I can only describe the morning of February 23rd fully by acknowledging how little I understand, and how much I am a guest in this place, privileged by my brief glances into village life, and by the warm welcome I have received from everyone I have met.
Over breakfast, Gautama (Pathashaala’s director) suggested I come along on a journey into the villages near Chengalpattu and Thirukazhukundram to distribute solar-powered lights. He explained that during the rainy season in November and December, there was a great deal of flooding throughout this part of Tamil Nadu, and Pathashaala was one of the only places lit up at night because of its exclusive use of solar power for the lamps. The school took donations from parents and friends to help the local communities stay afloat, and in the process discovered that quite a number of households in the area never had use of electricity at all.
Today’s initiative was thus organised between the school, which had donations left over after the flooding had receded, and local government operatives, who knew where the need was greatest. That morning we set off, Gautama, two other staff members of Pathashaala, and myself, to deliver Panasonic solar-powered LED lights with a maximum battery life of 30 hours. I was there to help out, and as Gautama put it, add ‘international flavor’.
As we drove through the countryside to the first village, a variety of local features were pointed out to me. A steep dike at the roadside revealed itself as an eri, an ancient reservoir sealed off during the rainy season by the combined efforts of multiple villages to hold rainwater. Most of these eris are no longer used to their full potential, as they are now the prerogative of the Public Works Department, which has allowed their secrets to be forgotten.
Under an enormous banyan tree, by a bus stop, there was a stone construction that looked like a part of a five-foot Stonehenge, two vertical stones and a horizontal across them. Apparently, these little Indian sarsens are set every 5 kilometers in this part of the country, and were used as rest stops: the horizontal can be used to set down something heavy carried on the head without having to put it down on the ground (and thus have to pick it up again).
More modern additions to the landscape are the concrete roads at on the fringes of the villages. Apparently, the government builds these in the areas inhabited by tribal peoples or ‘untouchables’, as if to say, ‘Look, we’re taking care of these citizens too’. The irony of this is concrete’s comparative inferiority to the standard tarmac. These were the roads we followed as we approached our first destination.
The village consisted of mud brick houses roofed by palm leaves and tarpaulins, and one or two concrete community buildings built by the government or flood relief NGOs. The women in their saris were a wonderfully bright contrast to their earthy environment. One family invited us into their home, which was dark and wonderfully cool inside, but just high enough at the apex of the rafters for me to stand straight, a single low room, with a gas burner for cooking by the door.
After some discussion in Tamil, the distribution of the lights began with a few words by the government employee who had met us there, and a demonstration by Raj and Arumugan from Pathashaala. All of us helped to hand over the lamps themselves, which proved to be a rather ceremonial process of posing with lamp and villager for a picture, handing over said lamp, and repeating. I found this deeply uncomfortable. On the one hand, it was a privilege to visit the village in the first place, especially to assist such a constructive collaboration between the local government and the school (Gautama said he’d never met such a positive, happy government employee in his life). On the other hand, in these photographs I felt I was acting out an ancient and misguided colonial pattern: “White girl brings light”. The garnish on my discomfort was pure guilt: I have so much, and yet no answers and no way to help, or to change the fact that girls my age have two children and no choice about it a few miles away from the amazing education at Pathashaala.
In contrast to my rather difficult emotions was the welcome I received. These people live with very little, and there’s an enormous question mark filed under ‘how to help without disrupting an entire way of life’ (see the story of the eris), and yet they smile so much. Although one woman asked me to take me with her to Germany, I didn’t perceive any resentment or envy (and perhaps I was wrong to expect any) – just care and concern for a pale girl foolish enough to stand in the sun. At one point, when verbal communication failed, I was pushed into a patch of shade by a tiny old lady. Ultimately, I came away with a lot of questions, and the sense that human beings are infinitely adaptable, and, at the heart of things, basically kind. It’s a good feeling to have.