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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Our visit to Valparai and Theni

28th October, 2015

I was itching to get out of Tenkasi for the last two months. A short visit to Ponmudi, near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, about three weeks back didn’t fully heal it. Inclement weather in Tenkasi is a routine feature now. The place is not cool anymore, as it used to be when we first moved to Tenkasi in 2006-07. Urbanization is taking a heavy toll on the people’s life in Tenkasi. During the last couple of weeks, the mornings were unbearably hoti and the afternoons and early evenings were cloudy, sultry and suffocating. Rains deluded the place mostly, or when it rained increased the humidity, compounding the uncomfortable feelings.

For quite a long time, I had been planning to visit Valparai and Theni in Tamil Nadu, and Munnar in Kerala. The opportunity was eluding me for one reason or other. When I checked the weather forecast ten days back it said clear weather from Wednesday, the 21st for about a week in the places I wanted to visit. I concluded this was the opportunity not to be missed.

After visiting a couple of relatives in Madurai and Trichy, we drove to Valparai on Friday, the 23rd, stopping at Pazhani for the darshan of Lord Muruga. It was a crowded day in Pazhani temple, and waiting for the rope car itself took nearly three hours. However, we had a peaceful darshan of the Lord on the hilltop. It was nearly after about 25 years I visited Pazhani this time.

We left Pazhani around 3.30 in the afternoon and reached Udumalpet. One of my contacts there advised me against self-driving to Valparai during late hours. So, we drove to Pollachi. Fortunately, despite heavy booking, Hotel Ramanuja, behind the bus stand offered us a decent air-conditioned room for the night, strictly on the condition that we should vacate before 10.00 am in the next morning. Hotels were heavily booked for the long weekend at Pollachi and Valparai too. Besides, we were suggested that Valaparai was just a plantation area and one could do it in a day-long trip.

So, we left Pollachi early morning around 07.00 am on Saturday, the 24th. The drive to Valparai along a smooth road, free of potholes and speed-breakers all the way was very memorable. Nowadays, it is really hard to find such finely laid roads in rural and semi-urban Tamil Nadu. The road to Azhiyar, on the way, was under the canopy of dense trees on either side. We didn’t stop at Azhiyar dam. The vast expanse of water of the reservoir could be seen on one side of the road to Valparai when we started climbing the hills. There were 22 hairpin bends up the hill. The picturesque route was most exhilarating. We took pictures at several places on the way.

On reaching Valparai, we frantically looked for a decent vegetarian restaurant, but we found none. Thankfully, an autorickshaw driver mentioned about one Sabari Mess run by a family in their house, squeezed in between the market. The breakfast was very simple, homely and tasty. There was no electric power that morning, so chutney was under ration. The lady who managed the mess was extremely polite and courteous.

After our breakfast, we drove to Neerar dam, en-route Koozhangal (Pebble) River. It was a river for the namesake only. Just a stream of water. Yet many tourist vehicles had stopped over there for the travelers to have a bath in the shallow stream. Neerar dam is located at a distance of about 11 kms, partly through tea estates and partly through dense woods. The road forked into two for the upper and the lower dam. The road was narrow, awfully bad, and full of crater-like potholes and rough rocks. I was self-driving, and I prayed God that we should have an incident-free return back to Valparai. At the dam, steps take you down the dam, closer to the water outlets and the river down. I was really thrilled to stand at the closest point to the water outlet and pose for a picture to the camera.

Thank God, we were safely back to Valparai. We then drove to Solaiyar dam at a distance of 18 kms. This road was decent, but after reaching there we realized that there was nothing spectacular to see. We were just on the upper dam. The water reservoir was fairly full, but they hadn’t opened the water gates that day; so, it was just dry.

On returning to Valparai, we concluded that there was nothing more we could do within the limited time available to us, and so we went to Coimbatore, via Pollachi, to spend a memorable evening in the company of our cousin and his family.

On Sunday, we drove straight from Coimbatore to Theni and the journey took nearly five and half hours. We had been informed about the Sri Swami Sidhbhavananda Ashram in Theni, and we went straight there for the day’s stay. The administrator was quite accommodative and allotted us a room. This Ashram, encompassing a magnificent Dakshinamoorthi Temple, is located in a quiet area, away from the din and noise of the town, in Aranmanai Pudur, a kilometer away from the Theni New Bus Stand. The two days quiet stay in the Ashram was a very pleasant experience.On Monday, we drove to Suruli Waterfalls, a distance of 46 kms. We passed through some of the greenest areas of Tamil Nadu. I came to know that Theni and its surroundings were known for its coconut groves and banana plantations. The National Highway connecting Kottarakara in Kerala and Dindigul is a blessing to self-driven cars. There was no crowd in Suruli. We didn’t know that one had to walk about half-a-kilometer distance and then climb about 100 steps to reach the waterfalls. I was told that a battery car operated between the parking area and the base of the steps to the falls, but it was not in operation that day; they gave us the convenient excuse – maintenance, as the reason. For the first time, I fully realized that Courtallam near our Tenkasi is probably one of its kind in India where waterfalls are located at ground level for anyone to reach and have bath. Maybe, there were no rains and so, the flow of water in the Suruli waterfalls was moderate that day. There was no hustle-bustle while taking bath – unlike the one we hate to see in Courtallam. Plenty of monkeys roam around freely, snatching anything they find attractive from the tourists. I saw a monkey pulling out all the papers from a leather pouch fixed to a parked motorbike. It was fun for us, but what papers were lost by the owner of the motorbike I didn’t know.

I must admit that the trip to Suruli waterfalls was very disappointing, considering the fact that we live very close to Courtallam waterfalls.

