At Ralegan Siddhi

I am in India travelling around constantly for the past month or so. I usually record my memories (for myself and not as a travel writer) into a large file but this time I decided to make more bite size pieces. Here is an out of turn piece from a much longer itinerary.

Not very long back Mr. Anna Hazare had captured the imagination of our large and vibrant population leading a strong crusade against corruption. As he gears up for a further wave of protests I hear of numerous death threats being issued in his name. While I am unsure of his suggestions/ his demands and his methods, I do share a large amount of respect for the being.

Trying to justify this respect to myself, I decided to tour Ralegan Siddhi this monsoon. Ralegan Siddhi is about a couple of hours from Pune: I took a bus to Shirur followed by a bus from Shirur to Ralegan. On the way I couldn’t help but notice the variability: lush green fields to barren lands, fancy Puneri buildings to the basic thatched roofs…Most peculiar though was the gradual progression in the number of people with the famous Gandhi topi. I wanted to talk to people as I usually do but I was way too engrossed in the passing scenery. Western ghats are fabulous in the rains.

I reached late in the afternoon. My first impression was overwhelmed by the greenery. I incorrectly attributed this to the Western ghats only to realise later that this was not a rain-favoured region at all! This was all due to the hard work of the villagers in the field of water harvesting. Clean roads promenaded by trees, well-spoken and courteous villagers showed me the way. A true mark of development is the behaviour of the common man; I must say though that a few hours in the village do not justify my conclusion.

      The Anti-Corruption Office
Up a Tila in the Village
    Up a tila in the Village, the temple in the middle has Mr. Hazare’s resting room.

After a hearty meal of Kolhapuri, bhakar and daal at a dhaba I made my way to the anti-corruption office where I was told to visit the media centre. After a short conversation with the officers about their activities I went up a tila in the village and breathed in the beautiful surroundings. At around 4’oclock, I began towards the media center. I noticed the buildings, the school, the roads were quite unlike (well structured and well maintained) many other villages that I have visited in India; in fact far superior to many urban areas in and around Kolkata.

“What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?”- Ambedkar.

On the way, I was met by a group of about 10-15 villagers from Akola. I walked along with them to the media centre. They remained my companions from there on. They were here in this region to visit some of the temples and thought that they should drop by the village. I spoke to them at huge lengths finding out what they did, what were the problems in their villages, what brought them to Ralegan and also of what I did, why I did it, why it was important and what I eventually wanted to do. I had to initially encourage them to speak; sadly my clothes though very ordinary still gave me away as an urban swag! I can’t but think…

“The child who is decked with prince’s robes

And who has jewelled chains round his neck

Loses all pleasure in his play;

His dress hampers him at every step.

In fear that it may be frayed or stained with dust

He keeps himself from the world,

And is afraid even to move.”-Tagore

It was a joy talking to them, understanding their problems and arguing solutions. We sat down together and watched a video on Anna’s activities and vision in the media centre after which the villagers convinced me that I should go and see Mr. Hazare. It was interesting that I had ignored his visit to Vancouver not much earlier.

I have to say that the media centre seemed to be quite a chest thumping demonstration, though under the same breath I should also mention that truth needs to be mentioned. The achievements in terms of inducing a civic sense among the villagers, helping them understand their responsibilities, building schools, water shed development and many many more things were just spectacular. Indeed lives have been transformed and this by itself forms a huge achievement. Of course how can one not talk about RTI.

If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.- Emily Dickinson

Of course Ms. Gabbermouth cannot but think beyond her thin diary. You cannot bring upon change sitting in the comforts of your drawing room, spreading vitriol and going on the occasional field trips to the ‘poor’ and the ‘destitute’ (just so that you can gabber about them to fund future trips elsewhere.) Of course she did rather not be Anna because that would involve actual hard work for a very long period of time, much harder than what it takes to write about small things. Note I am not saying that her protests are unjustified; her language and logic most certainly (as always) is.

Coming back to the media centre I just thought that the pomp could have been scaled down a little bit; it was creating a larger than life figure of Mr. Hazare. We do not need more gods in India, though we do need many more Anna’s! The most astonishing part was the visitor book which showed the daily footfall to be very significant for a village which is not that easy to get to!

With the villagers, I headed to meet Mr. Hazare near the corruption office. We sat down on the ground in front of the office waiting for our turn. A couple others there found the ground to inhumane and had chairs brought in. Later they called upon me when I found that they too were originally from Kolkata now running some businesses in the region. I was sadly having a much more interesting conversation elsewhere and went back to my seat.

Finally it was our chance. We went inside this small room, sparsely touched. Anna sat on a chair on side of the room, the two adjoining sides had some sofas but we were way too many and took to the floor. On the opposite side of Mr. Hazare was a picture of him with our late president Shri APJ Abdul Kalam. This was unnecessary.

Mr. Hazare in his regular attire sat comfortably and began amicably asking the villagers what they did. He spoke in simple Marathi (which I could somewhat understand) and discussed many things ranging from alcoholism to the worthlessness of pride and the pit falls of individualism. At no point in the discussion did he seem to take the upper chair, he was one among us and still we listened to him in rapt attention. After this people hoarded to have a photograph clicked; I could see that Mr. Hazare was tired of this. Later he discussed with me separately what I was up to and what were my future plans. He encouraged me not necessarily to take up social service but to be aware of, understand and work on my responsibilities, that they were not just towards myself but towards others too. Cliched but true…

जो खुद के लिए जीते हैं, वो मर जाते हैं,
जो दूसरों के लिए मरते हैं, केवल वो ही ज़िंदा रह पाते हैं|

After some more discussions regarding the upcoming unrests on the land bill and OROP, I bade goodbye. It was around 7:10 PM. The last bus to Shirur had left 10 minutes ago and for now I was stuck in the village. I needed to get back to Pune that night and so I talked to the locals and ascertained that it was safe to hitchhike. Riding speedily on a bike across the green fields I made it to Shirur as the night fell. Then on, I went to Pune brooding upon what I had seen and heard that day.

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