With regional differences furrowing the public mind, the thought of some very positively oriented Indians from across the Vindhyas comes to the fore.
Longtime social activist Srilatha Swaminathan (1944-2017) of Banswara via Chennai passed away on February 5 and I fell to remembering her and her Rajasthani husband Mahendra Choudhary from long ago.
There was such an air of romance about them. Srilatha was a big-city girl from a privileged, famous family who, from 1978, chose to dedicate her life to working for some of our poorest people. Her husband stood staunchly by her through it all.
Srilatha stayed with me sometimes in Jaipur when I lived there and told me stories in the most amusing way about being in the same jail as Maharani Gayatri Devi during the Emergency. I had just come back from my Europe years and she talked about her own girlhood trips there over dinner and liked the recipes for minestrone soup and pasta sauce that I had learned from a real Italian mamma.
Those days, the gas cylinders for my kitchen came to my gate by camel-cart, which was a novelty for me at which Srilatha chuckled mightily and told me how she herself was taken to meet her in-laws in the village by ‘oonth gaadi’. Her cheerful commitment, blithe indifference to hardship and terrifically irreverent humour made her extraordinary.
Another person from “over there” was in the week’s news. The impact of drought is kicking in in Tamil Nadu, with food prices rising. “I have never seen such a pathetic condition in the Delta in 65 years,” S Ranganathan, general secretary of the Kaveri Delta Farmers Association, was quoted as saying in a news report.
The Delta reportedly yields an average of 83 lakh tonnes of paddy. But only about 35 lakh tonnes are said to be expected by Delta farmers this year. Given that this is the first time in many years that the southwest monsoon and northeast monsoon were both dismally below par, prospects are indeed bleak for Tamil Nadu.
I met Mr Ranganathan in Mannargudi while filing pre-General Election reports from the Delta for HT in 2008. Curiously, the first red flag anywhere in India was hoisted in Mannargudi in 1918, less than a year after the October Revolution of 1917. It was MGR who changed that affiliation.
Mr Ranganathan, I discovered, was from an old reformist zamindar family of the Delta and had given away much land in public service and built a school. He was chosen many years ago across communities by the Kaveri Delta Farmers’ Association as their general secretary. Mrs Ranganathan, a gentle, soft-spoken woman, had translated high-lit modern Hindi novels into Tamil. They seemed like something from an idealistic old dream of India in their simplicity of lifestyle and elegance of spirit.
On a visit south some days ago, it was pitiful and horrifying to see the bone-dry channel of the once-queenly Kaveri in its own delta.
Betrayed by politicians, this sturdy old region of India and its quiet, unsung patriots are today like red earth waiting for the rain of concern to pour.