All the Chapters of the Book are now published here.

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For Chapters 2 to 6, and 28, please see the August, 2016 section below. Rest of the Chapters are in May, 2020 section below.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Chapter 36. The making of Amma

October 2009.  The village trust premises now had four more huts, one each for me, Mishra ji, Amma and Piya. My hut was facing towards Tulsi's compound. The dilapidated condition of that compound was an everyday reminder to me.
I asked Sooraj and Mishra ji to get a formal trust registered. We needed seven folks. Now we had many persons willing to sign or put the thumb impression. I and Nagbaba were permanent members, while Sooraj, Piya, Mishra ji, Bajrang and Amma became the temporary members. 
The Tiger Valley Trust was to work for the welfare of those tribal villages. On Nagbaba’s insistence, outsiders like me were given a fixed percentage of the trust’s receipts as remuneration. The limit for sharing income with members was set at eight percent.
The earlier five member team became an advising council, deciding where to invest the trust's money.  Sooraj kept the legal records and filings, while Mishra ji did daily record keeping. Bajrang managed operations and any other project task that needed some physical planning. Piya worked on developing and marketing some natural products that could be taken to market.
Amma had a far greater role. She was the nominal head of the trust. In the world’s eyes, she was the blessed one. For the villagers’, she was a good omen.
Consciously, we had decided that the children and simplest of folks should not think that any prosperity was bought by supporting a system which was aligned against the forests. Everyone had to only believe in hard work and good deeds. Amma only brought the luck or blessings.
Irrespective of our thoughts, Amma’s stock grew rapidly in the village. She was anyhow good at reciting some bhajans and telling small stories of how God helps those who donate. She was also comfortable giving away blessings and warmth. She had perfected that art at the railway station. Many men and women started believing that she had special powers and approached her with their wishes and troubles. She would bless them and ask them to wait for the time when God decides to give it to them. She told them not to wish against His wishes. In odd cases, she would even give them a timeframe but gave them some rituals to follow as a precondition. It was a safe bet; in case of problems one could be convinced that the rituals were not followed perfectly.
She took to this role like fish take to water, but her direction was bothering us. One evening I went to her and said, “Amma, go slow. We don’t want you to spread this culture of blind faith and rituals.”
 Like a child, she got hurt and said, “I will go back if you don’t want me here,” rolling her eyes behind the thick soda glasses.
I put an arm around her small frame, and said, “Amma, why would you go back? You are having a good care here – see your weight has increased, and have new clothes and glasses.”
She said, “But you are not happy with my work. I cannot stop people from coming here.”
I understood that it was beyond her to either control folks or control and discipline herself.  I also understood that she had the potential to be the center of attention, allowing me and team to work with peace. And the steady trickle that came to meet her had been growing rapidly.  But we had to limit her exposure or she would both spoil the culture and expose her shallowness.
I suggested to her, “Let’s limit your blessing time to a couple of hours. Rest of the time, you will be a simple human. That way less folks will meet you. Rest of the time, God is not bound by what you say.”
So her divine time was set up as 8 to 10 in the morning, just after her prayers. A small temple was made of mud and wood, just outside the Trust compound. The time was such that most women had household work, specially bringing water. So it would automatically limit the visitors to most severe distress cases. Bajrang arranged for a couple who would be with her during those hours. They would also inform us if they saw a medical problem with a visitor - It was a win win that way.
Nagbaba now appeared more old and bent. I think it was like that when I had first met him and all this while, but I did not notice it so closely.  He also retreated from any work he did not understand. But he was there to go to whenever I needed a lesson or a solid ground beneath me.
He still had many worries that persisted. Continuity of this small cluster of villages was the top one. In recent times, many forest officials had visited him. They were worried about threat to tigers and shrinking forest covers. However, their genuineness fell flat once the topic of mines and logging came up. They seemed helpless on that topic, only antagonizing Nagbaba and others.
With truck revenues coming in, life was much better in the villages now.  This Diwali, kids had new clothes and footwear. Most homes had lanterns now.
But only a handful understood the fragility and irony of the situation. Rest were happy with a new found ability to go and buy some things from the weekly market in Sohagpur
In next two months, we took major strides. By December, our corpus had grown to fifteen lac rupees. But more significant was the fact that about thirty thousand which was two percent of it did not come from Truck operations.
