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“Our personal choices and consumption habits have a far greater impact than we would like to confess.” Have you ever thought of how your choices impact rural livelihoods?
Parvathamma would come daily to our office in Tumakuru, Karnataka. Everyone just called her ‘Flower lady’. Her job was to go around and provide fresh jasmine strings to women in the office, and to adorn the photo of Goddess Lakshmi.
I was an exotic piece for her since despite being a Hindu, I neither used a bindi nor put flowers in hair. She was flabbergasted and perplexed at my audacity. She tried her best to get me to wear some jasmine but I told her how the sharp fragrance gave me a headache and also that my hair was too thin to hold them. With a heavy heart she surrendered, but instead started bringing me other loose flowers. I went on with my snobbery.
I repeatedly told her how I loved flowers but that instead of plucking them daily for me, she could just get me a flower pot and be done with it. She would laugh and dismiss me, and if I wasn’t at my seat, I would return to find a bunch of them.
My teasing and her insistence went on for about three months until one day, a customer was extremely happy with me for some reason and was inviting me over to lunch at her place. Parvathamma happened to be present. I declined the customer’s offer so she wanted to thank me in some other way she deemed fit. She insisted that today she would buy flowers for me. I told her that I didn’t wear any, because I hate flowers being plucked for one’s vanity or joy.
She got up, removed her hair pins, took a big jasmine string from Parvathamma and both of them somehow fit them painfully on my scalp ensuring that not a single one would fall till evening. An arrogant, exotic North Indian was reined in by them and the entire branch was delighted at my conformity.
That day, however, Parvathamma walked with her head high. She wasn’t carrying away my charity. She had sold something that was in demand. She had earned money not by pity, but because someone had manufactured a genuine need for what she could sell.
I didn’t continue wearing flowers in my hair. I did stop lecturing her. I had realized that our wants prey on needs of others. It had dawned on me, that my ‘ideals’ and ‘principles’ stem from my privilege. They are a luxury. I had no right to be ethical on something which was sustenance for someone else. If our demands were in sync with what our informal economy supplies, perhaps we would be closer to humanity.
Our personal choices and consumption habits have a far greater impact than we would like to confess. Things like eating millets, wearing ‘ethnic’, understanding our traditional practices – these are not personal choices. They are strong, very strong political choices. There are many Parvathammas who scream through their silence, whose resilience is as strong as our ignorance, and whose generosity in utter poverty makes our laughable charities seem like a miniscule effort to unburden our conscience.
The informal economy has supported the formal economy long enough. The agricultural sector has supported and fed the service sector long enough. Our villages have quietly nourished our cities long enough. If we listen closely, we can now hear their fatigued sighs and exasperated desperation. It’s time that our supply and demand economics breathed life into rural livelihoods. Its time that the cities raise their standards to meet where our self-sufficient village wisdom stands. To have the heart to give, and to do it with grace is what our villages have been teaching us even before we had a Gandhi to catch our attention.
Life in the hinterlands is slow-paced. It is beautiful and wise. Nobody seems to mind whatever may happen. Like a babbling brook, everyone flows effortlessly – meandering, dripping, crashing and sometimes just being still. All the while producing a music that reverberates through one’s being. Their grief is short-lived, their gratitude profound. Their love is magnetic and contagious, rippling out in geometric progression. Their harmony with nature assumes a flawless rhythm. It’s impossible to extract the sine and cosine of the sacred and the profane out of this symphony.
Just when one surrenders to scorching heat, hunger pangs, dust, infrastructural constraints, linguistic handicaps and a maddening mundane office, one discovers just how deep empathy goes. Financial inclusion is a much-needed ambrosia. As for ‘changing the world’, streams of tears, grateful sighs of relief and folded hands tell me that all each of us has to do is to be diligent, sincere, and compassionate in whatever we do.
The numbers may tell an official story, some true and others mere utilitarian; it is, however, a privilege to play a part in real life stories that can only be narrated through happy wrinkles, new bangles, a healthy crop, skilled feminine hands finding empowerment and respect, abundant dairy, fresh coconuts, and withered palms raised in blessing.
Image credits Tommy, used under a Creative Commons license 2.0
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