Frugality is not poverty. Modernity sees frugality as poverty ~ Mahatama Gandhi

Old Man, Orrisa (sorry! unable to vertically align; WordPress bug)

This observation by Mahatama Gandhi came alive during a recent visit to two villages in Orrisa (Odhisa, now), Nadakhanda and Kumarpada, 7km apart located in the better cultivated Puri district.

This man (see picture on left), appears to be an extremely poor and helpless man, surely. Thin and starved body, little clothing, no footwear, old, alone. This is how the judgment on seeing this pic forms in our mind.

However, could it be that this is how it appears to ‘city eyes’ – of financially, relatively, well-off people living in cities, across the developing and developed world? See the picture on the right now.

Pratima and family
Pratima and family

This is Pratima (on the right), with her parents. She is a teacher at one of the non-formal school run by Srijan Foundation in Kumarpada village. Her elder brother has completed his BA, MA, and has recently cleared the entrance tests for  the Indian Railways. This means that he would be earning a fairly decent middle-class salary soon. He is currently a lecturer at a private college in a small city near their village. Pratima’s younger brother is pursuing Masters degree in Commerce from a government college from the same city. The picture is taken in front of the newly constructed ‘pakka’ house they live in (which they double-up as the non-formal school where 60 odd children from Class I-VIII come to study in 3 batches morning and evening).

Notice the meager clothing her father (on the left) is clad with. Notice the structure of his body. Imagine him 15 years later. Would he not be looking similar to the old man in the top pic?

My submission is that we need ‘fresh perspectives’ to understand village life in India. We need new attitudes. It is our attitude of seeing ‘frugality’ as ‘poverty’ that drives city people on missions to ‘help’ villagers. In the process we risk messing up with their social fabric and have them question the ‘dignity’ they normally live with.In the “Rs.2/kg rice” mentality, the government has killed the enterprising spirit of these people. They have, in “thought and spirit”, been enslaved and made dependent on outside help to conduct their day to day lives.

And really, is it not better to die frail yet healthy, than add more years to our unhealthy city bodies which require medicine, and hospitals for even basic survival. We ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ city people have developed such an unhealthy attitude to death, that often a lot of us go on suffering for years on end, living off life support systems, treatments, and medicines, which we cannot miss for a single day, else we ‘risk’ dying. This is not how life must be lived.

You will find that there is a sense of leisure in a farmer’s life. Lots of idle time. Time for friends and family. In cities we’re starved for time, for ourselves, our families, and even our young children, who grow up normally at day-care centers and with full-time house-maids (depending upon which part of the world you live in). The importance of idle time is suddenly getting importance around the rich world, with Nicolas Sarkozy suggesting that GDP is a poor indicator of  a country’s ‘richness’, which he says, must also reflect the ‘leisure time’ its people have. Hmm!

All this is not to say that villages in India should be kept away from ‘material things’, better nutrition, and better healthcare. Surely, they must have equal opportunity to have access to all these. However, perhaps, we need dent our world view, and see the fabric of village life from Mahatma Gandhi’s eyes. I do recommend that my readers grab a copy of ‘Hind Swaraj’, a discourse on villages and village life in India, captured into a book format from conversations and letters from Gandhi.

Having questioned our standard world view on villages, i must acknowledge that i’d like to see some things change – specifically the quality of their idle time.During my visits to these villages in Orrisa, i’ve found that far too much leisure time is wasted in ‘gossiping’. The ‘community feeling’ and ‘social fabric’ central to a healthy village is tearing. If only this available energy could be spent in ‘community building events’ – sports, more festivals, daily group singing (they have evening ‘kirtan mandalis’ but the participation is abysmal).

We need to restore and reinstate the communal fabric in the villages of India. “India lives in its villages”, said Gandhi. We need to energise its soul again.

Back to the villages, with Gandhi’s eyes!