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Without regard for caste, creed or politics
February 13, 2004
Some fifty years ago a group of men from the Dakshina Kannada group who had settled in Bombay came together for the betterment of the community. They decided that anybody from 'back home' would be accommodated in the Udupi restaurants that they had begun setting up. In other words, new immigrants would get their board and lodging in exchange for working in the cafes. This by itself was nothing out of the ordinary since it was taken for granted that one looks out for one's fellows while living in a strange land.
The difference lay in the fact that the boys from Udupi would be released from work by about three in the afternoon rather than slaving through the day. It was expected of these lads that they would use part of their free time profitably by attending night school. It was, mind you, no ordinary school at that, with the teachers including the likes of M V Kamath (currently chairman of Prasar Bharati).
This attempt at betterment of the community at large has certainly paid off handsomely over the years. Some of the children who were educated in this manner went on to become doctors and lawyers, even an industrialist or two. Many years later, the Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, would advise other communities to follow suit if they too wished to prosper.
I was reminded of this exercise in practical philanthropy when I recently heard of a similar experiment in Kuwait. It concerns the citizens of Kumbanad, small panchayat in the Pattanamthitta district of Kerala. The place is so small that it is barely mentioned on any map. Nevertheless, Kumbanad has succeeded in achieving fame for reasons other than size.
For one thing, it reputedly possesses the largest number of Christian houses of worship -- at least fifty of them, one in honour of every sect of Christianity it would seem. It also seems to have a branch of every major nationalised bank -- a tribute to the enterprise of its citizens who have left it for pastures abroad but unfailingly send remittances for the folks back home. Finally, and rather surprisingly, for a place of its prosperity it lacked any major goldsmith until fairly recently -- truly astonishing given the place the yellow metal holds in the affection of the average Indian. (Possibly, given the lower price of gold in the Arab world it didn't make sense to buy it in India.)
An old chestnut has it that there are more Poles in Toronto, Canada than there are in Warsaw, the Polish capital, itself. I wouldn't know about that, but reliable witnesses assure me that it is a fact that there are more people from Kumbanad in Kuwait than there are in that panchayat. Not surprisingly, these men have gravitated together, and formed an association in Kuwait. (Strictly speaking, it consists not just of pure-bred denizens of Kumbanad proper, but also of seven other panchayats around it.)
That is not too surprising in itself; the Indian embassy in Kuwait told me that there are at least 48 associations formed by Keralites. What sets this particular group apart is the aim it pursues coupled with the modesty with which it shies away from the limelight. It does not offer the usual charity -- food, clothes, help in arranging marriages and the like. What it does, as with that Dakshina Kannada association from half a century ago, is to try to upgrade the skills of the local people so that the next generation will have access to more opportunities than the benefactors themselves.
Every now and then I get to hear of some millionaire from the United States or Canada who decides to be generous to the village he left behind in, say, Punjab, Haryana, or Uttar Pradesh. But these efforts -- while to be applauded in themselves -- are invariably a job taken upon himself by an individual. Will they have the same staying power as an initiative undertaken by a group?
The fourteenth general election is upon us, and I suppose that by rights I should be coming up with an analytical piece on new found friends and foes. However, I am not going to apologise for writing about this unknown group of people from villages that hardly anyone has heard about even in Kerala itself. The reason is simple: in the weeks and months to come we will undoubtedly see an orgy of mud-slinging until it seems that one set of Indians can barely live with its fellows. I choose to spend the last moments of peace applauding a set which chooses to serve selflessly without regard for caste or creed. Or politics!
T V R Shenoy