About ten thousand came from Piya’s work. Based on her past experience, she had identified amla (Indian gooseberry) as a quick selling product without much branding. There were lots of trees in the vicinity and her team started gathering the dropped amla and selling them. By her estimates, she could add at least fifteen more products, and if she could pack and brand them, she could earn twenty times of the current income.
About two thousand came from donations received by Amma’s temple. These came entirely from tribal women’s pockets. Though they were all ten rupee or smaller notes and coins, but my eyes brightened with naughtiness. This product called Amma had huge potential, if branded properly.
About three thousand came from my projects – not allowing the villagers’ goats or chicken to be sold at below market prices. It was a small pilot that I had planned ever since I first observed the distortion of prices. Most goats in the villages were given for shepherding by the Kasai community. The Kasai worked like a cartel all the way up to markets like Dubai. For each goat, the shepherd got just a hundred rupees per annum, in return for making them forage in the forest around the villages. In that period the goat grew up, gave births and then the Kasai would take it back and sell for anything upwards of three thousand.
The value of each goat feed was two thousand, and each village had 200 such goats. So, they were almost gifting away four lacs worth of value from each village ecosystem without charging any cost.  But it was still my hypothesis. I needed to test it.
I saw similar numbers in chicken business but without any hand of cartels. I believed that natural chicken business was suffering more due to lack of knowledge and technology than due to market distortions. The same hypothesis applied to the fish business.
To test my hypothesis, in last two months I had done small transactions using trust’s money – bought and sold a few goats and chicken in last two weeks. Due to low volumes and high logistics cost, we didn’t make much profit, but my hypothesis numbers got tested and they seemed accurate. One thing was clear; our livestock was of much superior quality than that bred in captivity and without natural food systems. I had no reason to fear cartels now.
I had shared the information with the village investment council. With real earnings as a proof, their minds also started working.
The group laid out multiple objectives: one was to increase our income by using what was gifted by nature, second was to have more homes involved in the income, and third was to look at ways of control over Sardar’s operations so that we could shut it down one day.
After a long brainstorming, we all converged to one pressing item first: villages needed ample water round the year. With water, the opportunities multiplied and minds were less worried. The easiest way was to store the rain water. Multiple stop dam work was planned. These were small black mud and stone formations but very effective in storing rain water. Many elephant holes in the rivers were also planned for potable water in summers.
It is said that even a small genuine good has the power to destroy a lot of evil. I was about to witness one. The council suggested that we also build some bundies on the rivulets that were near the truck paths. The overflow streams from these would go on the paths. This way, for most of monsoons and part of winters, the truck paths would get very wet and muddy. Loaded trucks could not ply on such paths. 
All this had to be done before monsoons which were still six months away.  All of us thought over it all night at Nagbaba’s hut. There was an excitement about it. We didn’t need any human law or force to stop the monsoon mining and logging. Nature was guiding us in our good intent.
For various works, we needed about fifty lac rupees over next six months. It seemed well within our reach. Immediately, our water projects were launched.
The bundies work was to be done with minimum hint of the real purpose. The stated purpose was providing water for animals in summer.
Anyhow, once we took over the truck operations, very few outsiders now came on these paths. It was another unintended gain of taking over truck driving. Junior forest staff would roam around but they were quite happy to see the water work as most of them were tribals. As far I then knew, only the council members and a few trustees were aware of the real purpose.
In December third week, Master ji also sent a message that he had completed his translation work. I had planned to spend a few days with him and understand his work but one urgent news changed my plans. My father had been diagnosed with a malignant tumor in kidney. His kidney had to be removed. It was the same white rash that was spotted a few months back but it had grown fast.
After taking many estimates, he had decided to go to Delhi for his surgery at one known hospital, based on a relative’s advice. I got ready to leave the village very next morning. I told Lakshmi to get the translated books collected from Master ji, and pay his dues.
That evening, I sat with all the team and Amma in my hut. It was going to take at least a couple of months before I would return. It was decided that in my absence, if any need arose, Tilak would be the person talking to Vedi and Dau and anyone else.  Others were puzzled by this choice but only Nagbaba and I knew Tilak’s past and his detachment with life. He was beyond negotiations.
