Originally posted on EARTH: SOME CALL IT HOME: Mother Teresa to be canonized on September 4, 2016, Pope Francis will declare Blessed Teresa of Kolkata a saint at the Vatican on that day. It is time to share the joy ….. from the City of Joy of which Mother is very much a part. *******…
Almost every week I receive a call or two from a variety of job aspirants. The conversation ranges from serious to funny to downright outrageous.
“Hello. Is this an NGO?”
“Yeah, this is a social service organisation”
“Yes, yes…I LOVE social work”.
“Glad to know that.”
“ From childhood I am very ‘social minded’. I give blood, give money to beggars, work a lot during the community puja in my neighbourhood.”
“Wow, you do a lot of social service.”
“Yours is a women’s organisation, na?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I love women…err…I mean I love to work for women”.
“Oh, that is good. But how may I help you?”
“Madam, I want to help your organisation.”
“Yeah, sure. But what kind of help do you want to provide?”
“May be some kind of job.”
“Why not! But we work mostly in the rural region – in the remote villages”
(Long pause and a longer sigh!)
“Mmmm…don’t you have any job in the city? I can help in the office work.”
“We do have, but it is very limited.”
“No problem, I can volunteer. By the way, how much do you pay your volunteers?”
“Hello. Is this a women’s organisation?”
“It is. How may I help you?”
“I have done Masters in Social Work.”
“That is fantastic.”
“I want to do social work and I want to join your organisation”.
“That would be great. But ours is a field-based organisation – mostly in rural regions”.
“The rate is different you know. If it is city I take a different rate. For villages my rate is different.”
“Rate, what rate?”
“Means my salary. Being an MSW, I expect a higher rate obviously. And if I stay in villages, the rate goes still higher.”
“Hmmm. Do you have a work experience?”
“Ofcourse. For three years I have been working in a BPO.”
“Yes. It is a social service organisation.”
“How much do you pay currently? “
“I mean what is your salary, perks? Any Provident Fund ? What are your retirement benefits?”
“Excuse me, but who are you and what do you want exactly?”
“I already work for an NGO. But you won’t believe how less they pay. Just imagine, for the TA, they would only pay for the tea. Arrey, what if I want a Samosa with the tea? I can get hungry, na?”
“So, how can we really help you?”
“That is why I am telling you na. If you can give a little bit extra on the salary, TA etc than I am getting here, I can join your organisation.”
“Not really. Because we do not pay for the Samosas with the tea. Not even for the tea actually. We share it!”
The world of the NGOs is really a bit weird. Weird, controversial, challenging……an amalgamation of many contrasts. Though I do have an allergy with the term but in India most social service organisations are known as NGOs – Non Government Organisations. Contrary to what most people believe, especially in the context of current controversies, the work of the NGOs is not doing what the Government cannot do but is to facilitate the work of the government – build a bridge between the people and the government. At times, we are the conscience keepers – letting the government understand the lacunae in implementation of programmes, flaws in policies, loopholes in systems etc.
An NGO worker is essentially an activist. Though in the recent years there indeed are NGOs which do offer salaries, perks and facilities at par with the corporate houses, most social activists are semi-lunatics. Or to put it more correctly, are expected to be semi-lunatics. They are supposed to get paid less than the lowest rung staff of any government department or of any private organisation for that matter; they are expected to put in a ten to twelve hour a day of service and most of their meets and programmes are expected to be on Saturdays and Sundays.
Atleast, that is how I have observed my parents since my childhood. My father was a born social activist and my mother was an adopted one. So, our front room was always the hub of activites – torn papers, half-empty glue bottles, open sketch pens strewn here and there – that is how our front room has always been. Our kitchen has always been a Community Kitchen with a twenty four hours of open service. And I have never seen my parents keep any of their personal bank documents with themselves. One of their colleagues keep their cards and she is the one who knows their ATM pin number! I have seen a Sharing Meet of our field workers being carried out in our back room while my grandma’s coffin was being brought in through the front door.
