Building community in an Indian village

WHEN people talk about India these days, they talk of a modern, powerful country that has an impact on world policy. They talk of an economic superpower. They talk about a country that has a techno focus, one that can influence policy even in the United States.

But then such people do not know the real India. They have never lived in the country, do not understand what numbers such as a billion mean, and have no idea of the meaning of poverty in its real, stark and ugly sense.

One year in the real India is enough for a city-bred person to understand what the country is really all about. And though the example I cite is all of 29 years old, India is still very much the same. Nothing has changed in its heart, the village.

I spent 1980 working in an Indian village for a rural development agency. I went in as a wide-eyed innocent and came out with my eyes fully open, and understanding the real meaning of the word cynicism.

Access to running water is one of the major problems in India, even in the big cities. The village in which I worked was supposed to serve as the beacon for others by implementing a project to supply water for its people.

There are numerous problems in trying to implement such a project in a village. First, there is the problem of a common language; people tend to speak a variety of dialects and addressing them in a tongue that they all fully comprehend is a task in itself. This village was on the border of two Indian states and its geographical location meant that the language issue was even more complicated.

I did not speak fluently in either of the two major languages that the villagers spoke and this was a third problem. After months of patiently trying, and much coaching from my servant, I was finally able to communicate in language that could be understood.

Then there was the factor of money. Villages tend to look at outside agencies which come to work with them as suppliers of largesse. They want all the money to come from the agency and do not believe that they can contribute anything. This was not helped by the fact that the outsiders (in this case me) dress differently and have motorised vehicles to get around when all the villagers have is their bullock carts, the occasional rickety bicycle and the village bus that threatens to fall apart at every turn.

The situation is certainly not helped by the numerous Catholic priests who build huge churches in such villages and proceed to bribe people into becoming Catholics by involving them in food-for-work schemes to build their own houses – provided they adopt Christian nomenclature (Basaviah becoming Peter, for example) and attend the Sunday services.

The caste system in the village complicated things even more. I was forced to sit on my motorcycle and drink my daily cup of morning coffee – the coffee shop had two sets of seats, one for the upper castes and one for the lower castes and the owner would never let me sit in the seats meant for the latter. I did not want to identify myself with either, so I took the uncomfortable but wise option.

And then there were two types of glasses at the coffee shop, stainless steel (meant for the lower castes) and glass tumblers, meant for the higher castes. I took to taking my own mug to the shop to drink that morning cuppa!

The lad who used to come by and clean my house taught me another lesson about caste when he refused to wash my clothes; he said he was not a dhobi (laundry worker) – that was a lower caste than that of carpenter or achary to which he belonged.

I convinced him that there was nothing wrong about it by making him sit nearby while I washed the clothes myself. He was incredibly upset by this, as I, his boss, was doing work, that he considered too menial even for himself. He said he would wash the clothes but that I should not tell anyone about it.

But back to the water project: I spent months talking myself hoarse about the value of unity. About the value of combined labour. About the incredible human potential that the people had. About the fact that money was secondary to what they could achieve if they decided to work together. When you have as many castes in a single village as there are fingers on one’s hands, it is incredibly difficult to sell this idea of unity.

But after seven months of talking, arguing, brow-beating, angry outbursts and pleading, they finally came around to my side and agreed that they would hold together as a community so that the project would go through. We had about a month of talk about the location of the two taps in the village before the issue was settled. (There were umpteen arguments about why the main tap should be closer to the abode of Basaviah and not near that of Kariyappa, or why Singanna should have to walk less for his water than, say, Kurumi.)

Finally, I had enough paperwork showing the village contribution to convince the project head that we could ask our drilling team to come down from Bangalore and start looking for the best place to drill. Once the van arrived, there was a massive change in the attitude of the villagers. I guess at this point they realised that it wasn’t all talk, that this newcomer was talking about something concrete and that a supply of running water wasn’t just a pipe dream.

The drilling team was looked after well by the villagers. Maybe too well. They drank too much watery tea, ate too many roasted groundnuts, and had half the population drop in merely to wish them well. It was an exciting time for the villagers.

After the pipes were laid, the villagers had to build a little shelter for the pump that would send water to the two taps in the village. They were used to making their own bricks and promptly set to this task. The night that the kiln was fired, they invited me over and under the cover of darkness served me some of their own hellbrew and chicken curry. There was no liquor sold in the area due to prohibition.

I guess that that was their way of telling me that I was really one of them. On Christmas Eve, the headman invited me to his house for lunch. And the same evening, I was the guest of honour at a function held to celebrate the fact that running water was just a few weeks away.

These were moving occasions, especially when one realised that a few short months before this the villagers had been fighting tooth and nail and had been unable to see that there was a community benefit in keeping their own little disputes under wraps.

Sadly, a few months after the project was completed, I decided to leave myself due to ructions within the agency. The villagers wept openly when I called for a meeting to bid them goodbye. I broke down myself. One of them pushed a small note into my hand; I later discovered that it was a 20-rupee note, two days hard labour for him.

Building community within that village was a rewarding task then. It remains a rewarding memory even now.