Shiv Sankar

Shiv Sankar

Research Associate | VIF

Waking up at dawn,

after a good night’s sleep under the open sky

(or in the courtyard or in an open hall – as open as possible),

walking down the meadows to the river,

for a pleasant dip in the waters of the life giver

eating corn flatbreads with daal and channa spicy

or a simple faire of kichdi all healthy and tasty

tending to your cows and sheep,

sweet companions who share their milk with you

toiling in the fields before the sun gets hot too hot

wiping off the sweat and splashing some water,

reaching out for that glass of buttermilk

Oh Lord! How great would such an idyllic life be…

shed of all modern comforts, which are but chains.

This is the land. These are the people.

As the people change the land,

the land changes these people.

First surprise – rolling meadows, as far as the eye can see. This I saw from the train. The topography of covering these districts of western Madhya Pradesh was such a pleasant surprise. If there are meadows, then cattle follow invariably. I also spotted some of the “talaabs” – little lakes and ponds dug by the people. These act as the reservoirs and retain the rainwater. There are a few rivers, but they didn’t look like they were perennial. The only other source were borewells sunk deep to tap into the groundwater. Not everyone can afford to sink a borewell to irrigate their fields. The climate was also pleasant. Coming from Chennai, with its infamous hot-to-warm climate throughout the year, even a small decrease in the temperature feels pleasant. However, in Jhabua, the climate doesn’t go to either extreme, unlike Delhi or Mathura.

Jhabua is the district where Shivganga was established and is working at present. Incidentally, Jhabua has quite an active social sector, with more than 3500 registered NGOs working in the region. This is hearsay, so the actual number might vary. Demography consists of three main ‘castes’ or communities – Bhils, Bhilala, Pateliya. These people are said to be tribals. However, they do not fit into the stereotype that is fed to us by the media. They lead a normal life like any other people who live in a rural region. They have all the basic amenities, but some of the comforts we take for granted in a metro may not be available.

We got off the train at Meghnagar. We were brought to the ‘base station’ of Shivganga project – an old concrete structure that also housed a boys hostel within the campus. We got ready, had a chat with Mahesh Sharma ji, and were taken away to Dharampuri. This is the place where a new auditorium and other facilities of Shivganga are being built. We went around the ‘campus’ and then we were quickly whisked away to view the sunset. Alas, we lost the race, because the sun had set by the time we reached the viewing point.

Shivganga, supposedly has a process that it puts all visitors through – everyone is sent to one of the villages in the district for an overnight stay. We stayed at Dharampuri for one night and then we were all sent with one of the volunteer representatives of Shivganga to travel through a few villages. I got to tag along with Sanjeev ji, because I could not speak Hindi well.

We first visited Batiya Berdi village. Our host was ‘Katiya ji’ (hope I got the name right!). He took us through the entire village. In some villages of Jhabua region, people live in isolated houses amidst their farms. Since the farms are anyway small, the houses are barely a stone’s throw away from each other. You can shout and call for help or communicate with your neighbour easily. In other villages, the residential area is separate and all families have houses next to each other, with the farmlands surrounding the village. In this village, the houses were located in the middle of the farms. It was place of serenity and rustic beauty. These locations definitely calm your mind. However, if you are not used to it, living here would also be a challenge.

The things I learned were many – the people here live happily. But that doesn’t mean they are well to do and can afford all the essential things through their lifetime. They work on their farms only for 6-9 months a year. During the summer, when water is scarce, most of them migrate to cities near and far, to work. They mostly work as laborers in construction sites. They get paid almost a pittance, because they do not have any proper idea about demand and supply markets. They also do not have enough knowledge to form a collective and demand better wages or living conditions. However, as I mentioned before, they are happy with whatever they get paid.

Now, Shivganga is popular in this region because of how it identified a local tradition, infused and energized it, and let it gather a vibrant new life of its own. It is known as ‘Halma’ – the spirit of community contribution, volunteering and above all, selfless service to the society. From the time I heard about this, I was surprised how it resonated with what Swami Dayananda Sarasvati used to point out about human growth – ‘from being a consumer to a contributor’. This thought is intrinsic to our tradition – it is in our blood and genes. I was able to participate in the discussion with our host to a good extent, from which I understood, how ‘halma’ came to be. The families in this region survive and prosper by helping each other. During harvest, all families come together, schedule and work in each others’ fields, which helps them to complete the harvest at a rapid pace. The sum is always greater than its individual components in such a situation, because when you work alone, your pace may not always be at its best. However, working in a team, you always strive to reach and exceed your limits and set new benchmarks for yourself. The people practice this for all major events – if someone wants to build a house, other people contribute time, money and material. If a marriage happens in a family, people living around them provide money and material to the family that has to pay the bride price.

