buildings in the big cities. The glass and chrome high-rises, the magnificent airports, the beautiful hotels... all the dreams of the architects, no matter how grandiose, are translated into brick-and-mortar by these illiterate, poorly recompensed non-people. These villagers who are periodically picked up from their villages with their whole families are transported to the cities where they are housed in the most unbelievably awful conditions to build the most difficult and beautiful buildings, with no insurance, no guarantees, no nothing. Just a bald sum of money which would be a shame if ever said out aloud... And do they complain? Such a thought wouldn't even have crossed their minds and even if it did, it would be crushed lest they lose this one chance of earning some real hard cash. For, their farms don't, very often, afford them even this little luxury. So it's a case of starving on their fields versus not starving on the outskirts of a city. A city which they can only look at and wonder at, and know that they will never, ever be a part of. Maybe some generations down the line...?
60-odd years on the lifestyle of these villagers hasn't changed either. Mud house, no electricity, a common water pump, a common toilet or maybe none at all, no facilities, under-stocked kiranas with over-priced necessities. Open drains, and mud pathways between homes where pigs and children wander around... it's the same story, no matter which village you go to in this Sihora area. The yearly mela or fair is when they get things for their home and when the children can have some fun on the merry-go-round or Ferris wheel, and when the young can indulge their craving for bright baubles and local candy not to mention a movie or two in a makeshift open air 'theater'. Yet... go to their homes and you will be treated with genuine and real hospitality. Of course the women are taken to the women's quarters while the men remain in the courtyard but the gentleness, and natural warmth with which they share their very meager hospitality is priceless.
All the social ills, the medical non-existence, the dreams of being healthy, are very much a part of the life of the people who live in these villages. There has been no change at all here. And why would we want change? It would be very inconvenient for us...
Look at their attitude to the vagaries of nature and indifference of the government - they toil and labor in the fields in order to grow food for the country. Sometimes it's only subsistence farming. When Nature is kind, they have a good harvest and bring some money in. Sometimes when Nature is kind and they get a good crop, they have no money to hire a harvester. Nature plays one of her fickle numbers and it's a good crop lost. Or, if they don't get a good harvest, they just quietly take it, because they know there is no way out of this disaster. They take a lot on the chin - quietly and stoically, and when it gets too much, they end their lives. But, not a word of complaint or blame. Because... who do they tell? And, who cares enough to find out?
The young people in the villages, armed with an ill-fitting and ill-suited education up to class 12, and sometimes only up to class 5 or 8, dream, like all young people, of jeans, mobile phones and the good things of life... Where and how will they get these? They are ill-prepared, to say the least, to take up a position in the nearest city and earn enough to enable them to get these goodies and send a little money home. One, maybe in hundreds, gets a chance which added to his/her grit and determination helps them better their lives and lift their family out of poverty. One lad who had just about scraped through class 4 had stopped going to school. However, a school being a magnet for kids, this boy couldn't help visiting the school now and again. On one such visit, when I was with Sister, she started again on how he should come to school and finish at least class 10, the benefits of being literate etcetcetc... He heard her out and then told her the reason - there was no food in their house, crops having failed and no work for the father. The gods were kind, because one day this man came to the village and wanted to hire labor for his construction work. This boy was too small to do any of the heavy work but since he persisted, the man took him on as a water & tea boy - he would take water and tea to the workers. Now he had money to give his mother and buy a much-coveted pair of jeans. His next target was a mobile phone not to call or text anyone, but because he could store music in it... the pull of Bollywood... and for that brief time he could be Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan or maybe even Amitabh Bachchan....
These young are vocal, but I wonder who will hear them or help them.
Try as I might, I cannot seem to find a connection between the middle classes and these villagers. As for the rich, they might be another breed altogether, and on another planet. So how can we link up? Where are the meeting points? Obviously the bond of being 'Indians all' isn't enough to make us brothers - for brothers ought to look out for each other.