The car has stopped on top of this plateau, perhaps a couple of acres in size. All around us are green fields for miles, mainly corn, soya and cotton. The sky is overcast, ripped occasionally by scissors of lightning, but no thunder. The two buildings right at the back of the plateau are un-plastered burnt orange, taking off from where the red ochre earth that lies beneath. All colours are saturated in the twilight of this midmorning monsoon day and my eyes are almost peering to assimilate the full picture.
We get out of the car and walk towards the buildings, the village schools as I realize a little later. As I come around the side of the Innova and turn leftwards, I perceive the scene in front of me and start gaping. The thin, reedy man carrying a dhol way too large for his size, the strap running across his neck and right shoulder, starting to twirl rapidly on his bare feet even as he is building up a reverb. A phalanx of women (no other word would suffice), three ranks wide and perhaps ten to a file, briskly marching towards us. Ghunghats totally covering their heads, perhaps hiding their grim purpose. Sunita, Kalavati, Jolly and Chhottu, all from Naandi Foundation, pulling back in deference to let me slide into the front. The woman in the middle rank lifting her left hand as they near me and I see the brass plate in her hand with a burning lamp. Her right thumb goes into the plate, picks up the wet kum-kum and comes up forward to daub it on my forehead, so accurately above the bridge of my nose. The fingers of my right hand touching the back of my bending head in respect, much improved over the last two days of practice, even as her thumb has gone back to the plate and come back in that moment carrying a few grains of haldi-covered rice to stick on to the tilak. No rural Hindi-belt scene from Bollywood could be more authentic. And all of us city slickers are in total character in Kupada Chhatri Village, Tehsil Bajna, District Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh.
I am on my annual trip to the villages around Ratlam, where I partner with the Nanhi Kali programme for the Girl Child. We are all now sitting on the floor of one of those buildings, 4 of us with our backs to the wall, and all the villagers, some 70 of them crammed into the small space, with the women in the front and their men behind them, symbolizing what the Nanhi Kali programme is seeking to finally achieve. The next 1 hour goes in animated conversation between us and them, exhilarating to say the least.
The excitement, the aspiration, the hope, is infectious as each one of them speaks sincerely about the little girls and what the Nanhi Kali programme is doing for them. “They have become so much smarter” one says. “They just can’t wait to strap on their bags and march off to their tuition,” another adds (tuition is a word typically used by the villagers for the Nanhi Kali programme, which supplements some subjects outside school hours). “They can sing so well now!” preens another. “They can sign their names now, they even teach us to do that!” proudly claims another. In all this exchange, I am sharpening my vocabulary, trying very, very hard to use not even one English word and succeeding rather well, much to my delight. Moving from pratibha to hunar, contrasting bacchon ka haq with mata-pitaon ki zimmedari, painting a picture of stree-purush ki samaanta and what unnatti and sudhaar we are all working towards, it is an intellectual challenge for me to think and speak in shuddh Hindi but it’s liberating. Their replies are not all in Hindi, often in dialect, and it takes Chhottu and Rajender (another Nanhi Kali coordinator) to translate them for the rest of us. Their one khwaaish is “Can we do the same programme for the boys also?” We smile and politely remind them that they would be supporting their boys anyway, with or without any support from outside. They look down a little in embarrassment and then it is time for us to leave.
We are now in Village Mahua Singat, Tehsil Raouti. Sitting among 30 little village girls in a cramped classroom. The walls are covered with all kinds of posters. Animals, birds, vegetables, fruits. Freedom fighters, days of the week, months of the year, drawings by the children, number tables. Number tables! It has been ages since I saw one. I whisper to Sunita, what’s Hindi for tables? She smiles and assists. I look around us. The girls are grouped in circles of 7 or 8, by class. 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th standard, in this room. All of them in their cute white and blue smocks, most of them in double plaits, hair slick and smooth with oil, sincerity writ on their faces as they put pen to paper on whatever they are currently doing. “Bachchon, pahaada bathaoge?” They look up, smile radiantly, some of them nodding. “Atthaayees ka pahaada bathaoge?” I challenge, really wishing to push their limit. One hesitant hand goes up. We encourage her and then she starts. “Ekatthayees atthayees, do atthayees chhappan...” The words tumble into one another rapidly in a gripping cadence as she stands rigid, totally focused on the task. “Dusatthayees do sauassi” she finishes and runs out of breath. We all clap thunderously.
“Badi hoke kya banna chahte ho, beta?” Sunita asks them. Lajja kicks in, all eyes are down, none volunteers. “Bol beta, kya banoge?” Sunita prods one of them nearest. “Madam” responds Rani. “Teacher madam?” clarifies Sunita. Rani smiles, nods. As other children gather courage and join in, the recurring aspiration is to be a teacher, followed by wanting to be a nurse. Inundated as we city people are by exotic careers like radio jockeying, hair dressing and even animal baby-sitting, these charming old-world careers appear quite limited till we start remembering the world of these children and the few role models they are exposed to (only in one school out of the four I visited did any child mention other professions, like Sainik, Doctor, Judge). Further conversations tell us these children have never seen TV nor have they ever been to a movie.
I feel sad to leave. They have all become dear to me. Their passion for their work, their love for the little girls, their selflessness in pursuing this cause, their cheerfulness amidst all the challenges, all of it is inspiring stuff.
Hevda Khurd. Umariya. Lambi Sadad. Salaj Damar. Jambu Khadan. Labani Pada. Tamboliya. Villages with lyrical names, with rivers flowing through them, evoking the magic of another world.
Tejudi. Bhuri. Bhuli. Muniya. Antim. Jaana. Vishanu. Bulbul. Anguri. Little girls with names from another era. Smiles from another time. Hopes for another life.
I will be back again. And again. For sure.
Written by C K Venkataraman. Incidentally, Mr Venkataraman, an IIM-A alumnus, is currently the CEO (Jewellery) of Titan Company Limited. He is also a cycling enthusiast.
Date: 13th Oct 2016