7 February, 2005 at 04:15 Leave a comment

gniLogo A Personal India  Every man has a view of his land and his people. This is mine. Of India — D V Sridharan

Preface …an India Bias
In every society and country, the most noticed are the celebrities and the wretched. The former gets undue attention and the latter rightly, the much needed spotlight.
So is it with India’s media. At some time or the other an Indian must wonder if the values and energies, the rich, the famous and the powerful represent are all that we are going to depend on to sort the problems of the dispossessed. Is there anything at all  ‘out there’ other than the play of the celebs.?
My own way out of my depression was to look for little known people and events that add up to a brighter future and publish their stories. Which was how goodnewsindia.com was born.
During my travels I came across many Indians, who won’t make ‘news’ because they are not in mainstream media’s two great constituencies that I mentioned earlier. Nor will these little Indians make it to the main pages of goodnewsindia.com.
But they are nevertheless the stuff and guts of India. They rarely venture out of their beat, seldom disturb the structures they live in, scarcely interest newsmen, and are almost never unpredictable.
What is common to them all is this set: a family-centred life, modest ambitions that India can certainly help them attain, a conviction that their country is a good place to be in, that tomorrow will be better than today, a work ethic, an awareness of the power of the systems that surround them – the employer’s, state’s and God’s.
They stand in lines to vote, send their children to the armed forces,practice their religions, pay their dues, hunt for bargains, treasure their ration cards, fear taking loans, reach out to poor relations, keep in touch with their ‘native places’, believe in divine justice, spoil their children, care for the elderly, venerate their ancestors, enjoy company picnics, celebrate the festivals, cultivate traditional arts, give alms, believe in destiny…
It is their collective lives that makes sociologists declare Indians are religious, have family values and are hard-workers. Together, these little known people have powered the Indian continuum.
Material contentment comes easily to the these Indians. And once there, they begin to reflect. What next?: a new group, a skill, a charity, a happening, a journey, a discovery, a belief… the dormant social engineer in them is preparing to act.
In these pages I hope to slowly build a picture of this great Indian powerhouse, drawing on images and views gathered from travels, a long life and media fare.
What follow are notes, in no order of time or sequence. They are personal, after all. And, they are about India, which has its own logic. Together, I hope, these notes lead to an appreciation of India, and her children.

Sonu and Golu …content in Chhattisgarh.
The train was about to leave Bilaspur. I sat in the first class coach, empty but for me and the finely bearded, formally turned out Muslim railway ticket Inspector.I was on my way to Pendra Road thence, to Amarkantak and the origin of Narmada. I had been restless since reading Gita Mehta’s ‘River Sutra’ and this trip had to be ‘done’.
On the deserted platform, hastened a lovely couple: a young man and a girl. Both in their late teens and strikingly good looking. They boarded my coach , entered my cubicle and greeted the railway man with much familiarity. He responded likewise. ‘Must be family friends’, I said to myself.
I found it hard to avoid staring at the lovely girl. Buxom and rosy cheeked, she wore her long, glowing hair loose. Her large eyes were light coloured and her lips were full. Staring into my book I took in some information. He was her younger brother. Their father was the Inspector’s colleague. They were going to Anuppur.
I looked up and smiled a greeting. The boy smiled back and she smiled vaguely not looking at me. The Inspector glumly but politely asked for my ticket.
They chatted on about common friends and relatives. The girl was effervescent. The Inspector left to begin his rounds. I closed my book, looked out of the window at the beautiful country for a while and then asked them innocently: “Do you live in Bilaspur?” They were excited at once, that the ice was broken: “No, we live in Anuppur. Our Grandmother lives in Bilaspur!”
He was Rabindra Verma known as Golu and she, Rashmi Verma, known as Sonu. Sonu leaned back relaxed, legs swinging in the air and her hands playing with her soft, long hair, grooming it, knotting it, shake it loose again, humming a tune softly, the while. The boy edged forward in his seat with evident eagerness: “Where are you from, Uncle?.”
“Chennai”, I said and apologised that my Hindi was rather fractured. “Oh doesn’t matter… keep talking and you’ll get better”. They giggled.
Then began a friendly journey of over an hour. They lived in the railway quarters near Anuppur station, and were very happy with their life there. They were proud and fond of their school, teachers, parents, neighbours and friends.
“But my kid brother here, is the only problem”, she teased coquettishly. He blushed. “He doesn’t even fight back when I punch him”, she went on. “He is too obedient and wants to be known as the better child!” He continued to smile indulgently. “But I shall miss him when he leaves home in about three years,” she added.
“Where are you going “, I asked him.
“Fauj”, he replied simply.”
“Is that because of the recent Kargil war?”
“No”, she butted in, with visible pride. “He has been wanting to join the army since he was eight. Only Mother has been making it difficult for him. He is my only son, she used to say. Now she has come around, seeing how determined he is.”
“Life in the Army is good, Uncle. They teach many things, I get to see places and I will be doing something for and have many things to learn still. I will be happy as a soldier” he said.
In their school, they have a prayer to Saraswati every morning and they touch their teacher’s feet. The Inspector in the train has been his father’s long time friend. Their Hindu and Muslim families visit each other and get along well. There was no communal problem in Chhattisgarh, they said. Now and then some political party begins some nonsense, but we flick that off and carry on with our lives.
The train was moving briskly through green ravines and past gentle green slopes. People were scarcely to be seen for miles. All seemed peaceful and prosperous. The turbulence of India was far away.
Obviously one can’t read about India and know it. Here were two youngsters quite happy with their lives. They were not tempted by the places and life styles that satellite TV showed them.
She’d like to go to college yes, but if her parents were to find a boy and ask her to marry him, she’d drop her education and get married.
“High school is enough. Besides who knows me better than my parents?”. She went on: “Yes, I’d like to see Singapore once as a tourist but I always pray, ‘Eh Bhagwan, marry me to a man who makes his home between Bilaspur and Anuppur!’ There cannot be anything more beautiful than this in the whole world!”
Our conversation was roaring along. She asked if she could sing a song she knew; and sang it!
He told me of a memorable visit to Chitrakoot, a few years ago. “You can feel the presence of Ram and Sita even today!”
Now, she clapped her hands, demanding silence: “The train will be on a curved track soon and we can see the engine and the last box at the same time.” We all kept a vigil for the event at the window. They were flaunting their familiarity with their pretty country.
There was such simple joy about them. India must be a good place in most parts. People like Sonu and Golu and their parents and their friends keep the country’s core, stable and productive, even if some outer layers tend to tear off from time to time.
I was astonished at my own surprise that life in this remote part could be happy! It showed how little I knew of the substantial part of India.
When about three months later the goodnewsindia.com idea occurred to me, I realised, Sonu and Golu and others I met on that trip had no doubt seeded it. I saw through them a world many city dwellers in India do not realise, exists: that world is what I call middle India.

