Villages – The Life Of India
Villages – The Life Of India
Few long-term studies of village life monitor change over a whole lifetime. Most records of the village are either a biographical backdrop, against which the lives of the successful define themselves, or they figure in sentimental memoirs of time past. Of course, ‘projects’ by NGOs and charitable institutions sometimes span many years, but these rarely record the culture, the feelings and the subjective experience of the people.
Prafulla Mohanti offers a rare exception. As a writer and painter, he left his village in his early twenties to study in Mumbai, and later in Britain, where he specialised in Town Planning. It seemed that his life trajectory would be that of a classic successful migrant: praised for his work in London, Paris and Tokyo, with exhibitions in European capitals, who would imagine that an ordinary village about 50 kilometres from Cuttack in Orissa, could inspire anyone to such a degree that he cannot allow a year to pass without spending at least a few months in the place he still calls home?
Prafulla Mohanti published My Village My Life more than 30 years ago. It served several purposes; an affectionate evocation of childhood, an interpretation to Western audiences of village life, the pain of all those who leave beloved home-places for a wider world, and not least, the precious description of a village which stood in 1970 on the verge of convulsive change.
Twenty years later, he wrote Changing Village, Changing Life, which chronicled the accelerating social change in Oriya village culture. This was a more passionate denunciation of the ambiguous benefits which progress and development had brought to his home. Since then, he has, year by year, observed the shifts, not only in the way of life, but also in the customs and sensibility of the people. In his writings he has shown the double devastation wrought by globalisation and the effects of the ferocious cyclone of 1999.
Prafulla Mohanti was never uncritical of the village, and his anger at the transformations it has undergone does not start from some mythic golden age. The point of departure was a sober assessment of the coherence of a culture, which, even as he was growing up in the dying days of the Raj, was already on the verge of dissolution.
‘As a child, there were no roads, no electricity, no gas, no radio, no hospital, no doctors. In the monsoon, the whole area was under water. There were outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria, and people died from a lack of medical care. But the land, the air and the water had not yet been poisoned, and nor had society.
‘From the village, I learned about the relationship betw-een human beings and nature and our dependency upon it. I also learned the creative use of hands. In modern life hands have become redundant, but at that time, the village had weavers, potters, stonemasons, painters, who made life beautiful. They are no longer respected, and the economic system has degraded their work.
‘The village had its own economic philosophy – to produce as much as you can, consume as little as you can, and waste nothing. The impact of the global economic system upon that has been catastrophic. Of course, modern medicine has saved many lives; but the ideology of education has estranged people from farming, village crafts and the making of artefacts that were both useful and beautiful.
‘Money was only a marginal element in our lives. If you had ten rupees, you didn’t know how to spend it. Everything of worth was either free or self-produced, or in some case, bartered. A guest who arrived, day or night, unannounced or expected, would always be welcomed.
‘I always hated untouchability. When I went to primary school, about a mile from the village, I had two untouchable friends. They were not allowed to enter the classrooms, but would sit on the verandah and listen. They used to come to my house to get lessons from me. My grandmother wouldn’t touch them. To annoy her, I would touch them, and then there had to be a ritual cleansing. They were from the pana caste; their families were tenant farmers, and they played musical instruments at weddings and ceremonies. When I had been to England and returned to the village, I invited them into my home. People thought I was strange, but because I had been away, I had a kind of authority, so no one said anything.
‘Most people worked in the fields. Some migrated to Kolkata for work, and came back for the harvest. They worked as servants for British families or in the jute mills. I was one of the first to go away for higher education. But I always went back. Now they leave and never return.
‘I have two childhood friends, brothers. Both are milkmen. They didn’t study, but helped their parents look after cattle. Both know how to rear and care for animals, they produce milk and ghee and curd. They are happy and respected. They live together, and one has two sons. They were ‘educated,’ which means that they could no longer work in the village. One has a degree, but this does not mean he is more educated than his father.
‘Before Independence, there were no politicians. We had mischief-makers, of course, who were not respected by the villagers. They called them ‘touts’; and it was these people who later became politicians.
‘Ceremonies, music and drama, the rituals of the year and cycle of seasons – spring, rains, winter, the great religious festivals as well as the informal celebrations like mango-time, and the marking of significant moments, birth, marriage and death – gave life meaning. It was not self-conscious. When this culture dies in the village and is no longer practised, then people go to school and college to learn about it. The cosmos I knew is still there in my memory, but it does not exist any more in the village. The cosmos of my childhood has been destroyed. This is the fate of the villages throughout India.
It is a great irony. We have capitulated to a form of alien development from the West, at the very time when the West, after two centuries of industrial development, realises that what it has launched into the world cannot be maintained. The inspiration of the anti-globalization movement, Green Parties and peace movements has much in common with the values I grew up with and took for granted – although it also accepts benefits of the modern world – increased life-expectancy, the wiping out of epidemics and the fight for social injustice.
Everything we did was purposeful. We walked everywhere. We didn’t go to expensive gyms to get thin! Walking to school, we stopped on the way at the pond, watched the fish swimming, the water lilies and lotuses, birds, snakes, insects, plants and flowers – we knew which we could eat and which would provide medicine. The journey to and from school was itself a lesson. Walking from one village to another, we told each other stories and songs, Oriya folk-tales, which I have also published. Most people could not read or write, but this was not a sign of ignorance.’
We should listen very carefully to Prafulla Mohanti and the many like him, who recognise that village life is now irrecoverable. The statistics with which many Indians comfort themselves – that ‘70 per cent of the population is still rural, the true heart of India still beats in its villages’ – is becoming less true day by day. Villages are becoming hybrid places, where urban and industrial influences dominate, and the difference between rural and urban is effaced. Although the world that was the village, and the village that was the world, have perished, certain of its values remain indispensable; above all, the idea that the relationship of humanity with nature cannot be transcended by technology, and the maintenance of respect for the elements of life, which should not be polluted or degraded.
Although the details of that way of life cannot be retrieved, the inspiration can. This inspiration is the best hope for the future of the world – the creativity of hands, the inner resources of human beings, life as a celebration of humanity, not of industrial goods. There is nothing romantic or nostalgic about this; if these values cannot be transmitted to the future, there will not be one.