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|May 26, 1998||
Getting My Goat, Monkeying Around: Diary of a Trip
At 72, Mahasweta Devi, writer and recent winner of the Jnanpith and Magsaysay Awards, is a feisty lady with a definite twinkle in her eye. We were breakfasting some weeks ago on the steps of a rest house in Baramati -- in Baramati, who else but the town's most famous son, Sharad Pawar, could have declared it open? -- chatting, asking her a few random questions. Without warning, she suddenly turned away and sniffed: "Are you interviewing me? Where is your notebook? Why should I answer your questions?"
She sniffed, but the twinkle remained intact.
Earlier, she had us in splits with a tale of monkeys. In her youth, she once landed a contract to supply 15,000 monkeys for medical experiments in the USA. Collected from the wilds of Madhya Pradesh, they were brought to Bombay to wait for transport to the promised land. Unfortunately, any simian emigratory hopes died right there. Someone fell ill aboard the American ship which was to ferry them. It was quarantined and so not allowed to enter Bombay harbour. After much wrangling, the beasts were released in the Western Ghats. Their descendants can be found there today, angrily waving ancient visa papers.
OK, I made that last part up. But months later, Mahasweta Devi found herself listening to a recounting of the affair from an uncle who didn't know of her part in it. "Only a Bengali could have thought up such a mad scheme," the uncle spluttered. "And do you know, there was a woman involved!" Mahasweta Devi, she tells us, didn't dare lift her head up.
Much removed from monkeys today, the lady has taken 1998 off from writing to work for so-called Denotified and Nomadic Tribes. Denotified, because in 1871 the British classified them as criminal; independent India denotified them as such by a 1952 Act. But Act or no Act, DNTs continue to be treated as criminal, by the police and by society. They are arrested on the slightest pretext, accused of random crimes, assaulted by fellow-villagers. Their women are routinely molested, their houses destroyed.
At a noisy meeting in nearby Phaltan (all in Satara district, Maharashtra) after that breakfast, we met many members of one such tribe, Maharashtra's Phase Pardhis. One family sported a clutch of deep gashes on their bodies: father and daughter, on the head; mother, on her eyebrow; son, at the base of his thumb. All gashes courtesy the non-Pardhi residents of their village. Accusing the family of stealing potatoes and wheat some days before, they had broken in, razed their little house and lashed out where they could with long swords.
As we listened to the mother speak through her tears, a woman pushed forward a letter addressed to the chief minister in scrawled, unintelligible Marathi. Inexplicably, it had a Rs 2 "court fee" stamp stuck on it. I was baffled by it, though she didn't seem to think it was strange at all. Then, as I mentioned in an earlier column, a Bharat Shiva Kale offered his appeal too; typewritten, so more readable. "The police have heaped injustices on us," he had written. "They beat us whenever they want. Our children cannot go to school. ... My request to you is to make the injustices done to me go far away."
Tell me, won't you, what do you make of an appeal for justice that "requests" that injustices be made to "go far away"? How near and constant are these injustices? Do I have any real idea? Do you?
Besides, what would come of these pathetic letters?
The meeting was addressed by Mahasweta Devi, Sahitya Akademi Award winner Laxman Gaikwad (himself a Pardhi) and others. All who spoke urged Pardhis to stand up for their rights, to resist abuse. It was fiery, angry stuff: "You have chilli powder in your homes," Gaikwad reminded the crowd. "Use it! Throw it in the faces of those who try to step into your house, or touch your women! Even an ant bites when you step on it! Why should you take any injustice without hitting back?"
No less fervently, every speaker urged Pardhis to educate themselves, and especially their girls. As appeals to audiences go, this made for a nice change from "mandir wahin banayenge!" and others on those lines that we are too accustomed to hearing. No empty nonsense about sons of the soil, or nuclear bombs, or religions in danger, or temples and mosques. Here, for once, was angry rhetoric about ordinary bread and butter issues, simple daily living issues. "Sell your mangalsutra, sell your house" -- this was a rhythmic, eloquent Gaikwad again. "But get an education! Because education is like your third eye."
I felt a swelling joy, hearing this. But not for long. Even before the applause had died away, I ran smack into another side to the fine words about education. A woman came up to me and pointed to a shy girl a few feet away. "My daughter here has passed her 10th standard exams. But nobody will give her a job because she is a Pardhi. What's the use of an education? What's the use of all this talk?"
What indeed. Had I known, I could have told her: don't worry, the bombs are coming. And when they do, our all-knowing prime minister wants you to "learn to sacrifice, as national security is above all considerations."
If our trip began with the story about monkeys, it ended, with a certain cosmic symmetry, with goats. Chanda Nimbkar, a friend from university, runs a farm outside Phaltan where she breeds the animals. She hopes to improve the area's goat population in several respects. One of them: to increase their yields of milk. Another: to promote twinning, or the tendency to produce more than one offspring at each birth. This is because multiple goat kids are a better use of resources than single ones. We could see that for ourselves when we met three such kids, frisky little charmers all just a couple of weeks old. One, a single child, was clearly larger than the other two. But that pair, twins, together weighed more than the single one at birth and continue that way.
Traditionally, it is the women in village families who own and care for goats. A better breed of goat -- with more milk, more offspring -- will benefit women, who need the financial help most, directly.
To that end, Chanda located a strain of goat in the Sunderbans region of West Bengal that tends to produce multiple kids. She also imported several embryos of a South African strain called Boer to cross with desi goats. The embryos have since grown into magnificent specimens, brown and black and white, complete with long flowing beards. Chanda named two of the finest FW, for FW de Klerk, and Nellie, for Nelson Mandela.
Symmetry, did I say? As I fed FW a juicy stalk of something, Chanda warned me that he was a feisty sort. I thought of Mahasweta Devi with a smile -- she will forgive me, I know -- for that word "feisty" might have been invented for her. Then I remembered. Last year, Mahasweta Devi had her Jnanpith award handed to her by Mandela himself.
He asked her, she had told us with another twinkle, if he could keep the cheque.
I'll have more, in coming weeks, about denotified tribes. Unless there are more bombs.
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