Rabari Women
I saw them as I waited in Pendra Road for a bus to Amarkantak.
They stood out among the small made locals: they were strapping, handsome women, if somewhat unwashed. There were three walking up and down the short market street buying up things as if for an expedition.
Grocery, buckets, pans, kerosene, potato, onion, tools… Soon they were haggling with a transport driver before they hired him.
I recognised them from my bookish learning: they were Rabaris from north-west India. What are they doing here?
The slight, tea-shop owner with a salacious disposition offered: “Oh, they are bold women from Rajasthan. They fear no one, not even men! Our government gives them a lot of money to rear a rare breed of sheep up in the hills. They come down now and then for shopping.” And, he added with admiration, “They are rich!”
I never found out the real story, not even from Royina Grewal’s “Sacred Virgin”, a fine guide though it is, to life on the banks of the Narmada.
They were certainly very far from home’. Practically from across the breadth of India.
One never realises how lives and livelihoods are inventively put together in India. It is never obvious from the cities and is no clearer when seen at close quarters. Nomads, migrants, adventurers, hopers and micro-entrepreneurs are criss-crossing this vast land, fuelling the economy. India is a huge engine stoked by little known people. I saw more Rabari women when I returned to Pendra Road about a week later.
It was a dark evening on the verge of a storm. I had a few more hours before my train arrived. I sat in a restaurant, whose owner contracted to serve me beer if I ate a meal there. Even as the beer arrived, he switched off most lights. It was a wide open small-shop really, staring into the bazaar. “Police”, he said. “I must be careful.”
Four Rabari women walked into the darkened chow-shop. Not the ones I had seen before. This was another group. One, an achingly beautiful young woman, with glowing brown skin and light eyes made more alluring by fire light.
They sat across the narrow aisle, eating a simple meal, the young beauty facing me. I caught her eye, one dazzling moment, and smiled a greeting. She, for a second, seemed inclined to respond. But then I heard a hissed instruction from her elder: “Don’t talk to him!”, and the girl lowered her eyes!
“Right they are!”, I told myself in a euphoric mood. After all, the hard-working Rabaris gain nothing fraternising with an idling city guy – one of those confused men who didn’t know where he belonged; and wouldn’t know how to deal with a woman who knew where she did.