From Suruli, we drove towards Ramakkal Medu in Kerala, a supposedly beautiful plateau on a hilltop. However, the road till Cumbamedu was woefully bad and fully broken. On reaching Cumbamedu, we decided to return back to Theni, not wanting to take the risk of driving another about 12 kms on the bad road uphill. I was very disappointed again.

We spent our Monday evening peacefully at the Sri Swami Sidhbhavananda Ashram, participating in the poojas in the Dakshinamoorthi Temple, the spiritual lectures by Poojya Sri Onkarananda Swamiji and the other Poojya Sri Pragyananda Swamiji, and having a quiet walk in and out of the Ashram. They serve delicious ‘satvik’ food, three times a day. The employees and sevaks were very courteous. The ambience was serene, inspiring and silencing, and given an opportunity, we would like to go back there again. We also had the opportunity of meeting the Swamiji, interacting with him, and taking his blessings. The temple is undergoing renovation, towards its Kumbhabhishekam scheduled to be conducted during July, 2016. They have a decent book store where several spiritual books and CDs are available.

Someone suggested that we should have gone to Thekkadi, instead of Theni. Unexpectedly, the stay in the Sri Swami Sidhbhavanandha Ashram compensated for any other disappointments we had in visiting Theni. We couldn’t visit Munnar as originally planned by us.

With the Grace of God, we returned back safely to Tenkasi on Tuesday, the 27th after driving nearly 1400 kilo meters in a week’s time. It was a good experience for me. I thank God, I never felt tired.

I have a few important observations to make about self-driving on Indian roads:

1.       It is advisable to keep a smart phone/i-Phone with 3G for accessing Google Maps. It appears to be fairly very reliable. Reliable power-bank is a must for keeping the phone continuously charged. Of course, people everywhere willingly help us for directions.

2.       The signboards for directions on the roads are either confusing, or dilapidated, or painted with too small letters for anyone to read, and not prominently placed. I don’t know why the government cannot do something to facilitate tourists move around easily to places.

3.       Many say the road condition in Tamil Nadu is one of the best. I still doubt. Many interior roads are awfully bad, neglected, badly maintained, and even when they are repaired, they last only for a few months. Many tourists could be put off from traveling because of road conditions. Rural economy could also be strengthened by building good roads. In many places, when I found the road was good and I took speed, there appeared, all of a sudden, a huge pothole or a speed-breaker throwing me off-guard. Why speed-breakers on important State Highways even, I don’t understand. It is very funny that India is marketing and selling several models of high-speed vehicles, but the roads are still in vintage times; still more funny to see signboards that restrict the speed limit to 30 kilometers per hour on main roads.

4.       The motorists and motorcyclists need a lot of education and also disciplining. The government and authorities generally turn a Nelson’s eye to their misbehavior. Risky driving and overtaking, carrying long, protruding, heavy objects on the pillion rider’s shoulders in a motorcycle, or in small mini-trucks or tempos, using cellphone while driving motorcycle/scooter, carrying goods covered with loose tarpaulins which fly off right in front of another motorists behind, driving on the wrong side of the road, and the likes are common sights everywhere. We only constantly complain and curse within ourselves, with no solution in sight to the safe drivers.

5.       There is hardly any restroom/toilet facilities on most roads. Gents have no problems easing themselves on the sides, shamelessly. What about ladies?

People say that I lack acceptance of conditions of living in India. It seems very true. Don’t I even have the right to dream of a better India to live in?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Episode 2/Chapter 16: What, If Our Dreams Come True!

Chapter 16

A couple of months passed by and they were some of the gloomy months of our life. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion and we had no choice than to go with the flow of life – slow or fast.

During these months, I discovered William’s growing anxiety about the dam project. More than anyone in our camp, he believed in the dam project becoming a reality. I found him writing letters to his friends in England about the project, with great enthusiasm. When I probed him, I found him quite serious about his promise to give away all the money from the sale of his estate for the dam project. He appeared to love this place and his company with us and genuinely wanted to do something that would benefit the people here at large. He found the Podhigai hills very peaceful and rejuvenating for his body and mind. He found it difficult to hold back his tears when he repeatedly heard the stories of the people who suffered in the last flash floods. He was a true friend in our group and resourceful too. Some of his friends back home were willing to take the message among the larger public in England and help mobilize funds for the dam project, if the government approved it.

‘We were small fries and would we be in a position to raise money for a large project like this?’ We were skeptical.

The weather and climate change over time. That is a certainty anywhere on earth. Slowly, our fortunes too changed.

Devendran was visiting Tirunelveli, the district headquarters on the banks of Tamirabarani. He stayed in one of the lodges along the Sri Nellaiappar High Road. This lodge was very famous those days and many leading personalities in politics, film world and business stayed there, on their visits to Nellai –a fondly shortened name for Tirunelveli. He sent word for us to meet in Nellai.

With rising expectations again, we rushed to Nellai and our meeting with Devendran could take place only in the midnight, after he returned from a public meeting in Vagaiyadimukku, a popular junction in the town, around the main Nellaiappar temple. 

He looked fresh while we looked tired out of anxiety.

Another businessman from Sivakasi was with him when he entered his room.

“What do you say, Muthuvel? Here are the people wanting to sell the estate. Talk to them!” He told the accompanying businessman, then lay down on his bed and closed his eyes.

Muthuvel was direct and businesslike. William explained in brief about the estate and in all honesty, told him about the problems in the documentation. Muthuvel didn’t appear to be perturbed about the documents part and quoted a price. We were taken aback. The price was way below what William had hoped to receive. We were not sure whether Devendran had slept or not, and we wondered how to proceed with the discussions.

