These Paths-8

I catch sight of a farmhand in the distance. She has a sickle in her hand. She clears the narrow mud trail that forms a path across the woods. I pause in my footsteps, unsure of what her reaction might be to my intrusion. She catches sight of me and looks at me with a question mark.

I was walking up on the road and couldn’t resist the temptation of exploring these beautiful woods as my eyes fell upon them’, I explain to her.

 

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I walk in front and she walks behind me. She is silent. I do not know if she is amused by my answer.

Where are you from?’, she asks.

My house is in Kannur. But I work here in the medical college’, I reply.

Oh! So are you a doctor?’, she asks.

Yes. But I don’t practise now. I teach medical students’, I reply.

Whose land is this?’, I ask.

In reply, she points to a house in the distance.

Why do you ask? Do you want to buy it?’, she asks.

I laugh. Her question brings out the essence of human behaviour-

For most of us today, natural resources translate to opportunity. Opportunity that translates to wealth. Wealth that translates to money.  

If I had the money, I would have bought all this land. Just so that I could preserve its integrity forever!’, I reply

If only earth belonged to a few people who could preserve its wealth, nurture and enhance it and differentiate between need and greed!

 

A pretty pink flower catches my attention.

Oh! That pink flower by the canal. It’s been so long since I have seen that flower. It used to grow wild in the paths we walked as children when I visited Kerala for my vacations’, I exclaim.

That is the Airani poovu’, she replies.

You must be amused by my excitement’, I say.

Not really! There was a girl from Bombay. She would take with her arecanuts, manjadi seeds and the likes when she went back to Bombay’, she replies.

 

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For us city dwellers, this is paradise. I grew up in Bangalore, deprived of this proximity with nature. And so, I chronically missed nature. The separation with this green paradise that I would be briefly exposed to during my vacations, was a chronic heartache. That probably explains my current excitement. An excitement that I will never outgrow!’, I explain.

Yes, I understand. For us, this has always been our world. The only world we have known’, she responds.

That makes you very fortunate’, I reply.

It is a lot of struggle’, she muses aloud.

I do understand that it is a lot of struggle. But I still feel this association with earth and with nature makes us more humane. It teaches us life. Something that is palpably absent in the current generation. Look at my students, for instance. They are so distant from the realities of life. So fragile when confronted with challenges. I suppose there is a need to reconnect with nature. It could solve a lot of issues pertaining to the modern world’, I reflect.

The woman is silent.

Alright then. I won’t keep you. See you around!’, I say, unsure of what she thinks of my statement.

Wouldn’t you like to meet the other women in my group?’, she asks.

Other women?’, I ask.

Yes. We work for the ‘thozhilurappu’ NREGA scheme by the Government. There is a lot of work on these lands in the summer. But with the monsoons, it is impossible to do much. So we restrict ourselves to clearing the paths and small work like that. I will introduce you to the other women in my group. Follow me’, she says.

I am delighted. I follow her and soon, I can hear excited voices and laughter in the distance. I can see a group of women labourers. It has been a very long time since I have seen a group of human beings talking to each other with warmth and intimacy. Most of these women are elderly women.

At last, I get to see the human species. Truly endangered’, I think to myself.

 

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The women look up as I approach them. The farmhand introduces me to them. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, we talk about the medical college. I am aware that the local population harbours intense antagonism and hostility towards the college. And they have their reasons for it. I feel sad. A medical college should ideally parent the villages in its neighbourhood and cater to the quality of life of the villagers. After all, health is a crucial aspect of quality of life. Instead, the institution seems to only have robbed the villagers of the quality of life they enjoyed prior to it coming up. An elderly lady voices her despair:

The land was all estate. Cinnamon plantations that once belonged to the East India Company. Cinnamon was exported in those days to England.  This is Asia’s largest cinnamon plantation. This is a heritage site, passed on to us by our forefathers. We led a peaceful agrarian life, uncorrupted by the germs of development. Many of us were employed at the plantation. It was our livelihood. A few of the villagers were in favour of the medical college coming up here. It would save us the trouble of travelling miles for seeking treatment. However, most were against it. And they were right. The college is profit-oriented. Services are poor. None of us seek treatment here. We would rather travel miles than risk our lives. The college has only brought with it pollution, disease and disturbing intrusion. Many students are into drugs and alcohol, and that has been a bad influence on our children. The cinnamon plantations were ruthlessly destroyed and many villagers were robbed of their livelihood.