Basque on a bike …riding free and silent
Many Indians presume all westerners to be wealthy or incapable of handling India’s difficult spaces or impatient with its unpredictability. Yet, between the westerners who never venture beyond the comfort zones of expensive hotels, and the dispossessed of the West, that descends to an entirely different world of comfort, is a steady stream of travellers from everywhere in the world drawn to middle India.
Patxi Axpe is one such! I met him in Jodhpur and we visited several Bishnoi villages, together.
“I am Basque”, he said.
“Spanish, you mean?”, I asked.
“No,Basque”, he replied, firmly.
So, Patxi has some processes going on within!
When he first came to India, it was with friends in a caravan and they travelled to Calcutta , Varanasi, and Delhi.
“I don’t know why, but I wanted to come again. Alone.”
He couldn’t have organised it better. He arrived in Jaipur with a take-apart bicycle. I got out of the airport, assembled my bike and have been pedaling ever since!
I bike about 80-km a day and try to get to a place with a hotel, but don’t often make it. But that never became a problem. People always offer room or a meal or whatever help I need.”
This was a pleasant change for him. He had travelled in Pakistan before. There were no incidents, but a constant sense of being a watched-stranger. There were piercing pairs of unsmiling – though not hostile – eyes forever tracking him.
But the real menace that he had to handle, was the number of Pakistani soldiers hustling him, as they hawked ‘fun-fire’ on their AK47s, at $5 a go!
“In Rajasthan people are busy, hard working and yet have time for you. But leave you alone if that’s what you want.”
He travels through country roads. Far from where commerce and traffic rages. A serene India does exist.
Patxi [-pronounced Patchi] and hundreds like him are coursing through India right now and enjoying it.
But none can be quieter than Patxi.  

Witness to a fall …Nagaraj Sharma of Amarkantak
It was my last day at Amarkantak and I had not yet entered the temple. I had been on a trek into the jungle nearby and ,as a city dweller, taken in by the silence and vast desolate expanses, save for the few Bhil huts.
But surely I must visit the temple before I leave?
“Can you tell me a little more about the origins of Amarkantak?,” I asked the temple priest when I had been around the small temple.
“Come with me and meet Mr.Nagaraj Sharma. He will tell you all you need to know.”
We walked to a house across the road.
And , that’s how I met this remarkable man. Now in his late seventies, he runs an ayurvedic clinic and is an admired senior citizen. He has also captured the imagination of some young men with his ideas on life and education. A school is run in Bijnor, UP that adheres to a curriculam he has developed. It’s basically about how education can be cost-free with students learning and generating revenue simultaneouly.
“Hmm, you want to know about Amarkantak’s early history. Well, let me begin with my own story and you will find an answer to your question.
Sir, I was born in a prosperous family in Karnataka. Ours was a rigid traditional household. Father was convinced that all there was to learn is already in our ancient texts. So the household followed a set routine. Sanskrit, lessons from Vedic scholars, pujas, austerities in food, clothes and needs… these were the stuff of our upbringing. We were indeed a happy family without any care.
But as I entered my teens, I began to ask far too many questions of my learned tutors. Sometimes they would preach patience, sometimes they would be irritated and occasionally some explanation was attempted. But my questions were unending. What they were is not relevant now. I think it just meant I was dissatisfied with the given and wanted to know what lay beyond our lifestyle. I was not quite 20 when I was married. And soon my first son arrived too. But although my daily lessons from Sanskrit scholars had ceased, I would still bar their way and present my doubts for clarification.”
“One day, an exasperated old scholar said: “Nagaraja, the answers to your questions will be available only if you meditate on the banks of the river Narmada.”
“That started me on my adventure. I looked up a map and found the river snaking across the country. Which ‘banks’ shall I choose? I decided to go to the origins of the river itself, which meant Amarkantak. I briefly told my wife of my plans and she without a second thought readied herself to go with me.
“In the year 1950, I arrived at Pendra Road Station after many days of journey from Karnataka. My wife, my child and myself, spent the first night at a travelers’ free inn, lit by a mournful oil lamp. There was no way up the hill to Amarkantak, except by foot through a jungle trail. Next day, I hired an escort and a mule. Loading our belongings on the mule we began our climb.
“Amarkantak was then a small town of 200 residents. It was surrounded by forests twenty times as dense as the ones you saw on your trek. And it rained practically every day of the year! 115 inches in a year, would you believe it? The place was a huge swamp! Every foot fall squelched. We needed blankets even in the month of June! And started fires to dry our clothes.
“And the Narmada roared day and night, full bore out of ten large ducts. It’s a mere stream now, fed by a single puny spout. You can almost leap across it. But in the fifties, within minutes of the temple she was a wide river with swampy banks. Often cattle would get mired and we did not always manage to retrieve them.
“Nights were long and cold. Narmada’s roar would get louder and overwhelm us. Frequently, in the night we would sense there were visitors from the jungle prowling. We dared not investigate what kind of animals they were, but they were polite enough to leave in peace.
“Bhils would come in from the jungle with firewood, lumber, fruits and other minor forest produce. There was a small trickle of pilgrims. At Maha Sivaratri however, there would be a larger crowd.
“Sir, it was happy times. There were many ashrams here and students in them. I began my clinic and spent the time looking for the answers that I was to find by the river. But strangely, I was beginning to forget even my questions!
“Then in 1962, our world changed. It was socialist India’s shrillest hour! Factories were venerated and industrialisation was believed to be the key to a prosperous India. Up the hill on a new road, in jeeps came engineers and planners. Amarkantak’s bauxite was to be mined, the river dammed for power and aluminium smelters were to roll out metal for the nation.
“They began to dynamite the hills for their mines. It went on day and night! Wildlife fled to god knows where. The earth shook and something seemed to rearrange itself deep under.
Sir, within months, we were no longer a swamp; the entire hill drained out! I am sure it was the blasting.
“Then came the townships for the 6 to 8 thousand workers who were to man the mines, the power stations and the smelters. The Bhils were prudent exploiters of the jungle. But now came contractors with government licenses to plunder the forests for the lumber needed to build the new houses.
“In ten years Amarkantak was nothing like it had been for thousands of years before. Less rain fell. The river narrowed. Tourists and pilgrims roared in. Our folks changed. And, Narmada may too.”
Nagaraj Sharma paused and took a deep breath. It had been an unsettling lecture in easy Hindi. Delivered by a man, still searching for positive things to do in life that might ameliorate the despair in his heart. Thus, his work with ‘right’ education.
“Sir, as a young man I was restless with the certainties in ideas that surrounded me. I came here and found in Amarkantak, a place settled in its own certainties. Like I wanted to explore new possibilities, it seems there were others too in government and business, driven here to explore new possibilities they were after.
I wonder if there is a limit to man’s need for either ideas or material!
“Ah, well, that is the past of Amarkantak that I can personally vouch for.” And then fixing me still with his eyes, he asked: “Do you still want me to tell you what the puranas have to say about this venerable place?”