There was silence in the room. Some fifteen minutes passed and none of us wanted to disturb Devendran, as we all thought he was sleeping.

Suddenly, he opened his eyes and said, ‘Muthuvel, pay them two hundred and fifty thousand rupees for the estate. I think that would be fair for you and for them. As you know, that Englishman is going to donate the entire money for constructing a dam across Tamirabarani in the upper hills. What do you say?”

He then turned to William and asked him, ‘Do you still want to give that money to the project?’

‘Of course!’ shot William.

Muthuvel thought for a second and agreed to proceed with the purchase of the estate. We were very pleased that we were able to strike a deal. During the next two months, the papers were signed and the money was deposited in the State Bank of India in Tirunelveli. Simultaneously, another account in the name of “Nellai Citizen Endeavor for Hill Dam Project” was opened as advised by Devendran. We organized a ceremony in the Vaagaiyadimukku junction in Nellai town and a cheque for two hundred and fifty thousand rupees was presented by William to Devendran for the dam project. The volunteers went around, spreading out a ‘dhoti’ (a common practice among political parties to collect donations) and collected another ten thousand rupees as a donation. Ours was one of the first ever known self-help projects that was floated and funded by the community and its people. The local government could still not fund the project, but it had no objection to it if the community was able to mobilize the funds.

There was euphoria all around in our camp. We all felt that we had taken a great leap in implementing our dream. Things really moved fast from that stage.

Lakshmana Iyer proved to be particularly helpful, with his students. More than five thousand hand written appeals were prepared by his students, adding a personal touch to our appeal for donations and were sent out to many prominent citizens all over India.

The Prime Minister sent a personal cheque for five thousand rupees blessing the project as a very novel attempt. Devendran really moved many in the government and every day we received cheques from different parts of the southern states and from many prominent people in politics, industry and the government. Several philanthropists too sent in donations for the project in small and big amounts.

It was the year 1920. Mr. Brooke, an English commander, was sent to Palayamkottai to suppress the freedom struggle and overpower extremist groups hiding in the Podhigai hills. He was very successful with similar operations in Darjeeling hills, the year before. He was known to be ruthless with rioters and very loyal to the Queen. Ever since he moved into Ambasamudram from Palayamkottai, the rioters were forced to shift their base constantly. Brooke chased them into the hills, but didn’t succeed in capturing any of them. The search operations were carried out with a vengeance and the extremist group also retaliated with great force from time to time.

His wife, Mrs. Romela, was pregnant and stayed back at Palayamkottai. She was a childhood friend of British Queen herself and she automatically enjoyed many privileges. Brooke visited her on all the weekend and the couple was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the baby during the next few weeks. A Gujarathi nanny was with her, twenty four hours, and a reputed local maid was going to be the midwife.

Brooke was passionate about hunting and frequented the nearby forests and hills. The place was known for wild animals that frequently entered many villages at the foot of the hills. He captured many of them while hunting and displayed their skeleton remains in his residence, with great pride.
As Romela approached the delivery date, she was haunted by horror dreams about her husband. She insisted on either Brooke returning to Palayamkottai or her joining him at Ambasamudram. The former was completely out of the question and so against all his wishes, she moved into Brooke’s residence at Ambasamudram, along with her nanny and maid. She felt better being with Brookes, though Brooke did not. He worried for her safety. He knew that the terrorist group was after terminating him. Because of Romela’s connections, even the Queen of England took a special interest in her safe delivery and their safety.

One day, he had received information about the hideout of a small terrorist outfit near Kalakkad hills, a place he had frequented for hunting. He set out with a team, to capture those people. No one knows to this date if it was a trap, but he never returned from Kalakkad hills – only his blood-stained outfit was found in the forests and there was no trace of him.

On the very same day, Romela went into labor and the delivery developed complications. While the army waited to transport her to Palayamkottai, all of a sudden, in the darkness of night, Brooke’s residence was attacked by powerful bombs and fire broke out. A few guards were killed in the crossfire. A group of two terrorists rushed to the upper floor where Romela was rested for her child delivery. They carried guns and torches setting everything to fire. The Gujarati nanny and the maid fell at their feet and pleaded with them to spare Romela. Romela watched everything helplessly. The youth who were about to kill Romela, suddenly changed their mind. They not only spared her, but helped her move safely outside to the garden where she delivered a boy. Wishing Romela and the baby well, the boys ran away to join the fight. The entire revolutionary group including those boys who saved Romela was finally killed in the fight.

Romela returned to England at the earliest opportunity and she lived somewhere in Southern London. Her son George was a frequent visitor to the Queen’s palace. Eventually George studied with William when they were growing up and one of our appeals for help landed in the hands of George who took that in all earnestness to the Queen and showed it to her.

So, when we received an envelope bearing the seal “On her Majesty’s Services”, we were most pleasantly surprised to find a cheque for one thousand British pounds, from the British Queen herself from her personal accounts, for the dam project.

Devendran was quite young, dynamic, forthright, and honest. When it came to politics, he was very ambitious. He believed that in a democracy one could achieve a lot only if you were in politics and that too in power. He played his cards very skillfully and he rose in power and popularity. He moved between central and state leaders spreading his influence and soon came to be recognized as a principal opinion maker, very astute negotiator, and even a king-maker. His words carried a lot of weight and at his behest a special fund for dam projects across Tamirabarani was floated. The fund sought contributions from the public, though, not much contribution came in.

