Away from the rat race

Villagers and rural communities, warts and all, can still be places where you can regain your lost spirituality and your moral equilibrium if you venture there with humility and openness. You are not saving the world, you are saving yourself. There is more wisdom in these simple communities than in all of IBM, WIPRO and Infosys

By Mari Marcel
Published: Thursday 01 August 2013

Villagers and rural communities, warts and all, can still be places where you can regain your lost spirituality and your moral equilibrium if you venture there with humility and openness. You are not saving the world, you are  saving yourself. There is more wisdom in these simple communities than in all of IBM, WIPRO and Infosys

In 1972,  as a first year college student, I attended a national youth camp where we were somewhat brainwashed by Jesuit priests. We were bombarded by facts and figures. 'Do you realise that of 100 children who started primary school, 99  drop out?  The fact  that you are in university makes you an elite. Will you take your subsidised (by the government of India) education and run to make money for America or will you give something  back to the country and the 99 kids who dropped out along your journey to the top?' In response to this campaign, thousands of students of our generation, gave up on contributing to the 'brain drain,' stayed back and ended up working in India's slums and villages. We had people in education, health, human rights, livelihoods and journalism. To the rest of the world, all of us were dubbed 'social workers,' but in the seventies, influenced by radical thinkers, we  saw our role as enabling the poor to fight for their rights, to fight systemic justice, not merely doing charitable work. So the basis of our work was social justice – a fine but important distinction that is difficult to explain in a mere blog. In the millenium, the term 'Human Rights defenders evolved. We were not 'doing things' for the poor, we were helping them fight for their rights to education, food, health and a decent livelihood. We considered it an insult to be told we were charity workers.

In the seventies and eighties, activists worked on a pittance. The credo was to live in Gandhian simplicity. But many of us came from middle class families and were to some extent subsidised, even though we lived more simply than our city siblings. Things changed by the nineties. But thats another story.

In all these years, I have found that prosperous city friends are often drawn to our semi rural, totally different way of life, far from the madding crowds and the rat race. People from Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai who visited us would sigh in envy. We seemed to have found ourselves a haven of peace in Gudalur. Contributing to this no doubt, was the fact that the Gudalur valley, nestled in the Nilgiri hills below Ooty, is a particularly beautiful place to live in. But more than that, we had a community of people who had opted out of urban madness to work with the adivasi community.  We were from urban, middle class families. Deva and Roopa, newly-wed, just-graduated young doctors  from CMC Vellore, who began a community health programme starting  from scratch, Stan and Mari working on community organising, human rights and livelihoods. Nandakumar Menon, surgeon and Shylaja Devi, gynaecologist,  who returned from Westchester county, New York, where the Clintons and Rockerfellers live, to start a hospital with the local adivasi community, in spite of many hardships,  erratic electricity and scarce water,  a far cry from the physical comforts New York offered. Ramdas and Rama Sastry threw themselves heart and soul, into starting an alternative  school first for our own kids and then for the adivasi community. Anuradha from Ooty and Krishna from Delhi, were architects who began a project to teach adivasis new technologies to build close-to-traditional houses because thatch and bamboo, traditional building materials were fast vanishing from the common lands and forests around. Anita Verghese from Bombay and Bahrain, came to work on ecology and culture. Manoharan arrived from Trichy, an IRMA graduate who worked for 15 years to train young adivasis in modern mnagement systems, got them doing accounts on computers and died of cancer, working till almost his last day on earth, for the adivasi cause so dear to his heart. Durga from Delhi who teaches, set up a soap unit and helps with admin. Marimuthu a vet who trained adivasi lads to be barefoot vets treating the chickens and cows in the tribal villages. That was our non-tribal community in the late '80's and early '90's.

