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.