During those days, the country needed a strong international ally, but was suspicious of the Americans. India was attracted to the socialistic models of governance and naturally leaned towards Soviet Russia that was more willing to take India’s side on many international issues and help India financially and technologically so that they could tilt the power scales in their own struggle for supremacy with Americans. We needed to import a lot of heavy equipment, fertilizers, arms and ammunitions, military hardware, aircrafts and a host of things that needed substantial foreign currencies. We were strapped for American dollars which remained the principal trading currency worldwide and Russia was amenable to rupee transactions for trade with India. They were ready to send their engineers and provide us the technology. We came to know that Devendran was already talking to a few powerful officials in Soviet Russia about his dream projects to build several dams in Southern India.

Rathnam, the former jamindar had an excellent rapport with the labor force and he went around several villages in and around Tirunelveli and enlisted a large work force for the construction of dams, in exchange for food for their family. Ours was one of the earliest public projects assuring food for work. Most people along the banks of Tamirabarani were agrarian and didn’t have work, round the year. Agriculture depended on rains which played ‘hide and seek’ all the time. The river supported them partially through a number of smaller canals built by several, over many centuries.

Easwaran and Lakshmana Iyer became our spiritual centers providing the much needed psychological and motivational support, helping everyone believe that the project would become a reality soon, through regular prayers and chanting of religious hymns in the temple. 

In between, William went back to England to solicit further support for the project and he came back after six months with a bagful of cheques and bank demand drafts. He also brought a list of names of several specialist engineers who were willing to provide technical consultancy for constructing dams. William favored engaging British Engineers whom he considered far more competent than Russian engineers. There were tension and conflict in our camp between the protagonists of the British and the Russian engineering teams, each side claiming supremacy.

In and around Tirunelveli, across Tamirabarani many check dams had been built over millennia by the rulers of those days. I decided to study them in detail in the meantime. Sudalai arranged a bullock cart for me and we took a detailed tour along Tamirabarani, over the next several months. When I returned, I was fully equipped with sufficient information about dams and water reservoirs. To me it appeared that check dams were the best option under the given circumstances and that we should not mind using our ancient indigenous technology and wisdom in building dams. I also made a quick visit to Anicut otherwise known as ‘Kallanai’, a check dam across Cauvery river, built by Karikala Chozhan who ruled Chozha empire during the 2nd century C.E in Tamilnadu. It still stood the test of time and the design was later adopted by the legendary British irrigation engineer Arthur Cotton, who went on to build various irrigation structures across our country, in the nineteenth century.

Check dams were eco-friendly because they did not submerge nearby farms and property. They also helped recharge groundwater in aquifers and nearby wells. They allowed more percolation of monsoon rains into the soil. Thus, it increased moisture in soil and vegetation. Erosion of soil was controlled and thus flooding too. To the contrary, bigger dams resulted in environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. People got displaced while building big dams. More significantly, I came to know that the rare plants that were unique to Podhigai hills might disappear if big dams were built.

People around me supported my ideas on check dams. They all agreed that check dams would be more efficient for supporting irrigation for agriculture, than bigger dams. Besides, the nationalist feelings were still running high and we had only recently suffered the commercial exploitation of the country’s resources by foreign powers. So we needed to convince the authorities to use our ancient indigenous technology that even the British had used during their rule across our country, rather than seeking foreign collaboration.

We went through several rounds of discussions with the government representatives. We met roadblocks on several issues. Hoping that Devendran would support us, we went ahead and pressed our claims. We told the government that inasmuch as the major part of the money for the construction of the dam is raised by us, we should have a say in every matter relating to the dam. The land belonged to no one in particular and so it belonged to the society. We had the labor ready to proceed with the work. We had with us a number of independent retired engineers who were familiar with our indigenous technology in constructing dams. Materials required for construction were locally available. All that was required, was a government stamp of approval, cooperation, and support with whatever resources they may have.

The government didn’t agree with many of our stipulations that we considered important for us to have a hold on the project. The government insisted that they would ultimately execute the project once the money was ready with us and that they would have the upper hand in making decisions about various issues relating to the project. They wanted us to deposit the entire money into the government accounts from where they would make it available periodically for the project, as work progressed. We stoutly objected many conditions imposed on us by the government, even while we were cautiously aware that the project wouldn’t come up without the support of the government. We tried to use as much leverage available with us as possible. In the process, the coming up of the dam was getting delayed and we were growing nervous and anxious. At times, we came to suspect the motive and the sincerity of the government in implementing the project.

William gave excellent support to us and I was constantly educated on several issues relating to project planning and execution. His contacts in England and the British engineering team were constantly in touch with us. However, it was a tedious process of writing to them, hoping to get replies from them, waiting for the reply and again getting in touch with them with more questions when we got replies. We educated each other about the kind of peculiar problems of our terrain and the choice of solutions available.
We made several presentations to Devendran who appreciated our concern, but due to several legal technicalities, couldn’t alter government’s stand. However, we pursued with our claim.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Episode 2/Chapter 15: What, If Our Dreams Come True!

Chapter 15

I was returning from Manimutharu, a small hilly village, after my yet another failed attempt to get in touch with Jhia.

A small crowd had gathered in front of Ambal Cafe, a nondescript restaurant functioning in a small hut, just at the foot of the hills. Seeing the crowd in front of the restaurant, I went nearby. An English man was surrounded by people. He was eating, standing outside the restaurant and trying to get some direction to some place. People looked on curiously when he struggled to eat the spicy food, water flowing down his eyes and nose. He spoke English and no one in the crowd seemed to understand. He waved his hands and gesticulated a lot, as he tried to communicate with people.

I squeezed myself in the crowd and approached the Englishman.

