My One Year at Wardha
Towards the end of my last year of college at Batala (1951) I had firmly made up my mind that after finishing my degree I would go and work in a village. This was in response to Gandhiji’s call to all young men and women to work for the reconstruction of the time tested Indian decentralized rural culture. I knew I was city born and raised. So the first thing I needed to do was to live and work at a farm to gain experience of agriculture and animal husbandry. I knew very clearly that it could not be at a university or a government farm, for their commitment would not be the revival of the self-reliant traditional Indian village. The suitable place for me would have to be a Gandhian institution or some other place run by people of a similar orientation.
My father and sisters knew this but none of them approved my plan. My elder sister advised me not to make any move till my younger sister was married. In the meantime she said I should go and live in Bombay with my father. I hated to live in Bombay, but in deference to the family need I agreed to go and, those 15 months were my worst anywhere. We lived in a one-room tenement in a typical Mumbai chawl. One queued to use the toilet in the morning and spent the day either in that 8X10 foot room or in the hardware market 4 kilometers away doing what did not fit the definition of work in my dictionary. Anyway I made some young friends in the hardware market, helped organize a housing society, and did some running around for it.
My sister’s marriage was arranged in the middle of 1952 in Delhi. I went there and provided whatever help I was capable of. A couple of months after the wedding I packed my bag and left home to chase my cherished but rather vague dream. I was 21 and a college graduate. I had a lot of life’s hard experience gained during the turbulent years of partition of India in 1947. But I had never lived on my own, nor had any work experience. I had barely enough money to buy rail tickets to Wardha and no contacts to help me in my quest.
My first stop was at Allahabad in UP. The newly started Community Development Program had just begun and they had set up a large training program for village workers with American assistance. I arrived at this place, met a couple of people, and told them what I was looking for. Luckily one of them took me seriously and arranged for me to stay in a hostel for a week and learn what that organization was trying to do. He even obtained some food coupons that I could use to exchange for food at their American style cafeteria. The experience I gained at this vibrant new initiative was highly educative. I got an impression of what was being thought for the development of the villages. It did not quite fit what I thought Gandhi had said. I decided to go on and see what other alternatives were available.
I next went to a newly established Quaker project in Barpalli, in the state of Orissa. It was a small set up with about 8 American and British expatriates who had recruited a batch of 10 young local workers whom they were in the process of training. Their objective was quite clear. A new large Dam was being built in the area (Hirakud). The dam would make available water for irrigation and a huge amount of electricity. The government would build roads and establish motorized vehicular transport network for movement of goods and people. The Quakers were to prepare the villagers to make use of these new resources to their optimum advantage and smoothly move into the industrial lifestyle. They kindly let me stay for a few days to learn about their work. They too tried to assess my abilities and thought of what advise to give me. After about a week they said that in their opinion I should work in an area where I could speak the local language. This meant Punjab or a Hindi speaking state.
My next port of call was Wardha where Gandhi had lived for many decades and where a variety of institutions had sprouted to promote different aspects of the village self-rule idea Gandhi ji had been promoting. This place appealed to me instantly. I stayed in a guest room in Maganwari in Wardha town, met several people and explained what I was looking for. Several of them advised me to go and check the Goseva Sangh farm in Pipri 8 kilometers away. I went there and found that they had a 30-acre farm to produce food for their community and fodder for a herd of 200 heads of cattle. Their major objective was to upgrade the local Gaolau cattle. It was a good sturdy breed that gave the farmer hefty work animals but their milk yield was poor. So they were trying to make it a dual-purpose animal.
At the helm of this endeavor was a very competent scientist named Prabhu (not his real name). He had studied molecular biology at Bombay University but through practical experience acquired considerable expertise in Animal breeding. His zeal for the work at Pipri was transparent and contagious. He already had two very able and enthusiastic assistants. Luckily for me he thought there was room for a raw youth on his team. Seeing that I was well built and strong he made me part of a team of workers who cleaned the cattle shed every morning. It involved getting up at 4:00am and being on the job a half hour later. With a team of 5 regular employees and 3 or 4 volunteers out of the current resident trainees we collected the droppings of 200 animals and transported the excreta to a compost making station in a bullock cart. Then the cowshed was swept and washed. Prabhu gave me a couple of books on the subject of compost making. With his help I studied these books meticulously and soon became enthusiastic. I was given longer hours in the compost making work after about a couple of weeks. Prabhu himself came regularly to the compost shed to give personal guidance.
It was hard work of the kind I had never done before, so I was sore from foot to shoulders every evening. But I began soon to enjoy it. One morning my father came from Bombay to visit me unannounced. It was about 11:00am. Someone led him to where I was working. Needless to say he was mortally disappointed. The impression he formed of me that day stayed with him almost all his life. Even my becoming a university professor later did not fully erase it!
During my stay at Pipri I learned a lot about the microbiology of compost making, genetics of cattle upgrading, agriculture, and simple living an the land. I was able to eat the peasants’ food, work hard like the average of them, and a lot more. Prabhu took me with him on his visits to many cattle breeding farms, agricultural establishments, and places where they worked on compost making, processing of milk, fruit orchards and places where they processed and preserved fruit. We visited several renowned places in Bangalore, Barielly in UP, Karnal in Haryana, Pusa in Delhi, and many more. I am sure my mentor was organizing these visits partly for my benefit.
After I had been at Pipri for about six months Prabhu invited me to shift to a large room in his house and eat my meals with him and his wife Janaki (not her real name). My hostel room was not good and the food too had been unsatisfactory. I shifted.
Both Prabhu and Janaki were very generous and kind to me. But I noticed that their behavior was a bit strange. I slowly learned that between them they were carrying a weight of an unfortunate incident that had driven Janaki to the point of losing mental balance. Prabhu had a close friend. Soon after marriage he had a bad fall from which he recovered but found that he had lost his fecundity. Both he and his wife wanted a couple of children. Prabhu obliged the couple. Janaki found out and was unable to forgive her husband.
Now, Prabhu ‘imagined’ that Janaki had a crush on me although she was nearly old enough to be my mother. He thought that an affair with me might give her a sense of breaking even with him. This, he reasoned, might cure her. I felt very uncomfortable and made up my mind to quit Pipri. But I had to find another job and leave without offending my mentor. So I began to visit various institutions around Wardha where I had friends. I spent time at Vinoba’s Paunar, Gopuri, Maganwari and Sevagram. During this time I got an invitation to attend a fortnight long reunion of Quaker seminar alumni at Rasulia. I went and luckily found a good job there. So, to my great relief, I was able to resign at Pipri and leave.
March 8, 2008