Tuesday, December 3, 2013

'Rights' and Wrongs

One could have easily misconstrued him as a member of a rebel outfit. His olive green shirt recalled some memories from TV news telecasts with someone 'reporting from Chhatisgarh'. A small dose of fear mixed with some feeling of uncertainty arrived in my heart before I could take notice of it. I was sitting on a wooden jute cot with Subhash at its other end. Small piglets were being locked away in kennels. Almost every kid below 5 was draped in mud and was playing without pants. One may call the area congested but not dirty. One of the reasons may be that people would go distances to defecate, to keep their neighborhood clean.  

An old man and a few middle-aged women listened carefully to the results of oral test of their children. Subhash seemed positive, unlike the earlier visit when he found students performing quite bad on paragraph reading. Though Subhash says he struggled hard for making it to 'Pratham' and harder to be good at the job, he believes that efforts shall be made on 'fertile ground'. (Pratham is the largest NGO working on elementary education in India and Subhash is Pratham's District Coordinator for Rohtas.) Here, expectations are the precursors to frustrations. But today, the ‘fertility’ found glitters through his smile. 'Geeta', aged 9, a Class V student is able to read a paragraph nicely. Better than expected. Enough 'fertile' to justify to us the time and effort being put in. 

I and Subhash have teamed up to visit Mahadalit Tolas to promote the evening sitting for learning of kids. A young person from the Tola is selected and is made responsible for arranging sitting space and maintain discipline in the sitting classes. Out of the three places, we have been able to run it at two places. Subhash has learnt a number of tools to engage with kids by creating a playful atmosphere. He creates the amicable atmosphere and then we do the sense-talking with Tola people. The sense talking has already been done here. Classes stopped after they ran for three days. So, we are here to postmortem the past.

Golden paddy plants are down due to self-weight possibly singing "It's harvesting season". Almost everyone from this tola has been engaged in harvesting business since; since they don't remember. The old man saw his grandfather doing that and he handed over the torch to his grandson, Sonu, a 25 years-aged young man cradling his two kids. 

Poonam runs to see machine harvester. She is small enough to comprehend that the way of her happiness is a source of despair for her family. The Old man complaints the decrease in demand of Human harvesters. "With machine, the big farmers are able to harvest a bigha in two-three hours. Normally, one person would take two days to reap one bigha paddy field."

Kids climb over to the driver's cabin to see the features that they couldn't see till now owing to their short height. Four kids have lined up. One jumps from the top of the ladder after watching and checking carefully, allowing the one-in-waiting to follow the process. This is a circus. Probably, not a circus. A circus brings happiness to everyone but this harvester does't. I avoided falling in the trap of mental debate titled “lessened opportunities due to industrialization” and focused on the kids instead.

The ladies shout at the kids. Here parents don't coax kids like the parents of cities. Or if they do, it is a rare occasion-probably when the kids are grown-ups and it's a matter of marriage. It seems that their shouts have produced the same effect as a crow's caw, unpleasant to hear but bearable. 

Just few moments later, Sunil shouts at the kids. For kids, this is surely not the crow's caw. It's raw, tough and harsh. The last kid has not yet seen the driver's chamber, but he jumps off and runs to us. The four add up to make the group larger, about 10 kids. Presence of Sunil turned the atmosphere grave, but the tests and the instructions on education continued. The olive dress had stirred up our curiosity. Our eyes exchanged each other's faces once. He intervened to know who we were. It was annoying to ignore him, but we ignored. 

Normally, a village meeting gets swayed in an unwanted direction if an attention is paid to a single person. But then, he was not a single person. Not with this olive green uniform often used by paramilitary. We didn't answer; instead asked him a question. "Can you read this?" 
Pretty confident, he replied: " Yes."
But, he couldn't read beyond few words. The middle-aged ladies erupted in laughter. 
"I can read the whole passage if you give it to me tomorrow.", Sunil said.
The laughter continued in the background, this time more members joining already laughing ones. My cat of curiosity finally belled the dress question "Where did you get this dress from?",
He laughed, "From a friend in the police."

I looked at the old man to see his response to the answer. He smiled. The laughter of the people dispelled the smallest traces of fear. From my prior experiences of visits to remote villages which had a recent past of left extremism, I could say that extremism doesn't leave the soil of conversation fertile enough for laughter. The conversations there are barren with suspicion, fear, resentment and logic.

"Come here and sit with your books.", Sunil commanded. Then he ran to his house to bring a plastic sheet for kids to sit. Kids went to their homes and brought books and a dibiya. Few minutes later, they were studying and the Olive green-clad boy was the disciplinarian. Sunil promised to make kids study daily in the evening. Sunil is a resource, even if he cannot read or write. What is required in kids' routine is someone to enforce evening-studying habit and a disciplinarian would be a perfect match. This kind of solution seems sustainable and impact-promising. Two days later, Sunil is still making kids sit and study.  

After spending one more hour, we returned. In the midway, I saw some kids running on roads with gunny bags in hand. I stopped one kid and asked "From where are you coming?"
"Khet been ke
I turned my head a bit backward to seek its meaning from Subhash. 
"They are coming back after collecting the leftovers of the Harvester Machine." Subhash said with a calculated smile.
"And no one objects?"
"No, the big farmers burn the fields after harvest. Also, the amount is very feeble. The kids would sell the paddy at shops to buy something for their pleasure: chocolates, may be biscuits."

This was not considered as theft. It was like the act of collecting mangoes when there was a wind. Nature’s gift bestowed. Like millions of other kids, my house was also near to a small mango orchard that would keep us calling, sometimes in our dreams. In my family and neighborhood, even collecting the fallen mangoes was considered bad, but I and my brothers rarely submitted to those beliefs of our parents and elders at that age. Well, who first spoke the word "theft"? And who firstly said, that stealing is wrong? ‘Theft’ is defined differently in different social groups depending on their value system. Even in our childhood, we must be having something coded in back of our minds, something pure (If children are considered to be) that made the act of mango-stealing justified in our eyes. It was probably, the “right to possess mangoes”. It was foolish like “right to love and seek love.” Even throwing pebbles to collect mangoes was in accordance with our “right to possess mangoes” which my neighbors considered ‘theft’.

For a moment, I felt the “right to possess mangoes” true to the core, coming directly from the heart. Then the mind reasoned, "Does every ‘theft’ have to be balanced with a ‘right to possess’? Does against every 'wrong', there are few 'rights'? Does there have to be a boundary? And what that boundary would be? Is the "right to possess" morally strong enough to justify the "idea of theft" on grounds of creating a society that seems to move toward equality?"