“Is there a problem?” Mine was hardly any English, but the Englishman seemed to be greatly relieved.

“The food here is very spicy. Besides, I was asking for some directions.” The Englishman told me.

“Where do you want to go, Sir?”

Seeing me talking to the stranger in English, the crowd became more silent and slowly dispersed, except for a few who still watched our conversation keenly.

“My name is William Artherton. You may address me as Will. Not Mr. Will, not Mr. William, not William, definitely, not ‘Sir’. Just call me Will. Do you get me?”

I nodded in agreement.

“I just arrived from England a few days back. Do you know Yorkshire?....... I live there. I took a train from Madras to Tirunelveli, changed over to a bus that dropped me at Ambasamudram. I took another bus to Manimutharu. I wanted to go up the hills, but there is no transport.”

“Is there anyone you want to meet specifically?”

“No one particularly! My father had owned some tea estates in these hills, I understand.”

I managed to convince the restaurant owner to prepare some food, especially for him, with little or no spice, and our conversation continued in the meantime, as we waited for the food.

Henry, his father had come to India to work for an English Lord who was part of the administration during the British rule. The English Lord had managed to arrogate to himself large parcels of land up the hills near Ambasamudram, by usurping them from many innocent villagers and developed beautiful tea gardens. However, he was seriously hurt during a hunting expedition in the hills and died while being treated in a hospital. Before his death, he gave away all his properties to Henry for no consideration as a reward for his loyalty and honesty. Henry stayed in those estates till a few years after India was declared Independent and left for his country. Shortly thereafter, he fell seriously ill and died, leaving very little information about the tea estates. William, his son, had now come to India to take control of the estates and explore whether he could sell them and realize money.
“Now you know why I am here. I don’t really know how I should go about, for selling our land,” he confessed.

William was barely in his mid-twenties and appeared innocent.

“Will, I have heard about these places where the tea estates are located. If you so wish, I can go with you to locate those tea estates.”

“It would be a great help. I am really pleased and relieved. I never asked you your name.”

I told him my name. We were nearly the same age and we developed a liking for each other instantly. Besides, he was only too happy to use me for my language skills, though my own knowledge about the places was elementary.

So, I became his local representative and we together managed to identify the tea estate that belonged to his father. He had some documents that were not complete, to establish his ownership of the land and the estate. The situation was very delicate and there were people everywhere, who were ready to cheat.

While we were making several trips between the hills and the plains, we chanced upon Jhia one day. At Manimutharu, up the hills, there was a beautiful waterfall - not much crowded - and we took a bath there. It was a warm day and William enjoyed the cool waters. All of a sudden, we heard someone shouting for help. Someone had slipped into the water in front of the waterfalls and the place was feared to be almost a hundred feet deep. While William and I looked on helplessly, like many others, we suddenly heard the sound of someone jumping and diving into the deep waters. That someone was a young girl and she fearlessly went under the waters, caught hold of the long hair of the drowning lady, pulled her out of the water with all her might, slowly lifted her and placed her on the flat rocky stones on the other side. Everyone immediately rushed to offer further help and this young girl silently walked away while no one seemed to be noticing.

Could it be Jhia? It just struck me and I went after her.

I found Jhia and quickly I introduced myself. She was very reluctant to speak, but finally gave in. I heard from her own mouth, her story about the flash floods in which she lost everyone in her family. While she took the loss dispassionately, she virtually lost all interest in life and she had been wandering around. She had grown up now and more mature. We managed to persuade her to come with us.

In between, I also met a number of other victims of the flash floods in the hills and every story was equally horrific. But, Easwaran was the only one to repeatedly pray to his Mother to send someone who would build a dam across the rivers to prevent future floods.


One day, a young political leader Devendran from near Madurai visited Ambasamudram area. He was credited to be a dynamic and compassionate leader without any formal education, but predicted to be a powerful future leader.

Rathnam, the former jamindar, his village chief Pazhani, Easwaran, the former priest at the temple, Sudalai, the cremation ground in-charge, Lakshmana Iyer, Ambalam, at Ambasamudram temple and I had all become quite close to each other in our last few months of association. We decided to meet Devendran and put forth our request to press the government to build dams across the wild rivers up the hills in Tamirabarani region.

William joined our team, out of curiosity and accompanied us for our meeting with Devendran. We had to wait for long hours, as many other important people from the town were all there to meet him for various other reasons. When we finally met him, Devendran had already been very tired and he promised to meet us when he visited the place next time. We all came out of the meeting very disappointed.

In between, William’s efforts to find buyers for the tea estate got stuck with documents. Those who were willing to buy the estate were quoting rock-bottom prices, knowing that William didn’t possess all the ownership papers. William was getting frustrated.

Jhia turned out to be a quick learner and Lakshmana Iyer trained her very well in a number of Gurukulam activities. She also learnt cooking and helped the kitchen in Gurukulam. Easwaran was slowly getting out of his melancholy, thanks to the very powerful and persuasive discourse on ‘karma’ by Lakshmana Iyer. Easwaran was also quickly rehabilitated in the temple as the chief priest. The local villagers were very pleased to have him back in the temple. Lakshmana Iyer helped Rathnam too, by bringing him in touch with ground reality and convinced him that it was possible for him to rise again like a phoenix bird. Rathnam proceeded legally against Shailesh Babu, the money lender for cheating him with high interest rates and for forcing him to part with his assets at incredibly low prices and he was busy with court cases, though he had very little hope that he would get back any of his assets.

William became a very good friend of everyone and he began learning Tamil, while everyone else picked up a lot of English from him.