People here get married when they are in their mid to late teens. They become parents by late teens. By the time they are 35 years old, most people here get ready to be grandparents. It is not rare to see four or five generations living together in the same house.

That evening, we went to the village of Vaman Semliya, which was on the other side of Dharampuri. A new bridge-cum-barrage was being constructed on the River Anas at this crossing. It would create a small reservoir, while shortening the distances between areas on either side of the river.

We stayed at the house of the person who works with the gram panchayath. He is responsible for helping the other residents of the village receive the benefits of various schemes as well as apply for all identification and other related documents. He had gone to college and therefore he could help the other people who cannot read or write well.

The food was simple but quite delicious – mostly we had flatbreads made of corn flour (Makka rotis) and a simple spicy curry of tomatoes and onions to go with it. Rotis made of wheat flour were only occasionally made, because for many people it was a luxury and not a regular affair. We also had spicy porridge sometimes – kichri made of rice and chana dal (or whatever dal was available). While I could contend with the spice, having been used to extremely spicy food, what I could not adjust to what the high amount of salt, without any sour ingredient to balance. The cuisine here is marked by a high level of saltiness – may be that is required based on the environment and inclement weather.

We slept on the terrace, under the open skies, which was a treat. We were joined by a local elder, who regaled us with the local lore for a short while. We also had an opportunity to taste the local liquor – which was tasteless, odorless. A revelation was how during a long invocation, the elder began with the Nirguna Ishvara, the natural forces and proceeded to name all the major deities along with their specific village and family deities. Some people would consider that as Hindu Dharma swallowing indigenous ‘animist’ traditions, but what would I know about it! (wink, wink!)

We went for a dip in the River the next morning. At this point, I have to mention something I had trouble with – lack of a proper toilet. Many people in these villages still do not have proper toilets in their houses. Even if they have, it is in disuse. This invariably means they still defecate in the open. The reason open defecation remains a sanitation problem also lies in the fact that no proper disposal practices are followed. This is not an issue of lack of resources, because when the government is offering a substantial sum of money to each household to construct a toilet, there are no excuses. This stems from ignorance and an apparent reluctance to change their own attitudes towards sanitation. Due to this, I also got into trouble later, because I made a loo-stop at Dharmapuri in between the travel. It seems we were supposed to put up with all discomforts and not try to find any solution – which was sadly, not possible for me.

After we got ready, we left for the next village – Amli Pheliya. We visited the houses of our two ferrymen and ate lunch at one of their houses. There were two major personal highlights at this village – one was the food. We were served flatbreads along with okra (ladies finger). But it turned out, there were equal parts okra and green chillies! Which made the food super-spicy.

The second highlight was the opportunity to view one of the local practices – one of the families we visited serve as the local venom-breakers. Periodically, they go around the village to each house and play the typical instrument that has come to be associated with snake-charmers in Bharat. They claim that if there are any venomous beings, mostly snakes, they will be lured out by the sounds. His young son was in tow as he scouted around the village on his two-wheeler. This image kept playing in my mind – which I brought up on the last day’s discussion with Harsh ji Chouhan. When the son grows up and receives a ‘modern’ education, he might come to detest his own family traditions as superstitious, because they do not fall under any logic as would be taught by his schools and colleges. Harsh ji responded saying that today’s education does disincentivize all traditional practices. It in fact goes further in shaming people whose family practices such traditions. I do not know if this is a systematic strategy to eradicate pride in all local practices, thereby destroying them, but the doubt does linger on.