I click her picture as she speaks up. I am enlightened by what she says.

 

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Education is a business today. And there is nothing that we can do about the people who run such businesses. I work for such an employer only because it is my livelihood. There are many like me. However, I suppose there is much we can do if the employees and community work together as a team. There is much that a community like you could teach our students. Especially in terms of human values and self sufficiency. And there is much that they can do in turn, as service to the community. So, if we create a mutual interdependence and exchange our wisdom, we can sow the seeds for a better generation. What do you say?’, I ask of them.

The students come to the PHC for their Community Medicine postings’, one of them replies.

Yes. Those are the 2nd year students. I would like to bring the 1st year students along too. We could divide them into groups and allot them families. They could maintain a health folder for each family. Also, many community activities and campaigns can be organized. It would serve to inspire them and to bring in some humanity into our future doctors. We have to teach them to love nature and mankind. And that is impossible without your help’, I tell them.

As I am speaking, a woman takes my picture on her mobile.

The generation today has no far-sightedness. They want easier and shorter ways to a goal, and they want instant solutions. They would rather make quick money and buy a bag of rice than toil in the fields and grow that rice’, a woman tells me.

I am impressed by the consciousness they demonstrate towards ‘change’.

But that would never give them the joy of the intimacy that comes from toiling together. The sight of all of you together, talking and laughing, fills me with joy’, I reply. I click a picture of their togetherness.

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They take me around and give me a little lesson on the shrubs and herbs that are of medicinal value. They tell me about the significance of some poisonous plants. And they tell me about the sowing and harvest season. About the age old rituals that are followed when paddy is first harvested.

A woman leaning against an areca palm suddenly screams. The trunk has given way and the tree crashes. We all move away just in time. There is chaos and excitement for a little while and then the women chop the trunk for firewood.

 

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It is then time for their brunch. They take respite in the house that lies on these premises. Some occupy the chairs put out on the verandah while others make themselves comfortable on the floor. They offer me food, but I refuse politely. One of them gives me some payasam from the temple. I click some more pictures. Somehow, I am drawn to the life they lead. I suppose one is always sensitive to those aspects that are missing in one’s own life. This togetherness is palpably absent in my life today.

 

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Somehow, over the years, the concept of family faded away from my life for multiple reasons. I missed the feel of a family so much that I started identifying myself with the strangers who could reunite me with the family structure, albeit for a limited span of time. I would envy and admire the nomads who led a community life, oblivious to its value. There were days when I would watch with envy the homeless labourers who cooked their gruel on open stoves, sitting by the fire, talking and laughing. In fact, my earliest pieces of writing centred on this personal poverty that contrasted with the richness of the lives of the poor. It reminds me of Mother Teresa’s words:

The greatest poverty is the poverty of being unloved, unwanted and uncared for.

I look at my watch. It is a good one hour since I have been here. I thank the women and bid goodbye to them.

On the way back, I decide to hunt for Geetha’s house. I am told I can get fresh milk there. I am a little worried about packet milk these days. I take the idavazhi on the left. Someone directs me to the house. It is a grand old house done up in rosewood. It is impossible to build a house like that in the modern world.

I am sorry we give all the milk to the Society. You could try at Rama’s house though. She lives on the other side. You have to walk across the fields’, Geetha tells me.

I walk across the paddy fields. A man working in the fields looks up in surprise. He guesses I must be from the college, but he cannot imagine what I am doing in these fields.

He points towards a row of houses when I ask him about Rama. Unfortunately, when I get there, people are confused. They aren’t sure. So I decide to give up and walk ahead, hoping this route will lead me back to the college. A cow moos. It sounds very close. I follow the sound and find myself at Rama’s house. She agrees to spare some milk for the evening.

Is there an easy way to the medical college?’, I ask her.

She takes me to the backyard of the house. I see a road there (an idavazhi). I take the path and find myself at the gates of the college in no time! I am thrilled by this whole adventure. The cow mooing just as I gave up, is miraculous to me. The fact that the house is just a few metres from the college gate is a blessing.

This day has been beautiful. It has given me a dream. It has given me memories. What more can I ask?

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