Though I was the youngest, they looked to me as the group leader and I seemed to have earned their complete trust. They all consulted me in all sundry matters and I in turn, got help from Lord Siva who acted as my inner voice. I seemed to be getting spontaneous solutions to problems and we were all enjoying each other’s company and mutual help.

Something was telling me that our group had come together to achieve a great feat.

After a few months, one fine morning, I was summoned by Devendran to Madurai. William, who completely identified himself with our group, wanted to join me in my trip to Madurai. We huddled in a meeting, trying to guess the purpose of the call from Devendran.

‘Did he get approval from the government to build dams in our place?’ The question was uppermost in everybody’s mind.

With much speculation, all of us went to Madurai, though it was agreed that only I will go if it came to a private meeting with Devendran and that others would be available for any consultation, if needed.

When I entered the small room where Devendran stayed in one of his political associate’s residences, he asked me, ‘Where is your Englishman friend?’ So, William too joined the meeting. Devendran talked at length about the British imperialism and the kind of oppressions Indians had when they were ruled by the British. I acted as an interpreter between Devendran and William.

‘Do you feel offended by my remarks on British ruling our country?’ asked Devendran. William remained silent, trying to decide his response.

‘Luckily, it was the British who ruled India. They were still humane and compassionate, being a democratic country themselves. Had it been the Nazis of Germany or the Communists of Russia, we might have never seen freedom,’ continued Devendran in a pacifying tone.

I was becoming restless at the way our conversation went on, unrelated to the purpose of our visit.

Finally turning to me, Devendran said, ‘Sorry, I haven’t touched upon the purpose of calling you here and I had digressed to other emotional topics ……. Last time, when you met me, you people wanted the government to build dams across some of the tributaries of Tamirabaraani. I had been pursuing this agenda with the government for quite some time. I learn that the government in all earnestness wants to do this. But their hands are full with several developmental projects, industrialization, developing core sector heavy industries in the public sector, generation of electricity, public distribution of essential foods, poverty alleviation and a host of other items. Our Prime Minister Nehruji is working day and night over these projects. But the problem is, they are strapped for want of money all the time. You see, after our Independence from the British, our Republic identified a number of priority areas and every one of them need urgent attention. The government’s kitty is quite small and it is a question of allocating available money to various projects. I couldn’t convince the government about the urgency of the need for dams in your area. I am so sorry!’

We were devastated by his reply. All our hopes were razed to the ground. William and I rose to leave, having nothing else to do with him.

Devendran too rose from his chair, put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘I know, you are very disappointed. But don’t lose hope. Things keep changing with the government and even priorities change. Stay in touch with me. I am not the one to easily overlook people’s problem and when the time is more appropriate, I would remind the government again.’

When we were about to leave, William abruptly asked me to convey something to Devendran.

“So, money and finances are the most important issues, am I right?”

Devendran nodded his head.

“If money is available, will the government still hesitate to provide support to the project?”

“They may not!”

“Can you organize with someone to buy my estate for a decent price? I will give away all the money to the dam project. The government will then have to worry less, for the balance needed for construction of the dam.”

Stunned, I blinked for a moment. With great hesitation, I found my words and told Devendran what William wanted me to convey.

Without waiting for an answer, we left the room. Our comrades were anxiously looking at our face.

Episode 2/Chapter 14: What, If Our Dreams Come True!

Chapter 14

I was brought back to the present world, when suddenly several people were seen rushing into the inner hall of the temple, gesturing and shouting. All along, as I was listening to the story of Lakshmana Iyer, I was completely numb with shock and sorrow.
Paiya, you heard enough. Now, if we don’t quickly get into the queue, we may go starving for the day. Come on, run now and reserve a place for me too. I will join you there,” said the sadhu,’ whom I now knew as Ambalam.

I followed the crowd mechanically, to collect my food from the temple kitchen. I was still in a state of shock. They served ‘kootanchoru’ (rice mixed with some vegetable curries and gravy) in a plantain leaf. The food was quite hot and tasty. The quantity was sumptuous, more than what I got to eat on most days. Those days, a number of temples provided annadhan to poor people. That answered how I myself survived several days of travel. I always made sure that I was around some of those temples that provided food in the afternoon.

Ambalam ate with me silently. He gnawed his food slowly as though every lump was one full meal and he seemed to be enjoying every minute of his eating. Once finished, he told me that it was time for him to take a short nap and asked me whether I would leave before he got up. I wasn’t very keen to go away and I wanted to hear more from him. Our close association had thus begun.

In the next several months, I did a lot of commuting from Ambasamudram to nearby villages. I had an urge to meet those survivors of the flood and hear from them personally.

I had no difficulty in getting in touch with Rathnam, the erstwhile jamindar and his wife Meena through Pazhani who continued to be the village chief. Rathnam seemed to believe that he had no will to live, but for his innocent wife, who continued to wear a blank look the whole time we were talking to each other. Tears rolled down his eyes, as he narrated his love for his wife and how their life had now become barren and miserable. But, he didn’t utter a word complaining about his wife.

Easwaran, the temple priest, was in shambles when I met him. He had been spending all his time in the temple, constantly staring at Mother, and questioning Her why he alone survived. But even while he was talking sullenly, he beckoned me to do something about these floods, as though I had the power to stop them.

Lakshmana Iyer was very balanced when he narrated how he lost several of his children in the flash floods and how he longed to do something about it. But his responsibility and burden in the Gurukulam had increased with the addition of more children and he was struggling for finances. His priority was to ensure that those children got at least one good meal every day. He hoped that someone had born somewhere to take up the issue of preventing such flash floods in future.