Child minder …a vernacular invention
Take a look at this delightful little invention! It is a creation of potters in Rajasthan: a child minder! Women at work let their babies into these terra cotta seats. The child is locked in but has enough room to play! Enjoy it’s aesthetics and ergonomics.

Chetak Country …land of the Marwari horse
Long after his glory days, the Rajput lives on with a devotion to his heritage. Whatever the Indian Republic may say, royalty is still venerated. In arranging marriages, lineages are studied and correct linkages are made. Almost unlike any other caste-group the Rajput will contract marriage with any one across the length and breadth of India as long families are of warrior descent! Thus a RajasthaniRathore may marry a Verma from Kerala or a Gajapathy from Orissa, ignoring linguistic and cultural differences! In Rajput homes there is a formality in address, conduct and speech. Their ceremonial occasions can transport you to other times.
Nowhere is this fascinating play more widespread than in Rajasthan. Even if you are not admitted to their inner chambers, it is easy to perceive what I am talking about. Take for instance the horse. The Rajput and his horse are inseparable!
It is impossible to travel in Rajasthan and not hear horse talk! In ballads, in folklore, in puppetry, in art and in crafts, their beloved Marwari horse will feature!
The most famous of the Marwari horse is of course, the immortal Chetak, the steed of the equally immortal Maharana Pratap, the guerilla king who is supposed to have inspired Shivaji. I can’t think of another state in India where there are memorials for horses…monuments to horses are strewn across the length and breadth of Rajasthan”, says Satyendra Singh Chawra. [read a feature on him elsewhere in this site].
He should know; he is a keeper of the Rajput soul. A handsome, reserved man, Sunny as he is known, is unstoppable when triggered on Rajputs and the Marwari horse!
I spent a memorable evening at Kot Kaladwas, the campus he has created outside Udaipur, where the Rajput that he is, may live as his ancestors expect him to.
I notice that even the architecture of his rambling homestead is influenced by the horse. Throughout the evening we spent in the court-yard, his horses stared out of the port-holes that you can see [behind the bluish pillars] in the picture here!
“A Rajput always slept close to his horse”, says Sunny. “For, on it depended his life. There may be a surprise attack on him or he may have to respond to a call in a hurry!
A Rajput’s life was lived out on a horse back! Sunny quotes a couplet and then helpfully translates it: “The horse is your home and the sword, your mate. You have only your hands and your heart to keep your life. And maybe a free moment now and then, to bake a bread at the end of your spear!”

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