Such was our bonding now that they all wanted to come with me, but it was understood that greater responsibility lied here. There was nothing much for them to do with me; only doctors would help. I was not sad but somber; my father’s age meant we were taking a big risk. Everyone comforted me in their own manner. Amma also gave her blessing. “It will be alright,” she said.
As the sun set, I looked to the east at Tulsi’s compound and with a deep sigh, I said, “I wish this also becomes alright. God knows where they are.”
Amma instantly chanted, “ Jehi ke jehi par satya sanehu, so tehi milay na kuch sandehu.” It meant that ‘If one has a true passion and tries honestly for a task, there is no doubt that one will find what one seeks.’
I did not say anything but doubted it in my mind, “But how will it happen?”
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Piya. No words were said.  I knew she had also long back  joined the list of folks who did not like to see me sad or somber. In last two months we had started caring for each other much more.  I knew she had started loving me but I was uncertain. I had very little financial stability or a career to boast of. To add to it, I had some tasks to finish before normalcy.  But it is the beauty of feminine nature that once their heart decides, they stop worrying about the worldly matter.
 I said to her, “You cannot come to Delhi; it is not safe for you.”
She said, “Even if they have not given up yet, they are just a handful while Delhi is a large city. No one will notice me.”
I said, “Still a small probability multiplied by a large danger makes it not worth it. I am going for some medical work, and can’t afford it. You focus on your work here.”
She protested, “I do not understand such mathematics.” But we both knew she had to be safely stationed here. We spent the cold night in the open verandah, sleeping on warm husk beds and with blankets made of jute cloth, watching the endless world above, and wondering what promise we can safely hold.
Next morning, in wee hours, I left for Bhopal with Tilak and Shafiq. Both of them had arrived last night and had stayed at Revaram’s village.
On the way, I told Tilak about our decision. He protested, “Bhaiya, I was planning to come with you to Delhi. Uncle will also need caretakers. And you should not take things lightly even now. They all would know which hospital you are heading to.” His reference was to Sardars and Dau.
I said, “I don’t think they see much value in harming me now. In fact, they might be thinking of gains if I am around. Also, the risks would be far more now if they tried something.”
He was not satisfied but agreed. I also had some time to catch up with Shafiq during the drive. Silent as always, he had been listening without much interest. He had recently joined a Wahabi madarsa, and had become a devout Muslim. His work at Madarsa had also kept him occupied.
I asked him how it was. Tilak first commented, “Bhaiya, now no school will admit him. I ask him to go to a government school but he will not listen. Let him learn something. Else no one will marry him.”
Then Shafiq explained, “Bhaiya, I am only learning Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet).”
I was curious, and asked, “Say one which has touched you most.”
He recited, “Yatim ki khabargiri karne wala; Main aur wo jannat mein is tarah saath honge.”  It meant- The one who looks after an orphan; I and he will be together in paradise.
We all reflected over it. I thought that Shafiq felt quite indebted to Tilak, and so this Hadith was topmost in his mind.
Tilak complained, “Bhaiya, this boy wants me to go to Allah after dying. Explain to him that I will have a different destination.”
I said, “Tilak, send a postcard once you reach there. We will know where you went.”
He replied, “Bhaiya, you are taking it as a joke. But seriously, I want to go where my family is. And I wish the same for him.”  I knew Tilak meant every word of it.
Then I asked, “Next Hadith?”
Shafiq said, “Agar ya magar, shaitan ki dagar.” It meant: One should be cautious of persons who have too many Ifs and buts. They will lead one to the path of Satan, which meant wrong path. 
It appeared more like a general saying than a Hadith, perhaps shortened in Hindi for common consumption. Shafiq explained, “Bhaiya, it’s a powerful saying to judge someone’s intent.”
I reflected upon it. I could not help but think about the stock advises and insurance policies I had consumed. In some ways, it was a powerful saying.
I said, “The problem with these powerful words is that they are prone to many interpretations. Weaker men may see it differently than powerful ones.”  Shafiq didn’t quite get it but he nodded.
It was quite a fortuitous conversation about those Hadiths. More pleasantly, I thought that Shafiq had learnt to say something. Whatever knowledge he was getting in the form of Hadiths had given him some solidity to stand upon. On the flip side, it was also crystallizing his mind. I cautioned him, “The Hadiths will reveal new meanings as you grow with experiences in life. For that, keep your mind open.”

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