Jhia was the most difficult to get in touch with, as she seemed to be shifting places aimlessly and my meeting her didn’t happen for long.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Episode 2/Chapter 13. What, If Our Dreams Come True! :The story of Lakshmana Iyer, the Master

Chapter 13. The story of Lakshmana Iyer, the Master

“Every story is more horrendous than the previous one. If the story of the jamindar Rathnam was pathetic, then the story of Jhia, the nomad girl was a great tragedy. The story of Easwaran and the calamity at the temple makes me cry. I feel helpless.” I confessed to Ambalam.

“I shall complete with the last of the stories I know intimately. That is the story of Lakshmana Iyer. You hear that and then decide what you can do about it. I already get a feeling that your arrival here, has a special purpose. Shall I continue? But, remember. All that I told you, were just samples only. There were many more people whose lives were destroyed due to the flood.”

I nodded my head. My heart was heavy with sorrow.

‘I already get a feeling that your arrival here has a special purpose.’ Why did he say that?

For his age, Lakshmana Iyer was a very brisk and active man. He performed his ‘Shashti abda poorthi’ (completion of 60 years of age) only a couple of months ago. It was a simple function, but with greater emphasis on Vedic rites and rituals. His grown up children hosted the function, in a simple ceremony performed in their ‘ashram,’ located not very far from the river Tamirabarani.

Until a few years ago, he was running a small ‘vedic patshala’ (a school for teaching ‘vedas’), with just eight students, in a small rented place, in an adjacent village. He himself had learnt the Vedas in Kasi (present day Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh) on the banks of the river Ganga, when he was quite young, under the tutelage of a very learned ‘guru’ who was an authority on ancient scriptures. After completing his full academic course which ran for a little more than twelve years in the ‘gurukulam,’  he wandered around places in North India for several years before he was directed by another ‘guru’ to go to river Tamirabarani to start a ‘Vedic patshala’.

Establishing a ‘Vedic patshala’ on the banks of the river Tamirabarani required a great deal of efforts and support from local people. Thanks to Keshava Iyer, a rich landlord who resided in Kallidaikurichi, a small town very close to Ambasamudram on the banks of the river, Lakshmana Iyer got a substantial grant to start and run the school. Keshava Iyer was a conservative Brahmin and was married to Ganga. Even after several years of their marriage, the couple didn’t have a child. Ganga’s parents were only too willing to give their second daughter Gomathi in marriage to Keshava Iyer so that he can have an heir to his vast properties. Unfortunately, even the second marriage didn’t produce an offspring at home. A visiting ‘Swamiji’ suggested Keshava Iyer to help poor small children learn as a penance for some past ‘karma’ and predicted that he will have a child soon.

Fortuitously, around the same time Lakshmana Iyer landed in Kallidaikurichi and the meeting between him and Keshava Iyer became very fruitful to them both. Keshava Iyer helped Lakshmana Iyer with a small house and some adjacent structures, to start the school. Within a year, many children from poor ‘brahmin’ families from the nearby villages joined the school.

Within the same period, both Ganga and Gomathi conceived and strangely both delivered twins. Keshava Iyer was delighted at the great blessings. He believed that the visiting ‘Swamiji’s blessings came true and stepped up his support for the ‘Gurukulam’. The Vedic school flourished and earned a high reputation, in and around Kallidaikurichi. Everything went on smoothly during the initial few years.

Lakshmana Iyer was a very knowledgeable scholar and a sincere teacher. He loved the children who studied in his school and the children too reciprocated equally well. He was very ‘brahminical’ in his philosophy and attitude in the true sense and taught the children that realizing ‘Brahman’ ought to be the ultimate aim of every student. ‘By realizing Brahman, you realize everything else,’ he told his students, echoing Vedas and Upanishads.

He was also a nationalist and was influenced by the teachings of Gandhi during the freedom movement. Having stayed in Northern India for the most part of his younger days, he had seen Independence Movement in its active form and embraced the call to be free from foreign oppression. He had also taken active part in the freedom struggle while he was in northern India, though at the fundamental level he believed that as a true Brahmin, his task was to help people attain true freedom, by knowing the Ultimate Truth – Knowing God. Torn between conflicting ideals and goals, sometimes he had become a recluse at Joshimatt in Uttar Pradesh, to resolve the conflict.

Once, when cholera and small pox broke out in southern India, it affected many villages near Kallidaikurichi. A number of people died due to inadequate medical attention and lack of medicines. Many parents lost their children; many children lost their parents and became orphans. When the disease spread to Kallidaikurichi, many families quarantined themselves. Volunteering agencies were quite slow to help the situation. A few Christian missionaries brought in many volunteers and held medical camps, but many in the area were suspicious of the Christian missionaries and their motives, refused their help and drove them away.

There was a barber Singaram, who regularly visited the school to tonsure the heads of the Brahmin students. The Brahmin students were supposed to have only a small tuft on their head and not allowed to grow long hair. Singaram travelled a long distance from another village and he marveled at the discipline of the children in the school. He interacted with Lakshmana Iyer and other children, raised penetrating questions on God and on life and death and learned a lot. He was in a sense one non-brahmin student at the school. Lakshmana Iyer too liked him and used to comment that, maybe one day Singaram too might become an enlightened saint like Valmiki or Vyasa. On those occasions, Singaram used to ask Lakshmana Iyer innocently, ‘Do you really believe so?’ The answer invariably was, ‘Why not?’

One week, Singaram didn’t turn up for his regular visits to the school for performing the tonsuring for the children, Lakshmana Iyer was upset. There was no news from him for a week. Lakshmana Iyer was worried and he missed Singaram and his prying questions on ‘Brahman.’ He sent word and the news he got back, devastated him. Singaram seemed to have been affected by small pox the previous week and died all of a sudden, leaving behind him his wife and a four year old son.

