Sunday, 21 November 2010

A truly religious person

It was my good fortune the other day being asked to cover for my newspaper an interaction between Dayabai, a social worker, and the media in Thiruvananthapuram. What struck me from the very beginning of the exchanges was the feeling that here was a woman who was on the verge of enlightenment. I use the word 'verge' to underline my feeling that she still was not fully settled and peaceful in the poise of her being--her quest was still not over--but she seemed well on the way to conquering those final steps also. I copy here the story I had written for The Hindu issue dated 18th November:
In search of truth… in tribal land

How Dayabai transformed herself and the people around her.
Life is message:Human rights activist Dayabai and documentary film-maker Shiny Jacob Benjamin at a meet-the-press in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday. –

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: What moves Dayabai, the woman soldiering on alone in her quest for something? What is her quest?

A discussion with Dayabai, who lives among the Gonds of Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh showing them the way out of exploitation, was organised by the Trivandrum Press Club on the sidelines of the release of a documentary on her life here on Wednesday.

She was Mercy Mathew when she left home in Kerala's Kottayam district at the age of 16 to join a convent to become a nun more than four decades ago. She gave up the convent life to study social work as a subject, do a bit of teaching and then lead a wandering life as a social worker. She had kept moving and her journey had taken her to Mother Teresa, Bangladesh and wherever she thought she could find truth.

When asked, she said she had never been able to stay for more than one-and-a-half years anywhere. At a very young age, what struck her about relationships was how there was an imposed gap between one person and another, between one entity and another — the separateness that was keeping things apart. She thought a nun's life was her calling, but in the convent she found this separateness there also. There was the hierarchy and the gradations that go behind all institutions.

She said whenever she was in doubt she would go to the Bible and therein read what Christ had said. Religion was something that happened within each individual and she knew she had to find her own truth.

Finally among the Gonds in Madhya Pradesh she reached. Dayabai said they were once a community belonging to the ruling class among the tribal people there. They had a tradition and culture of their own. But they had been alienated from much of their land and they were under severe exploitation.

“One remark I heard during my initial days with them was very striking. One of them asked me why I should stay with them who were like monkeys in the forests. They had lost the pride of their identity,” she said.

Mercy Mathew became one of them and assumed the name Dayabai. She felt one with them in all senses, but she had to remove the separateness that was in the tribal people around her also. How she transformed the people around her was the theme of the documentary Ottayaal taken by Shiny Jacob Benjamin, a journalist.

Dayabai's life is being seen as something depicting the theology of liberation in practice.

Asked about this, she said such interpretations were being given by others. Religion happened when one became part of the whole struggling life.

And what does she fear, she was asked. “All these cameras,” she said, sweeping her hand in the direction of the cameramen covering the interaction. She was wary whether it would change her small life.



Balachandran V said...

That was a sensitive report, Venu. One could feel your respect and regard for Dayabai. I would've liked to hear from her more on the plight of Gonds and other tribals in the area in the wake of issues such as mining and Maoism. It is high time the media came out with the Maoist's side of the story.

P. Venugopal said...

Balan, she had spoken of that also, about Naxalism and Maoism. Within the limited space I could place the story, I could not bring in the full dimension of her vision. What she said was that, though she did not subscribe to that path, the reasons for extremism should be gone deeply into. It was up to the government and the 'enlightened' establishment to approach it with sensitivity, she said. She indeed is a remarkable lady. I felt like touching her her feet.

Arun Meethale Chirakkal said...

Sensitive portrayal, Venu Chettan. I wish the media in the country get more and more ‘prey-friendly’, may be quite naïve to have such a point of view since most of them have separate agendas, and, often are a part of the corporate groups with vested interests. The outrage against Arundhati Roy by every middleclass Indian itself is a proof that how negligent the haves are about the plights of the have-nots in the country.

P. Venugopal said...

Thanks Arun. I have kept so much out of this piece that it is just a synopsis of what one could have written about the media interaction with Dayabai. We journalists asked her questions such as whether she accepted funding for her social work, what did she think of the church establishment, what prompted her to leave the convent, did she plan to expand her social work to areas affected by naxalism, did she expect any new recognitions coming her way and whether she had any plan to start social work in the tribal areas of her home state. These are the levels at which the media and its audience move. I too used to be there in the earlier years of my career. But it is very easy to break out of the cynical attitude. We must give it a try, because, suddently a difference happens.

P. Venugopal said...

Arun, I read the link you sent me only just now. How shocking the story! Poverty is the biggest crime. The aged should be taken care of by the State. The poor come very low in the list of priorities for the rich who draw up the plans for the nation's (and their own) progress. Good journalism is in stories like this. When everything else falls into place, such stories can change policies and make a difference.

Arun Meethale Chirakkal said...

I agree, Venu Chettan. It was heartrending to know about 'thalaikoothal.'

കുസുമം ആര്‍ പുന്നപ്ര said...

venuve.I read her story from mathrubhumi sunday supliment two or three months before. and ur report is also very good. is there any phone number to contact her?

P. Venugopal said...

Checchi, thanks for visiting my blog which I am on the verge of winding up. You can instinctively feel she is a remarkable woman; but I also got the feeling she has some more distance to go to touch saintly greatness. She did not seem as peaceful as a person like Pakajaksha Kurup Sir, one person in our acquaintance whom I consider saintly.

jayarajmurukkumpuzha said...


Kalpana said...

happy New Year Venuji,

its been long since you've written something :-)

Hope to read something soon

P. Venugopal said...

Thanks, friend. And happy new your to all my friends. i am engaged in a fight where single-direction focus is nessassary, is keeping out the blog from my attention. hope to write about this experience soon, and also visit your blogs to see what my friends are doing.