The happiness of being cheerfully yourself!

This one is for Raj Thackeray….

For the past two weeks, I have been constantly on the road, gathering stories for our State of the State coverage prior to elections in Maharashtra due on October 13.

I have been to remote villages, walked six kms and back through jowar and tuar fields and hilly terrains to reach witch doctors, got threatened by moneylenders making the lives of farmers in Vidarbha  miserable (I was told I could be arrested if I persisted in probing into their unsavoury deals)  and got stuck in the mud in a paddy field with no prospects of getting out of my muddy clothes and into a fresh change for hours after that. I have survived.

But my most enduring memory from this year’s Maharashtra Yatra will forever be meeting up with a cheerful bevy of women in the Bhadole village of Kolhapur district where I had gone to nose into their ‘bottle down’ agitation – Maharashtra is the only state in the country which has given women in the villages the right to shut down their liquor stores/bars or dens if more than 50 per cent of them so wish it, never mind that that might cause the state exchequer millions in excise duties.

These women knew I was coming and they were all gathered at their local gram panchayat office. They helped me wade through the puddle last night’s rain had made and then pulled a chair for me before deciding to squat on the floor. “I will not talk to you if any of you sit at my feet. Get up and get yourselves a chair each,” I said.

They laughed delightedly and then made a circle of chairs round me, talking nineteen to the dozen, giving my head a real spin as I turned in all directions simultaneously to catch what each one of them was saying. I had never seen a brighter, more cheerful and contented lot of women willing to help their sisters in distress than these women from Bhadole village. The hour or more I spent with them was really great and gave me great insights into how life had really changed for the women in our villages, and not just because of the Bottle Down agitation. Where villages are not remote and within  easy reach of communication facilities, including satellite television and mobile telephony, I discovered they are well aware, educated and happily living out the best of both worlds – they have something like chit fund committees or kitty parties every week but these are not really either chit funds or kitty parties. These women put together their savings from each week’s domestic expenses, even if it be as low as fifty rupees,  and bring them to these gatherings and deposit it into an account started for them by the government which matches every rupee they pay into their accounts with one of its own. But these gatherings also become occasions to ask after each other’s welfare and if they discover that one of them is being troubled by a drunkard of a husband or by any one else in any manner, they get together to straighten out things for the other woman and no man dare interfere once they have set their sights on the goal!

But Bhadole also brought to me a moment of self-discovery . When I had started out as a journalist, despite having been entirely educated in Maharashtra, I stuck out like a sore thumb when I travelled to its villages. But two-and-a-half decades down the line, I know Maharashtra better than I do any other State in India, including the home States of my parents where I believe I will always be seen as an outcaste.

If Raj Thackeray’s sons-of-the-soil theory were to be implemented as policy in any State, I am sure there will be many like me who will suddenly belong to none. But the enlightened Bhadole women have today brought me a good deal of enlightenment of my own.

After two hours of chatting with them, when I decided to leave,  one of the women who headed the Savings Committee of the village, asked if I would write a remark for their Visitors’ Book. “I can’t think that well in Marathi,” I said apologetically.

“Never mind,” she said cheerfully. “Write it in English and then translate that for us into Hindi so that most of the rest of us can understand. English is still beyond us.”

As I gladly agreed, I was surprised to note that they had put my name down in the Visitor’s Book as ‘Sujata Anandane’.

“Hey!” said I. “I am Anandan, not Anandane. By giving this twist to the spelling you have turned me into a Maharashtrian!”

It  brought to mind the father of my Bengali friend who once told me, “If the Shiv Sainiks come for me, I will tell them I am not Bose but Bosay!”

But these women really did put a more cheerful interpretation on the sons of the soil theory. “Well, you are in Maharashtra and even if it was a little broken, you did speak to us in Marathi. We have no reason to presume that you are not a Maharashtrian, then. But English-educated , perhaps. And since we don’t have any Anandans in our state,  we put you down as Anandane.”

I just laughed and accepted their acceptance of me with good grace. I signed their Visitors Book as Sujata Anandane – in English, Hindi and Marathi!

And Bose Uncle now need not be afraid of being a Bose any more!

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