People at Kallidaikurichi were really surprised when Lakshmana Iyer shed tears for Singaram and mourned his death. Lakshmana Iyer gave another rude shock to everyone when he brought Singaram’s wife and his son Maadan to his place and kept them in a small outhouse in his school. Immediately, a number of locals protested, saying Singaram was from a low caste and could not be allowed in a Brahmin locality. Lakshmana Iyer tried to explain, but the people were adamant. The matter was taken to Keshava Iyer, who was unsure as to what stand he had to take. But when his wives Ganga and Gomathi, insinuated by their parents, protested too, he gave in.

He, subtly, suggested to Lakshmana Iyer to send away the family of Singaram to their place. A veiled threat was given that the school might lose patronage if the advice was not heeded. Lakshmana Iyer was in a fix.

Singaram’s wife too pleaded with him to allow them to go back to their village, to avoid further embarrassment to Lakshmana Iyer. When one day, he almost decided that in the interest of the school, it was best for Singaram’s family to leave, more shocking news came in. In another nearby village, a massive cholera outbreak afflicted a number of families and within a couple of days, twelve children in that village became orphans overnight.

Lakshmana Iyer was overwhelmed suddenly. His nationalist feelings took over. He rushed to that village. The residents were all from the so-called low castes and considered untouchables. He was reminded of Gandhiji’s teachings. He decided to defy every objection and brought all those children to his place.

When the news that he was bringing those low-caste children to his school reached Kallidaikurichi, people gathered on the outskirts and blocked his entry into the town. He was asked to go back and not return to his school. Keshava Iyer refused to entertain him, for fear of antagonizing the other powerful local people and suggested to him to take them to some other place. He gave some money to Lakshmana Iyer, to temporarily tide over the situation, with a promise to give him some clandestine support.

Whatever went into his head, Lakshmana Iyer took a very defiant stand and took all those children to the outskirts of another village on the banks of Tamirabarani. He did not even bother to check whether the land belonged to someone or not, he got a few huts erected and put all the children there. He went back to Kallidaikurichi in the dead of night, woke up all his students who were temporarily taken care of by one of his senior students under his instructions and brought them too to his makeshift huts.

Since then, his new Gurukulam started functioning from there. People of Kallidaikurichi could do nothing about whatever he did, except complaining to local authorities about the unauthorized use of public land. Local chieftains visited the place, were very much impressed by the arrangements made by Lakshmana Iyer and decided to follow a ‘no-interference’ policy, as far as his Gurukulam was concerned.

Some support came from different corners, but they were quite meager. However, Lakshmana Iyer met the challenges with great determination.

He consciously decided to segregate the Brahmin boys from the other children. He believed that the path to salvation and higher consciousness could be different for different sets of people, though every path was valid. He always advocated the virtues of tolerance, equality, and acceptance, and he never wanted prejudice even unknowingly. He felt that it was his duty to help every child attain higher states of consciousness by showing them their right path. 

“Don’t be carried away by the pigment of the color of one’s skin. Beyond the skin, everyone is the same. Never ever think you are superior to the children from the other section. They just have a different set of duties - Dharma - to be performed, that is all. Otherwise, they are your equal. Besides, they have different sets of skills and knowledge. Everyone here would use their knowledge and skills for the common good. You, as Brahmins, have a duty to perform and that is, to help people realize God. You will perform that duty without any bias or prejudice or ill feelings.” He told those Brahmin students.

To the other children, he said, “Do not ever think you are in any way inferior to those boys who are studying Vedas. Your duties are different and you will all be mutually supporting each other. They have a different upbringing than yours and that doesn’t make them superior or you inferior. Remember, you are their equals. But it doesn’t authorize you to intrude or meddle in their affairs. We are all different arms and limbs of the same society working for common good. Maybe one day, if you desire, you may also rise to sainthood, but remember, the life of a saint or a true Brahmin won’t be an easy one. Singaram was one who could have become a saint one day but for his ill-fate, remember that.”

In between, a few apprehensive Brahmin parents came to his school and wanted to withdraw their children, as they didn’t want their children to have anything to do with low-caste children. Some were convinced and some were allowed to take away their wards.

There was harmony in the Gurukulam and the children did what work was assigned to them. They cleared the bushes, tilled the soil, planted trees, grew plants for flowers and vegetables, watered them by bringing water from the river,  and turned the land into a green garden.

Keshava Iyer initially continued his monetary support to Lakshmana Iyer, clandestinely. He still remembered with gratitude the fortuitous coincidence of his wives giving birth to healthy babies after he started helping the Gurukulam of Lakshmana Iyer. But in the course of time, he too became powerless before his wife’s objections and his support to the Gurukulam dwindled. Lakshmana Iyer didn’t worry. Somehow, he kept the Gurukulam going. All was fine until one night.

That night, it rained heavily and powerful gusty winds blew off some of the roofs in his Gurukulam. It was pitch dark. Being a low-lying area, in the darkest of hours, they didn’t notice Tamirabarani river breaching the sides and entering the Gurukulam. They were all caught unawares. Many children were quite young and helpless. A huge tree broke off from its roots and fell heavily across a few huts. Lakshmana Iyer and a few seniors frantically searched for every inmate in darkness. The night was dark and rain was pouring torrentially. They spent the whole night getting as many kids as they could, to a safe place. When it dawned, at least sixteen children were missing without any trace. Lakshmana Iyer lost all his sense of composure.