I love travelling. Be it a tiny village, a drought-hit area, a deserted mountain top, a dense forest or even a monument in Egypt or China—I enjoy going to different places.
On one occasion, I went to the Sahyadri Hills, a densely forested region in Karnataka. It had been drizzling the whole day. Though forests are difficult to negotiate during the rains, especially due to the presence of those dreaded leeches, one ought to visit them during the rainy season to get the most out of them. The mild smell of exotic trees, shrubs and flowers; the chirping of different kinds of birds; the gentle whistle of the unpolluted breeze—these are joys that can never be experienced in any town or city.
I was there to visit a tribal village school deep in the forest area. The charitable trust with which I am connected wanted to help improve the school. Thandas (as local groups of tribals are called) are delightful. Normally there is a headman in each Thanda known as the Thandappa. He is the senior-most man of the tribe and is considered the supreme power, almost a living God. All are beholden to him. He practises the customs taught to him in his childhood and everyone follows them.
There was a downpour when I reached the village. The rain, the glistening leaves and the strong smell of wild flowers made me feel as though I was on a different planet. But I never felt like an intruder. Not even when I reached the school after a long walk and every villager stood by staring at me.
Reaching the school was an adventure in itself. I saw a lady walking with rhythmic grace despite the three pots of water balanced on her head. I stopped her and asked, ‘Which way should I go to reach the school?’ She made an exclamatory sound, stared at me and walked away. Perhaps she didn’t want to talk to a stranger, especially one from a town. Or perhaps she didn’t understand my language.
I then approached an old man who was weaving a cane basket while humming a folk song. I knelt in front of him and asked in a loud and clear tone, ‘Where is the school?’ Curiosity was written all over his face and he seemed anxious to ask me all kinds of questions. But he didn’t. He simply said something in his dialect and indicated directions with his hand.
The school was an old thatched building, probably built by the tribals themselves. It was a primary school. I could see a few children playing outside, while others were busy under a shed-like shelter doing something with leaves and straws.
I walked in and found a small room with two chairs, two tables, and a blackboard with a pot of water beside it. There were no electric lights or fans. Instead, a small shutterless opening served as the window. This was the only source of ventilation in the room.
It appeared to be the office room but there was no one there. I did not find any staff around. While I was looking for someone, an elderly man walked up to me and asked what I wanted. I introduced myself and told him that I had come to see what help we could provide the school. His response, however, didn’t seem very encouraging. I thought I might be able to communicate better if I first put him at ease, so I started asking him about his life.
It turned out that he was the live-in watchman-cum-peon of the school. He would double as a tour guide sometimes. But he was not a paid employee of either the school or the government. His grandson was studying in the school free of cost in return for the services which the old man rendered. How long had he been living there? ‘For many years,’ he replied simply. He lived in a small hut in the courtyard of the school.
By now his attitude towards me was slightly more encouraging, so I gently turned the conversation to the affairs of the school. He said that the state government ran the school; there were two teachers and around fifty students who came from far and near. There was no compulsory uniform. I was impressed by the number of children who attended the school. After all, their parents were unschooled themselves and the living conditions were harsh.
Yet there was a willingness to educate their children.
‘What are the difficulties you face in running this school?’
The old man didn’t say much by way of reply. He just took me to a cottage nearby and introduced me to the Thandappa, who seemed to be more than ninety years old. He was happy to see me.
I asked him the same question: ‘What problems do you face in running the school?’
Commuting to school was difficult during the rains, he said.
Besides, the school clothes wouldn’t dry in the rainy season—the simplest of problems and a familiar one, too. During the course of my work, I have listened to many such problems from many such people.
After acquiring a fair understanding of the people and their lives, I departed, not forgetting to thank them for their cooperation. I decided to return with some umbrellas and clothes for the children.
When I went again, it was winter. The rains were over. Now the scene was transformed. It was paradise. There was no mud and no frogs croaking. Birds were cooing.
The sky was clear. Many rare flowers had bloomed. I met the same Thandappa. He recognized me and greeted me with a smile. His eyes seemed to welcome me warmly.
‘Please accept these things which I have brought for the children here. Last time, I didn’t know what to give them,’ I said, handing over a big bag to him.
The Thandappa hesitated. I wondered whether he was feeling embarrassed. I told him, ‘You have not asked for any gift from me.
I brought this myself. It will help the children during the rains. Please get the clothes stitched according to their size.’
He walked into his hut without saying a word.
‘What do you want to learn?’ I asked some children who were standing nearby.
No one answered. After a lot of persuasion, a few youngsters came closer, but they were still too shy to talk. I went on coaxing them and ultimately one of them said, ‘We’ve heard about computers but we have not seen them, except on TV. We want to learn about computers. Do you have any book about computers that is written in Kannada?’
Having been brought up in a teacher’s family and being a teacher myself, I was delighted to hear what these children had to say. Their ideas were surprisingly fresh and modern despite the fact that they belonged to such a backward region.
I told them that I would look for such books in Bangalore. If I didn’t find any, I promised that I would write a book for them myself. They seemed pleased and I was extremely happy. By that time the Thandappa had returned from inside his hut. He held a bottle of red liquid in his hands.
‘Amma,’ he said, presenting the bottle to me, ‘we do not know what you like and what you drink at home. This is a very special drink that we prepare during summer in this forest area. We extract juice from a wild red fruit and store it. It lasts for at least two rainy seasons. Nothing is added to the juice. It is good for health. Add some of this juice to a cup of water and stir it before drinking.’
I was embarrassed. How could I accept a gift from these poor people? They themselves did not seem to have enough to eat and drink. Moreover, I had gone on a mission to give, not to take. I thought it over and politely declined the gift.
The Thandappa then said gravely, ‘Amma, then we cannot accept your gift either. Our ancestors have lived in this forest for generations and they have taught us their ways. When you want to give us something, we accept; but only when we can give something to you too. Unless you take our gift, we cannot take the things you have brought for us.’
I was shocked, embarrassed, and humbled. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for this. The usual pattern is for people to express gratitude when a charitable organization provides some assistance. I have come across complaints too. When a group or organization has many problems and we help solve one of them, it is not unusual for the recipients of our help to grumble about what has been left undone rather than show gratitude for what has been accomplished.
There have even been cases where recipients have complained about the amount of help given to them. I have taken all this in my stride, finding fulfilment in the giving, not in the responses.
Here in the Sahyadri forest was an old man, a tribal with no schooling, practising a highly principled philosophy of life—give when you take; do not take without giving. This was culture at its best. I smiled and gracefully accepted his gift.
The Thandappa rose even further in my esteem when he remarked with a twinkle, ‘There is a grace in accepting also’.