After lunch, we returned to Dharampuri. From there, we were split into two groups and sent to two different villages. I was in the group that went to Pant Borali! (Yes, the name did remind me of the amazing and versatile Raga from Carnatic Music – Pantuvarali!) We spent the evening speaking to the people from the village. I also had a mock argument (but no less heated!) with my colleagues on various issues – stemming from caste. Some of the practices that were prevalent in these regions turned our current understanding as projected by media and academia on its head. I was under the impression that ‘caste’ was a different grouping, while ‘gotra’ – or lineage through paternity – was a different, if not sub grouping under it. However, both these groupings, and the identities originating from them are fluid. Bhil, Bhilala and Pateliya are supposed to be ‘jatis’. But one of them, do not marry from the same ‘caste’ or ‘jati’. They always seek brides from the other ‘castes’. This kind of breaks down everything that I have understood till now about the use of such terms and the obvious cry of discrimination arising from this.

Next day morning, I wanted to go and take a dip in the River. I had been having a gala time for three days, and this was the best of the three – River Laadki. We offered prayers at the local Matavan – or the Mother forest – that was contributed and nurtured by the community. On the way and back, I realized that the state highway cut right through the village. I couldn’t delve too much into the details of that and how the dynamics played out, unfortunately. We had a sumptuous breakfast and we were off.

Our next stop was Chayan Paschim. We visited a small lake, entirely dug up by some of the spirited residents, led by our guide for the day. I am not naming any of them, because my colleagues have already mentioned all of them in their notes. I realized all these people were highly successful social entrepreneurs, because they are able to raise social capital at will, in the form of ‘Halma’ or voluntary contribution of selfless service to society. It would be a disservice to identify them apart from that spirit of Halma, which they hold close to their heart. The small lake they dug now serves almost eight villages around, and is perennial – there were not much rains in the last two years, but the lake was still full of water – in spite of being constantly drawn from. We were then taken to a beautiful Matavan. Our guide requested that everyone who visits, should contribute some energy to serve the Mother. He showed us a creek that was being formed by erosion, which was being filled with stones. He asked us to gather just five stones from the surrounding fields and throw them in the creek. We did that happily.

Next we visited the government school at Chayan Paschim and regaled a few classes with some poems and games from our Vidyalaya Vistaar kitty! After a short Bhajan session, we were all split and sent to different houses for lunch. Our host and annadata was such an innocent person, that his hospitality overwhelmed me! We struck up a conversation and were quizzing him about his family, his work and so on. Until this point, I did not know that the bride price was paid by the groom’s family! I was aware that some communities practiced this, but interacting with the people who actually did made it so much more real. Next we went to a place called Bamnia, where we met another interesting personality – one who took up a business and was quite successful, and has been inspiring others in his community by demonstrating that all limits are present only in our mind. He also guided us to the memorial of Mama Baleshwar Dayal, an influential activist who had been guide to tribals, and a force to reckon with in the tri-state border. From there, we went to one more Matavan. The sun was already at the end of its westward journey. We left from there to return to the Meghnagar base station.

This journey through the villages of the heartland of Bharat has taught me so much. It has forced me to rethink many established concepts, while reaffirming some. All reformers of Bharat – be it Adi Shankara, or Vivekananda – have traveled across the country, as observers, students of the human mind, and human society. They have understood the context of their times and amalgamated that learning with our age-old wisdom, to pronounce what would be the best course for our nation and our society to follow into the future.

The last day was spent discussing our experiences and learning with Mahesh ji and Harsh ji. I was not an active participant though was closely observing the conversations, while interjecting whenever I had queries. I left the place with the path to the future lightened just ahead, and at disjoint other loci. Clarity in how we should approach people and communities with whom we want to work is essential. This goes back to attitude that Ramakrishna and Vivekananda taught, which must be cultivated in every person seeking to work for the society – first remove all thoughts of superiority from your mind, because they are mere illusions. Instead, be aware that the opportunity to serve someone else, is a blessing for yourself. You should be grateful that you are able to serve someone. This, you need to balance with the pain and sorrow you might see in the society. If that doesn’t resonate within you, your work will not be effective.

Our villages still nurture a lifestyle, which has been practiced continuously for millenia. They are the custodians of our Dharma. They put Vedanta into practice – by seeing the Satya, the Isvara in everyone and everything. If we just shrug off some things inflicted on us in the name of ‘modernity’ – we would actually go back to living the way our ancestors lived centuries ago. This is a gift that is waiting to be discovered, only if we want it so much, as to reach out and receive it.