So, it is but obvious that changing times do pain them. My Dad still does not believe that social work these days is more about profession than about activism. He speaks of his days spent in dense forests or drought-ridden villages with young men who worked with him ‘just for the heck of it’!
It was during one such heart breaking moments for him that he reminded me of the “Fortnight Training”. It was one of those rare trainings of fourteen days duration that changed many lives.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. My father – standing amidst leaping flames – encircling him all around. The titbits of paper of paper around him burnt in all mirth and glory. The fire, just an inch away from his denim. He stood with a calm face. The participants around him stood equally wide-eyed as me, taking many moments to believe what was just happening in front of their eyes. Till one of them almost dived into the fire and pulled my father out. Having woken from a trance, a few others rushed to douse the flames.
Unfazed, my father smiled and spoke out.
“This, my dear friends, is the Sensitivity Test.”
He took a moment’s pause and continued.
“The first and foremost requirement of a Social Activist is this – Sensitivity – towards others and the situation – at the cost of one’s own safety and security.”
It was a fourteen day long training in weirdness – to help a bunch of young people discover the seed of lunaticism in themselves. There was no agenda, no timings. One day the training began in the evening hours and went on till early morning the next day. One day instead of a proper lunch, the participants survived on fruits – that too in very limited quantities. There was no room for inhibitions. At times the participants had to drink water from one single glass, eat from one single plate.
On day three, two of the participants packed their bags and left.
“This is an insane training”, one of them said.
In the evening hours or very early in the morning there would be games – robust games like football(soccer) and the women were expected to play alongside with the men. It is there that I learnt that best way to hit a football was to hit it with the slant of the toe and not the tip of the toe!
During one such game, one of the participants fell down and hurt himself badly. As the rest rushes towards him, my Dad stopped them.
“ I am happy to see the sensitivity in you all but this is a test for him. Social Work is a tough job. And it requires grit and endurance. So, get up!”, he instructed the one injured. Very slowly he got up, much to the anguish of others. He washed his own hands, went to his room alone and waited till a doctor was summoned.
“ Imagine, you are in the remotest of regions. And there you are sick. There is no one, no facilities to reach you and you have to survive….You must learn the art of survival.”, he explained to the bewildered participants.
In another session, he asked the participants to identify any object in the room that they would like to possess. It could be anything.
One of the participants wanted a LP record that was a prized possession. My father handed it over to her.
“Take it. It is yours”.
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. My father repeated. She happily took the record.
“Now”, my father said, “break it into two halves.”
There was a murmur in the room. The participant could once again not believe what she had just heard.
“Do it”, my father commanded.
With shaky fingers she broke it into two.
He then called another participant.
“And which one object would you love to possess?”
“The HMT watch that you are wearing”, he smiled mischievously, knowing well that my father had a soft corner for the watch.
My father held out his left hand. “Take it”.
The participant smiled and took it. There was a look of challenge in his eyes.
“And now, throw it on the floor with all your might!”, my father commanded.
“Excuse me?”, the participant now looked worried.
“I cannot”, he held out the watch back to my father.
“Do it”, my father repeated with a cold voice.
With total disbelief he flung the watch on the ground. The watch broke into three parts.
“A social worker is like a Sanyasi – a hermit. You may have desires but not a clinging obsession to possess any material goods. The moment you let your possessions rule over you, you stop being an activist. An activist is like a nomad”, he explained. There were tears in many eyes.
I was too small to fathom the depth of his words but when I saw participant after participant jumping from a very high platform, letting go of themselves, it did strike me that there was something magical about his words.
“If you are a social worker, you MUST learn to trust – situations, people, co-workers.”, he shouted loud, as one after the other the participants jump down with the belief that their co-workers would rescue them unhurt midway through their fall.
I spent most of the sessions drawing on my own or playing with my dolls; I don’t even remember most of the sessions but all I understand now is that those fourteen days to madness really did help build social workers – ACTIVISTS.Today, all the participants who attended those trainings are established social workers in their own rights. Irrespective of the different challenges of life, not one has wandered away from this madness of activism.
