An Old Man’s Ageless Wisdom

Experts have taken from the Book ‘Wise and Otherwise – A Salute to Life!” by Sudha Murty.

Orissa is a state with beautiful thick forests and the famous Chilka Lake. It is well known for its great temples. The Puri Jagannath Temple and the Sun Temple of Konark are among the most remarkable architectural achievements of ancient India. There is also a lot of poverty in Orissa, and around 13,500 NGOs work there to help the poorest of the poor. Many tribal people dwell in remote, inaccessible areas deep in the interior of the state’s dense forests. I firmly believe that wherever our company opens a development centre, the services of our Infosys Foundation should also be made available there. Thus Orissa became an area of activity for the Foundation.

Once I had to travel to Kalahandi. It is neither a town nor a city, and it is not known for anything special. It is just another part of another tribal district like Mayur Bhunj or Koraput. They say that before Independence, Kalahandi was ruled by a king. The tribals believed that the king was their caretaker and possessed supreme powers. They are so innocent that, even today, they don’t believe that kings no longer exist. If a child is orphaned, it is left at the doorstep of the collector’s house. For them the ultimate protector is the raja.

Bhavani Pattanam is the district headquarters of Kalahandi. It is a small town, quite different from other district headquarters that I know, such as Dharwad, which is my hometown. Frankly, I was surprised that Bhavani Pattanam was such a sleepy place. I had gone there to meet the head of an NGO who had been working tirelessly for the welfare of orphans. Each grey hair on his head told the story of his selfless dedication. In order to serve these children without any distraction, he had chosen to remain unmarried.

 

While travelling from Bhubaneswar to Kesina, the nearest station, I kept observing the tribal people. They would wait quietly on the platform for their train to arrive. They carried different kinds of fresh produce, such as pineapples, forest bananas and potatoes. The women wore brightly coloured saris—leaf green, bright yellow, dark red—and simply knotted their jet-black hair with flowers tucked in.

I was accompanied by a person who knew the local language and had agreed to be my interpreter. Knowledge of the local language is most essential when one wants to work at the grass-roots level. I had a thousand questions to ask about these tribal people—what civilization meant to them, what their lifestyle was, and so on. Tribals normally live in groups, I was told. They are not too rigid about rituals like we ‘civilized’ people are. They are direct in their ways. Most importantly, the concept of individual ownership of property is rarely found among them. I was keen to get to know these people. My mission was to provide assistance to them by some means, without threatening their identity.

My interpreter told me that to meet these tribals, I would have to walk two miles, since no car could reach their hamlet. After a long walk, we finally reached a village. I met a woman whose age I could not guess immediately. My interpreter was finding it difficult to translate the lady’s words because her dialect was quite different. She was a dark-skinned and dark-haired woman. She must have been around seventy years old but there was no grey in her hair. She obviously could not afford to dye her hair. So what was her secret? The interpreter did not know. But clearly this secret was shared by the entire tribe, because not a single person in that village had a trace of grey hair.

Next, I met an old man. I say old, but again it was virtually impossible to guess his age by simply looking at him. During our conversation, he recalled certain events and occasions and from that we concluded that he was about 104 years old.

I got into a lively conversation with this gentleman. I asked him, ‘Who is ruling our country?’

For him ‘country’ clearly meant Kalahandi. He looked at me and smiled at my ignorance. ‘Don’t you know?’ he said. ‘It is company sarcar that is ruling our country.’ He meant of course the East India Company. The old man was not aware that India had become independent.

I showed him some Indian currency and the emblem of the Ashoka Chakra.

 

He was not impressed. He said, ‘This is just a piece of paper. How can you look at it and tell who is ruling us? It is goriwali rani who is ruling us.’

Nothing I said could convince him that the goriwali rani, or the ‘fair queen’ of England, no longer ruled India.

I knew that the barter system was very important to tribal people, so I asked him about that. ‘Do you know this small piece of paper can buy firewood, lots of saris, bags of salt, matchsticks, and even a piece of land?’

He looked at me sympathetically and said, ‘For this paper, people fight, go away from our ancestral land, leave our forest and go to cities. Have we not led a complete life without that piece of paper? Our ancestors did. We are children of God, settled here happily without this paper. This is God’s land. Nobody owns this land. No river is created by us. No mountain is made by us. The wind does not listen to us. The rain does not ask our permission. These are gifts of God.

How we can “sell” or “buy” land, I do not understand. When nothing is yours, then how can you make such transactions? This little paper of yours can turn our lives upside down.’

I could find no words to answer him. Until that moment, I had been convinced that I knew more than he did. We know about currency movements, political parties, about the difference between Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. Here was a man who knew nothing of these, yet he was aware of deeper, more eternal truths. He knew that nobody owned the land, the mountains or the wind.

Who is more civilized—this wise old man in the Kalahandi forest or those of us with our fingers on the pulse of the Internet?