We then got a younger crowd in the late '90's and early millenium years. Ranan and Molly professionals from Trivandrum.  John Fishwick on sabbatical from IBM London, and Emma Woolfenden a young doctor from Scotland, spent a year volunteering, followed by Bharat and Deepa, Liverpool doctors who spent three years with the ongoing training of the adivasi health team.  These four young Brits put up with poor, damp housing and leaky roofs, the torrential, never ending Gudalur monsoon, without a  murmur of protest. They were just charmed by the adivasi community and enchanted they could  live at the  edge of a paddy field, surrounded by birds and riotous bourgainvillaea. Doctors Henry Prakash from CMC Vellore and Ramesh a gold medallist from AIIMs Delhi all spent three years with us. Dr. Premila Nair, also from CMC Vellore who's done an ongoing training of the health team for over a decade now, became a senior citizen with us, yet blessed with an ageless charm, and so young at heart, she is a friend and confidante to even the youngest recruits on the team. Dr.Shaji Joseph from St.John's Bangalore takes a night bus from Bangalore to Gudalur, performs surgeries to fix broken bones and takes the next bus back to Bangalore, every month withut fail. Srinivas a young computer whizz received a one year sabbatical from Infosys to teach in the adivasi school. He left with great sadness  because he considered it one of the best years of his life.   These people form the extended Gudalur family and return periodically to celebrate our joyous times or commiserate with us in times of trouble and grief.

We now have an entire group of twenty-something year olds. There's Nishita a gung-ho Bangalorean girl who takes buses, bikes or drives jeeps with elan to remote forest areas harvesting honey, immune to bee-stings, ready to take on the world. There's bright, smart, very efficient  Priyashri working on our tribal culture project. She returned from development studies in Sussex to Gudalur, where she plays the guitar and sings beautifully in a stunning  Joan Baez-like voice. Shruti a petite, clever Jharkhandi Marwari obsessed with adivasi kaavu's or sacred groves. Mahantu a dentist  turned community medicine doctor. Rahul who's given up Hyderabad to teach  Gudalur adivasi kids. Shikha Bhattacharji  and Dilip Jacob John back from London School of Economics to work with adivasis. I cant remember or  record everyone, the list is endless.

My purpose in chronicling this diverse group of young professionals, is to show that even now in the midst of many gloom n doom forecasts, young people want something more from life. They've been there, done stuff. In many cases ,they have  earned more money by thirty, than their parents ever dreamed of in a lifetime. Our young gang make an occasional dash to Bangalore to eat a pizza, drink a latte, visit their favourite pub. But the thinking young people who have changed modern Indian cities reach a point of absorption. Those who rake in salaries beyond six figures a month, have visited every new eating joint in town, done their pub hopping and club crawling stints, sampled every kind of tea and coffee in Barista and Cafe Day. You can enjoy that. But many have a hankering to do something more meaninful  with their lives, than merely making money.

To all of you young techies and corporate folk, in your fancy flats, with your most expensive smart phones, your fast cars, your been there, done that lives, I would say, take a year off and join a project somewhere. The NGO world (like ours) is not perfect. You will find people heading projects with megalomania,  ambition, with king-size  ego's. Most iconic leaders have feet of clay. Bill Clinton had predecessors. Martin Luther King and Kennedy lived in times  when the media didn't do exposes. Gandhiji, if he'd lived  in the 21st century, now would have been in jail for sleeping almost naked between virgins, experiments with truth, my eye. Even idols must have weak spots if they are human. There may be corruption in some quarters and mismanagement and squandering of resources in others. These people are not saints. But you can draw your inspiration from the communities they work with. Villagers and rural communities, warts and all, can still be places where you can regain your lost spirituality and your moral equilibrium if you venture there with humility and openness. You are not saving the world, you are  saving yourself. There is more wisdom in these simple communities than in all of IBM, WIPRO and Infosys. The poor know what is good for them. You cannot with your savvy, city ways know whats best for them. You can help them if you use your skills, your technology, your education,  to implement their ideas. Visit good projects first. Dont be disillusioned by the frauds. Find out who does best practice. But like Gandhi said 'Go to the villages'. Or the slums in your city.

Go to Uttarakhand. The people need help now, more than when they were in the eye of the storm and the media glare has faded. Take a sabbatical or spend a week there and see what you can learn and how you can help. But dont go in arrogance as their saviour. Go and ask them what they need. Listen to them. Observe, learn.
I promise you it will be a life changing experience.

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