Even today when many of them touch my Dad’s feet and acknowledge that what they are today is because of him, I get goose bumps. Many, many, many times I’ve heard these participants introduce my Dad as their Guru in public forum. And that is an inexplicably special feeling. It brings tears to my mother’s eyes too.
I know that times have changed. I understand that social activism is gradually being replaced by a more disciplined way of working in the social sector- in line with the global requirement. I understand. But my father doesn’t. Holding his inhaler in his hand, with his unkempt hair and near-torn slippers he still waits – waits for that one activist who would risk his life to drag out a fellow-human being from the fire of distress!
Benu looked to her left and then to her right. The Banana leaves created strange silhouettes around her. The breeze smelt of raw mangoes. A strange shadow crossed their path and vanished into the woods. Benu shivered a little – just a little. Not as much as Nenu, her younger sister. Even if she felt afraid, Benu knew she had to keep up a brave face. Atleast for the sake of her younger sister. With their mother already busy with two other kids, she was in charge of her sister. Atleast that is what she thought.
A man appeared in the vicinity with a lantern in his hand.
“Selaam Sahib”, he grinned from ear to ear – trying to balance the lantern and the clumsy salute.
“I was told that a bullock-cart would be available at the station. Why was it not sent?”, John Solomon thundered.
“ I am sorry Sahib but the pig ditched at the last minute”, the man sounded apologetic.
“Sejdi, what use is a pig to a bullock cart?”, Nenu whispered.
Benu giggled. It was no use explaining to her that the pig in this case was the cart driver himself.
As they walked behind him, the man went on to explain in detail as to why it was not possible to catch hold of yet another bullock cart and the challenges of staying in a remote village.
The post sunset evening light was not bright enough for Benu to get a clearer picture of the village. At that moment she wasn’t interested either. Her stomach rumbled for want of food.
The last food they had was a sumptuous lunch at the Ferry-ghat where their steamer had just landed. The sailors always had a make-shift arrangement for the travellers using the steamers and launch-boats. Balancing through the knee deep water and clay the Solomon family had managed to sit under the make-shift canopy. The sailors had then served huge helpings of steaming rice and chicken curry – heavily peppered with red chilly paste.
But that was five hours back. And the railway ride and walk had already made the children hungry.
The landscape of the suburb village in East Bengal was so much different from their home at Kolkata. This truth dawned upon Benu the next day when kissed by the morning sun, the sky became clearer. As far as her eyes could see it was endless expanse of greenery. Little huts and single-storied houses dotted here and there but there was an engulfing calmness all around. The numerous ponds and water-bodies mirrored the travelling tufts of cloud sailing in the blue sky above. For Benu, who was the naughtiest among her siblings, this was an open invitation to unending adventure.
John Solomon, who was a police under the narcotics department, was too happy to be back to where his roots were. Inspite of constant complaints by his wife, he was not too eager to admit the children to school. He wanted them to enjoy the landscape, people and unending happiness of his homeland before being pushed to the daily grind.
For Benu it meant unleashing her curiosity to the maximum extent possible. In the afternoons her mother would go for an afternoon siesta with her two younger ones, giving a warning to Nenu and Benu that they should never venture out in the afternoons as the ‘Childpickers’ use those hours to kidnap young children. Nenu would close her eyes and pretend to be asleep, while Benu would wait for the signal of the soft snores. She would then tip-toe to the huge expanse of mango orchard at the back of their two-storied residence. Bundling up her long tresses into a top-bun, she would wander from tree to tree – plucking raw mangoes, searching for bird nests. Interspersed with the rustle of the dry leaves there would be the faint sound of breeze through the branches. Ta hoot utu, ta hoot utu…..Tihaa tihaaa tihaaa…..kirik kirik kirik….birds would twit on their own. Benu would train her ears to identify the birds. Picking a twig from one of the trees she would travel deeper into the orchards….till she reached the old, broken, deserted house. No one stayed in that abandoned house. Some locals even labelled it as a haunted house. Though curious, she hardly had that much guts to enter the dilapidated building. Till the day she gathered the courage enough to look through one of the half closed windows. To her surprise and much to the discomfort of her racing heart she discovered a moving figure inside the building. She would have let out a loud scream but placing his finger on his lips – the young man gestured her to keep silence.
“Who are you? Dacoit ? Ghost ? “, having regained her courage, Benu asked in a low tone.
“Ha, ha, ha”, the young man laughed, “a bit of both”.
“Come in through the back door”, he spoke to her through the little slit of the window opening.
Benu was in dilemma. She wasn’t sure if it would be safe to listen to someone who may be partially a ghost and a dacoit. But as always, her curiosity won hands down.
She tip-toed in through the back-door. The old, rusted door made a creaking noise. The inside looked as dilapidated and dirty as the outside. The young man stood at the entrance.
“Sit here”, he instructed, clearing out a small stone-platform near the back entrance.
Benu hopped in.
“Who are you?”, Benu asked.
“I told you, didn’t I? Half ghost-half dacoit. And who are you?”, the man asked, a smile hanging on to his lips.
“Benu. And what is your name?”. By now, the paced of her heart had subsided it’s speed.
“Haider. Do you know I have a niece like you back home? She loves me very much.”
“Then why are you here? Have you done something wrong?”, Benu was curious.
“Ha ha ha. I should be home. But I have to kill demons. So I am hiding here”.
Benu felt a mild touch of fear reaching somewhere down her throat.
“Are there really any demons here?”, she asked, taking a quick glance around.
“Not here exactly. They are many in numbers – out to destroy our country”.
Benu really didn’t like the idea of someone destroying this beautiful country.
“And with what will you kill them? Do you need a gun? My father is a police. He can give you a gun”.
For a few seconds Benu could see his face turn ashen.
“ No, not really. I do not need a gun. But promise me that you will not talk about me to anyone. Otherwise no one would allow me to kill those demons. And never come this side”.
His voice had suddenly turned stern.
“I have to go now….You run and get back home”
Benu jumped down from her seat. It was already late afternoon and her mother would have already woken up.
As she walked away from the house she looked back once more. She couldn’t see much but could sense a pair of eyes that were keeping a watch on her.
The oldest among the girls spoke up.
“ Girls, it is time we express ourselves against the atrocities of the British. They don’t want us to use our own clothes. They want to push their ideas, their clothes, their food. But there are so many who have come forward to protest against this. Khadi is our answer to their atrocities. And for that we have the Tokli.”, she held out a small device – a hand held version of the Charkha.
Benu and her friends skewed their eyes to look at the mini version of the device to make threads from cotton balls in an indigenous way.
“Do you know who she is?”, one of the friends whispered.
Benu looked quizzically.
“She is the cousin of the famous revolutionary Pritilata Wadedar”.
Benu felt happy. She had heard a lot about Pritilata Wadedar.
A girl younger than the speaker handed over the Toklis to the small group of girls around.
“Girls, today we shall use the Toklis to make threads as a mark of protest against the British atrocities on our freedom fighters. We are school girls, we cannot do much. But by this way we can send them a message”, the speaker concluded amidst a light applause. Their little gathering before the school hours had mostly gone unnoticed by the school authorities.
As promised, Benu held on to her Tokli during class hours. She could hardly make a proper piece of thread but she knew that it was a symbol of protest.
“Rekha Solomon, will you please deposit your device here on the table!”, the teacher thundered.
Benu tightened her grasp on the Tokli.
“Rekha Solomon! This is my last warning to you. You will be thrown out of the school if you do not part with that thing!”
Benu looked down, her fingers adamantly clinging on to the Tokli.
“Please follow me out of the class”, the teacher ordered.
Being the younger among the girls, she escaped being rusticated but as a punishment Benu had to stand outside in the hot afternoon sun for the rest of the day.
“Hold the edges carefully”, Benu instructed her younger sister.
Nenu obeyed her sister but her young fingers were too small to hold on to the slippery banana leaf.
“What are you doing?”, John Solomon tried to figure out the plan from the wide array of things strewn around – Huge Banana leaves, bamboo pole, red colour, small pieces of cloth.
“Trying to make a flag Baba”, Benu smiled – her fingers and nose already dotted with various hues of color.
“Flag? What flag?”, Solomon Sahib quizzed his daughters.
“An independence flag”.
“With Banana leaves?”
“Yesss”, Benu replied empahtically, “we shall write I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-C-E on the leaves and put outside with the help of a pole”.
“Yes. And I am helping Sejdi”, Nenu smiled meekly.
“Hmm….”, their father turned to look at their mother.
“Let them”, she answered, her eyes shining with pride. “This is the only way they can take part in the freedom movement. I too have thought of a plan”.
John Solomon laughed out loudly.
“Pramila, I am a Police under the British. If they get to know the grand plans of my family, it wouldn’t take long for them to boot me out of my job”.
“You are in a different department Mr.Solomon. And moreover, it really does not matter. We have to stand for what is right”, his wife teased.
“Ofcourse. I have my full endorsement for that. But what is your grand plan ?”
“As a housewife I cannot do much but from now onwards, no chinese silks or georgettes. If you can get me some Khadi cloth pieces I can stitch dresses for the children. I too would like to wear only Khadi saree”. Her determination reflected in her voice.
“ As you say”, John Solomon smiled, as he left for his duty.
The honeymoon with the picturesque sub-urban East Bengal wasn’t for a long time. Soon there was a transfer order back to Calcutta.
Benu’s mother spent an entire day sharing her tears with her neighbour Mehrunnissa. They spoke about the beautiful days they spent discussing new stitch patterns, learning new recipes, sharing the woes of family life.
John Solomon tried to mask his gloom with business of last minute duties.
And for the last time Benu visited the Mango orchard. After many, many long days she tiptoed to the broken and abandoned house in the orchard – just in case she would chance upon the half ghost-half dacoit! The house seemed totally empty. A lone bat flew away as she tried to open the window to look inside. Disappointed, she returned home, having said her good-bye to the birds and trees.
As the bullock-cart made took it’s last turn from the village premises, a small gathering of men and women stood on the road –unknowingly blocking their way.
“Is something wrong?”, Benu’s mother asked her father.
“Yes, I guess they are here for Haider”.
“Haider? Who Haider?”
Benu shuddered a little. Did she hear the name somewhere ?
“Haider was a young chap – a revolutionary of sorts. He died last night in a gun battle with the British police. It seems he was hiding somewhere around”, John Solomon’s voice drowned in grief.
Benu felt like crying. She could never ask him if he could ever meet his niece again. Or if he could atleast kill the demons.
Brave that she always was, she wiped face with the edge of her khadi frock. She hated to let others know that she way crying. She would rather let the tears melt away with the fading sun-set.
For all my life, I had seen my grandma holding a special place for anything to do with the country. Once, as I was colouring a flag, she asked me if I knew what the colors of our Indian flag meant. “The orange means…”, I was about to begin.
“Na..na…not orange.”, she interjected, “ It is called a Saffron – Gerua. It is the colour of sacrifice.”
Everytime the National Anthem would be played in the TV or on radio, she would prompt us to stand up.
“You must. That way you show your respect to the country, as well as those who have fought for the country”, she would insist.
Those days I could not fathom her spirit or her emotions. But today, as I have grown older, I realize that India’s freedom came with a lot of cost and a lot of sacrifice – a sacrifice that was not limited to big names and big leaders alone but also to thousands of Haiders, Benus and unknown faces.
I really hope my children would see Independence Day as being beyond yet another holiday with a lazy morning and a sumptuous lunch….for the sake of the sacrifice – big or small – of many Haiders or another little Benu – their great grandmother!
Rang de tu mohe Gerua….
PHOTO COURTESY: Subhadip Mukherjee (Indian Vagabond)